Fetishizing My Heritage Isn’t Okay, It’s Offensive

IMG_5340.PNGBy Kayla B —It caught me off guard, but just like the numerous times before, the story ended the same. Girl meets boy, boy finds out girl is part Latina, boy sexualizes  girl, girl kicks boy to the curb.

Back when I was single (during my college years) I loved to date. As a woman who never had a serious boyfriend during high school or many suitors until college, I enjoyed the newfound selection I found while dating. Getting to know someone and learn them gave me a rush. Before I even knew, relationships and friendships would flourish from the seeds planted. The late nights of ‘caking up’ was fun. I enjoyed my new found liberty and  texting my available data into oblivion gave me a thrill.

I attended an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) and there were black men galore! Beautiful black men at that. Men with dreads, men with clean cuts, the artsy types, the frat guys, the poets and the socially conscious. I never had a type, but I did find black and Latino men very attractive. I soon came to know, on my campus, girls like me were pursued not because of all the good things we had to offer, but because of a grossly offensive stereotype based on our heritage and culture.

I attended a mostly white high school on the mid to upper-class side of town. My first boyfriend was Puerto Rican, I’m Afro-Cuban. Explaining my roots to him felt natural. As a Puerto Rican, he understood that Afro-Latinas existed and that my roots and his were apart of the same African diaspora. I wasn’t more interesting to him, than he was to me. We listened to Selena together and shared a love of Spanish foods. He accepted my African features and reminded me that I was beautiful to him. That was the beginning and end of the attraction. I was myself and that was enough. Sadly that relationship, my first, ended how most high school relationships did. I was naive to believe once in college, my heritage wouldn’t be a deciding factor to the guys on campus.

Fast forward to a more mature period, college. I was a bookworm who had a close circle of great and diverse friends. I enjoyed my college experience as I studied for my degree in journalism.

My social life was great, my academic life was even better but I didn’t have anyone to share it with. Soon I discovered the dating cycle on campus differed majorly from the sweet relationships of high school.

On campus, my dating life went like this:

Meet a cool cute guy in the library or student cafeteria and go on a date. The standard dates would occur, movie followed by dinner or a trip to the local art gallery followed by lunch. The dates were an opportunity for us to get to know each other outside a college campus setting. “Where did you grow up?”, “How many siblings do you have?” “What’s your major?”

….then “What are you mixed with, what’s your background?”

Explaining myself gave me anxiety. It wasn’t until about 2 years prior to coming to college where I was comfortable enough to identify solely as an Afro-Latina. Around a black audience, I was met with resistance. Around a Latino audience, I was also met with resistance. Being Afro Latina is hanging in between two worlds with no where to feel quite at home. It’s being as in love with Daddy Yankee as much as I was in love with Chris Brown (pre domestic violence) – it was enjoying carnitas as much as I love collard greens. It was a marriage of two cultures that created me. I later found my heritage would take center stage in the minds of my potential suitors, much to my dismay.

I felt my heart beat increase.

“Well, I’m Cuban and Caribbean. My mom is Afro-Latina and my father is from St. Criox…I’m Afro-Latina.” In my head I was screaming “I’m more than my heritage!”

Then came that word that I despised. “Exotic”

As that word seeped from my suitor’s mouth, my skin shuttered. Had these beautiful black men been conditioned to place me on a pedestal based on my heritage? Was I seen as more worthy because I wasn’t just black? He thought it was compliment.

Was my blackness alone, not enough to qualify me for a lasting relationship? Did my blackness make me less attractive and my Latino blood make me more interesting, more exotic?

Telling me I was exotic wasn’t complementary. It was as if mentioning my Cuban roots skyrocketed me into a higher level of attraction.

My mind always went back to late middle school and early high school when music videos were a thing. Across the screens rappers would be flocked by light skin, olive toned, long hair Latinas or mixed women. They were sending the idea that they were superior to the regular black woman. Women who looked like my black grandma, aunts and cousins. Women who taught me in school or helped raise me in the church. Women who also looked like me.

Yes I’m Latina, but I am black, I needed not to choose. Why couldn’t this be enough

Looking back during my pre-teen years opening a magazine during that time was also painful. There were no black women celebrated. The music lyrics also seemed to glorify women with lighter tones and wavy hair. The celebs I had crushes on, seemed to love women who looked like J.Lo (one of the most recognized Latinas)

I also thought about my privilege, even in my blackness. I too, had privilege.

I had lived my entire life in a space where I wasn’t shunned for looking the way I looked. I wasn’t picked on for my skin color or hair. In most ways, I had been living comfortably. If anything I was outcasted for my lighter toned skin by other black girls. For the guys, it was a welcomed plus. The notch of attraction was only turned up more once guys found out I was Afro-Latina. To them, being part Latina earned me a better place on their measuring scale. To them, I was more interesting, more sexy, more attractive and inherently more exotic. It made them have more respect from their black homeboys. While they placed me on a pedestal, it also increased their worth. They bagged the ‘dream girl’ – a woman who fit the exotic mold, but was acceptable enough to bring home to their black mothers.

I thought how things would be for me had I not shared my heritage. Would their impression stay the same? I never cared about what they saw physically, but my emphasis was on our connection. One that I desired to not be influenced by my heritage or physical characteristics.

I wanted my energy, vivacious light, zeal and zest for life, compassion for others, courage, tenacity and strength to draw in a potential suitor. Those characteristics would carry me my entire life when my physical features no longer held in time.

The simple point is this: Sexualizing anyone for their heritage is wrong.

This isn’t only exclusive to Afro-Latinas. Black women are fetishsized and sexually exploited for our curvaceous figures (i.e Sarah Baartman). Native American women are also apart of this epidemic. According to the Indian Law Resource Center, one in three women will be raped in their lifetime. Many Native American women I’ve seen speak of this, talks about the grotesque ‘Sexy Little Indian’ stereotype that perpetuates violence. Asian women are also fetishsized and experience the same abuse.

This behavior is dangerous. Telling an Afro Latina that just because she has Latin roots, that she’s automatically ‘spicy’ , ‘hot tempered’, ‘ ready for sex at all times’ or ‘oozes sexuality’ is wrong. Placing value or subtracting value because of her heritage is wrong.

All of us are not the same.

I encourage everyone to rid themselves of this idea that being ‘exotic’ increases their or someone else’s worth as a human first. I encourage people to not look at Afro Latina’s as a new flavor to try, but as strong and culturally diverse women. Women much like the other black girls they grew up with, were siblings to or were birthed by.

Calling an Afro Latina exotic is not a badge of honor, it doesn’t increase our confidence. It just perpetuates a stereotype that has plagued our black community for too long. It continues to dilute qualities of Latinas, washing her down to nothing more than a sexual being at which you can carry out your fantasies.

Looking back at this time in my life and where I am now (sharing my life in a healthy relationship), I’ve found acceptance for who I am as a human first and my heritage is now just an interesting and quick talking point.

The more we have these conversations, the more we can eradicate these behaviors.

I am not my body.

I am not my physical features.

I am a human first, and a woman always.

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