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McWilliams: Fetishizing people of color isn’t a compliment, so don’t act like it is

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board. Names have been left anonymous in this article to protect the identity of our source.

Micro-aggressions are, unfortunately, something all too common for people of color, especially on this campus.

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People of color often speak of the subtle ways they deal with racism, but what about the ways that seem like a compliment — telling someone you like them for their race/skin color/culture isn’t racist, right?

Wrong.

Fetishization is a completely different monster. It’s a micro-aggression disguised as a compliment, and it’s the most common micro-aggression I’ve seen in my experience at Colorado State University.

According to Homi Bhabha’s “The Other Question: The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse,” racial fetishization can be defined as “fetishizing a person or culture belonging to a race or ethnic group.”

Fetishization isn’t just acknowledging someone’s race but fixating on it, novelizing it and making it the only part of their identity considered. There’s the basic kind, like describing a Black man as a BBC, assuming an Asian woman is going to be submissive or saying you have jungle fever. But it can be significantly less obvious with the same, equally demoralizing emotional consequences.

Being a white woman, I’ve only seen this micro-aggression when I’m with a POC. The frequency this happens is disgusting; I see it happen frequently when I am around, and it happens just as frequently when I’m not.

Ami Ronvelia, an Indian student at CSU, has been fetishized because of her ethnicity.

“When I started dating my ex, he would talk about his exes and how he hadn’t dated many girls of color,” Ronvelia said. “Then I asked, ‘What are you trying to say? Do you have a type or what?’ He responded with something like ‘I have a thing for colored women, especially Indian girls.’ He then went on to say that he finds us different and exotic.”

Calling a woman exotic because she isn’t white isn’t flattering in any way; it’s objectifying. Racial fetishization isn’t a compliment — the comments aren’t out of admiration or adoration — it’s racism.

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I’ve been in social settings many times with Ronvelia, where people ask her “Where are you from?” She proceeds to tell them she’s from Colorado, and they ask “Where are you really from?” as if somewhere in the U.S. isn’t enough.

Ronvelia is constantly complimented on her dark hair, her thick eyebrows and her dark skin. More than once, people have asked me “Who’s your hot, dark friend?” Those comments aren’t about her beauty alone but her beauty in correlation with her skin color.

There’s a difference between attraction and fetishization. Attraction is being drawn to someone because of some of their features, their interests or their personality. Fetishization, specifically in regards to race, is being attracted to a person solely because of one thing: their skin color.

By fixating on someone’s skin color, they’re being othered in a sexual way. Sure, everyone has physical preferences in regards to romantic partners. However, there’s a big difference in saying “I like green eyes” and “I like a nice, chocolate man.” One is a characteristic, the other is part of their identity.

Fetishization is a completely different monster. It’s a micro-aggression disguised as a compliment by the aggressor, and it’s the most common micro-aggression I’ve seen in my experience at Colorado State University.

Fetishization is commonly targeted toward women. Asian women are also big targets of racial fetishization. Even so, men can also be victims of racial fetishization. 

Eric, a male, Asian student at CSU who asked to remain anonymous, has been fetishized on multiple occasions.

“As an Asian male, the thing I got from past romantic partners were some weird and off-beat comments about how I’m rare or a novelty,” he said. “And that they are in a state of disbelief because they never pictured themselves hooking up with an Asian male.”

Eric also discussed being compared to anime characters and friends who’ve received fetishizing and/or demoralizing messages on apps like Tinder and Bumble.

“I know people who’ve received messages that say ‘knee how?’ which sounds like ‘ni hao,’ meaning hello in Mandarin, and when they are confused, the sender sometimes says something along the lines of, ‘I thought you’d know Chinese,’” he said.

I’ve heard the claim “I’m not racist, I’ve slept with a Black person” more times than I can count. If that statement has come out of your mouth, you’re actually extremely racist no matter what your intention was. Fetishizing people because of their skin color is demoralizing and hurtful. Next time you give someone a physical compliment, keep their race out of it.

Leta McWilliams can be reached at letters@collegian.com and Twitter at @LetaMcWilliams.

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