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.