Thursday, November 15, 2007

We are not your fetish: race and relationships

A post over at Jezebel stirred up a lot of comments at Feministing and Pandagon on the subject of racial fetishization (specifically, fetishizing Asian women) in relationships.

I've been on both sides of this. My first girlfriend was Chinese-American, and we got a lot of flack from everyone - her folks, who we had to keep the relationship hidden from because I wasn't Chinese; other Asian-Americans who assumed I was a fetishist, and I was very defensive. On the other hand, lots of white folks also assumed I was a fetishist, and when they thought they'd found a kindred spirit they said all sorts of horribly racist things.

I do think there's a difference between a fetish and a preference. I think people wearing glasses are attractive; even if I jokingly refer to it as a "glasses fetish" it's more of a preference. I'm aware here that I'm using the term "fetish" in a particular way, and it is commonly used in other ways as well, most notably as denoting exclusivity rather than inclusivity; that is, any trait that you absolutely require in order to be attracted to someone is a fetish.

With respect to race, it gets complicated (as it always does) because there are direct physical preferences, and there are trends, and there are stereotypes. Saying "I think fair skin and dark hair is attractive" is a preference. Saying "I like Asian women because they have fair skin and dark hair" is a trend. Saying "I like Asian women because they're demure and ladylike" is a stereotype.

All of these kinds of posts bring out the defensive types. The typical argument they make is "I'm not racist for having a physical type!" But as tps12 pointed out on the feministing thread:

These of course are considered attractive traits in our society in either sex, so without even having to check whether they actually are more common among Asians, the larger claim is pretty well falsified by the fact that you see way more white guy/Asian girl couples than white girl/Asian guy.

Of course, that whole gender disparity opens a whole other can of worms that I'm both unwilling and unqualified to comment upon. Though I will say that Daniel Dae Kim and Sendhil Ramamurthy (and, at least among my friends, Grant Imahara and Masi Oka) seem to be doing rather well at changing some of those perceptions.

What happens next is typically that the defensive folks acknowledge racial fetishization, but claim that their personal exclusivity is different, more noble somehow. Usually it's "I like the culture" (when it's not a rant about how feminism has "ruined Western women"). The idea is apparently that it's okay not to treat someone as a person if you think highly of the abstraction you reduce them to, or if that abstraction's not physical or sexual.

Personally, I find fair skin and dark hair attractive, the reverse (i.e., hair that's lighter than the person's skin) not so much. It's by no means the overriding factor in my dating decisions, but it's definitely a preference. I can trace some of it back to growing up in Southern California and having bad experiences with folks with blonde hair and suntanned skin, and later moving to New England and fitting in with geeks, but I'd be in denial if I didn't acknowledge that at least part of the preference is based in cultural concepts of whiteness and beauty.

So what do we do about this? Our best. Seriously, I think that trying (or more likely pretending) to adopt a Colbertian "I don't see color" doesn't work, but that doesn't mean we don't have some responsibility to try to do right by people. Personally, if the only things attracting you to your potential partner are traits shared by large groups, I feel you could probably do better (at the very least, someone who has all those traits plus individual ones that appeal to you), but if you're insistent on remaining within your "type" at the very least I'd say you have a responsibility to make sure your potential partner is on the same page, and is okay with your motivations.

Not only that, but examining exclusive preferences can improve your own life. A hell of a lot of the things we decide are mandatory in a partner aren't things that make us happy, but instead are things we insist on for stupid reasons like "I want someone my peers will acknowledge as attractive." Eliminate those, and you only increase your chances of finding someone with the traits that are really important. (Whether the important traits are "a gentle spirit" or "a nice ass" is an exercise left to the reader.)


donna darko said...

her folks, who we had to keep the relationship hidden from because she wasn't Chinese

you mean, you weren't Chinese.

jfpbookworm said...

Thanks, fixed.

donna darko said...

are you jeff from feminist allies?

jfpbookworm said...

Nope. I've guest posted occasionally at Official Blog, but that's it.

donna darko said...

are you the jeff who started patriarchy hurts men too on el jay?