The Sticky Situation of Interracial Attraction
Are you in an interracial relationship? Do you have the hots for someone of another race? Attraction is all well and good until someone gets targeted for their race. Here’s the scoop: attraction is different than fetishism. People can have fetishes about all kinds of objects and acts, which can be part of a normal, healthy sexuality. Fetishes about people—particularly about specific races—are more complex than having a fetish about feet or breastfeeding, for example. Let me give my distinction between attraction to those of a certain race and fetish. Attraction is finding a person beautiful or sexy, part of which may be their race. A fetish is finding an object (or a huge, diverse category that someone perceives as an object, like say, race for example) sexy. The key here is looking at the whole person, not how their racialized characteristics fit into your preconceived expectations of them, and seeing that person as a person, not as an object.
Another distinction is that fetishes are associated directly with sex and sexual desire, and attraction does or doesn't have to progress to sexual desire. So a good rule of thumb is that if you see someone of a particular race that you’re attracted to and immediately think about sex, you should stop and try to take apart what’s going on. Why do you find this person attractive? What leads you to think about sex? If ‘race’ is a big answer to both of those questions, you probably want to pursue this and figure out what it is you’re really looking for in a relationship or sexual partner.
Why are racial fetishes damaging? Because when someone with a racial fetish has sex with a person of color, they may be thinking of their partner in terms of their race alone--a degrading essentialization--and they also often attach racial stereotypes to that essentialization. Some examples are: "Black men are sexually insatiable" or "Asian women are naughty school girls." Clearly, if someone holds one of these stereotypes and this is all they see in their sexual partner(s), this is problematic.
However, fetishes usually hide themselves in more subtle disguises. Simply thinking that your partner, who is a person of color (POC), is exotic can be negative as well. The history of labeling POC, particularly women of color, as ‘exotic’ has been a painful and racist one. For example, part of dehumanizing the native Hawaiians so that their land could be stolen by white colonizers was proving that they were ‘uncivilized.’ Painting a picture of the Hawaiians as naked, sexually promiscuous, exotic creatures was one of multiple ways of proving that, deep down, they were just savage barbarians who needed outside help. Clearly this was far from the truth; the native Hawaiians had a rich, developed civilization, despite not resembling white European civilization. This rationalization also gave white colonizers what they saw as the prerogative to sexually exploit and rape native women. Today, calling someone exotic may seem like a positive thing on the surface, but underneath it has the effect of making POC the ‘other’, and placing them in an inferior position on the racial hierarchy.
I'm not saying you shouldn't engage in any sort of racialized play or fantasy, just that this should never happen without consent from your partner(s), particularly your partner(s) of color. Getting consent from them ideally involves having intensive, difficult conversations over the course of the relationship about how you feel in the proposed situations. It should go without saying that if anyone doesn’t feel comfortable with a particular act, scene, or dynamic, it should be called off (indefinitely, or until they take the initiative to propose it again).
The reason that this whole topic is so sticky is that it forces us to think about the racial hierarchy we’re all a part of (whether we choose to be or not) in and outside of the bedroom or wherever else it is that you have sex. Not every interracial relationship is the same because our identities are made up of so much more than race (such as gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.). All of these factors contribute to making each relationship incredibly complex. We can’t use one measuring stick for all relationships. Try talking to your partner(s) about race even if you don’t think you’re having problems. A good exercise would be to read this together and take the discussion from there. If you have questions about your particular situation, feel free to use the comments section or start a thread on our discussion boards.