Research

Decoding Racialized Sexualization: Race and Sexual Objectification


According to the Gaston Gazette, Li Huang and Chongmei Wei face charges for allegedly running a network of illicit massage parlors across North Carolina and beyond. The crackdown spans from Gastonia to Charlotte, reaching even into South Carolina, with Huang apprehended and Wei evading capture.

This incident illuminates the complex relationship between race, gender, and sexuality, highlighting societal issues that require more interrogation.

The correlation between Asian women and massage parlors in the Western world, particularly in the United States, can be attributed to a distinct historical and sociological process known as racialized sexualization. Understanding and addressing this phenomenon is crucial because of its profound impact on the everyday experiences of individuals from marginalized racial groups.

This blog post delves into the various facets of racialized sexualization to examine its implications, particularly for Black women.

Defining Racialized Sexualization

Racialized sexualization, as defined by sociologist Miliann Kang, is the infusion of racial and sexual meaning into consumer-service worker relations, disproportionately impacting women of color due to racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

However, this process extends beyond service encounters to societal dynamics between people of color living in a white supremacist culture within a capitalist society characterized by racial and sexual inequalities.

Black women and girls experience racialized sexualization due to controlling images like the Jezebel or the Freak, which represent them as sexually promiscuous, especially compared to white women, who are generally portrayed as pure. This dynamic illustrates a historical pattern of European cultural bias toward Afrodescendant people, who they generally believe to practice sexual immorality.

These colonial race and sexuality logics affect Black people today. Recently passed book bans that conservatives say protect children from obscene content actually legalize censorship that disproportionately impacts people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. For example, some districts have banned Toni Morrison‘s The Bluest Eye and George M. Johnson‘s All Boys Aren’t Blue, thereby subjecting the intellectual and creative labor of racialized persons to sexualization.

Media Portrayals: Driving Racialized Sexualization Narratives

The historical depiction of Black people in media has long been fraught with racist imagery that perpetuates racialized sexualization. Media content, such as movies and television shows, reinforce narratives that associate the sexuality of people of color with supposed cultural or biological inferiority.

In the post-Civil War era, minstrel shows crystallized these stereotypes through the “wench“—a role often performed by white men in drag and blackface. These hypersexualized portrayals were intended to entertain and ridicule, further denigrating newly freed Black women as they migrated from the South and attempted to integrate into a society that had previously enslaved them. The ideologies they promoted actively fostered discrimination against Black people, sustaining societal divisions in the post-emancipation era.

Such portrayals persisted as a form of control, evolving from the “Jezebel” stereotype—a controlling image that hypersexualized Black women to justify exploitation. This legacy continues in digital media, where users across social media platforms malign Black women as “wenches,” in present day. The caricatures that began with the “wench” figure have found new forms but serve the same old purpose: to marginalize and to stigmatize.

The influence of media-driven racialized sexualization extends beyond the screen, manifesting in concrete, detrimental effects that shape public perception and negatively affect the self-perception of subjugated communities.

Unraveling the Complexities of Race, Gender, and Sexualization

Intersectionality is crucial to understanding how racialization and sexualization overlap and how persons whose lives are molded by race, gender, and sexuality face distinct obstacles in society.

For example, Black lesbians have faced multiple jeopardies in both feminist/lesbian and Black movements. They confront being suspected of undermining Black empowerment for not adhering to heteronormativity or wrongly accused of not contributing to repopulation, despite being a significant portion of lesbian mothers.

Furthermore, their racial identity often alienates them from white feminist and lesbian groups due to conflicting priorities between these communities. The commitment of white lesbian radical feminists to separatism frequently resulted in a disregard for Black women’s experiences of lesbian identity, which is deeply intertwined with community ties to Black men, heterosexual and bisexual women, and children. This oversight exposes a gap in recognizing the varied expressions of sexuality across different racial groups.

The Combahee River Collective (CRC), a Black feminist collective founded in the 1970s, brings attention to these tensions in their famous statement:

Although we are feminists and lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as black people neces sitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with black men against racism, while we also struggle with black men about sexism.

The CRC’s statememt underscores the complexities at the intersection of various identities, highlighting how different oppressions interplay. Not acknowledging the concurrent impact of racial and sexual oppression risks further marginalizing those already facing compounded oppression.

Cultural Influences on the Sexualization of Race

In the West, the entanglement of racialization and sexualization can often be traced to white supremacist ideologies, which equate racial purity with heteronormativity, casting LGBTQ people and people of color as sexually deviant by contrast. This association perpetuates harmful stereotypes and contributes to the overlapping oppression of marginalized groups.

For instance, Brandon Andrew Robinson’s 2015 study in the Sociology of Race and Ethnicity journal examines how Adam4Adam users employ the site’s features to express preferences, revealing how racial objectification shapes interactions on the gay dating platform:

Through the everyday practice of using the search feature on this site—a search feature that is premised on social inclusion and exclusion—users can erase and cleanse people of color through a simple click on the screen. As structures affect one’s desires, website’s designs are impacting users’ racial preferences. This everyday practice of racial categorization and exclusion in online spaces is one way in which the new racism operates within this digital media age.
– Robinson (2015:322)

Robinson’s study reveals that Adam4Adam users often explicitly seek white partners, excluding Black or Asian men unless they conform to fetishistic fantasies born from white supremacist thought. This pattern of racial exclusion in dating reflects historical, colonial constructs of race, setting up a hierarchy that marginalizes indigenous peoples.

Challenging Racialized Sexualization: Empowerment and Education

Undoubtedly, victims of the intertwined forces of racialization and sexualization actively counter these injustices through a myriad of self-empowering initiatives, campaigns, and organizations that bolster resilience and advocacy for people of color.

Founded in 2010, the Decolonizing Sexualities Network (DSN emerged from a workshop in Berlin, assembling scholars, activists, and practitioners to explore the intersections of sexuality, religion, and race. Between 2012 and 2014, DSN hosted online discussions, workshops, and round-table events in the UK, including the launch of the Queer African Reader, to facilitate transnational conversations among QTPOC communities. These activities have significantly enhanced understanding of how sexuality, race, and religion coalesce within state and civil frameworks globally, with DSN consistently working to address both local and transnational issues impacting QTPOC through various platforms.

The Decolonizing Sexualities Network (DSN) underscores the critical role of education, awareness, and dialogue in the struggle against racism and settler colonialism. Their 2016 anthology, Decolonizing Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, Critical Interventions, is a resource-rich compilation that extends the reach of their advocacy, providing essential tools and knowledge for those looking to engage in the fight for justice and understand the complexities of decolonization efforts within the realm of sexuality.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the case of Li Huang and Chongmei Wei is not an isolated phenomenon but rather a manifestation of deeply ingrained patterns of racialized sexualization that disproportionately affect women of color.

The persistence of stereotypes, such as the Jezebel or the wench, and their modern expressions in media and digital spaces, reflect the ongoing struggle against the intersectional oppression of race, gender, and sexuality. The nuances of this intersectionality underscore the complexity of cultural influences on the sexualization of race and the resulting societal dynamics.

The entwined legacies of white supremacy, heteronormativity, and patriarchy continue to shape public perceptions and self-conceptions of marginalized communities, necessitating a committed effort to unravel these complexities through critical engagement and inclusive dialogues.