Written by Aleyn Silva
Graphic by Hengjia Liu
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
“If you were a kind of candy, you would be milk chocolate!”, yelled one of my classmates from across the room. I smiled weakly despite the strong discomfort I felt. A few years later, while visiting my hometown, I was told by a random boy, “If you were a stripper, your name would be Cinnamon”, before he slapped my ass and walked away. Looking back, I remember that these experiences made me feel objectified and hyperaware of my race – but the Anglo-Australian people who had made these jokes about my racial identity seemed to think it was funny; and even a compliment, on some level.
It was only four years after the latter experience that I learnt the term ‘racial fetishisation’. Racial fetishisation is an intersection of sexism and racism, concerning the preferencing of specific ethnic identities. This includes selectively choosing members of that race as partners on the basis of whether they conform to certain stereotypes, or excluding members of other races. It reflects and perpetuates a number of racist stereotypes, as well as historical colonial mentalities of undermining and objectifying women of colour.
Racial fetishisation is often disguised as having a ‘type’. While it is frequently represented by Anglo people as inoffensive and well-meaning, the fetishisation of people of colour (POC) is racism masquerading as a compliment. For people of colour, racial fetishisation is a norm that occurs both in the dating world and day-to-day interaction. Most women I talk to know at least one man who claims to be anti-racist, but confidently states “Asian girls are just my type!” To better understand how racial fetishisation – and specifically, yellow fever – affects women of colour, I talked to three East Asian women about their experiences.
Alison finds that white men often label her as “Exotic”. “I hate the term,” she told me. When she tells them it makes her feel uncomfortable, they tend to state “but it’s not a bad thing? I don’t mean it as an insult, I just think Asian girls are pretty.” For Alison, the fetishisation of POC has “so many layers of disgusting that I can’t begin to explain [what the problem is] if you see nothing wrong with it.”
Furthermore, she believes that the world of online dating acts as the perfect medium for people with yellow fever to profile women. Yellow fever not only includes selecting women based on their race, but involves the application and perpetuation of underlying social assumptions. Asian women, for instance, have historically been perceived as submissive and passive – and as a result, many racial fetishists target these women because they believe they can be dominated and controlled. “It’s never overtly in a Tinder bio – ‘I’m into Asian girls’”, Alison told me. She believes that often, the first red flag is the question ‘What are you?’.
Unsure whether men are truly attracted to her, or if they are merely targeting her because of her ethnicity, Alison said that racial fetishisation makes sexual experiences confusing: “All of a sudden, you’re not just you, you’re an Asian woman. It’s very depersonalising. It means I’m an Anonymous Asian Person no. 3642, not Alison.” In these situations, she often feels seen “purely as an Asian woman, and no more than that.” These experiences have also made her feel wary of dating white people: “With people of colour, I know they’ve gone through similar overt fetishisation”, she explains. “It makes you hyper-aware of how your race has to do [with] how people are attracted to you. I feel like white people don’t know how that feels.”
Similarly, Mia is often labelled ‘exotic’ by Anglo-men. As a third culture kid, Mia finds that men view her as ‘the best of both worlds’; perceiving that she has an Asian appearance without the Asian culture. Thus, her racial identity is often only considered valuable by men in a sexual sense. While dehumanising, she told me that the fetishisation can occasionally be flattering on some level because of the prior discrimination that she has experienced. Since women of colour are not often considered the ‘normative’ preference for men, it feels good to be desired. However, it is only validating on a surface level. When Mia thinks deeper about the fetishisation, she wonders: “Is he with me because he’s attracted to me and values me, or is it just because I’m Asian?”
Mia finds that even her friends engage in – and normalise – racial fetishisation. “I might hook up with someone at a nightclub and my friends will joke that it’s because he has yellow fever,” she told me. “It makes me feel like they’re saying he’s only attracted to me because I’m Asian”.
Comparably, my friend Sara told me that racial fetishisation “feels like you’re being tokenised”. To Sara, being fetishized makes her feel “replaceable” and like she could be “any other Asian-Australian girl”. Feeling interchangeable makes it seem “almost like you’re in competition with other Asian girls”.
Sara and I discussed how men – upon being confronted for their racial fetishisation – tend to use the excuse, “I just so happen to have dated Asian women”. She told me that she often wonders, “How much convincing, how many statistics, how many different narratives do I have to … bring up to convince you that it’s a thing?”
Sara believes that when men claim that they have a ‘preference’ for Asian women, they are using a “politically correct way of saying you have a fetish – because saying you have a [racial] fetish is admitting it’s a problem. If you’re framing it as a preference, it’s not a problem.” Sara suggested that these men “should examine their dating patterns in conjunction with background and culture”. She told me in a frustrated tone that unpacking relationship biases and patterns “is the shit people go to therapy to talk about. But when you put race in, people are like, ‘no, it’s not a problem.’”
I’ve found that these women exist in a state of constantly having to monitor and assess social interactions with white boys to determine if they have yellow fever. Racial fetishisation is covert sexualised racism. When women of colour are viewed as a racial fetish, it isn’t a compliment. We are left questioning our own desirability and value to others – but we are more than our racial identities. We are not your ‘exotic prizes’, and we are so much more than ‘just’ your type.