Originally published on The Flock, I will be sharing articles I write inspired by the themes from my books – in this case, IN EVERY MIRROR SHE’S BLACK – to take you behind the scenes and deeper into my writing process.
Whether we like to admit it or not, our never ending quest for love often takes us down rough roads filled with curiosity, shame, rejection, and ultimately continued hope that we will find what we’re looking for. Over time along this arduous journey, we even develop preferences of who we are physically attracted to, which types of energies we want orbiting us, and dare I say it, people we’re willing to risk it all for, for a single passionate night.
But at what point on that quest of the heart does preference morph into fetish and ultimately obsession? When that relentless pursuit of a certain type of person we feel can completely fulfill us physically becomes a “chasing after the wind” as quoted from Ecclesiastes 1:14?
Alongside racism, sexism, tokenism, isolation, and many more deeply social themes, one of the topics I explore in depth in my novel, IN EVERY MIRROR SHE’S BLACK is the idea of fetishization.
On the surface, fetishization is often described as the sexual objectification of someone based on their identity. Historically, women have had to battle against the objectification of our bodies for centuries. For Black and other women of color in particular, these sexual identities are incomplete narratives that have been crafted by society on behalf of us, and a skewed identity we continue to battle today.
As a professional travel writer who also happens to be a Black woman, I have traveled to far flung regions and interacted with different cultures. Oftentimes society’s pre-crafted narratives of me as a Black woman precedes my arrival. Strange men feel they have license to touch and investigate because of images of twerking Black women on TV. And despite having a derrière prime for twerking, my skills are pitiful.
But in IN EVERY MIRROR SHE’S BLACK, I wanted to take the discussion of fetishization one level deeper. The particular nuance I wanted to highlight is manifested in one of my personal favorite yet cringe-worthy scenes in the book.
We meet Brittany-Rae Johnson, a former model turned flight attendant who works for British Airways. In the scene where she meets Johan von Lundin (“Jonny”) for the second time, she is milling down the aisle during the evening flight checking on her business class passengers. As she strolls down the aisle, Jonny grabs her hand. She jerks at first, frightened that she is being touched by a strange man without her consent. Then Jonny pulls her slowly towards him, his grasp tight on her. She is forced to squat down next to him to attend to his needs.
After all, she is a flight attendant and must respond to her guests.
Fetishization takes on another level of insidiousness when power dynamics and a sense of entitlement comes into play. Especially when a dominant culture fetishes a minority culture. When dominance touches without invitation and is blind to this very violating act.
I liken it to people reaching for Black people’s hair without permission.
One of my most fascinating observations as non-Black readers begin to meet Kemi, Brittany, and Muna in my novel is their reactions to the relationship between Brittany and Jonny. Many white women can’t seem to wrap their minds around that dynamic or even worse, believe in the deep fetishization of Black women. After all, society has held up white women as the standard of beauty for centuries.
This has meant leaving women of color exposed and vulnerable to advances, while not being taken seriously when we do complain about this to our allies. This is also why when we disappear, the search for us isn’t as intensive.
Men aren’t immune to being flattened into objects either.
Over the last couple of years, the fetishization of men continues to surface significantly as social media has grabbed hold of our lives and given us more platforms to amplify our voices and preferences. I explored this in the book through Kemi’s search for a certain type of brawn. The reader might imagine Kemi tap-dancing along that precarious line between preference and fetish, but could this be Kemi’s own deep fetishization of strong powerful men coming into play?
As a Black woman who has lived in Europe for over a decade, the sense of “color blindness” that runs rampant in many European societies flattens three-dimensional people and their own narratives. It turns us into blank canvases with nothing unique to bring into these societies.
Oh, besides the stereotypes that have been ironically crafted for us by these societies.
Many white Europeans tend to pride themselves in being “color blind” when it comes to interracial dating and love relationships. To this point, I gave a talk on UN Cultural Diversity Day where I shared two photos side by side. One image showed a Black woman and white man on their wedding day. The second was of a Black woman in a power pose in an office next to a white male colleague.
There is a huge difference between loving a Black woman versus taking directions from her as your boss or CEO. Then all the negative stereotypes are conferred to the Black woman boss while all the “positive-sounding” stereotypes are conferred to her as your love interest.
This is also why Jonny as a character simply tolerates Kemi at work, is sexually obsessed with Brittany, and doesn’t want Muna anywhere near his orbit.
Because, you see, the problem with fetishization goes beyond sexual preference. It actually flattens three-dimensional warm bodies into cold caricatures simply for one’s own pleasure. Where one picks and chooses which part of the person one wants to taste and which part one wants to hate.
Or, like I aptly describe in the book, tasting a person like cheese on toothpicks handed out at a farmer’s market with no intention of making a purchase while flicking the toothpick away after consumption.