When you hear the word "fetish," what comes to mind? Probably feet, or generally, the idea of getting sexual gratification from objects or body parts that aren't typically seen as sexual. You can also have a fetish toward a particular kind of sex, like anal or group sex. Fetishes aren't particularly unhealthy — the word is often used interchangeably with "kink" — but when it comes to fetishizing people of color for stereotypical or race-related attributes, you're engaging in extremely harmful behavior that puts unwarranted emphasis on race by sexualizing it. According to Dr. Donna Oriowo, LICSW and founder of AnnodRight, a therapy clinic geared towards women of color with a focus on sex and relationships, fetishizing POC for their race is offensive, no matter which way you spin it.
Why Fetishizing Is Problematic
"Fetishizing on a basic level is the sexualization of something, which can then make it desirable," Dr. Oriowo tells Elite Daily. "When we are talking about people, fetishizing can be the sexual desire for someone for a physical or cultural attribute they possess." That's not to say that being attracted to someone's skin color, body type, hair type, or cultural heritage is wrong, but becoming hyper-focused on a superficial piece of someone purely for the sake of sexual gratification isn't cool. "People are not objects, which is why the fetishization of someone based on race disregards the fact the person is human, and places them in a category of something to possess or conquer, which can lead to violence against Black bodies," sexologist Shamyra Howard, LCSW, tells Elite Daily.
The history of racial fetishizing can be traced back to colonization and slavery. "The act of making someone a fetish, is steeped in white supremacist patriarchy, which says you can own anything and anyone for your own pleasure," explains Dr. Oriowo. Applying the colonial mindset of possession to a person (who's not a consenting participant in role-play, BDSM, or any other mutually gratifying sex scenario) can show a blatant disregard for their dignity. "There are power dynamics often at play with the fetishization of someone for their race or skin color that can make it so that person feels more like a trophy for you to show to others than a person who you value and love," says Dr. Oriowo.
How To Know If You're Fetishizing
Fetishization can be tricky to identify because it's easy to write off as a sexual preference and can be masked as compliments, adoration, or appreciation. It may seem harmless to give someone sexual (or even just flirtatious) compliments about their racial identity, skin color, culture, hair texture, or body shape, but these racially-charged comments are usually more cringe-worthy than appreciated. Saying that you exclusively date people from a specific race is never a compliment and will not get you brownie points with the person you're trying to flirt with. Implying that you are into a certain group because of their perceived spiciness, sassiness, submissiveness, or any other "exotic" trait is not only reductive, but it can also be dehumanizing and degrading.
"If you want to be with someone solely because of race-based stereotypes, you're fetishizing them," says Dr. Howard. "For example: wanting to have sex with a Black man because of the stereotype that they are well-endowed; wanting to be sexual with a Black woman because Black women are said to be sexually skilled; wanting to be with a Latinx woman because you heard they were more dominant; wanting to be with an Asian woman because of the stereotype that they are submissive; these are all examples of fetishizing." Even though it can be uncomfortable to analyze something as seemingly innocent as personal preference, especially when it comes to what turns you on, being more self-aware about how you may be objectifying POC is the first step toward shifting the paradigm.
What To Do About It
Although there's nothing wrong with having a type, Dr. Howard explains that fetishizing can be so subtly woven into someone's sexual preferences that it's easy to avoid confronting it, which is why it's so important to analyze personal patterns that could be problematic. The main difference between being genuinely attracted to a POC and fetishizing them is whether or not you respect and value their racial group outside of a sexual context. "If you don't want to be in a relationship with a POC, you just want to use them for your own sexual pleasure, then you're fetishizing," says Dr. Howard. "If you wouldn't be found on the front lines fighting for these same people's freedom, you don't need to imagine yourself in their beds."
Ultimately, no one wants to be reduced to the curve of their butt or the color of their skin. If you think you may have fetishized a group in the past, the best thing you can do is to further educate yourself on how behaviors like this can hurt POC and undermine progress. Pursuing someone as a sexual object because of cultural generalizations, racial stereotypes, or anything else steeped in presumptions can be really uncomfortable for the person on the other side of the situation. This type of behavior also supports more insidious forms of racial stereotyping, and subsequently, discrimination. In the end, it's important for everyone to become more self-aware and take responsibility for how they treat anyone who comes from a different racial or cultural background.
Dr. Donna Oriowo, LICSW, and founder of AnnodRight
Shamyra Howard, LCSW, sexologist