By Mufseen Miah | @mufseen

Dating as a single gay man in a big city like London isn’t easy. Arriving on a date and trying to keep it ‘no expectations’ can be challenging as we all naturally bring preconceptions to every situation we care about.

Dating as a single gay man of colour like myself, however, can be  even harder as sometimes people's expectations are centred around your skin colour and background, which can then become a bit of a minefield to navigate (on top of the usual stress of a first date!). A lot of times I find myself unpacking and discrediting the stereotypes people have of what is to be a gay Asian man, when actually I’d like them to see me as an individual person first and not fixate too much on the fact that to them, I may seem 'exotic' or 'special'.

What I’m describing here is something called racial fetishisation, which is an experience I've had first-hand many times and an issue that pops up regularly in many black and brown peoples’ lives. 

So what is racial fetishisation exactly? It’s when someone has an abnormal affection for another’s skin colour or ethnic background. It goes beyond just preference and borderlines obsession or fixation. A perfect example of the normalisation of racial fetishisation is a term like ‘rice queen’ (a white man who loves Asian men exclusively) or when friends joke about loving ‘big black dick’. 

When I first entered singledom a couple years ago, I quickly discovered how divisive my skin colour could be. I was already aware of and had experienced first-hand the casual racism that existed in the LGBTQ+ community - we are, after all, just a queer-tinted microcosm of wider society,inheriting all its issues in the process. Phrases like ‘no blacks’ or ‘not into Chinese guys’ shocked me when I first came across them, but as time wore on I began, sadly, to expect them on my Grindr feed. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the occasional addition of ‘only into South Asians’. This baffled me, and I kept wondering… isn't this a bit racist too?

For me, if racial exclusion on dating apps is considered racist, then the reverse, racial fetishisation, is too. By fixating on one race, such as my South Asian ethnicity, people actively exclude other races. What's more is that in the process, it stereotypes and generalises all South Asians as one homogenous group.

When a South Asian guy sees a profile with a fetishising comment he might feel labelled, stereotyped and could even begin to internalise that his most important asset in dating is his ethnicity. It's hard not to internalise the idea that to any potential suitor, we're brown first – with presentation, personality, interests and everything else coming second.. 

Essentially, we begin to let others define the narrative in our own minds about what makes us valuable, which is ultimately damaging to our mental health.  While I am making this point by talking about hook-up apps, where people are more vocal about which races they do and don’t like, I also see it happening on social media and in real life too.

Here are some examples of racial fetishisation I’ve experienced, some subtle and others just rude but in each situation, I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable for being brown, a feeling I never want.

  1. At the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a slightly older white man confesses he loves Indian men, the country and the religion so much he changed his name a few years ago to a Hindu goddess. I have to politely explain to him that I'm a gay Muslim and so know very little about Hinduism, which leaves him unimpressed.
  2. At the Two Brewers gay bar, a man approaches me with interest at the bar and opens the conversation with a blunt “Are you Brazilian?” A bit confused, I just reply “No I’m not.” There is a pause, as if I now owed him further information, and I finally relent by telling himI have South Asian heritage, to which he very quickly replies, “Oh I’m not into that.”, before stumbling back to the dance floor.
  3. Another day, my phone pings and a cute guy has deep liked a lot of my photos on Instagram and rounded it off with a follow. We converse and he begins to send me photos. It’s all very flirty and verging on more revealing photos. I check through his profile to find he already has a lovely South-Asian boyfriend. The fun stops when I see that. I don’t want to be ‘just another brown boy’.
  4. A daytime coffee date with a guy which seems to be going well until halfway through when he opens up about how he recently broke up with his Pakistani boyfriend. While he wasn’t overtly fetishising, I couldn’t help but connect the dots and I instantly felt uncomfortable. Maybe he thinks replacing one brown person for another somehow makes sense? I’ve seen this pattern before and so just want to avoid it. We don't meet up again.
  5. And finally, to round things off, here’s a real Grindr message I received from a person earlier this summer:

To those who aren't constantly the object of fetishisation, it might seem like I have a chip on my shoulder, but I've learnt to wear that chip with pride because if I don’t, these many experiences can really get to me. What I’m saying is, whether it’s a hook-up app or in real life, this happens a lot and it’s not ok. There is something in these and other similar experiences which has damaged me a little. It just wears me down. When I am generalised or categorised, you attack my individualism and my sense of self-worth.

While I’m completely comfortable with people having preferences, I have seen a certain ‘I know what I like’ attitude towards race which unsettles me. It is at its core racially-charged objectification and it’s behaviour that can affect the mental health of queer people of colour. I was upset that this is so prevalent in our community, so I took to twitter to express how this made me feel:

The responses this tweet got were as divided as when the black and brown stripes were added to the Manchester Pride flag. What I was trying to express was  that racial fetishisation exists and for me personally, it has damaged the way I think when entering new situations. Instantly I was faced with tweets from white men trying to lighten the situation:

"Maybe he's just liking your photos because he likes them?"

"Maybe you just have good content."

"Oh better yet, assume the positive that he simply likes your pics. :)"

On the face of it, these are kind tweets, but what is evident is that they all side-step the topic of race which is clearly central to the message. Why are these responses so problematic? They all ignore the focus of my tweet, which isn’t about the guy liking my photos, but actually about the constant re-experience of this type of situation.

Digging a bit deeper, I realised that this is actually ‘white fragility’ in action, a term I’ve only recently come to fully appreciate. My understanding of this is that when faced with even a small amount of discomfort over race, some white people will become hyper-defensive and will do everything to avoid talking about race, sometimes subconsciously as was the case here.

These replies are equivalent to patting me on the head and telling me to smile and be quiet about my feelings. In hindsight maybe the right reply would simply be to ask me why I’m feeling this way. 

Not all replies were so light-hearted. By expressing my feelings on the matter I was also met with aggression:

"OK so you don't like white guys looking at your photos, couldn't you just state that on your account and block the white guys?"

"Sounds like narcissism on your part. Maybe take a break from social media."

A few comments from other people (predominantly people of colour) in response to the above replies:

"That and generally all the white gays with BIPOC partners who showed up just to perform that they're different/'good whites'"

"Yikes at some of these responses. Can identify with the feeling and the subsequent gaslighting. Reminds me of this list of triggers of White Fragility from Robin DiAngelo."

Followed by some comments from people who actually understand my perspective and some who empathise, finally I felt I wasn’t alone on my thoughts on racial fetishisation:

"There’s only so long you can be wilfully ignorant of the real dynamics underpinning this behaviour. Eventually it becomes a repeat pattern you observe and become wary of."

"Could it be that you haven’t been in this particular situation; where you’ve had your brown skin prized as an ‘exotic’ fantasy to be fulfilled and later discarded?"

All the commentary on the topic highlights the different perspectives we can have on one situation despite occupying the same space, because of very different lived experiences. Overall there was a lot of agreement with what I was feeling regarding racial fetishisation. It still exists, we don’t talk about it enough and it’s not OK.

As a society, we need to continually call out racial stereotyping on the scene when it happens. We also need to question why apps like Grindr allow users to filter by race and what message this sends to those of us constantly battling racism in these online spaces.

If my experiences and a single tweet can start a discussion for several people, including myself, to learn something then that’s one small step to tackling the many racial issues that still exist in LGBTQ+ life. I hope that through campaigns like Me Him Us, we can take that conversation even further.