Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On Racial Misogyny

I've written and re-written this post a few times now. Every time, I find myself filling it with disclaimers and clarifications that just bog it down and make it worthless reading.

Why? Because I'm an American male. This is my first real attempt at writing on a topic in which I am so out of my element. Or so I keep thinking.

But the fact is - I have written about injustices and ignorance regarding races not my own without so much hemming and hawing and deflection. I haven't felt the need to pepper my readers with disclaimers that tread lightly and reiterate my lack of expertise or direct understanding of these other issues. And I have ended up writing things that have struck a chord with readers, anyway.

So why has this one been so difficult for me? Perhaps the truth lies in the brutal reality that we get most defensive about the things that we fear are true about ourselves. And so it is not so much my lack of experience with the subject-matter that is my issue - but rather my possible experience of the issue from the wrong side.

Now, there are many forms of "racial misogyny." However, the focus of this particular post is on exotification: the tendency for men to sexualize and objectify women differently based on the woman's racial features.

A prime example (and the one that - for obvious reasons - hits most closely to home for me) is the infamous "Asian fetish." This is a whole pile of garbage around some (I would argue "many") men's tastes for Asian physical features. It also ties into stereotypes about submissiveness, sensuality, and the like. Whatever the reasons, there are tons of men (of many different races) that end up espousing the overall hotness of Asian women. Not specific Asian women, mind you, but Asian women, in general.

Now, where this becomes a bigger problem is when Asian women are not present in large numbers in these men's lives. If a man lives in Japan for a long time, for example, he is going to end up finding Japanese women (and features) attractive. Of course. However, if he lives in a predominantly white (or black or other non-Asian) community, his attraction to Asian women isn't likely to be due to experience. And, if it is, it is going to be based on one or just a few specific instances generalized to a whole (notice that the man in Japan would be into specifically Japanese features - and not simply "Asian" features). Because, of course, there is no such real thing as any particularly "Asian" features - considering "Asia" comprises ethnicities as varying as Eastern Russian to Pakistani.

And so I live in perpetual bitterness over Asian exotification - the whole concept that "Asian women are hot" based solely on their "other"ness or stereotypes about their sexuality. I had a friend with a very clear Asian fetish who - I kid you not - thought that every single waitress we ever had at any sushi bar, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai restaurant was hot. Every single one. The only explanation I could come up with? Well, that they "all looked the same" to him.

On top of the stereotyping that coincides with exotification of other races is the inherent oppression in the act. Not only is general objectification of women by men an act of domination and oppression; but add to that the connotations of subjugation and domination in the sexualizing of an entire race. The parallels to the uncountable instances of rape by colonizers, slave-owners, conquerors, etc. of their "subjects" is no coincidence. And so I can't help but cringe whenever I hear men (especially white men, but not just white men) talk about how they "like 'exotic' women."

My only response that seems to make an impact without sparking full-on defensiveness is "so am I 'exotic'?"

And the problem is that so few men associate this form of exotification as offensive or demeaning - because it's couched in seemingly-positive terms: they aren't saying they hate these women, they're saying that they prefer them. They think that these "other" women are "beautiful" - they're not bad-mouthing them. And so it is exceedingly difficult to point out that it's the underlying implications that prove wrong and distasteful.

So the question turns to - as a man of color, where do I fit in? Am I as equally-vocal a champion of anti-exotification as I am a champion of general racial understanding? Do I bristle with indignation every time I hear another male talk about a woman's desirability tied in with her race?

The sad answer? No. I don't. Often I do - but not every time. Should I? Absolutely. One reason I don't do those things is that I have always been a proponent of "picking one's battles" - only fighting when I think I could actually win. It's the same with matters of race a lot of the time.

But, unfortunately, the other reason I don't always speak up is because I'm a part of those conversations, sometimes.

Now, before I lose the majority of my readers and friends (who happen to be women of color), let me explain:

I think about interracial relationships quite often. Partly because I am the result of one, partly because (due to my mix) almost every relationship I could end up in would have to be one. And in thinking about interracial relationships as they pertain to me, I have come to this conclusion: all things being equal, I would prefer to have kids with a partner that is no whiter than myself. The main reason for that is simple - I don't want my children to be less colorful than myself, if I can help it. I want them to fully understand and identify with what being a person of color in this world means, and they couldn't fully do that if they passed as 100% white (or so I believe).

That's the logic of it.

However, that's not everything. Because, when it comes down to it, I am much more attracted - physically - to women of color. And, when attracted to white women (because that still happens - imagine that), it is generally to white women with less "normalized" features (i.e. I'm not going for the skinny blonde with blue eyes).

I like women with curves. I like darker skin. I like fuller lips and brown-to-black hair.

And that's right about when the record-scratch - SCRIIIIIIIIIIITCHHHHH!!!! - comes: that kind of sounds like those f-ing racial misogynists I was just talking about.

But I don't mean it the same way they do. And I understand all the power dynamics and the stereotypes and the . . .

It still sounds the same. Enough that - taken out of context - who would ever know that it's not the same? In fact, do I even know beyond a doubt that it isn't the same?

I mean - how much of my "preference" is due to my conscious thoughts on my unborn child? How much is due to my personal experience and exposure (am I attracted to black women more because I lived in Tanzania for a year and a half or because they're "different")? And how much is due to sub-conscious stereotypes or - oh God no - fetishes?

I honestly can't say for sure. And that bothers the Hell out of me. I think it's mostly experience and personal politics - but it can't all be.

And so I'm stuck on this shaky middle ground - is there any way for me not to stand here? I have always treated women with respect and taught the same to younger men and those around me. I have erased the word "b---h" from my vocabulary (in all contexts). I ask my female friends questions, I listen to their answers, and I have always done everything possible to make every woman (young and old) feel safe around me.

And yet I still stand here, a sometimes-perpetrator. Is it an inevitable result of growing up male in American society? I can't say. I fear that it may be - but I also believe that nothing is truly inevitable. So the real question is: what can I do about it? Is consciousness enough? Is there a way to deal with attraction to women without it becoming tied up in racial features to some level?

How do I separate passing, gut-level attraction to women of color from racial misogyny? Hell - how do I keep random physical attraction (that I don't actually act on in any way) being on a level with any form of misogyny?

I'm aware of it, and I think about it. But that doesn't change the fact that I still have my preferences, and if I heard my own preferences spoken out loud by somebody else (say, a white guy), I'd get more than a little annoyed by it. So where's the line? Am I immune from exotification because I happen to be "exotic," myself? Can I be a racial misogynist for preferring features of the "other" if I'm also an "other"? And could a white guy avoid any of that (or the accusations thereof), ever?

A lot of questions and not a whole lot of answers (yet), but that won't keep me from continuing to examine my own positions of power and privilege (as a male) - something that should probably be done even more often.


Aunt LoLo said...

Hmm...this is really interesting. I'm the white half of a Eurasian couple. We have two beautiful children - one boy, one girl. The girl is older (2) and I am stopped - often - by strangers who tell me how beautiful she is. The funny thing - they don't know WHY she's so beautiful. They usually only stop me when I'm alone. My daughter isn't obviously Asian looking, if you don't know what you're looking for. What makes her so beautiful? (she is beatiful - check out our blog) She has almond-eyes...and they're green. She has a full moon-face...and a slender body. She is nearly perfectly a 50/50 mix..and that makes her "exotic", different...beautiful. I wouldn't say your attraction to women of colour is anything that you have to explain, or feel ashamed about. You've obviously taken great pains to make sure that your female friends feel safe around you..and that's all that really matters. Since I married my Chinese husband, I find myself inexplicably attracted to Asian men - actors, waiters, people we pass in the mall. I give them a second glance when their white companions don't even merit a first from me. Maybe I just identify with them better now - I don't know.

My point is - hetero men find women attractive. If something has happened to swing your favor towards the "color" side of the scale..that's fine. Most negative/bad attitudes in this world are simply the warping of a good and natural attitude! Don't confuse the two - you'll just give yourself guilt where it doesn't need to be.

meeshtastic said...

I found your site via Racialicious. I talk about my reaction to this topic on my blog

I hope you don't mind if I add you to the blogroll!

thelady said...

You obviously make an effort to respect women and not objectify them in general so I wouldn't worry about your preference being a fetish. I'm a black woman who generally prefers black men but I do find some nonblack men attractive, usually if they have dark hair/eyes, curly hair, or full lips. Doesn't mean I have a brown eye fetish right? And in the end it is more about the summation than the parts.

L. said...

Hey, I really appreciate this post. As a WoC, it's always interesting when MoC discuss relatinoships, especially as it pertains to their minority status.

I agree with the other comments that you don't come off as a sexual fetishist. From what you wrote, you seem to respect and value women. You don't undermine their humanity as a part of your sexual attraction, and you don't put your reverence for stereotypical physical attributes above the actual person. If, in fact, that is the case then I can't say that you are sexually objectifying the women to whom you have an attraction. I can say that it sounds like you have a healthy attraction to certain physical features, which is natural. And as long as you are aware of that and don't calculate the totality of a woman based on racialized sexual stereotypes or physical attributes, then you shouldn't have anything to worry about.

I personally don't think that having preferences, even racial preferences, is automatically a bad thing. IMO, having a preference means nothing more than, on average, you are attracted to a certain category of person over another. It's when you buy into stereotypes about different categories of people so that you attribute all "positive" stereotypes to whatever group you're attracted to (and especially when this is followed by attributing all negative stereotypes to certain other groups, and thusly justify both your refusal to date or interact with those groups and your overall negative and unfair attitude of these people) do I find having preferences to be problematic.

Anyway, have a great rest of the weekend. BTW, has your school started back up?

dylan clayton said...

Thanks for the post, I found it very interesting. I think, as a man, it can be very difficult to write about sexism, usually more out of our own fear of how we will be perceived than out of actual negative reactions from women when men speak and listen honestly. Unfortunately males, and white males in particular, too often listen to that fear rather than have real discussions. I agree with the previous comments that preferences for particular body-types, skin, hair and eye pigmentations, and other physical features are not necessarily problematic. Anyway, I think a voice not often in this discussion are males who do have preferences for other racial groups.

I am a white male and I have noticed that I have a preference for women of a few Asian ethnicities, primarily Korean and Japanese women. My preference is nowhere near your friend's blanket attraction to every waitress but I used to refer to myself as having an Asian fetish. While I was also attracted to women of other racial groups, including my own, it seemed I was more likely to find women of those ethnicities attractive on first meeting them, after personality gets factored into how attractive I find someone I'm not so sure the bias remains. While dating a woman of Japanese descent I started to examine this preference more closely and I realized that my earliest female friends had one or both parents from these ethnicities. On a personal, psychological level I believe it was these formative relations with females that created this preference in me. I only relate this because I feel that the reality can be more complex than colonial throwbacks or attraction to the exotic, even for white males.

CVT said...

Thanks to all for the words of encouragement (and advice, etc.) I'll follow up on this post later on down the line.

And Dylan - thanks for your input. It always takes a bit of courage to speak up when you're the "other side" in this type of thing, and I liked your examination and explanation for your own particular preferences. That will definitely make me think a bit longer before I lump all Asian preferences as a "fetish" based on minimal experience.

uglyblackjohn said...

My "Dream Girl" is half Korean and half Jewish.
My dad was Loisiana Creole and my mom is half Mexican/ half Native American.
I just want my children to fill in as many blanks as possible.

But the reason so many non-Asians may find Asian women so attractive could be their limited exposure to media Asians. They may never see the many average lookig women.
So in their minds - Asian women are hot.

(But you gotta' admit - going by videos and movies - they ARE)

hexy said...

Thank you for writing this post! I love seeing bloggers I read delve into the topics that make THEM question and wonder.

On your attraction and preferences in women, all I'm going to say is this: we can never rid ourselves entirely of the racist programming we grew up with. We can only examine the hell out of ourselves, keep learning, and try to fix the bits we find that are fucked up. If you're scrutinising your preferences as hard as you seem to be and not hitting a huge block of "WHOA, MAN!", then just go with it. If you find that block at some point in the future, try to fix it.

The slight uneasiness when you hit something that you THINK is OK, but that your politics are suggesting might not be is a good thing. It means you can trust yourself to let you know when you find something really problematic.

Incidentally, I have that same thought regarding the racial mix of my children all the time... especially now that my primary partner, with whom I see real long term, is white. I've got a weird mix of sadness and guilt over the idea that my kids will be "less mixed" than I am, even though I know that's a rubbish term that shouldn't mean anything...

Greg said...

As usual, CVT, a very interesting post. There are some things I take issue with, though. First, there are very clearly two separate issues at hand, here: racial fetishization and misogyny. Though the two very separate domains sometimes overlap, it might be better to tackle them separately. After all, men (of any color) can be fetishized for their race just as much as women can (and such fetishization can be done by men or women); women can also fetishize other women, which may or may not count as misogyny (depending, I suppose, on one's definition).

My second issue is with your statement "If a man lives in Japan for a long time, for example, he is going to end up finding Japanese women (and features) attractive. Of course." I, myself, lived for a number of years in Japan, and I don't find myself anymore attracted to Japanese women (or men) now than when I first moved there. I think I understand what you're trying to get at here, though: the notion that one's tendencies in attraction can be explained away as "normal" (or "acceptable" or "unproblematic") by a circumstance such as, for example, exposure. Another circumstance, one might contend, is similarity to self (hence, it is "normal" or "unproblematic" for a black woman to be attracted to black men even if she grew up in a predominantly white community). I disagree with this notion entirely.

Because I am gay, I have had numerous people discuss my own sexual attraction to other men as problematic. So to a certain degree, I empathize with (presumed) racial fetishists whose sexual preferences/attractive tendencies you call out as problematic.

Let me assure you, though, that I understand where you are coming from: I have encountered my fair share of straight white males who fetishize Asian femininity. My guess is that it makes me just as sick as it makes you. It seems that we attach negative value to racial fetishes, but find difficulty in drawing the line between "fetish" and "normal" tendency. When is it unproblematic for a person to strongly prefer a race (or racialized feature) in sexual object choice? At what point does the strength of this preference become problematic? Does it depend on the race of the subject?

Attractions are many-faceted, with Lord only knows what roots and explanations actually underlying them. And I'm not going to say it's just like trying to get to the bottom of why one person prefers rocky road ice cream over all other flavors, and another is just as happy with strawberry as they are with durian ice cream. Because society doesn't attach value to these ice cream flavors, and historically some flavors haven't been subjugated and de-humanized while others have been preferred and normalized. These values seep into our subconscious whether we like it or not. They must affect our sexual preferences. Or must they?

CVT said...

@ Greg -
I gotta' love the differing opinions - I honestly wish I could get more of those on here. Anyway, my point with the guy in Japan was that exposure makes certain kinds of attraction more likely - and on a different level than a so-called "fetish." And I don't think "looking like oneself" leads to attraction - at all. In fact, for whatever reason, I actually was less attracted to Asian women growing up than other races. I also know plenty of men of color (for instance) who grew up around white women, and are therefore less attracted to women of color (of their own race).

As for the preferences I "called-out," my main point was that my own preferences aren't actually all that different - nor would it look any different to the casual viewer; making me re-think my judgements on that.

Finally - I didn't touch on non-heterosexual preferences because I don't have enough experience with that to say something I feel strongly about. On the other hand, I have tons of experience with straight men and their "preferences."

@uglyblackjohn -
Your explanation for certain seemingly-unexplained "fetishes" makes a lot of sense. Of course - if you don't have a lot of exposure to a certain race, you look to the media, and media goes with the most attractive people, in general, so that's where the assumptions of beauty can come from.

However, that doesn't explain why people are so focused on Asian women; theoretically, that should mean anybody without exposure to ANY other race should think they are more attractive than their own, based on videos and movies. Because - based on videos and movies - the majority of EVERY race would be "hot."

So there's got to be more to it. It's got to come down to stereotypes of who is more "acceptable" and "sexual" or "submissive," etc.

L. said...

"So there's got to be more to it. It's got to come down to stereotypes of who is more "acceptable" and "sexual" or "submissive," etc."

I agree. This is the main explanation that I hear coming from men when they talk about not wanting to date black women. I think expectations based on stereotypes plays a big role in this.

I've actually been thinking about this part of your post for a few days:

"I think it's mostly experience and personal politics - but it can't all be."

At the risk of reading too much into this, do you think you could provide a little more clarification? Is that just in reference to your time in Tanzania and your desire for less-white children?

I mean, I know experience and personal politics play a role in attraction, but do you think it would be that much better to say your attraction is because of personal politics rather than raw physical attraction? I mention this because if you're not to careful, it could come off as a fetish in another form. I personally wouldn't think it much better if a guy was mostly attracted to me because I'm black and that makes him feel more progressive vs. I have a black girl's lips and ass (not saying that's you, but just to provide some context to what I mean).

CVT said...

L. -
The "personal politics" I'm referring to is, indeed, the "whiteness of my possible children" factor. It's also a reference to the fact that - if I ended up dating a white woman, she'd have to be ridiculously "aware" of race relations, her own status, etc. for me to be able to deal. And, simply as statistical probability - white women would be less likely to have that "awareness". I definitely know a couple that do, but they seem to be the exception at this point.

I hope that clarifies. I am definitely NOT a "look at me and all my black friends" kind of guy. To be honest, I'd rather a see a white guy going for black women (for example) because "they're so hot" than because he wants to show how "open-minded" he is. I know those people, too, and I'm more often to want to punch them in the face than the former.

P.S. Got your comment on Racialicious . . . please let me know where I crossed the line when you get it into words.