Don’t Call Me Caramel

Our co-founder Laila examines the sexual racism prevalent in the language that white men use to approach brown women…

 It is a universally acknowledged truth that any woman of colour who dares set up a profile on a dating app will be confronted with a series of sexually racist advances from white men. I had to delete mine because there are only so many times you can be told you look like Princess Jasmine without losing the will to live. And it’s not just online; comments intended as compliments in real life conversations can be equally demeaning: ‘you look so exotic!’. What strikes me as weird is that these white boys are clueless to the damage their language inflicts; they think it is flattering and fair game. So I’m writing this article not to bemoan the trials of being a brown woman, but rather to explain how language, particularly in the dating sphere, is a legacy afforded to us by colonial power structures which serve to objectify and dehumanise rather than compliment.

However, it is probably worth initially asserting a few things though. Firstly, I know that not all white men are responsible for sexual racism. It seems almost banal to maintain that when I use the phrase ‘white men’, I don’t mean all white men. And yes, I do know lots of very considerate and engaged white men. One day I’ll write an article to express my love for them, just not today. Secondly, I’m aware that sexual racism is experienced by multiple racial and ethnic groups and not just by brown women. For example, both black men and women are subject to very harmful stereotypes. But I am unable to speak to that experience. I should also clarify that by the phrase ‘brown women’ I am largely referring to women of South Asian descent, but these points could also apply to Middle Eastern women.

A Luxury Commodity

‘Chocolate, cinnamon and caramel’ – white men enjoy likening brown women to various food items. There is an obvious implication of consumption attached to these terms, suggesting we are going to be sexually ‘consumed’. From the offset this language establishes an unequal and one-sided sexual dynamic, by which the man indulges himself and the brown woman passively submits. Unsurprisingly it is highly unlikely that both parties will walk away feeling mutually sexually satisfied post such encounters. When a brown woman’s body is understood to be a commodity and the man the consumer, she is reduced to merely an experience; robbed of both her agency and pleasure. 

 Caramel, chocolate and cinnamon are also luxury items. They are not intended for everyday consumption, thus rendering them indulgences. The same applies to a sexual experience with a brown woman. If a white man slept with a ‘caramel goddess’ every day, eventually she would cease to be such and would fall to the station of a normal and inconsumable human. Thus comparing brown women to luxury commodities not only implies that their bodies are experiences, but are one-time, isolated experiences. The message a lot of brown women have internalised, myself included, is that when it comes to white men; we can expect to be fucked and chucked.

The Alluring ‘Other’

The colonial project owed its success to its energetic and consistent ‘othering’ of its subjects. Implying colonial subjects were backward with untameable sexuality gave credence and moral legitimacy to the coloniser’s rule and domination. The French and British were masters at this strategy. Through their art and literature, they very successfully spread the judgement that colonised women were dangerous and fascinating sexual objects. They say that knowledge is power but in this case, it was the powerful who created knowledge. If the colonisers perceived their subjects to be a certain way, then it must be so. As Edward Said puts it: the texts and art didn’t ‘just create knowledge but also reality’. But the colonial era has long gone and now we live in equal, multicultural societies, yes?

Wrong. Unfortunately, the constructed colonial reality is deeply entwined with our contemporary reality. This is made only too clear when a white man deems it acceptable to call a brown woman names such as Cleopatra, tigress, Princess Jasmine or Pocahontas. He is essentially objectifying somebody to confirm what he knows to be true from what he has read, seen or heard around him. If I am called ‘tigress’ it is an affirmation that I am an aggressive, volatile and unpredictable individual. It’s the ultimate power play; ‘knowledge’ has transcended the truth.

The sad result is that many brown women feel burdened to play into the stereotype in order to be desired by a white man. It is both impossible and unfair to expect any multifaceted human being to embody the aspirational reality of another. It also places a significant psychological burden on the recipient of the comment. Gender and sexual relations are hard enough to navigate without also being required to perform in alignment with one-dimensional Orientalist tropes.

The Problem with Fetishes

Many white men will rush to defend their right to have a type in women . And of course they do; everybody does. For example, I have a preference for tall boys with brown eyes. What distinguishes this from a fetish, however, is that it could apply to boys from any racial or ethnic group. It does not single out anyone; which is when it verges on a fetish. 

A fetish is also not to be mistaken for positive discrimination: ‘you’re so lucky I have a thing for brown girls!’. Don’t flatter yourself. A white man’s fetish isn’t doing brown women any favours or granting them any special privileges, in fact it does the opposite. Homogenising brown women into a single category for a white man’s sexual benefit undermines their individuality. He is placing more importance on their bodies and skin colour, factors which are entirely out of their control, rather than their respective characters. It is a dehumanising practice which assumes that all brown women will look and behave in the same way; one which pleases him.

This article shouldn’t be mistaken for a fundamental belief that white men and brown women cannot have equal and happy sexual relationships. If brown women had more chances to educate white men on the correct, respectful approach without being reprimanded for being oversensitive or aggressive, then I think we would see more such relationships. And with more media representation and platforms such as Clitbait, I am hopeful that young brown women in the future won’t need to write essays like this.

Laila Ghaffar

image by Manvir Dobb