When do physical preferences become prejudice?

By JORDAN BRITTON | November 9, 2017

Many of us at one point or another have said or heard someone say something along the lines of “I love___ guys” or “I’m not that into ___ girls.” There are plenty of descriptors that can fill in those blanks without any issue. But what if the descriptor is a word like “black,” “white,” “Jewish” or “French”? Many would categorize that as prejudice, and truthfully, I’m inclined to agree. Lately, however, I’ve wondered where to draw the line between prejudice and preference.

Not long ago, I found myself facing the unpleasant reality that my dating preferences may reflect racial prejudices.

Those who know me know that I have dated girls of differing races and ethnicities over the years. Those who know me well, however, also know that in the past year that has not necessarily been the case.

Starting last October, every girl I’ve been involved with has been of east or southeast Asian descent. At first, it seemed like a funny coincidence, especially considering that before last October, I had never even held hands with an “Asian girl.” So, it makes sense that a potential pattern of prejudice would initially go unnoticed. As time has gone on, this “preference” I’ve displayed over the past year seems less and less innocuous. Quite frankly, on several occasions, the question as to whether or not I’m engaging in fetishization has crossed my mind.

Initially, based on my overall dating history, my recent dating experiences would seem like a coincidence rather than a desire, conscious or unconscious, to only date Asian women. For a while, this thought managed to calm my worries, but then I remembered my high school self.

I remembered discussing — even at times boasting — my “yellow fever” to my peers. I remembered being in an environment where phrases like “she’s pretty for a black girl” or “I only date white girls” passed in conversations without the slightest bit of resistance.

Having gone to an all-boys private school, I also recalled the deep and unflinching objectification and sexualization of women. While I am over five years removed from that environment, that does not necessarily mean I am entirely removed from the mentality I fostered there.

This flood of memories brought me back to wondering if I have been fetishizing Asian women. The Oxford dictionary defines a fetish as “a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc.” Basically, fetishization requires some degree of dehumanization.

Even though I can make a case for how I don’t dehumanize the women I date (or in general) and why I don’t have a fetish, that does not let me off the hook completely. The issue of prejudice remains.

I started wondering if I would be considering this an issue if the young women I dated over the past year had been all white or all black. In the first case of white women, I could easily fault any preferences to failing to shake off the Eurocentric beauty standards dominating our society. In doing so I’d most likely take little accountability, opting to just blame my environment. I’d possibly even praise myself for having recognized that bias.

If the trend had consisted of black women, then I would probably point to shared experience, culture and understanding as the primary reason for my preference. I wouldn’t posit race as the reason but, rather, the way race correlates with lived experiences and beliefs in contemporary American society.

Through this thought experiment, I recognized that among the variety of reasons — conscious or unconscious — for racial or ethnic dating preferences, not all are based on personal prejudices. In fact, for some people, their dating preferences are a result of the prejudice they’ve faced.

These people may find similar patterns in their dating history to the ones I have. The difference in my case: There is no deeper societally imposed reason for my “preference.” Having already excluded fetishization, after weeks of self-reflection, the best reason I could come up with is aesthetic preferences.

Now the idea that I may prefer the way certain races look over others inspired some disappointment in myself. As I considered the specifics of my potential preference, I found myself asking the question: When does preference become prejudice? Did I really believe that there was something inherently better about the phenotypical features I associate with people of east or southeast Asian descent?

Unsatisfyingly, I have no concrete answers to these questions.

While writing this, I struggled to avoid language that others or objectifies Asian women. The point in writing this was to highlight and begin addressing problematic ways of thinking.

Recognizing these less than ideal parts of myself was a disconcerting experience. But to me, being progressive means facing uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the world around us. Eradicating prejudice cannot occur without first acknowledging it, especially the prejudice within ourselves.

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