I used to date this cis, hetero White guy – let’s call him Josh.
Josh was as well-meaning as they came. Josh acknowledged that racism is a thing and that White privilege is real. In fact, he was so comfortable acknowledging his White privilege that he had seen more Spike Lee films than me.
To add to his well-meaning White guy glory, Josh just loooooovvved Black women.
I mean, he could not get enough. He loved our noses, our hair, our skin tone, our hips, and our thighs.
As proof of his admiration, he was so loyal to his preference for Black women that he barely dated women of any other race.
And you’re probably wondering, “What’s wrong with that?”
I mean, when you’re sexually attracted to someone, obviously you appreciate their physical characteristics. What’s so bad about finding certain characteristics attractive?
See, that’s the thing. Josh claimed to “love” Black women. But to say that one loves, or is attracted to, any Black woman suggests that one loves and is attracted to a person.
However, when asked what draws him to Black women, Josh could only name stereotypical attitudes and body types. See the problem?
Hair, skin, ass, “strength,” attitude, and hips are not a person. They are attributes of a person.
Granted, certain attributes can be more prominent to a specific group of people. But one definition of racism includes “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race.”
Reducing a marginalized group or individual to a set of characteristics like personality, attitudes and body types is, in fact, racist – even if it’s meant to be a compliment.
When you focus on stereotypes instead of treating a person like an individual shaped by their heritage, background, and unique experiences, that person becomes an extension of your imagination.
You erase who they are and force them to be who you want, or believe, them to be. Your impression of them is based on your preconceived notions – not their full humanity.
When I was dating Josh, I was working through my own internalized shit.
Josh desired me for the same qualities that society taught me were undesirable. He even watched Good Hair in solidarity (I never watched it myself), and he’d proudly proclaim his love of natural hair over weave.
Sometimes, he’d say, “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” Except I’m not very dark. Maybe he thought my juice was relatively sour?
Many White people who are attracted to, date, and love Black women mean well. Some of them even think their attraction to Black folks makes them “progressive,” because they’re going against the grain of White beauty standards.
But good intentions have never been enough to stop oppression. So how can you look beyond your intentions and figure out if your attraction has a hurtful impact?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself. They’ll help you assess whether or not your attraction to Black bodies contributes to oppression.
1. Are You Attracted to Black Women – Or Do You Fetishize Us?
Sexualizing someone, or objectifying them, is not the same as attraction – and it’s important to know which one you’re doing.
This is a difficult question to consider, especially since our racist, cissexist, heteropatriarchal social context makes it difficult to experience and express desire without harmful power dynamics.
Straight cis men, for example, are often taught that unsolicited comments on a woman’s body are compliments. But the same behavior they see as an acceptable way to express attraction actually contributes to women feeling unsafe, uncomfortable, and unable to exist in public without being objectified.
Here’s how to understand the difference between attraction and fetishization.
Attraction recognizes and respects the individuality of the person(s) involved. It involves the full participation of all parties, such that no one is reduced to an object for another’s sexual pleasure.
For instance, I have a great appreciation for Black women myself. But my attraction doesn’t reduce them to objects by focusing on physical features like smooth skin, hair, big butts, or thick lips.
Not all Black women have smooth skin or any other specific physical characteristic. Plus, we don’t all embody “strength” the same.
My attraction is informed by the body and the individual, so I don’t erase the autonomy, thoughts, feelings and individual experiences of the other person in the process.
Fetishization, on the other hand, is a form of objectification. It either reduces a full person to an objectified feature or projects fantasized, stereotypical features onto a person.
My ex, Josh, felt comfortable saying that he found (cis) Black women attractive. He said he just “couldn’t help” loving our hair, our “smooth skin” and our “strength.”
Can you tell why this counts as fetishization?
Josh assigned certain physical characteristics to an entire group of people and made them the central focus of his desire (as opposed to holding space for the entire human being). In the process, he reduced the value of Black bodies to those characteristics – and ignored our individual identities.
This means it didn’t matter if my personality differed from the next Black woman he met, because he wasn’t approaching us as individuals. We were merely objects in his sexual fantasy.
Attraction focuses on who a person is, while fetishization focuses on who you want a person to be by using stereotypes to fit them into a box.
Of course, attraction can be tainted by colonization, because our social context informs how we experience and express desire. For example, many people value fairer skin, including elevating lighter skinned Black people, because White beauty standards influence all of us.
But fetishization isn’t the way to fix that. A more holistic perspective of a person comes through attraction.
2. Does Your Desire Affirm the Person’s Humanity – Or Is It Self-Serving for You?
All right, this is another tough one, as it requires a bit more introspection regarding internal motives.
Figuring out the impact of your actions is even more difficult if you have a hard time recognizing how power and privilege affect personal relationships.
Like many White people, my ex Josh genuinely felt that his attraction to cis Black women was a good thing. The way he saw it, he was affirming our Blackness by valuing the very characteristics that society said were unlovable.
When Cosmo said, “flat butts are the thing,” Josh and Sir-Mix- A Lot disagreed.
Not only were Black bodies an object of his sexual fantasies, but he used his desire for Black women as a reflection of his “good character.” This is similar to the White Savior Complex.
My oppression became secondary to his need to feel like a “good person.” He didn’t didn’t care how his comments made me feel because they weren’t really about me.
When I would get offended, he’d get mad – because he “didn’t mean it that way.” Even as I tried to explain my pain to him, his anger became the center of the conversation.
In short, he had objectified me to the extent that my pain became about him – he couldn’t recognize me as an individual with a right to complex emotions.
Here’s a better example of how to navigate power dynamics in a way that supported me, instead of fetishizing me.
A White woman approached me at a sex club. Our initial interaction did not begin with what she wanted from me (i.e. sex).
She was attracted to me, yes, but she didn’t approach me like an object to fulfill her wants. She began by asking if I’d like to have a conversation, which empowered me to choose if I wanted to speak with her.
After a few moments of speaking, she asked if I preferred continuing a conversation, or perhaps engaging in something more physical. She also presented the option of declining both of her suggestions, which created more space for me to decide how to proceed.
By respecting my choices and boundaries, she showed that she recognizes my humanity – not just my physical features.
With Josh, our interactions were about his need to build the narrative of the “good person” he believed himself to be. But for me, whether or not he meant to be hurtful wasn’t enough to undo the impact of his actions.
Black women are not charity cases. We don’t need you to save us from the evils of White Supremacy by gracing us with your intimate presence.
We need you to actively fight to eliminate White Supremacy with your actions, not with your desire.
3. Are You Treating the Woman You’re Attracted to Like a Person – Or an Accessory?
Maybe you’ve picked up on the key word to understanding the difference between attraction and fetishization: Person.
Attraction does not lose sight of the other person to whom one’s attraction is directed.
So how can you make sure to keep someone’s personhood in perspective in the way you treat them?
One way is to recognize the difference between a person being influenced and informed by the way their body moves through the world, and being reduced to their body.
Here’s an example of that. I’m attracted to a Chinese Malaysian woman, not because I “have a thing for” or otherwise fetishize her accent, her eye shape, her skin tone, or any other other broad marker of her race and ethnicity.
Sentient beings are informed by their interactions within their environment, but a person is neither their body, their environment, nor their experiences alone. A person is a complex mixture of emotions, thoughts, reactions and interactions that are influenced by the way their body is received in the world.
So I’m attracted to her because of her individuality, which is no doubt informed by the way she moves through the world as a Chinese Malaysian, straight passing cis woman.
Josh thought he was able to see past society’s degrading messages about Black women and “love” us anyway – doing a good thing by cheering for the “underdog,” the least desirable dating option and least attractive group of women.
But he was still fetishizing us as something to make him look good, erasing our individuality.
We each participate in the humanity and development of another being by responding to their personhood – in ways like making eye contact, listening to and respecting boundaries, and honoring experiences.
You can’t do that if you’re just treating a woman like an ethnically interesting accessory.
4. Do You Recognize Us as Full People – Or Reduce Our Worth to Body Parts and Sexuality?
So, you like big butts, big penises, and kinky hair, and Black people just so happen to have those features. Why can’t you just like what you like?
Many preferences are socialized, so it’s difficult to discern what leads us to prefer certain features or people over others.
But if you like Black women because you like big butts, I’ve got to tell you… not all Black women have big butts.
And not having certain attributes commonly assigned to Blackness does not make a person any less Black. Reducing the definition of Blackness to body parts and features is objectifying and racist.
Not to mention, it’s insulting to an individual’s identity as well as group identity – because it implies that a people are primarily defined by sexual body parts.
This is especially tricky when you consider that historically, sexual stereotypes about Black people’s bodies have been used to support our oppression.
Here’s how that works: Reducing someone to a sexual object makes them “less than” (because they aren’t fully human), which makes it easier to ignore the impact of injustices committed against them.
So, when you say that you like Black women because we have big butts, nice lips, smooth skin, and other features, it implies that you don’t care which Black woman you date.
Bump the individual – you might as well be in a relationship with a body part.
You’re attracted to a caricature of a person, a figment of your imagination. In other words, you’re attracted to what you’ve projected onto that person, whether it’s true or not.
This sort of attraction is dangerous and violent because it erases the person entirely, which destroys the opportunity for empathy and connection.
As humans, we do not empathize with objects. We tend to empathize with beings.
If you’re objectifying certain features as the source of your attraction, you might treat a person with those features with less respect than they deserve as a human being – and you might not even realize that’s what you’re doing.
Like many people, you probably genuinely don’t mean to be racist, and you don’t intentionally want to harm Black women.
It can be really hard to not only accept our individual capacity to cause harm, but to acknowledge the ways that we have actually contribute to oppression, either intentionally or unintentionally.
But if you have the intentions of expressing your attraction or even helping a Black woman you’re attracted to feel “empowered,” consider this: Empowerment creates space for a person to access their own self-determination, so that they can make their own decisions based on their needs and desires.
Because empowerment requires us to remain in relation to each other, it cannot function if someone is fetishized.
Fetishization erases the person’s individuality such that there’s no one to be in relation with, no space for them to make their own choices.
Attraction does not erase a person’s unique humanity. Got it? Good.
So, the next time you’re looking for the antidote to jungle fever – STOP! Get your life, take some time to reflect on these questions, and we’ll all be better off.
Breeshia Turner identifies as a queer, sex positive, Southern Baptist who loves all things sacred and profane. She received her BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, focus in Creative Writing from Stanford University, and is currently pursuing a dual Master’s in Divinity and Social Work at the University of Chicago. She is actively cultivating her practice as an intersectional feminist philosopher and theologian, exploring the intersections of art, BDSM and spirituality.