Saturday, February 16, 2008

Does A Fetish Matter?

I think it depends on who you ask. I'm not sure anyone would ever come out and say, "No, it doesn't matter to me." But I believe I hear/read people brush it off on a regular basis.

In my last post, I linked to Carmen's video podcasts on YouTube. In one, which I watched almost a week or so ago, if I remember correctly she lists a few of the most common myths about interracial dating. One of those myths was that people who engage in IRs have a fetish. Now, don't get me wrong, Carmen doesn't completely brush it off. She just deflects a bit by saying, "Well, most people are in relationships for the wrong reasons, and nobody ever says anything about that." Fair. do you compare dating someone for racial stereotypes and/or more because of their ethnic background than having an interest in who they are to other "wrong" reasons? And I actually do think we make a big deal about some of the other more common reasons people "use" others in dating. The next biggest reason besides race, I'd say, is money. We talk about that all the time. How often do we hear people, particularly women, referred to as "gold diggers"? I think black women know that one really well, despite the fact that we now make more money than the men we typically find ourselves interested in, i.e. black men. How often does a male celebrity hook up with a woman or get a divorce, and we're all looking at the situation like, "This chick is after his can he not see this...when will men learn?!"

Another reason, which I think is very similar to dating "preferences" based on race, is how we tend to value the most agreed-upon attractive people above all others. What the two have in common is being interested in someone for how they look rather than who they are. Often, people in these shallow relationships do see negative qualities in the attractive person but they try to ignore them because the person is so good-looking. Nowadays, we talk about the media's influence on self-perception/esteem and beauty standards as if this is a problem just as serious as the war in Iraq (sorry, but, to me, it's not...perhaps because I'm not influenced as much by the media and don't understand women crying on shows such as "Oprah" and "How To Look Good Naked" on Lifetime because they hate some aspect of their bodies). And we complain about people valuing looks over personality nonstop. People worry about their looks because of how it makes them feel, sure, but it's also about attracting others and competing with attractive individuals, especially for people who are single. Several industries make millions off this year after year.

Then there's age. Boy, do we harp on age differences. You think all of these relationships are 100% about love? Neither do I. The appeal for many people in these kinds of relationships, much like IRs, is stereotypes and the actual age. We look at couples such as Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore and wait for the day they break up. We wonder what the hell those two have to talk about, because we assume they're too different. When is Demi going to get over using Ashton for sex, and when is Ashton going to see signs of Demi being her age and run for the hills?

So, yes, there are other relationships that seem all wrong to us and, in fact, probably include at least one partner who is in it for the wrong reasons. But what are relationships anyway? To me, there's always a self-serving element. You wouldn't be in one if there weren't. We all get something out of relationships. But with the way our society makes the biggest deal of them all about race in everything, it goes without saying that when race is the reward--and then, in turn, seems like a punishment for others who are being left out--that that is the relationship where we stop and look at the trade-off and really have a problem with it. Anything that hints of racism is going to illicit that kind of reaction.

With something like age, you can't really have a group that gets left out/disadvantaged the way you can with race. And so, the thing that I've noticed is the people who brush off observations and criticisms of IR trends are usually those in the more advantaged groups. It's easy to say that those of us who claim we have no problem with IRs as long as the couple really is in love truly do have a problem with all IRs when you're among "the chosen." Of course we have a problem with IRs. And that problem goes beyond just your being an Asian woman with a white man or a black man with a white woman; it's about what these kinds of trends mean for black women and Asian men, the people sitting, watching all the same groups of people with long lines leading to their doors while we have nothing going on.

Do black women and Asian men have to be more proactive in their relationship search? I mean, is IRs to blame for every single black woman or Asian man who is single? Despite the answers to these questions, however you answer them, it's still just not a good feeling when you're the equivalent of the ugly layperson vs the media beauty, the blue collar nobody vs the six-figure executive. What some people fail to understand is there are winners and there are losers in IRs dynamics, and the majority of the people who have no complaints are the winners. Black women and Asian men have no false positive stereotypes following their groups around romantically, and we can't trade a fetish for a fetish with anybody.

In other words, a white man with an Asian fetish can meet an Asian female with a white fetish rather easily. Whatever kind of fetish a black woman may have, she may eventually find someone, but it's going to be a lot harder than for every other kind of woman and odds are pretty good that the guy doesn't have a fetish for black women, though some guys like that exist. In a way, the fetishes are besides the point; it's the result of them, the effects, the disproportionate desire for some and not others, that make some of us feel like sh!t and respond in turn. For some black women, it could be like being slapped by both the media and everyday life. Mix in racism, and it's three slaps. Sexism and the fact that women outnumber men...and, well, black women never stop getting slapped, basically. Where to go to find someone who thinks you're beautiful and worthy, for the right or wrong reasons? Just any reason?

Therefore, I find it, at least, insensitive the way some people think 1) nothing's wrong with "preferences" that exclude entire groups of people, especially when certain groups emerge consistently as more preferable than others, and 2) when the "fetish" arguments are dismissed in any fashion. If you don't have a problem with someone using you because they think people of your group are better in bed and/or because you see a benefit in that in the form of more dating partners, it being a compliment, your being able to get more dates from X race or whatever...or you just decide to be one of those people who, until someone makes it blatantly obvious to you that they're fetishizing/stereotyping you, you choose not to think they are...that's on you. I'm not going to get mad for you and, indeed, in general I'm not really mad for you.

But think a little deeper about the issue and what the fact that there are tons of relationships out there like yours means for people like me. I'm not asking you to care or to refrain from dating whomever you want; I'm just asking you to get the entire issue, so that you can stop addressing the issue as if it's not problematic at all, or is but isn't especially problematic for some just because you benefit from it even if you don't want to accept it.

I can't remember if this was in one of Carmen's videos or not, but I heard a good point recently, which is something that I've always known: just because a relationship started from a fetish or includes one doesn't mean the two aren't really in love or can't become so. I know this. I'd say my parents' relationship includes some fetishizing; how many mixed kids actually think about that or admit it, I wonder? Well, this one does. But still. Like me for me, 100%. I can't stand being stereotyped. See, my being fetishized, whether or not someone comes out and says something squarely stupid to me, matters to me. If you hint that you find my being black or being mixed especially exciting at all, I'm not interested. And can people of the same race fetishize each other? You know it. Black people say crap all the time like, "We'd have cute/light babies" and/or "Our kids would have 'good hair'." I don't want to hear that, either. Saying you want someone who understands your culture and that's why you'd prefer someone of your race is fine, understandable even. I don't see that as a fetish. But comments about how cute our kids would be because of my skin color or hair stinks of same-race racism and a "white is right," "if you're brown, stick around" kind of fetish.

What is a fetish, even? To me, a fetish is about either 1) being interested in someone and/or finding them attractive solely because they are from a particular background or have a certain kind of look, and/or 2) being interested in someone and/or finding them attractive because, due to their background, you assume/hope they have certain characteristics. Basically, you have a formula for your ideal man or woman, and race is very central to it. For example, sometimes people disclaim a white male's having a fetish because he likes Asian women who are feisty or Americanized, not the ones who will do anything he wants. But that's still a fetish because it's a specific race-related formula. It's not as if the guy likes any kind of woman who has an attitude; indeed, a black woman who acted like that Asian woman would be branded a "typical black b!tch" or unfeminine.

And point #1 is often a joke among black women, i.e. black men liking fat and/or ugly white women vs attractive black women. Very important to #1 is that a woman of that background can be unattractive by many standards, but her race makes up for it or keeps that man from noticing her unattractiveness. In other words, any woman from that background will do/is attractive. Recognition of this is very important for black women, who would otherwise start to agree with everyone else that we're not as attractive as all other groups of women in terms of the physical or personality. This is another reason why brushing off the existence of such fetishes or taking them lightly isn't a good idea.

What's important for those in the more privileged dating groups to know is if these descriptions don't fit your relationship, then don't take people's criticisms about fetishes--whether addressed towards your relationship or you, if you're single, personally. If you feel that you're genuinely attractive, for example, and a man of another race shows interest in you, as an Asian or white woman, and you hear black women discussing the aforementioned dynamics in IRs, why think we're talking about you, specifically, or even all non-black women? Or if some black women are talking about you, why let it get to you when you feel you're good-looking enough for comments about preferring ugly non-black women aren't justified in your case? Either way, just know that as IRs become more and more common, the topics of IRs and fetishes aren't going away; if anything, we'll talk and write about them more and more.