“You’re So Exotic”: A Brief History of Racial Fetishization

Sarah Baartman

Sarah Baartman

“How would you feel if I used racially specific insults?” This is what a white man said while talking to me about having sex. His request was jarring, but by then I should have expected it. After all, I’d already slept with men who bluntly called me exotic and complimented my skin tone.

Most women experience some kind of objectification because of their gender, but we rarely talk about how this problem intersects with race. The quiet submission of an Asian girl. The fiery temper of a Latina. The curvy bodies of black women. They’re all variations of the same theme: fetishization.

These mythic creations have been beaten into the Western world’s psyche for centuries. For example there’s Sarah Baartman, a.k.a the Hottentot Venus. A black African woman paraded around Europe in the 1800s, she was treated as a freak show attraction because of her body proportions. Towards the end of her life she was sold to an animal trainer and used by racial scientists. To add insult to injury, Baartman’s genitals were pickled and displayed at a museum until 1974.

Europe’s obsession with otherness wasn’t limited to black people. According to academic Edward Said, orientalism can be described as “the way that the West perceives of — and thereby defines — the East”. In an article about the subject, writer Jenn Fang points out that Europeans often viewed the Eastern world as a bizarre mixture of “strange religions and martial arts, bright colours and barbaric practices, unusual foods and incomprehensible languages, mysticism and magic, ninjas and kung fu.”

This idea of exoticism was inevitably applied to women. One only has to step inside a museum to see various paintings depicting nude Arab women in harems, seductively staring at their white creators and admirers. Or maybe sit in the audience of Madame Butterfly, a 1903 opera based around the concept of a completely servile Japanese geisha who kills herself following the rejection of her (white American) lover.

Of course history never occurs in a vacuum, and the same insidious strains of fetishization can be seen today. Black women are still largely defined by our sexual appeal, praised for our breasts and behinds and nothing else. The music video for Zayn Malik’s Pillow Talk showcases this, featuring the white-passing fully clothed Gigi Hadid as the main love interest while a nude black woman appears for the sexual gratification of the viewer.

That is to say nothing of the rampant sexual objectification of Asian women. There’s long been a trend where men purposely seek them out to fulfill their fantasies. Stereotypes of Asian women have culminated in them being seen as the female ideal: obedient, silent and hypersexual. It’s no surprise that East Asian women are preferred over everyone else in the dating pool.

I cannot emphasize enough how demeaning it is to be desired only because of your race. You’re not seen as a whole person, everything that shapes your identity thrown out because you can only be viewed as a sexual treat. It’s difficult enough facing misogyny as a woman, we really don’t need the added racism.

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Alex Reaves
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Alex Reaves is a sad and bored teenager living in the suburbs. While not writing for publications such as xoJane and Thought Catalog, she thinks about her future cats. @weil_knockoff

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