On the streets of Bangkok on another hazy August afternoon, couples pair off—getting groceries, picking their kids up, heading home. During the day, Bangkok is busy, dirty and loud—but it looks more like New York City than the scenes of Hangover 2. At night, swarms of prostitutes fill the streets and entice the throngs of tourists to visit their various clubs. Without a doubt, the majority of the tourists in the area at this time of night are white males, ranging from early 20’s, to late 50’s.
They flock here from America, Australia and Western Europe for a vacation of a lifetime to buy love for a few hours from women who epitomize their fantasies. Clashing with the images earlier in the day of happy, average Thai couples, the sight of boorish, disturbingly sex-driven white men buying an experience from young, beautiful Thai women raises the idea of race as a fetish. These men depict race as an experience—something to buy for a night. Interracial couples exist in Bangkok, but there is a certain demographic of couples who are clearly not engaging in each other’s lives out of love. It is for conquest.
The men in Bangkok are tallying a sort of “hook-up bucket list,” by fulfilling their fantasy. While Bangok may seem a world away, the idea of a race-based hook-up exists at American. A white freshman girl at AU, who preferred to stay anonymous, said during her college experience she’s “always wanted to hook up with a black guy.”
The idea of race as a sexual conquest is nothing new. The slave trade in America reached an all-time high in the 1830s, as did the rape of female slaves, according to Dannell Moon in an article about the history of rape. The perceived notion of black women being “sexually promiscuous” predates slavery in America, dating back to European exploration of Africa, according to David Pilgrim in his essay, Jezebel Stereotype.
“Those who travelled to Africa found natives and misinterpreted their different dress as lewdness,” said Pilgrim. “White Europeans saw African polygamy and tribal dances as proof of the African’s uncontrolled sexual lust.”
During American slavery, many male slave owners would rape their female slaves with the same misconception that African women, because of their body types or other physical features, wanted to have sex. Since these women were property of the slave owners, rape was entirely legal.
The sexualization of race is nothing of the past and not exclusive to white men exploiting women of color. For instance, there is a specific role that many Balinese men find themselves accidently undertaking: gigolos. These “Kuta cowboys,” as they are called, make a living offering female tourists—primarily from Australia, Europe, America and Japan—the fun, exotic and passionate experience of having a Balinese boyfriend. Typically, the “cowboys” find older, seemingly wealthy women, and offer them the appealing idea of having an abroad love affair. Sometimes these flings materialize into long-distance relationships in the form of women wiring money back to Bali. While there are plenty of relationships that evolve, most of the time the women are interested in the idea of having a trip to paradise, complete with an exotic fling with a local surf instructor.
While interviewing another AU student who preferred to remain anonymous, she mentioned a guy approached her while at a party. “After some small talk, he basically told me that I was pretty… for a black girl. It was just like,” she hesitated. “Why was it necessary to define me that way?”
The same girl also mentioned how one time when she was dancing, a friend approached her and said he wanted to dance with a black girl.
“We were friends, but it was still upsetting; he had a preconceived notion about the way I would dance based on my race,” she said.
Like sexual exploitation of African slaves, in 1965, Calvin C. Hernton wrote Sex and Racism in America, where he describes white women’s sexual attraction to black men as an “honest curiosity, infatuation.” He says she’s “simply fascinated by his ‘black mystique’ (his mystery lends a measure of intrigue to his person), she may find the Negro ‘exciting’ due to his being seen as ‘exotic.’”
Hernton explains that this implicit racism is so deeply embedded in our society that one may not even recognize it as “racism,” but rather an attraction. The attraction, he argues, is rooted in the slavery-era taboo of interracial relationships. This includes stereotypes of the race, that state “‘black’ seems to be the summit of masculinity—it takes blackness to bring out the ‘femininity’ in otherwise frigid or near-frigid white women.”
Danielle Evans, a literature professor at American University who specializes in anthropology and African American studies, countered that the act of racism is not always black and white. “I think it’s really dangerous that we often think that only bad people are racist, or that it’s only racism when the person committing the offense intended to hurt somebody,” she said.
Mariel Kirschen, Deputy Director of AU’s Women’s Initiative, looked at the issue from a different perspective. “A lot of people think this is only offensive to women, you think of things like guys having ‘yellow fever,’ but it happens to guys, too,” she said. “Our society says that men shouldn’t be offended by things like this, because it’s something that makes them more attractive to the opposite sex, but really, you don’t want to be attractive by your ethnicity. You’re making further racial divisions, and it just reinforces stereotypes.”
Kirschen continued, “My friends have a bucket-list of things they want to do before they graduate, since we’re all seniors, and on that is stuff like have sex in a bathroom, etc. but some of them things like ‘hook-up with a Blasian [bi-racial, black and Asian],’ and by doing this it A) singles them out by their race, B) it objectifies them and C) it sexualizes that race.”
Race is so casual to our generation that saying something like “You’re my first Asian” is taken lightly, even as a joke.
Interracial relationships have different social implications than the “bucket-list” type of desire because this type of experience is purely sexual. It is something that a person only wants to experience as a sexual experiment.
Evans also mentioned the role stereotypes play in this mentality. She believes even a positive stereotype is inherently racist. “A stereotype is inherently reductive, so no, it can’t ultimately be positive. There might be things that you appreciate about a person, once you’ve gotten to know them, that were shaped or influenced by their racial or ethnic background,” she said. “But you have to get to know the person, and get to understand their particular experience of race, before you can know those things.”
Conquest should be defined as an act in which an effort to pursue a potential “hook-up” based on the illusion that someone of another race is some exotic, mystical or more sexual creature. In the words of Suheir Hammad, a famous spoken-word artist, “don’t seduce yourself / with my ‘other-ness’ my hair / wasn’t placed on my head / to entice you into some sort of mysterious, black voodoo… don’t build around me your fetish / fantasy.”
The fetish fantasty insults the person who is being stereotyped as a hook-up, but not actually to date. Consider those women who would be bought for their exoticism—the similarity between the assumption of Thai eroticism and hearing someone say that they have always wanted to have sex with a black man is striking.
“Stereotyping is a way of erasing complexity, and also of assuming that you have the authority to make up a person’s story instead of allowing them the agency to tell it,” said Evans.
Illustration by Max Gibbons