Three years later, I still remember the overpowering smell of his drugstore cologne lodged in my throat.
In the reclined passenger seat of my black Nissan, Sayed, a lanky half-Arab half-Latino college student – and my first kiss – eyes me as he speaks in his slow Spanglish with his know-it-all swagger. I’m a junior in high school, and we’re driving from the nature preserve on Florida International University’s campus on a warm fall night.
“I’ve never dated a Cuban girl, but they have the best thighs,” he says, sliding his left hand up my inner thigh and grabbing a fistful. My foot slams on the brakes as I almost miss the stop sign. The only other sound is the jingle of my rearview mirror chime. It is our second date.
At the time, I thought the cold sweat dripping down my spine was just nerves and inexperience. Three years later, I remember his scarring fingers as the first time I was fetishized as a Latina woman. I had no idea what would be waiting for me in Evanston.
Dating and casually hooking up at Northwestern are luxuries many women of color cannot afford. Something that should be explorative and carefree turns into a game played entirely on the defensive. Our classmates oversexualize our bodies, personalities and emotions based on the racial and ethnic stereotypes assigned to us, and we can do nothing except restrict our actions and be wary of all of our relationships and interactions.
On alternating Fridays and Sundays during the fall, I gather with six very different women to make sense of our experiences with fetishization. We sit in a circle of desks in a classroom on the ground floor of Annenberg, laughing, commiserating and listening. Group therapy, I like to call it.
Nicole* usually starts us off. The Cleveland-born fashion guru rocks thick frames and runway style, commanding the room with her sharp humor. She rattles off stories of Northwestern men uncomfortably fawning over her afro and musing over what it’d be like to wash it, telling her that they’ve never been with a Black woman.
Fiona Asokacitta, a freshman from Indonesia with cascading teal and violet hair, recounts times when a man told her “I’ve never done an Asian,” post-hookup in the bedroom.
Alani Vargas, a senior from Edgewater, sports a jean jacket littered with a women’s march pin and a Selena pin celebrating her Mexican heritage. She remembers all the explicit messages on dating apps her white friends never seem to receive.
Caitlin Somerville, a pre-med bi-racial student from Michigan with kind eyes, reminds us how she often compartmentalizes all her emotions. “I don’t let myself feel anything really,” she says, afraid of filling the angry, opinionated trope.
Ana Acevedo, a senior in biomedical engineering, unapologetically Latina in her oversized hoops mentions the unusually large volume of unwanted advances she receives during her workouts.
Jeanne Paulino, a Filipino-American, LA native and blunt SPOON writer, is defiantly outspoken, and subverts expectations of submission.But the seven of us find we are more similar than we thought. Fetishization doesn’t discriminate.
Acevedo decided to go out to a Welcome Week party her freshman year with a group of six people from her floor. Together they followed the stairs of an off-campus frat house down into a cramped basement. She danced with a friend until a six-foot, dirty blonde guy with a backwards cap and frocket joined her. After a few songs, she decided to take a break from the makeshift dance floor, and he followed.
“So is it true, are all Latina women easy?” he leaned down to ask.
The shock stung Acevedo. The anger started to settle in, but she didn’t know how to express it in the thick of a party. “Where the fuck did you hear that?” came to mind, but she was too stunned to say it.
He insisted despite her confusion. “Oh, you know, you guys are easy, right?”
Acevedo vowed off frat parties by the end of Welcome Week. “I was really livid,” she says, “but … I didn’t want to be visceral or too aggressive.”
Had she overtly expressed her anger, Acevedo would’ve just been the hot-headed Latina, whose anger is almost always sexual, existing solely to turn on the white man. Publicly confronted with backhanded comments that pick us apart, we become acutely aware of the feelings we express. We are allowed to show only a limited range of emotions: deference, submission, desire and calm. Any sign of rage, fear or passion can and will be twisted to sexualize us.
“I end up just being neutral all the time,” Somerville says. “I never let myself be offended.” Nicole feels like she doesn’t get the opportunity to explore her emotions. At all times, she must have a controlled response, a ready counterargument. Once she was even called sassy for changing her order at Subway.
It’s exhausting, Vargas says, to bottle up feelings that most people are allowed to reveal. Vargas remembers her friends telling her, “you shouldn’t talk so much because it’s super intimidating.”
Vargas created her first Tinder account during fall of her sophomore year. Messages and matches immediately poured in. “You’re such a sex kitten,” her friends would teasingly say.
None of them were receiving the volume of attention she was. It was an ego boost. At first. “When I couldn’t hold a conversation with a guy without it revolving around sex or my race or trying to speak to me in Spanish or calling me ‘mamacita’ … it started to click,” she says.
The flood of messages heightened Vargas’ anxiety. By March she had deleted all dating apps from her phone.
“Even to this day I can’t have the notifications on my phone because it just makes me feel ill,” she says.
Receiving sexual attention can often be construed as flattering. Shouldn’t it be validating that someone is sexually attracted to you? I decided to focus on these women’s romantic and sexual interactions with men, coming from my own experiences as a straight, cisgender woman. And for many of the women I talked to, the avalanche of attention was pleasantly surprising. Until it wasn’t.
This is how a population makes the bodies of women of color the exotic “other” – desirable because they aren’t white. Vargas and the rest of us are whittled down to a one-dimensional caricature of ourselves – only valuable for one type of sexual attention. The stereotypes that form the bedrock of fetishization aren’t new. They’ve been embedded in white masculine culture for years, dating back to European colonialism and slavery.
European perceptions of African people in the 1400s before the journey to the New World were of a hypersexual “savage,” especially for women. That laid the groundwork for the exploitation of Black women that would follow for centuries. But Europe’s obsession with the “other” wasn’t limited to African people. Much of the East was seen through a similar lens, evident in the artistic depictions of harems of nude Arab women.
Once Europeans invaded the Americas, they found a new “other” to ogle. The slavery and sexual exploitation of Native women fueled the accepted truth that non-European women were sexual objects existing for the sole purpose of pleasuring white European men. In the 1600s the enslavement of Africans made way for the raping of African women by their white male slave owners; consequently, white women were the acceptable “wife” and Black slaves were sexual objects for the husband. Manifestations of these relationship structures exist today. White women are the pinnacle of American society, while women of color remain sexual deviants.
Taking a hard look at ourselves, we can recognize that racial and ethnic groups beyond our own are still viewed as the other, bleeding into our relationships and interactions.
White men tend to see women of color as exotic and new because they have never had relationships with them. They venture into the unknown by pursuing a hookup, but later retreat to the comfort of the familiar: relationships with white women.
“I compared myself a lot to these white girls on campus,” Paulino says. “They had boyfriends and I was just getting casual hookups and two in the morning ‘you up’ texts.”
When my sister called me during her time at college and told me, “None of the white guys want to date Latinas, they just want to have sex with them,” I didn’t believe her.
Fourteen-year-old me naively thought her warning was an exaggeration, even excessive paranoia. But the truth is no amount of warning can prepare someone for the outright shame some white men on this campus feel when they are seen with a woman of color on their arm. The same appearances these men revere in private, they shun in public.
“It’s just not a good feeling to think that someone’s embarrassed or doesn’t want to be seen with you because of the way you look,” Paulino says.
Oversaturated with this type of one-dimensional sexual attention, dating can seem hopeless for many of these women. When you’re seen solely as an exotic sexual object, there is little room for casual dating or serious relationships. But for those who prefer a casual hookup scene, it can be just as dangerous. Asian women are expected to be submissive. Black and Latina women’s bodies are expected to be curvy in “all the right places,” while exerting sass and spice in bed. There’s always this question: are they actually attracted to me, or are they attracted to what I represent and the box they can then tick off?
It doesn’t always come smoothly packaged in a “I don’t date women of color,” statement. Many of the warning signs emerge in the subtleties and the patterns of past relationships. Men of color are not absolved either. Why does he say Black women are “his type”? Why does that one friend always brag about sleeping with women of color, but only spends time with white women in public? Acevedo’s fellow members of Northwestern’s Formula Racing club told her, “You’re a type. People who like you are a certain type of person.”
To this day Acevedo can’t figure out what kind of person her peers were referring to. But as we try to evaluate what makes us that “type,” the kind of woman only a small population on this campus could ever be into, the fear of playing into these stereotypes invades everyday moments. Nicole worries about playing “Black music” while she showers in the dorm bathrooms. Acevedo is acutely aware of the way she dances at parties. I try not to mention Spanish music and phrases when I’m in the talking stages with a new guy, and I stress when I slip up. We shouldn’t have to feel like this.
“I could do something and then they’ll think that’s what Black people do,” Nicole says. “That’s an opener for them to be racist toward you.”
We often break stereotypical molds. Paulino is outspoken when people want her to be to be quiet and docile. Somerville is calm and collected when she’s expected to be bold and cheeky. The problem with stereotypes is that while we transcend their boundaries, sometimes we fit them. Nicole is open about preferring hookups. Vargas is often opinionated and “feisty.” I have the curves to accompany my last name.
There is fear in being our tropes because that might invite fetishization.
“If you are anything similar to what people think Black women are ... your actions aren’t your own,” Nicole says. “You feel like you’re hurting the people in your group by being yourself.”
Nicole met with her classmates last year at Norris to complete a class project. One of the white girls in the group randomly turned to her and said, “It must be easy for you in the dating scene.”
Nicole, caught off guard, responded, “Oh not easy. Single for life.”
Yet the woman insisted, “I feel like I have to compete with girls like you.”
“What do you mean ‘girls like me?’” Nicole said, apprehensive of what would follow.
“You know, like your hair and the way you dress, just the way you look in general,” she said.
When Nicole says, “White men are not as intimidated by me as white women are,” the entire group gathered in Annenberg explodes in uh-huhs and snaps of approval.
Oversexualization does not just come from the male population. Negative stereotyping towards women of color is entrenched in our daily interactions.
Pop culture is saturated with the objectification of women of color. Submissive, loyal Asian women are portrayed as sidekicks and one-dimensional love interests in most Hollywood movies; Cho Chang from the Harry Potter franchise is a prime example. Sofia Vergara, with her “sexy” foreign accent and feisty attitude, is the butt of jokes at every award ceremony, fueling the “get you a Latina girl” memes found in all corners of the internet. Reality TV shows like the Real Housewives of Atlanta perpetuate the idea of the angry Black woman, illustrating Black women going through divorce or those who can’t seem to find and keep a man.
White women like Miley Cyrus performing hip-hop inspired music with a stage full of Black women use Black culture and womanhood to prop themselves up to commercial success. When a white Northwestern woman tells me, “Everyone tells me I look Latina. Sometimes I wish I were Latina,” she wears my identity like a costume – the sprinkled in Spanish phrases serving as accessories.
White women capitalize on the exotic nature tied to minority cultures by adopting certain aspects of our cultures in an effort to be different. Others see us as competition in the dating pool. But while women of color may be getting sexual attention, serious relationships rarely follow suit. That is the reality these white women would rather not face. They want to exoticize and appropriate our culture, without the baggage.
Paulino says, “At the end of the day they can retreat to their whiteness and don’t have to experience systematic oppression.”
In the shock that follows the comments we’re bombarded with, it’s difficult to question people’s statements. Often, the frustration doesn’t settle in until the conversation is over. I later damn myself in the shower for not sticking up for myself. The women in our group have different approaches. They ask questions. “What do you mean by that?” “Does that sound a little racist to you?” They teach me how to defend myself with their techniques. But the only way we’ll get past having to take preemptive measures, and entering conversations on the defensive is by talking about what’s happening. It’s not enough to turn a blind eye on the real experiences women of color are having at the campus they’re supposed to feel “safe” in. Being honest about our shortcomings is the only way to grow together.
Listening to women of color when they tell you your words have hurt them is step one. “If you’re uncomfortable,” Vargas says, “then good. It’s working.”
On Halloween weekend at midnight, our group message lights up on my screen in the middle of a basement party. Paulino tells us she didn’t wear pigtails with her Britney Spears costume because as an Asian woman, she might be infantilized. Asokacitta says she’s been thinking about whether she’s actually attractive or just a fetish. In that moment, I realize that most people would be surprised to hear these stories.
Had I included the stories of the visceral fear for our lives some of these men place us in, you’d be astonished. But it is very normal for me to hear these stories.
In between songs at the Halloween party, texting these girls seems like the normal thing to do. I am not shocked. These are our lives.
When Nicole’s family asks whether there are any cute boys she’s interested in, she involuntarily finds herself saying, “I can’t date on this campus.” Asokacitta wonders whether she should just try to use fetishization to her advantage. Paulino worries about being complicit, walking a mile to a fraternity party on Halloween to meet up with a guy. She sends me a text saying, “[I] question why I continuously and tirelessly work to assimilate and acclimate into white spaces that have historically discriminated my people.” That same weekend – at a different party – a white woman will “practice” her Spanish on me, her quirky party trick. She doesn’t know that for years I was too ashamed to speak it because I thought I had to be more like her.
We shouldn’t have to open up our wounds to make this problem known. We shouldn’t have to police our actions, feel ashamed about our bodies and quell our personalities for your comfort. Sitting in Annenberg, I look around and see six different women. Some of them nerd out about math, social justice, or writing. We talk Tinder bios, coffee and Sour Patch Kids. I think of all the things that make us human. I see the anger and frustration flash over our faces as we open ourselves to be seen and examined. I hear our laughs as we take pictures backdropped by a Mariah Carey soundtrack. We are curious. We are loud and goofy. We are Black, bi-racial, Asian and Latina. We do not exist to be seen by you.
*In order to respect her privacy, Nicole asked her name be changed