It’s impossible to discuss the particular objectification mixed race women face without a broader acknowledgment of the objectification that women face in society. There is no group of women that is free from the problems related to sexual objectification. We live in a society where women are taught to value themselves based on appearance and attractiveness to men, often at the expense of competence-based qualities and as a result women learn to see themselves through the eyes of others, internalizing an outsider view and therefore becoming self-objectifying. This can lead to various mental health issues and leaves women vulnerable to abuse. This is obviously a massive topic so I am not going to delve into it in detail here. I would hope most women appreciate that women are disproportionately more likely than men to be sexually objectified in the media, in the workplace and generally in day to day life and that this is poisonous for women. As I mentioned, while all women will be affected to some degree by sexual objectification it is important to acknowledge that different groups of women experience this in unique ways. Again, these differences in experience are too broad for me to adequately cover here but as examples bisexual women and lesbian women can be over-sexualised, stereotyped and exploited, as can women of colour, working class women and women with mental health issues. Fat women, women regarded as ‘ugly’ and women with disabilities again may find they are exploited and/ or fetishized, or at the other end of the spectrum receive a complete lack of acknowledgement that they are sexual beings.
Mixed race women face some specific and unique issues when it comes to sexual objectification. Racial fetishism is a form of racism and it’s a potential issue for all women of colour. Racial fetishism involves the fetishizing of a person or culture belonging to a race or ethnic group that is not one’s own – therefore it involves racial/ ethnic stereotyping and objectifying those bodies who are stereotyped, and often times their cultural practices. I feel that as a mixed race woman who is black and white I have experienced fetishism for having black ancestry and also specifically based on the fact that I am of mixed race heritage. I feel the fact that mixed race women may experience several levels of racial fetishization due to the multiplicity of their racial identities is not widely acknowledged. In fact I’ve never heard it actually discussed anywhere.
Something which is also frequently ignored in conversations around the particular fetishization mixed race people can face is that this fetishization actually often begins with our parents. I know that when I was a child I was given the message from many adults in my life (including my parents), that there was something special about being mixed race, particularly in terms of having an unusual appearance. The more unusual your appearance was deemed the better, particularly if you ended up with what were seen as more typically white characteristics, such as blonde hair and blue/ green eyes. I remember being jealous of other mixed race girls with light coloured eyes and straight hair as a child because I knew these children were seen as more desirable. The stereotype of mixed race beauty revolves around light-skin, euro-centric features, thinness, being able-bodied and cis-gender. The stereotype thus eliminates many mixed race people, so not all of us automatically have beauty privilege, which is a common assumption.
It’s not unusual to hear adults say they want mixed race children because they are the best looking. In fact I’d go as far as to say this is normalized and shows how insidious the objectification of mixed race children is. It’s like mixed race children are the latest fashion accessory in the UK where I live. I do wonder how many ignorant people are having mixed race children for superficial reasons, and actually have no idea how to raise mixed race children in positive ways. It’s not surprising that mixed race children are often highlighted to suffer disproportionately from mental health issues.
If you need further evidence that parents fetishize their mixed race children just google mixed race babies or children on the internet. The number of sites where parents can fetishize their own children is staggering. You will see how mixed race people are objectified based on their appearance from infancy and that this is largely encouraged by parents who don’t realise their behaviour is problematic. Essentially when parents fetishize their children in this way they are grooming their children for further objectification and potential exploitation throughout their lives. They are also teaching their children to self-fetishize. Again if you need evidence that mixed race people can self-fetishize google mixed chicks/ babes etc on the internet and you can see for yourself how this plays out. I’ll happily admit I went through a period in my twenties where I self-fetishized myself for being mixed and thought there was something special about having mixed race beauty. Of course I ended up dating men who exploited me and valued me only for my mixed appearance. I’m not ashamed about the fact that I fell victim to self-fetishization considering I was brain-washed from a very young age to do so. I feel there was something inevitable about it in terms of my personal life experiences.
As a child I did not meet the stereotype of being mixed race and beautiful, however I was very much aware of the stereotype and relieved when as an adult it seemed I finally met the standard. I felt pressurised to do so. I grew up completely obsessed with being pretty. In movies it was always the most beautiful woman that the dream guy wanted and this played out exactly the same at school. I wore glasses, had big hair and had to wear braces for some of my time at school. I was viewed as ugly. I was also very conscious of not being able to meet white beauty standards and this caused me a lot of anxiety and unhappiness. The older I got, the more I saw mixed race women being valued for their beauty in the media and finally I got to a point where I felt I was able to not only accept my appearance as a woman, but as a mixed race woman. I took pride in being mixed race because I hadn’t really been able to do it physically when I was growing up.
The media has now moved from giving some modest level of acknowledgement to mixed race women’s beauty, to completely fetishizing it over the course of my life. It is not unusual to come across an article that points mixed race women out as the most beautiful women in the world. At first I thought this kind of thing was positive. When you are rarely acknowledged and when you’ve grown up feeling unattractive, such changes in perception can seem empowering at first. Gradually I came to realise however that this is not just harmful for women who are mixed race (who become increasingly objectified due to these messages or cannot actually meet the mixed race beauty stereotype), it is also harmful for other women, particularly women of colour with darker skin who often do not have their beauty acknowledged at all.
The fact that mixed race women are held up as an ideal can lead to racial jealousy. Women of colour with darker skin may at times resent mixed race women with lighter skin for getting so much attention, not realising that this attention is in some ways problematic and over-rated. I often wonder how these kind of things affect mixed race men. I do think they have it easier here. I recently watched an interview with Akala who is mixed race black and white, where he talked about benefitting from colourism in terms of being more attractive to women as a young man because of his light skin. He was talking to black men at the time and neither of them seemed bothered that he was basically bragging about having light-skinned privilege. If a light-skinned mixed race woman did this with black women the response definitely would not have been so neutral. A mixed race women would have hell to pay for gloating in such a way. There are double-standards between mixed race men and women when it comes to taking advantage of beauty privilege.
It’s more commonly acknowledged that mixed race women with light skin may experience hostility from women of colour with darker skin, but what often goes ignored is that mixed race women can experience racial jealousy from white women too. I can think of more occasions in my life where I have detected racial jealously from white women than I have from women of colour with darker skin. It is also more often that I hear white women gush about how mixed race babies are the cutest rather than people of colour. I want to be clear though, some people of colour have a real problem with this too, though arguably their motivations for wanting mixed race children are different and may stem from mistaken beliefs that being mixed race will protect their children from experiencing any racism.
I think it’s really important that we start acknowledging that much of the propaganda we hear about mixed race people (they are so good-looking, they are here to end racism etc) is a cover up for the fact that mixed race people are often actually failed by society, where we lack any kind of meaningful representation. Such messages are damaging for us. Our lived experiences are ignored and instead we are used to promote mono-racial people’s agendas. We then have to pay the price for how we have been positioned by others.
Lately I’ve been asking myself what beauty even means to me and if mixed race people actually get to be beautiful in any healthy ways. Do we ever get to be beautiful for just being us and being human rather than our racial mix, or a specific part of our racial identity? On the whole I think beauty is extremely complicated for mixed race people. I’m very conscious to weed out the people who focus on my appearance only or my racial mix when it comes to dating, but it’s difficult because in some ways men are programmed to be pre-occupied with these things. For myself I have grown much less obsessed with my appearance as I have gotten older. I know having a firm sense of self is the best thing a woman can have regardless of appearance. In fact beauty can be a curse for women who have low self-esteem. I know because I have definitely lived that experience. In my opinion beauty in general is over-rated. I wish we could all stop giving so much attention to it. I am aware though that as a cis-gender, light-skinned, able-bodied woman who has some beauty privilege, it’s easier for me to say that than it may be for many other women.
These days when someone gives me a compliment on my appearance I say thanks, but if I’m completely honest there is part of me that just finds it boring. Compliment me on how hard I work to raise awareness on social justice issues or the fact that I can be thoughtful. Anything else but my appearance. I’ve spent way too much of my life worrying about what others think of what I look like. I’m over it.
If you want to learn more about mixed race and social justice issues check out my feminist community and blog page http://www.facebook.com/amixedracefeministspeaks