(The Root) —
"I'm an African-American woman with dark skin; short, natural hair; and a curvy body — all things I love about myself. I also love my boyfriend, who is Caucasian, and even better, he loves all these things about me. Not to attack my black brothers, but I've gotten more positive comments about my appearance from him than from black men in my 31 years on this lovely earth.
"It's great, except numerous friends have suggested or outright said that he fetishizes black women, and it's making me question my own relationship. I feel that we have a lot in common as individuals and he sincerely loves me. How do I respond to them and explain this to myself so I don't feel self-conscious about my great relationship?" —Fretting About Fetishism
Let's give your friends the benefit of the doubt and believe that their apprehension about your relationship is sincere, rather than inspired by a concern-trolling appetite for gossip or, worse, plain, old-fashioned jealousy.
After all, I'm sure you've thought about what could explain the attempted interracial intervention that's happening. The views of the Volunteer Fetish Police are likely informed by much more than I could even begin to capture here about the history of black-white female-male relationships (think slavery and rape, for starters) and the residual sexual objectification of black women's bodies that continues, perpetuated by people of all races and both genders.
So where you see yourself and your boyfriend as the perfect image of a happy couple, it's possible that they're superimposing Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Where you feel the adoring gaze of your significant other, maybe they're seeing that all wrapped up with Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman being gawked at in 19th-century Europe.
These concerns about black women being sexualized and objectified, in particular from the perspective of white men, aren't all tucked away in ancient history, either. I just stumbled upon a SoulBounce piece from a few years ago demanding, "Someone please explain why Justin Timberlake continually gets a pass to fetishize and exploit the image of Black women. Right now." The author lamented, "[A]fter watching him aggressively pulling on a chain wrapped around Ciara's neck only to later use her bending body as a leaning post in her new video for 'Love Sex Magic,' it's getting ludicrously difficult to understand." More recently I've asked why some white men are weirdly obsessed with Michelle Obama's butt. (Seriously, what was that all about?)
So can we make sense of where the concern is coming from? Sure. Is it fair for you to have to answer for everything that's behind it? Probably not. But unfortunately, relationships that are out of the norm (whatever that may be to the onlooker) do tend to elicit this type of scrutiny.
People whose pairings don't stand out to anyone are never asked to search the deepest depths of their psyche to analyze what's behind their attraction. But mix up race or age or some other major demographic factor, and you can go ahead and cue the chorus of "But why!?” and then the chorus of armchair psychologists' explanations.
But if I understand your question correctly, you aren't the one who's troubled here, or who's asking "Why?" You've said nothing about any specific actions that have raised red flags for your friends. You also didn't mention anything that suggests you believe you're being mistreated or less than fully valued.
So maybe this concern can begin and end with your friends. I think it's safe to say that the whole point of relationships is to add happiness and meaning to your life, and that you'd be doing yourself a disservice by letting your enjoyment suffer because outsiders don't share it.
And just for the sake of argument, let's say that your boyfriend came out and admitted that he was obsessed with the aspects of your appearance most closely associated with race, because of their association with your race. Or, hell, that he just really, really had a thing for black women and always had.
Even then, I'm not sure where we would draw the line to label that problematic in terms of your individual interactions. I can't figure out how we'd justify making it more of an issue than the many strong preferences that people have among and between races — some of them hallmarks of particular groups. It's really hard — maybe impossible — to pinpoint when this becomes pathological, for whom and why.
Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch captured this tension in her essay on Seeking Asian Female, a documentary directed by Debbie Lum that examines the phenomenon that some call "yellow fever" (when usually non-Asian men fetishize Asian women as romantic or sexual partners). It starred a man named Steven, whom she called "an earnest, bespectacled, white American man with an unsettling penchant for Asian females," and Sandy, the Asian woman he married. She wrote:
I came to this film thinking of Steven as "an Asian fetishist" and of Sandy as "an opportunist." Having spent a little while getting to know them through Lum's lens, I saw their nuances. Parts of their relationship — their fights, their daily interactions, their worries — became incredibly human, completely relatable to an outsider.
Chow ultimately concluded:
This narrative still doesn't sit well with me. The way Steven thought about Asian women — stripping them of their individuality, layering on preconceived ideals, replacing people with types — was challenged when he met Sandy, a real person with layers of her own. They might make the relationship work, yes, and I might even want them to. But in that case, their road to happiness feels marred with potholes that still need to be examined and considered.
But that's just the thing. Some people might feel moved to "examine and consider" what's happening between you and your boyfriend. They're entitled to do so, but that doesn't mean you're obligated to join in.
For example, guess what Steven had to say in part of his response to the feedback on the documentary? This: "We're happy. What's your problem?" So you can, by all means, pull some variation of a Steven when you respond to your friends. Or you can offer a more nuanced response that acknowledges where they're coming from but reassures them that their concerns don't line up with what you're experiencing day to day.
I will mention that I'm somewhat troubled by your impression that black men haven't paid as much attention to you as you might have liked. That's not meant to invalidate your experience, but if I were you, I'd aim to make sure I was all squared away, emotionally speaking, when it comes to that issue.
It might be appropriate to check in with yourself to see if your unbridled enthusiasm for this relationship is an attempt to compensate for things that were painful or missed out on. You don't want your vision to be clouded by that. And if nothing else, you're more likely to come off as happy and healthy if it's clear to others that a sense of rejection isn't guiding your choices.
If you're all set in that department, I'd say that perhaps the biggest problem you have right now is with your peers, especially if they remain more focused on a critique of the patterns that may or may not be getting played out in your relationship than they are on your happiness. If that's the case, maybe it's time to take the scrutiny off the possible fetish and put it on your friendships instead.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: "How Not to Derail the Dialogue on Race"