3 "compliments" that actually fetishize POC

Lorenza Centi
Originally Published: 

For some people, having game looks like lavishing the object of their affection with praise. But being a Black, Indigenous, and/or other person of color on the receiving end can make this otherwise mundane interaction pretty fraught. Some compliments are not only cringe-inducing, they live in our heads rent-free, shaping how we see ourselves and approach dating in the future. I’m talking about phrases like: “You look so exotic.” “Your chocolate skin is so sexy.” “Ooh, I’ve never been with a [insert racial identity here] before.”

While those who direct these phrases at us might see them as flattering, they’re really not. Singling out people for specific body parts, whether their skin color or other features, is “a way of objectifying, when it comes down to it,” says Kristen Syrett, an associate professor and the undergraduate program director in the Department of Linguistics at Rutgers University.

Hearing this sort of fetishizing language again and again, as many of us BIPOC do, can have long-term effects on our self-esteem. “It might you feel self-conscious or that you’re somehow different from a standard because why would someone comment on these things if they weren’t atypical or unconventional?” Syrett says. And while it can be empowering when we identify the traits that make us unique, she adds, the opposite is true when others choose them for us.

This sort of language can, in turn, make BIPOC constantly question whether people are truly attracted to us, or to a flat, fetishized stereotype of us. As an Asian woman who’s often the object of racialized catcalls, I made it a habit to ask anyone I’ve dated how many other Asian women they’ve been with as a way gauge to whether they’re really into me, or just have "yellow fever."

As an Asian woman who’s often the object of racialized catcalls, I made it a habit to ask anyone I’ve dated how many other Asian women they’ve been with as a way to gauge whether they’re really into me, or just have "yellow fever."

Tatyannah King, 25, of Philadelphia says that fetishizing comments from men outside her race — like “I’ve never tried a Black woman before, and you seem like you’d be a lot of fun”— haven’t influenced how she sees herself. “But they do make me feel frustrated and angry that I’m [being] used for the sole purpose of fulfilling someone’s twisted fantasy,” she explains. She got tired of reading DMs like “Hey, beautiful piece of chocolate” or other pick-up lines that centered her race, which was partly why she stopped using dating apps altogether in college.

Fetishizing language might also make BIPOC feel interchangeable with people in our racial or ethnic group who share our eye shape, hair texture, or other physical traits that tend to draw attention. Syrett explains that grouping together people who share superficial qualities implies that their deeper, essential qualities don’t matter. “It seems like you’re not being seen for who you really are,” she says.

This notion that you can simply replace us with someone who looks like us — not unlike a doll you can buy at the store — is another form of objectification, says Shardé Davis, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut.

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And if you see someone as replaceable — that is, as an object, not even human — “then what could come thereafter is mistreatment,” Davis says. “It certainly opens the door for assault, violence, and aggression.” Fetishization isn’t harmless, in other words, and in fact, it can be deadly: Robert Aaron Long, accused of killing eight people, including six Asian women, at Atlanta-area spas, viewed his victims not as humans, but as “temptations” he had to “eliminate.”

Expecting BIPOC to accept fetishizing language as “compliments” not only glosses over their insidious harm, Syrett says it also forces us into a passive position in which we have no choice but to react in the way others want us to. “It really does create already a kind of differential in terms of power,” she explains.

Davis says those who try to justify these comments by insisting they’re compliments “are more fixated on their intention instead of the effect.” Not unlike racial microaggressions, she explains, they usually involve someone in a position of power, saying things without taking time to consider their deeper sociopolitical history and how the other person will receive them.

For these reasons, using fetishizing language is never okay. To give you an in-depth understanding of why certain terms are problematic, we broke down three common examples and the dehumanizing messages they ultimately convey:


Davis says this adjective — often aimed at women of Asian, Latin American, and Pacific Islander descent — “strips the humanity away” from them by reducing them to arbitrary physical traits associated with their gendered racial group. “Exotic” also “has this feel of otherness or someone who doesn’t quite belong in this particular setting,” Syrett says, acting as a placeholder for “different” — a word I often interpret as a euphemism for “not white,” which is to say that “exotic” further centers whiteness. And when directed at me, it evokes the perception of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, a stereotype that’s contributed to the wave of violence against our communities.

As Syrett points out, “exotic” also has "a colonial feel.” When I hear it, I can’t help but think of the conquest, genocide, cultural erasure, and other atrocities committed under colonialism, whose harms impact BIPOC to this day. I imagine colonizers treating us as curiosities to study. In short, the word “exotic” makes me feels infuriated and frankly, gross.

Chocolate,” “caramel,” or other food adjectives in reference to skin color

These comments are objectifying in their portrayal of BIPOC as food to be consumed, Davis says. In a heterosexual context, they imply that women of color are “an object waiting for some kind of male gaze and/or waiting for male consumption, which again goes back to treating women of color as non-human,” she explains — in this case, as literal inanimate objects. Syrett also says these food adjectives raise the question of whether someone is attracted to us because of who we are, or because we’re satisfying their craving for a certain “flavor.” An apt example of this: Mic contributor Joseph Lamour told me that men have referred to him as "chocolate" in dating contexts, especially online.

Plus, comments that fixate on physical attributes like skin color “are emphasizing these traits that in the grand scheme of things shouldn’t really matter" when deciding whether someone will make a good partner, Davis says. They can also feed into colorism, she adds, or the belief that lighter skinned members of a racial group are superior to darker skinned members, which, in turn, “is tethered to European standards of beauty. Women who have a closer proximity to whiteness are considered to be more beautiful.”

“I’ve never tried a [insert racial identity here] before”

While King doesn’t believe the men who’ve told her that they’d “never tried a Black woman before,” had any ill intent, those pick-up lines still ultimately turned her off to them. “It indicated that I was nothing more than a fetish or a specific type of person to mark off their bucket list rather than a human being they wanted to genuinely connect with,” she tells me.

Indeed, Davis says that comments like this imply that BIPOC are “a thrill, like checking off a bucket list item,” not unlike someone expressing a desire to go skydiving. When directed at women of color, “it is as though [men] want to conquer them,” she explains, which ties into the notion of women as not only objects, but as objects that exist for men’s pleasure and sexual curiosity.

Syrett says that in linguistics, prefacing a noun — like a racial identity — with “a” or “an” amounts to “basically taking the person and objectifying them and saying you’re just an instance of a kind,” like “an apple" or "a table." It implies that you see the other person as merely something to sample, she explains, rather than a full human you can grow to appreciate for who they are.

If you’re trying to hit on someone outside your racial group with these words or phrases, especially as the world reopens and we can start dating closer to how we used to, just don’t. In the vast majority of cases, they’ll just creep us out, piss us off, or both — not make us want to sleep with you.