Last Valentine’s Day, I entered a committed relationship with myself after a disappointing holiday with a cisgender, heterosexual, white male, who later revealed to me that he could not date me because I was black. He felt that the color of my skin and history of my people would upset his father enough to stop paying his tuition. I’ve told this story to my family, friends and the entire class of 2018 during FACES in order to heal, and the reactions have been mixed.
Some expressed sympathy for him, saying that it’s not his fault that his father is racist. Some have gone as far as to say that this person himself was not racist. A mutual friend offered insight by providing this analogy: “It’s kind of like growing up a conservative Christian and realizing you are gay. You can’t help that you’re gay, but you feel really bad about it because you were taught to believe that it’s wrong.”
You can choose as a white person to not date a person of color because you believe their race is inferior. You can be racist. But don’t pursue people of color because their “deviance” turns you on. The situation still makes me cringe because his beliefs did not stop him from pursuing me like forbidden fruit.
Racial fetishism: The indulgence of people of color by members of the dominant group based on racist notions, discrimination and stereotypes drenched in a history of oppression.
No matter what weak excuses others have to give for my freshman year experience, his actions are unjust. He is at fault, and so especially is his father. I have no sympathy for racial fetishes. As a black woman, my history of sexual oppression in America cannot be a separated from the interactions I have on this campus.
The three most referenced stereotypes of black women are Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire. The Mammy, popularly recognized in “Gone with the Wind,” is desexualized, maternal and nurturing to everyone. She was conceived in slavery as the caregiver for her owner’s children. The Jezebel is hyper-sexualized, seductive and always available for sex. She powers the myth, also from slavery, that it is impossible for a black woman to be raped. The Sapphire is “the wise-cracking, balls-crushing, emasculating woman, is usually shown with her hands on her hips and her head thrown back as she lets everyone know she is in charge.”
In the context of all of my interracial interactions on campus, I have been morphed into all three. I expect strangers to confine and categorize me, but am troubled to experience this in friendships and romances. The two that played out the most romantically and infringed upon my safety were the Jezebel and Sapphire. Because of the Jezebel, I’ve had to fight for my right to choice and protect the sacredness of my body. The Sapphire causes others to see me as combative and not worthy of protection and to never take my concerns seriously.
The longing for the imaginary Jezebel is what fueled the desire for my affections in my freshman year romantic interest. That is racism. There is no question about it. Essayist, journalist and activist, s.e. smith sums it up the best:
“Someone who says he (and it is usually a he) ‘prefers’ women of a specific race…[is] viewing certain kinds of women as dateable material on the basis of racial discrimination; and it’s telling that most men with racial ‘preferences’ — which are really racial fetishes — use very racist, stereotypical descriptions when talking about why they ‘prefer’ women of specific races. Asian women are meek, say, or Latinas are fiery, or Black women are exotic and know how to deliver in bed.”
Racial fetishism happens among Stanford students. It happens at parties, in the dorms, and it lives in hookups and comments among friends. It doesn’t only happen among men. Women are guilty of racial fetishism and objectification of men, specifically black men. Racism comes in many forms and a spectrum of degrees. Sexually and romantically, racism is alive and well.
Acknowledge it. Confront it. Don’t do it. Recognize if it is being done to you. And have a fantastic Valentine’s Day.