Everyone warned me about him.
A week into hanging out with a guy that I was hopelessly charmed by, one of my friends cautioned me that he was notorious for fetishizing Asian women. Having been tokenized in past relationships and hookups, I convinced myself that I knew the warning signs. This case seemed different. Months later, I began to scrutinize his tendency to date Asian women — a pattern verified by countless students — but still refused to believe this was reason enough to dump him. Weeks after we finally broke up, a post in the Yale Memes Facebook group led me to his cameo on an Instagram account that features brilliantly deadpan clapbacks to Tinder messages. The comments section was overrun by reactions from people of all races and genders, but those from Yale students stood out: Multiple women commented their own experiences with this particular man. Only at that point did I snap out of my delusion. I had been played by yet another white boy with an Asian fetish.
This retroactive epiphany is shared by countless women of color. Men of color are of course also objectified, especially black and Latino men tagged as animalistic and virile. However, girls and women are often fetishized in ways that feed on implicit subjugation. For women of color, race only further complicates this pre-existing objectification.
Despite how common it is, racial fetishization remains clandestine and is rarely called by name. Instead, men often dress their fetish in prettier, seemingly innocuous terms like “my type” or “preference,” or by simply denying it. A friend addressed these misconceptions, saying, “Racial fetishization is more than just a harmless preference. It’s rooted in colonial notions of power. It’s a historical memory of how the West has penetrated Asia for profit and gain.”
Whether a racial fixation is conscious or subconscious, it requires hollowing out the subject, reducing her to a pornotrope — an object of sexual impulses. It removes the subject’s identity — her consciousness, perceptions and formative experiences — in favor of a flattened eroticization of her race and ethnicity. This aggressive pursuit of one’s crude fantasies stems from fiercely defending one’s privilege, often as a white man. By this slippery nature, racial fetishization is often just a symptom of a base pathology that manifests itself in everything from degrading sex to leering condescension to infantilization. I’ve struggled to convince people, especially white people, why fetishization is despicable. Perhaps racial tokenization feels quotidian to someone who’s never been the subject.
By denying its subject’s humanity, a fetish threatens to transfer from its possessor to the subject herself. Especially in relationships, we’re inclined to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, to think that we’re overreacting. At least we’re wanted, right? Another Yale student described this self-invalidation by saying that women of color are preselected — we are considered lucky if a white man chooses us.
These fallacies are reinforced by internet trolls’ comments on women of colors’ accounts — comments that suggest that we should be grateful for any attention we receive from a white man.
In the case of soft boys, their true intentions fester under a facade of “wokeness.” This guise of open-mindedness is especially deceiving in an age of performative and superficial understandings of identity politics. This allows people to pretend to understand women of colors’ subjectivity while still defending microaggressions. But this expands beyond Yale and romantic relationships: Microaggressions have real, unavoidable repercussions. According to a study done by Robert T. Carter and other professors at Columbia University, microaggressions based on race carry a variety of consequences, from depression to low self-esteem. Being racially fetishized irreversibly damages a woman’s self-worth and hope for future relationships, fueling a lifelong cycle of mistrust and self-doubt.
The reality is that white people will never internalize nonwhite subjectivity. We can never truly understand each other’s experiences in all their detail and idiosyncrasies, but we owe it to each other to listen and trust those who’ve been harmed. Likewise, we cannot spotlight any one person — no matter how prolific or damning their behavior is — without addressing all wrongdoers and bystanders. The countless stories that emerged from the Instagram post highlight the scale and depth of such abuse, and third parties must listen to our pain. I believe in the power of testimony and power in numbers, but individual narratives must eventually cede to reflection for the sake of recovery and protecting others.
I don’t know if there are appropriate reparations for women of color. Perhaps the best we can do is call out marginalizing behavior immediately and thoroughly. It’s time to stop masking fetishization and call it as we see it. Recently, as I sat with other women reflecting on the past few weeks, I felt the first semblance of comfort and optimism I’ve felt in months. Women of color, it’s really just us out here — only we can understand these ugly, broken feelings and support each other’s recovery.
Michelle Erdenesanaa is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .