It’s Not a Compliment: How Racial Fetishism has Colored Online Dating

By Jean Namgung

August 2, 2019

Alissa McPherson. Photo: Jean Namgung

A white boy swipes right. A smirk slowly inching on the corners of his face, he messages a woman that he loves how exotic she is and how he needs his yellow fever cured, that he’s never seen a brown p***y before, that she’s beautiful in bed but too dark to take home. She smiles.

“Thank you,” she says.

Though Wikipedia defines racial fetishism as a strong racial preference in dating, for Lillian Sun, a 21-year-old Chinese-American student, “it doesn’t really get at why it hurts so much to be racially fetishized for a historically complicated identity.” As the creator of The Flesh Light Chronicles — a growing Instagram handle with nearly 25,000 followers — Sun sheds light on the toxicity of racial fetishism.

“It is sexual prejudice plus power,” said Sun. “And what fetishizers crave is this power over something else, to project their own fantasies into another body based on what the media portrays, regardless of whether that body is actually a person.”

With over 8,000 online dating sites and 50 million users worldwide, love is not in the air, but on the screens of our smartphones. Dates are fixed by swipes and super-likes, and personality is limited to 500 characters on a profile. “Online dating is both a symptom and a propagator of power dynamics, simply because of the ease and the lack of accountability,” explained Sun. With White men and Asian women being the most sought-after racial groups on dating apps, and black men and women the least, love is also not colorblind.

Initially for Sun, it was great. Growing up, she thought she wasn’t attractive because of her race, until college, when a sudden flood of attention surrounded her, which she admits, felt good. “It was the phenomenon of positive racism, that sounds like a good thing, but really it was rooted in racist stereotypes that are meant to degrade you,” she explained. “These people were often very manipulative and expected women like me to be submissive in bed.”

Her insecurities with her race went beyond her person to her clothes. Though her love of qipaos, a form-fitting traditional Chinese dress, started from childhood, she noticed a string of men who showed an uncanny preference for Asia women in traditional clothing.

“Do I love this thing because other people expect me to love it, or is this actually a part of me? Why do I think it’s okay now when in the past I would’ve hidden this part of myself?” Sun asked.

Ruchira Sharma, 24, a British-Indian journalist who first encountered racial fetishism online, described her first date with a man who exclusively dated brown women. When confronted, he was unsure of why it was any different from fancying green eyes or blonde hair. But it is different, feels Sharma. In a world dominated by race and racial stereotypes, it was apparent that “the worst elements of society haven’t been sorted out yet,” said Sharma.

Though many understand racism to be discrimination against select races, to cherry-pick a culture and assume that each individual from that group will embody the stereotypes that have been imposed on them, is dehumanizing. Racial fetishism is racism.

But initially, it was a compliment for Sharma as well. “It’s really rare when someone rewards you for being a person of color. For once, there’s something good that came out of being Indian.” But her happiness was fleeting and was soon replaced by an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. “You’re the same as the other people they’re dating because you’re just another brown body.”

But for Ali McPherson, 23, who was casually dating a wealthy white boy she met online, she didn’t discover she was simply an object of “blackness” and not a genuine romantic partner until it was too late. With no intentions of being in a relationship, McPherson was a conquest for her partner, a “dirty little secret.”

Soon after they ended ties, the boy messaged McPherson’s friend. “Hey cutie, I want to get to know you.” Her friend was black too.

NBC News Young Leaders in Journalism

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Annual, two-week workshop that exposes New York City public high school students interested in journalism to the inner workings of the profession.

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