At a university like Northwestern, where white students vastly outnumber students of color, the subject of race permeates every environment from the classroom to the bedroom. But for racial minority students who pursue relationships with a white partner, their heritage may automatically doom the success of that relationship because of a single notion: racial fetishization.
The topic of racial fetishization took center stage Thursday at an NU Sex Week event dubbed “Fetishization of the Femme: A Panel on Racial Fetishization.” NU professors Ji-Yeon Yuh, Alexander Weheliye and graduate student Ashley Agbasoga discussed the practice of relying on racial stereotypes to form an attraction to someone of another race. In a conclusion that rattled some audience members, the panelists agreed that because of racial fetishization, a successful, truly respectful relationship between white and non-white partners is unlikely.
“Our society is so racialized, so racially divided, and race is so salient in everything, it’s extremely difficult if not impossible,” Yuh, a professor of Asian American studies, said.
Racial fetishization toxifies relationships because partners are pursued as stereotypes and pleasure vehicles rather than individuals, Yuh said. To illustrate the dehumanizing and prejudicial nature of racial fetishization, Yuh used the example of the racial hierarchy of “mail-order brides.” Men buy Black women at the lowest prices, while Asian women have higher prices and a white women are the most expensive.
The panelists also discussed how racial fetishization further disservices minorities by explaining the sexualization of whiteness versus the sexualization of other ethnicities. Whereas racially marginalized groups are desexualized or hypersexualized, the sexuality of a white, heterosexual relationship acts as the standard and ideal for normal relationships, Yuh said. White, male sexuality also implies power and access to female and minority bodies, she said.
For the most part, the panelists seemed to address the issue of racial fetishization in a way that elicited cheers and the ever-popular “snaps of support” from the attending students. However, the idea that interracial relationships could rarely succeed between white and non-white partners rubbed some audience members the wrong way.
Weinberg Freshman Toni Akunebu disagreed with the panelists’ pessimistic outlook on the fate of such relationships, and considered the success of such relationships possible, she said. She also wished they had discussed the sexualities of mixed raced people like herself, but overall, she liked what the speakers had to say.
“I really liked how they touched on all persons of color,” Akunebu said. “It was enjoyable to see the different point of view not only from different races, but from different genders and different generations.”
Although not everyone may have agreed with what they heard at the panel, the event showed that discussions of sexuality could be conducted safely in communities of color, said Ritika Rastogi, a Weinberg senior and one of the coordinators of the event.
Rastogi had been exposed to the concept of racial fetishization during one of Professor Yuh’s women’s history classes, but had also seen the dehumanizing effects of this mindset in her own experiences at NU, she said. For Rastogi, the panel created a safe space for communities of color to discuss healthy relationships and sexuality, she said.
“I think if we work together within our own communities that it’s really possible to create that space for ourselves,” she said. “We really got the opportunity to have the conversations begin across communities of color and see the different experiences that people of different races within the U.S. have. It was just a fun way to engage everyone on a topic that needs to be talked about.”