Racial Fetishism

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Racial fetishism involves fetishizing a person or culture belonging to a race that is not one’s own--therefore it involves racial stereotyping and objectifying those bodies who are stereotyped, and oftentimes their cultural practices.[1][2][3] This can include having strong racial preferences in dating, for example, fetishization of Asian women and men in North America is quite prevalent.[4][5] Racial fetishism has been theorized in academic discourse in relation to Freudian sexual fetishism and Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism. The term has not been largely discussed in academia, however, because Freud’s theories of sexual fetishism have become so influential since the late 19th century.[6] Some writers who have extensively discussed racial fetishism include Homi K. Bhabha, Anne McClintock, and Kobena Mercer.

Racial fetishism is also very prevalent in contemporary popular art and media. For example, Mercer wrote an essay in 1993 called “Reading Racial Fetishism: the Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe,” where he criticizes Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men for fetishizing their bodies, for portraying them as sexualized objects rather than human beings.[3] In pop culture, comedian Margaret Cho has been quite vocal about her distaste for Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls--a group of four Japanese girls who silently follow Stefani around on tour and at photo-shoots--because they represent racial stereotypes: fetishized Japanese schoolgirls.[7] More recently, Miley Cyrus has been heavily criticized on many social justice and feminist blogs like Jezebel and TressieMC for appropriating hip-hop and ratchet culture and for fetishizing black bodies in her music videos and performances.[8][9]

Brief History and Overview

The notion of “fetish” has been around for a very long time, and in fact, the origins of the word itself arose within imperial, racialized tensions. William Pietz, in the second installment of his extensive work, “The problem of the fetish II: the origin of the fetish,” provides a thorough examination of the etymology of the fetish, beginning with its Latin origin facticius-- “made/manufactured”, to the Portuguese feitiço and feitiçaria-- “witchcraft,” to the pidgin word “fetisso”. [6] This word was commonly used by European merchants visiting the West African coast in the seventeenth century to describe material objects they observed which had great personal or religious powers for whomever possessed them, however these merchants did not understand and thereby trivialized the power and value of these objects, “thus African society came to be understood as being organized by an irrational and arbitrary psychological principle of social order”.[6]

Appropriating these notions of fetishism into psychoanalysis and studies of sexuality, Sigmund Freud is arguably one of the most influential figures who has written about sexual fetishism. Freud’s theory of the fetish involves a “meaning and purpose” that is the same “in all cases”: it is always a replacement for the fantasy penis that the little boy (in Freud’s analogy) believed that his mother once had, but when he first encounters female genitalia, he thinks she has been castrated.[10] This becomes the cause of his castration anxiety, and a fetish is formed by some men to cope with this anxiety. However, the boy also thinks, “no, that could not be true: for if a woman had been castrated, then his own possession of a penis was in danger,” which means that he disavows the female’s imaginary phallus: he gives up his belief in it while also continuing to believe that it is real.[10] Of course, this theory has been highly criticized by feminist writers because Freud absolutely ignores the possibility of female fetishists, however some of these writers, as Anne McClintock points out, only add women into the phallic fetish discourse.[2]

Theorization of Racial Fetishism

Academic discourse concerning racial fetishism has been often theorized in relation to previous writings by Edward Said concerning Orientalism, and the work of Frantz Fanon. As mentioned above, Freud’s phallocentric fetish story has remained largely influential. Homi Bhabha points out the fact the Freud does not address race and skin in his theories of fetishism, elaborating racial fetishism as a version of racist stereotyping, which is woven into colonial discourse and based on multiple/contradictory and splitting beliefs, similar to the disavowal which Freud discusses. Bhabha defines colonial discourse as that which activates the simultaneous “recognition and disavowal of racial/cultural/historical differences” and whose goal is to define the colonized as ‘other,’ but also as fixed and knowable stereotypes. Racial fetishism involves contradictory belief systems where the ‘other’ is both demonized and idolized.[1] Anne McClintock criticizes Bhabha for not challenging the phallocentric version of of fetishism,[2] but he does acknowledge in the footnotes of his essay that, “the body in the text is male.”[1]

McClintock is interested in opening up the discourse of fetishism to stray away from the phallus and the scene of castration. One of her central arguments is that although race, class, and gender are all different and articulated categories of being, they always exist “in and through relation to each other,” and therefore discussions of racial fetishism also always have to do with class and gender as well.[2] McClintock does

“not see racial fetishism as stemming from an overdetermined relation to the castration scene. Reducing racial fetishism to the phallic drama runs the risk of flattening out the hierarchies of social difference, thereby relegating race and class to secondary status along a primarily sexual signifying chain”.[2]

To explain the subtle nuances of how class, race, and gender all affect fetishistic desires, McClintock discusses the 19th century secret romance between Hannah Cullwick, a domestic servant, and Arthur Munby, a Victorian barrister and poet--both of whom were white. They also both kept extensive diaries which revealed the nature of their relationship, and the fetish rituals that they engaged in, including slave and master play, boot fetishism, infantilism, cross-dressing, a deep fascination with dirt and “dirty work”. The pair met during one of Munby’s voyeuristic walks through places of women’s labour work, he had a lifelong fetish for women “in their dirt”. Their play with cross-dressing involved not only dressing as another gender, but also sometimes as another race; Cullwick would sometimes cross-dress as a male slave in blackface. Cullwick also for a long time wore a leather slave-band on her wrist which had a chain linking to a leather collar, and McClintock argues that this slave-band and chain-collar as a fetish represented a double disavowal. As a fetishized object it erases both the history of black “slave labour and of working class women’s labour as the foundation of modern industrial power”.[2]

Popular culture, art, and media

In 1986, Robert Mapplethorpe had a photographic art show titled Black Males, showing photographs of exclusively naked black men. This work has been highly criticized for fetishizing the black male body, notably by Kobena Mercer in her aforementioned essay. Though it was not necessarily the artist’s intention to portray these men as fetish objects, they have been perceived that way by many audiences, especially in relation to some of his other works concerning gay male BDSM practices. The latter works examine an actual subculture of sexuality that is enacted by the photographic subjects: the men in the photos are wearing/using their own gear and clothing, putting their fetish(es) on display.[11] However, in Mapplethorpe’s photos of black men, the subjects are not doing anything but existing as nude bodies, they are hypersexualized by the camera, therefore they become the fetish objects.[3]

Artist and designer Donna Choi created an illustrative series interrogating the fetishization of Asian women by Western men, entitled Does Your Man Suffer From Yellow Fever? (2013). Yellow fever is a slang term used to describe when men have a strong attraction to Asian women based on negative stereotypes, for example, the stereotype that Asian women are more submissive and obedient in relationships.[12] Choi’s work is meant to be a satirical but easily digestible 8-step guide to figuring out if a guy has an Asian fetish. The first panel reads “He is obsessed with authenticity...” and depicts a white man with a curly mustache proclaiming “since my waiter doesn’t speak a word of English, the food must be very authentic,” and the second panel reads “...but not too authentic.”[13]

In pop culture, Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls have been labelled a “minstrel show,” by Margaret Cho because they represent fetishized East Asian stereotypes.[7] The girls follow Stefani around on tour and are contractually obligated not to speak English in public.[14] The performer has even “renamed” them corresponding to her album title and clothing brand L.A.M.B.: Love, Angel, Music, and Baby, this presents them as far more likened to Stefani’s accessories rather than human beings who are her friends or collaborators.[14] Within a different vein, K-pop music has become more and more popular within all cultures and races, and it’s consumption by non-Korean cultures has proliferated fetishized stereotypes of young South Koreans as incredibly “cute” and “adorable,” to such an extent that young female K-pop fans are often seeking out exclusively Korean-looking boys as mates.[4] This type of racial fetishization often lumps every East Asian identity into one, fetishized, “Asian” race: “an entire richly diverse continent is ignorantly grouped into one single race homogenizing cultures, histories and identities, along with being glorified to unrealistic proportions."[4] Racialicious blog owner, and avid K-pop fan, Latoya Peterson, questions the line between race preference and fetish in one of her articles, admitting that she herself might harbor somewhat of an Asian fetish.[15]

One of the more recent popular discourses around racial fetishization has been surrounding Miley Cyrus. Her performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards sparked much journalistic criticism, and was also deemed a “minstrel show".[16] This performance, as well as her music video for the song “We Can’t Stop,” have been criticized for appropriating certain aspects black culture for her own image, as well as using black women as objects/accessories and thus fetishizing their bodies.[9][16] She is often accused of appropriating ratchet culture to make herself appear more “edgy” or “bad,” but because she is a white woman who has been wealthy her entire life, she does not have to worry about the real-life negative associations that come with the lived experience of what “ratchet” entails.[8] Musical artists Ke$ha and Kreayshawn have been accused similarly, for making a “gimmick” of black hip-hop culture.[8][17]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Bhabha, Homi K. (June 1983). "The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourses of Colonialism". Screen 24 (6): 18–36. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 McClintock, Anne (1995). Imperial Leather: Race Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York:: Routledge. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Mercer, Kobena (1993). "Reading Racial Fetishism: the Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe". In Apter, Emily and Pietz William. Fetishism as Cultural Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell UP. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Alolika. "Playboy Petrarch: Racial Fetishism and K-pop". SeoulBeats. http://seoulbeats.com/2014/02/playboy-petrarch-racial-fetishism-k-pop/. Retrieved 24 March 2014. 
  5. King, Ritchie. "The uncomfortable racial preferences revealed by online dating". Quartz. http://qz.com/149342/the-uncomfortable-racial-preferences-revealed-by-online-dating/. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Pietz, William (Spring 1987). "The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish". RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics (The President and Fellows of Harvard College acting through the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology) 13: 23–45. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20166762. Retrieved 12 Nov 2012. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Cho, Margaret. "Harajuku Girls". Margaret Cho's Blog. http://margaretcho.com/2005/10/31/harajuku-girls/. Retrieved 25 March 2014. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Stewart, Dodai. "On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture and Accessorizing With Black People". Jezebel. http://jezebel.com/on-miley-cyrus-ratchet-culture-and-accessorizing-with-514381016/all. Retrieved 15 March 2014. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 McMillan Cottom, Tressie. "When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland". TressieMc. http://tressiemc.com/2013/08/27/when-your-brown-body-is-a-white-wonderland/. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Freud, Sigmund (1927). "Fetishism". The complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psychoanalysis. pp. 147-157. 
  11. Meyer, Richard. "Imaging Sadomasochism: Robert Mapplethorpe and the Masquerade of Photography". Queer Cultural Center. http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/Mappleth/MappPg1.html. Retrieved 18 March 2014. 
  12. Saedi, Goal Auzeen. "Yellow Fever: The Exotification of Asian Women". Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-pacific-heart/201304/yellow-fever-the-exotification-asian-women. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  13. Mirk, Sarah. "Artist Takes on the Casual Racism of “Yellow Fever” in Eight Images". Bitch Magazine. http://bitchmagazine.org/post/artist-takes-on-the-casual-racism-of-%E2%80%9Cyellow-fever%E2%80%9D-in-eight-images. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Ahn, Mihi. "Gwenihana". Salon. http://www.salon.com/2005/04/09/geisha_2/. Retrieved 15 March 2014. 
  15. Peterson, Latoya. "Race Preference or Race Fetish?". Racialicious. http://www.racialicious.com/2007/07/27/race-preference-or-race-fetish/. Retrieved 15 March 2014. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Freeman, Hadley. "Miley Cyrus's twerking routine was cultural appropriation at its worst". The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/27/miley-cyrus-twerking-cultural-appropriation. Retrieved 2 April 2014. 
  17. Viera, Bene. "Kreayshawn: Another Case of Appropriating Black Culture". Clutch Magazine. http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/06/kreayshawn-another-case-of-appropriating-black-culture/. Retrieved 23 March 2014.