Ask the average millennial for the characteristics he or she looks for in a partner, and you're bound to get a laundry list of physical features and personality traits running the gamut of humanity. Rarely do we consider how cultural biases from society may affect those choices -- but data shows those biases are there.
We've read the articles on how certain minority groups are affected by these negative stereotypes that make it difficult to open up to others. It isn't something that is limited to only heterosexuals, either. The topic ignites heated debates and numerous clickbait titles telling you who is more favored and who isn't.
As a black woman, I've felt the tug of war between men who fetishized me; and the other side that said my looks weren't "exotic" enough. And I've found there to be a mighty-thin line between prejudice and preference.
I took being fetishized as a compliment
When I came home after graduating college, I tried to adjust to the world as an adult. I started seeing a friend who I had known in high school: a white, Latino male. But now, he was no longer the 15-year-old boy I remembered. We talked about race openly; him often musing about how smooth my skin was or how beautiful my chocolate hue was. He called me "exotic." I never thought much about it -- if anything, I loved it that someone adored my features.
He boasted about the different nationalities he had been with, and how he just appreciated a beautiful woman. I had been used to men using that against me, but now it had turned in my favor. He liked me because I was an adventure to him. At first, I just took it as a compliment. He appreciated my beauty. That wouldn't be a word that I would use to describe myself, to him I was something unique, something outside of the world he knew.
In public, I felt shamed
When we were around his friends, my boyfriend's comments would be less endearing with vulgar jokes that just made me uncomfortable. Whenever I was around them, my blackness would stick out in a way that became an attraction for them... and it wasn't a comfortable feeling.
I didn't feel like someone he was dating; but rather something to show off, a flashy accessory no different from an overpriced name brand bought at the store. When I talked to him about his comments, he brushed it off as me taking it too seriously.
That was the first time I let it go.
I stayed quiet for a long time -- until I couldn't take it anymore. As much as I had liked other qualities about him, I didn't know whether his feelings for me were genuine. I don't think he cared for me at all; but rather the attention that came with dating someone who looked like me.
I was a novelty for him.
Some may argue that I thought too deeply about it; or that I let race consume me. But preconceived biases we carry into our dating practices can absolutely be traced to racial stereotypes alive and well in how the media presents people of varying nationalities and backgrounds. It's in how we look at each other, what (and whom) we're used to seeing, and how we understand people who are different from us: in appearance, in behavior, in upbringing.
So, finally, I confronted him. We got into a shouting match. And soon enough, things ended between us.
A fetish isn't love
When it comes to dating, we're not always going to be someone's preference, and that's OK. We live in a world filled with different cultures, and it's natural to be attracted to those differences. But a fetish is not love -- to have that, you have to see someone as a real person. Not a novelty.
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