Black & White: The Exociticization of Mixed Race Women in Western Culture

As published in Volup2 Magazine, April 2015

dont_touch_my_hair_by_curlsclub-d77uqlcHas a White woman ever touched your hair without permission? It happens to me more often than not. They want to know, “Is it real? Is that all your hair?” Yes, and please stop petting me like an exotic animal. “Ohhh, mixed people are the most beautiful. Don’t you think?” No. I don’t. I think beauty is a social construct. I actually don’t say that, but I sure as hell am thinking it. The thing is, I’m being paid a compliment, and the person paying the compliment doesn’t know they are fetishizing me. But how do you explain to someone who subscribes to mainstream ideals of beauty, all the racialized nuances of what they are saying?

The mulatta has historically been the subject of much fascination for centuries. The iconic female figure of racial ambiguity has represented the exotic “Other” – an object of male fantasy in which mixed race women are reduced to their body parts. And the danger in exoticizing us, is that we are reduced to objects to be admired, or even conquered. It is in this way we dehumanize and further oppress mixed race folks, which only adds to the complexities of racism. All women of color have been exoticized and fetishized in various ways, but this story is mine, and so what you read below does not exclude others from having had similar experiences.

pia

I am half Black and half Italian. My honey-colored skin and curly hair give me a certain kind of privilege in the world. I am perceived as being more attractive than my darker sisters because our society has engrained in us the insufferable idea that lighter is beautiful, and somehow more valuable. This prevailing hegemonic cultural attitude has perpetuated competition amongst Black women for centuries, with dark skinned women getting the short end of stick. I have been praised, exalted, and envied for something I was born with, rather than something I earned, and I struggle with it daily.

My mixed race identity has always been a bit complicated. Having been called an Oreo by Black classmates in grade school made me insecure. I struggled with what it meant to be described as Black on the outside and White on the inside. I quickly discovered that I was perceived as thinking I was better than they were because I talked like a White girl, and that made me the enemy. My acute sensitivity and inherent shyness were no help to me. I was not quite sure where I fit in.

you ain't nothin but a damn oreo!

As a college student I tried to fit in with my Black peers, who I wanted to connect with, especially living on a small, mostly White campus. And I began to make friends until Black guys started asking me out instead of my dark skinned sisters. And I was not any smarter or more charming than my counterparts. Rest assured, I was made to feel special because of my light skin and “good hair.” I felt a lot of guilt about this, but also reveled in having the male attention I’d been denied as an awkward high-school student. I yearned for those friendships, but valued being attractive to men much more at that time in my life. And I didn’t fully understand the implications of my choice until later in life.

I remained angry and confused about why I held privilege over women with darker skin and kinkier hair than mine. And despite the fact that I am half Black, to voice my frustration to Black women who were darker than I, felt dangerous and patronizing. I feared sounding like a White person who says, “I have lots of Black friends!” Which of course, is incredibly racist, because it implies that someone who has tremendous privilege (White people) can understand the oppression of others (people of color). And they never will. Just as I will never know what it’s like to live in a world that sees dark skin and kinky hair as third rate – undesirable even.

racism

And so when people pay me a compliment that alludes to my mixed race, I am polite, but indifferent. Because what they are really saying is that I’m beautiful because I’m just different enough. I’m Other. Though it may not be intentional, this type of fetishizing feeds into racism by reinforcing western beauty ideals that say to be too brown is overly exotic, and to be too pale isn’t exotic enough. And thus I am left with the feeling that I am somehow racially superior in many ways, yet I belong nowhere. I have been systematically reduced to an object of societal fascination.

I have also had the experience of White folks not seeing me as a Black woman. They have “otherized” me, which somehow gives them license to test out their racist theories about people of color on me. I am often shocked at how bold they are. It’s as though my light skin blinds them to the fact that I am a woman of color who has experienced oppression. And so it falls upon me to school them. To tell them that I am a Black woman – that Black women are as diverse in skin color as we are in culture, and that all of us are valuable.

Recently a co-worker made a comment about how nice my skin is. She asked what I do to take care of it. I told her, and no sooner did another co-worker come up and say, “It’s that Italian genetics working for you.” I said, “Actually it’s my African genetics. Haven’t you ever heard the saying good black don’t crack?” I said it jokingly, but really I meant it. My point is that people are so reluctant to ascribe any value or beauty to my Black side that I have to check them. It’s as though being half Italian (White) has won me a VIP pass. And I love my Italian culture very deeply. But it doesn’t require defending.

Good Black don't crack! (1)

The problem is that many folks are not as interested in celebrating my Black side. They don’t want to know that my mother is a Ph.D. and tenured professor who grew up in the projects of Boston, being called Black and ugly. They are not interested in knowing how intentional she was about making sure I understood the implications of the unearned privilege I was born with as light-skinned child in a highly-educated, middle-class family. They do not understand how I struggled to find my identity in a culture that demands we choose sides. I’m lucky. I’m not too brown and not too white. I’m just right. I’m exotic.

stiamo-calmi-e-andiamo-avanti

But, who am I really? I’m the daughter of a socially conscious interracial couple who have been married 43 years. I’m a writer, a feminist, and an activist. At age 39, I’ve settled into a life that includes a progressive White husband from South Dakota, and a diverse group of friends who are committed to having discussions about race, oppression, and sexism. I am a lover of food—everything from the collard greens and spaghetti I grew up eating, to the tasty concoctions I prepare in my South Los Angeles kitchen. Phrases like, “Chile, please” and “Andiamo,–dai!” roll off my tongue in equal measure. I have found peace and purpose in my life as a Black woman who speaks Italian, wears her hair natural, and challenges the status quo. I have the kind of balance that I’ve always wanted, finding strength in my mixed heritage, and making sure to use my privilege to highlight injustice in the world. I’m not an object after all. I’m just one human being trying to make a difference.

xo

18 thoughts on “Black & White: The Exociticization of Mixed Race Women in Western Culture

  1. *meekly raises hand* I will say that from this post I realize I am guilty of fetishizing multiracial children when I say that I wouldn’t mind marrying someone outside of my race because we would have cool looking babies. So this piece is welcome because even though I think of myself as being forward thinking and anti-racist and critical, this piece has caused me to challenge my thinking and check myself. Thank you!

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  2. I’m Half Black and Half Italian as well, so this article touched me. While our experiences aren’t exactly the same, I appreciated someone being able to articulate that feeling of otherness.

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  3. Deep. I take a LOT of slut-shaming for being a Black woman married to a white man in L.A.; we are also activists, and in those “revolutionary” circles, the patriarchy runs deep. We have a daughter and I am learning what kind of world she will live in. Having experienced “street harassment” and sexual abuse, a major concern for me has been the possibility of my daughter being harassed by men, due to the fetishization of mixed raced Black women. (I’ve already seen the commodification of females early on in their lives, being shocked at things men have said about my baby) I am interested in reading more articles from this sista on what her experience is like, and how she maneuvers, what her parents taught her, etc. I guess I’m asking what my daughter will need to know out here..

    Righteous article, I hope to connect and hear back/more. 100

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    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Keyanna. Sounds like you will need to continue having open and honest conversations with your daughter about how to navigate the world in her skin. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. You can equip her with the knowledge that she holds certain privileges and not others, based on her coloring. I think my black mother did a good job of that. But I also grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when there were a lot fewer people that looked like me. I’m glad my article resonated with you and thanks for stopping by!

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  4. Fetishization of women, unfortunately, is nothing new under the sun. You read enough history and you will find- especially as a young girl (as I did when I started to delve deeper into the ‘untapped’ history of women)- that many a woman of different backgrounds/ heritage has been labeled in terms of ‘desirable’ as if we were a designer breed of dog or something.
    I don’t consider myself a woman of mixed race. Having said that, however, my grandmother was born in Shanghai, China in 1920 to a blonde and blue- eyed American father and a Cantonese mother. Her story is a very unique one, I think, simply because people today are so ignorant that the “mixing” of blood has been going on for a great long while now.
    Look at the South Pacific, the Philippines, the Cape Verde Islands, the Caribbean, and South America. Even here, in America, there were always people who got together with and married outside of their own race. Back during WW2, the GI’s- black, white, and American Indian- had left behind pregnant women. (I found this thread where there were many posters in England, Germany, and Japan, for instance, asking about information on black and American Indian Gi’s who had gotten German, English, and Japanese women pregnant- can you imagine being mixed back then and in post WW2 Germany or Japan?)
    As I’ve said, this is certainly nothing new, but in these post- racial times, unfortunately, we all feel as though we have to prove we’re down with swirl or whatever it is you wish to call it by pointing out to others that we, ourselves, are a mix, or that we have family members who are a mix. We- mostly those of us who are white- are afraid of being labeled as racist, so the best way to prove we’re not is, logically, to give a quick run down of our family history/ backgrounds/ and who married into which culture/ race.
    Back in my grandmother’s day, this was not something you wanted anyone to find out. My grandmother lied for decades about being half Chinese. She didn’t admit she was more than “a little” Chinese until after my sister was born (in 1989!) when it started to become more acceptable to be- as you so eloquently put it – an “Other”. Her mother- in- law, a white woman from Kentucky, had forbade my grandfather to marry her, arguing that she would “ruin his career” and that their children “would come out funny looking”.
    So, it both amuses me and relieves me at the great about face we had made since. My great- grandmother accepted the marriage simply because my grandfather was going to marry my grandmother no matter what his mother said. She loved her grandchildren and so she became part of, whether she liked it or not at first, a family of “Others”- my grandmother was one of six kids, by the way.
    As for this fetishization, may I say that it is a very dangerous thing. Especially for women. Women of Asian and Eastern European backgrounds have long been seen as a “hot commodity”, if you will. This is what feeds the beast, the beast of human trafficking. Breaking it down into simple, if cold sounding business sense, it is supply and demand at it’s best- and worst. The higher in demand a “product” becomes, the more you can charge for said “product”.
    Unfortunately, that’s what fetishization of women does. It turns us into a “product” that is in “high demand”, and most especially in the sex industry- from strip joints to porn to prostitution.
    Nowadays, it’s Brazilian women. There is now a higher demand for them in strip joints and porn. And common sense leads me to believe that this means there is also being trafficked into this country Brazilian girls to work as prostitutes.
    I watched a documentary recently about how unsuspecting American girls (most of them white) are being kidnapped right off the streets and forced into prostitution.
    I also read a disturbing article about how Blackwater and other private military organizations had taken part in the kidnapping and trafficking of young Iraqi girls into America to work as prostitutes (particularly around American military bases), working along with and paying what is loosely known as the Iraqi mafia to help them do this during the 2003 Iraqi invasion and campaign.
    Fetishization of lighter skin and the “exotic”, I believe, is what has lead to men profiting from this growing problem.
    While I go on record here as a sex positive feminist, I am not AT ALL in support of what is a very dangerous and murky enterprise run by criminal syndicates all over the world.
    My apologies for the lengthy post, but I felt there was more than one issue at play to address in your article.
    That is, to say, I had more than one point to make.
    Best regards and thank you for bringing up topics that I feel must be more openly discussed.

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    • Sam, thank you for your thoughtful comments. There are so many issues that affect women and girls that we need to address. Like you, I hope we can continue to talk openly and honestly about them. Be well!

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  5. Thank’s so much Pia for this post! My mix is French – Bajan. I was raised in England and France. I was blind to colour until I was 11 and started secondary school in England. The black girls demanded to know know “what i was”. Why did I speak “posh” English?
    Why did my mama give me croissants for lunch? That’s “white people” food! Why wasn’t my hair braided? I was even asked by one girl why my daddy married a white woman instead of a black woman….
    I cant actually describe what i feels to receive racism from your own sistas… Being called coconut or half breed is a bad as being called nigga or coloured.
    When I moved to NYC briefly, I was a constant source of fascination or disgust: “OMG, your mix is so cool!” to “Y’all have black people in Europe?!” Why yes, we do. And we have peacefully interbred for centuries as we had no history of Jim Crow laws etc.
    I find it so offensive when people say i look “exotic” or don’t look black… Try going to the Caribbean or Africa and see that range of brown skin!
    And then there’s the men… White men, I’m not your prize… Black men, im not your entitlement…
    M’y parents always lead me to believe I had the best of 2 beautiful cultures. Black society wants me to believe I should be apologetic of my light skin. White society wants me to believe I am elevated against my darker skinned sistas.
    PLEASE don’t stop asking me if I am “confused” or which side I “prefer”! I love my Caribbean- Mediterranean heritage. I’m proud of my parents culture’s. There is no confusion or favouritism!
    And as for demanding to know “what am I??” I am a product of my parents love. That’s what I AM.
    Big love to you Pia from across the pond xxx

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    • Carmen, thank you for sharing your story! It’s powerful to share our experiences and know that we are not alone. I feel you on the difficulty of having to explain your existence. It can be very isolating. That’s why I like to write about these kinds of issues. Sending you big hugs to you as well!

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  6. Reblogged this on Anna-Clare Grace and commented:
    From one ‘mulatta’ to another, great post. I agree that we are othered and I found your post very enlightening for the essay I’m about to write on feminism in hip hop, which does touch on this notion on tropicalization. Thanks for your help and blessings to you!

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  7. Hi Pia,

    We talk about being biracial/multiracial and part black all the time at The Topaz Club. Everything you’ve written about are experiences that so many of us can relate to. You’re invited to join us. We’d love for you to become a part of our afro-biracial/multiracial collective.

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