Image by Garett Mizunaka
TW: Mentions of racism
Let’s get one thing straight: a Pina Colada with a lit sparkler and an umbrella may be considered ‘exotic’, but I, a woman with melanated skin, am most certainly not. I’m not sure how exotic someone from Cheadle Hulme can get. As a child, it never occurred to me that the fetishization of brown people was a common occurrence. I didn’t even know the meaning behind the word ‘exotic’ before I first used a dating app. As soon as a stranger asked if they could “have a brown one for the first time,” the malignant implications of the word were clear to me. One definition of racial fetishization is that it occurs when a sexual ‘preference’ for members of a certain race (usually those from minority ethnic communities) reinforces pre-existing harmful and derogatory stereotypes about those communities. Racial fetishes are also said to be a “perverse relation to difference” borne from “the fantasies that sustain it.” (1) This phenomenon ultimately has negative consequences because it strengthens the foundations of a racism we are attempting to eradicate.
I can’t lie to you, being reduced to a sexualised object based on some aspect of my identity has impacted my sense of self-worth, safety, and personhood. This is a new development: I’ve grown up proud of my brown skin. After one week on a dating app, I experienced more microaggressions and ignored more hypersexualised messages than I had my entire life. My skin would itch at the thought that someone would actively type the words “I bet you taste like curry,” or “You must be an expert in Kamasutra, right?” I believe dating apps cultivate an environment where individuals find it easy to send lewd messages– partially because of a lack of repercussions. The online sphere provides a passageway for racism that doesn’t exist in person. I think individuals on dating apps perceive online racial fetishisation to be more acceptable– unfortunately, I’d be more likely to encounter a conversation that begins with a “hey” in person than on a dating app. These crude messages aren’t compliments– they don’t make my knees go weak. I remember feeling unsexy and uneasy as I read them. Somewhere, I laid the blame on myself that someone else thought it was acceptable to take advantage of me, to think brownness equated to being ‘easy.’
There’s even a slang term for the racial fetishization of South Asian people: ‘Brown fever’. Excuse me, I might need to take a moment. ‘Brown fever’ is underpinned by numerous stereotypes of desexualisation and a kind of cultural conservatism. While it is true that some South Asian people may be culturally conservative, this doesn’t give anyone the ability to objectify them. We are multidimensional human beings, some more overtly sexual and in command of our sexual identities than others– and that is okay!
Part of the problem is the historical and canonical depiction of marginalised communities as weak-willed in film. Mistress of Spices, released in 2005, depicts Indian women as naïve objects for conquest. The film did incredibly well commercially, despite the fact that it was packed with stereotypical South Asian representation, unidimensional personalities that were the butt of an ongoing joke. The film also feeds into the exotic and mystical stereotypes surrounding Indian culture: its plot is centred around a woman who makes feeling good seem shameful. Her white co-star treats her like a mysterious trophy to be won, and the narrative of forbidden love is tired and limited. The closing shot of the film features the central couple laying naked on a bed of chillies. This caricature of South Asian culture influences the way that various minority ethnic communities are perceived and treated in real life. For many, films are a gateway for learning about different communities and their cultures. Accurate and justified representation is crucial because it contributes to the perception of the South Asian community possessed by those outside of it.
When I consider my experiences on dating apps as well as film depictions of those from minority ethnic communities, a common theme is that brown women are simultaneously fetishized and rejected. South Asian women’s identity is hypersexualised and othered, while they are also put down by their own community for expressing their sexuality. This contradiction means that putting myself out there as a brown woman brings up conflicting feelings.
There’s no one way to solve the systemic issues that fuel racial fetishization, but there are some points for allies to bear in mind. Firstly– challenge behaviours! Have the courage to call out the objectification of people of colour and their culture. Calling someone exotic is both offensive and unlikely to prove successful. Second, listen and learn! The best way to understand the experiences of people of colour is to listen to and amplify their voices. Finally, change the terminology you use. At the very least, you should never be calling anyone the equivalent of a pina colada. Ever.
Edited by Ishita Uppadhayay, Essays Editor
(1) Marriott, D. (2010). On racial fetishism. Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 18(2), 215-248. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5250/quiparle.18.2.215#metadata_info_tab_contents