Getting bad vibes: Fetishization and hypersexualization of race

If you’ve been on Twitter in the past month, you may have seen Lena Dunham’s name is trending. But why? Dunham recently alleged that New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. intentionally avoided her throughout the evening at a Met Gala. Dunham said,

“The vibe was very much like, ‘Do I want to f— it? Is it wearing a… yep, it’s wearing a
bowtie, I’m going back to my cell phone.’ It was like we were forced to be together,
and he was literally scrolling through Instagram rather than having to look at a woman
in a bow tie. I was like, ‘This should be the Met Gala of Getting Rejected by Athletes’.”

Her bizarre comments sparked a backlash on social media, which was mainly centered on Dunham’s hypersexualization of black men.

But the problem with fetishization — or hypersexualization — of people of color does not stop with Dunham’s apology. The act of racial fetishization is essentially treating someone as an inherently sexual object rather than a sentient person because of their heritage.

Although extreme, it happens more often than one might think. A classic example is the ubiquitous “sexy Native American” Halloween costume. The costume almost always includes a short dress with a deep neckline and high heels. This does not do Native Americans any justice. Native Americans have faced hundreds of years of disenfranchisement at the hands of the government and have continually been subjected to racism. These first inhabitants of what has become the United States had their world taken by settlers who felt they were entitled to it because of their fair skin and European roots. Hypersexualization, fetishization and appropriation serve to gloss over these events in order to subjugate Native Americans, and all people of color, and rob them of power and autonomy.

As we go through life we are taught that things such as bright colors and certain ways of dressing are inherently sexual, when in reality, they are only clothing. To objectify a person because of their skin color or heritage only serves to further violence against people of color, especially sexual and dating violence. Writer Judith Cofer Ortiz describes such an encounter from her adolescence in her essay, The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met A Girl Named Maria; when at her first formal dance her date forcefully kissed her without consent and was offended when she did not reciprocate, he said, “I thought you Latin girls were supposed to mature early.” Ortiz Cofer stated that she felt like a piece of fruit or a vegetable rather than a human being afterward. While the essay is written from the perspective of a Puerto Rican woman, fetishization is not exclusive to just this group of society.

While education can help reduce the problem, there must also be action. Hypersexualization and fetishization affects all people of color, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. It it is not and has never been a compliment. Racism is not sexy. Say “no” to fetishization.

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