One thing that writer Ann duCille mentioned in her essay The Occult of True Black Womanhood was the commodification and fetishizing of Black women in our current society; she brought it up in regarding the recent surge of critical attention being paid to the writing of Black women and also the broader academic and societal views of Black women. She posited that there is a difference between the works of Black women being respected and appreciated for what they are (legitimate scholarship) and focusing on Black women as some sort of idealized (and thereby trivialized) subject.
This observation was one that rang true with me currently and historically. It’s often occurred to me as I move through my life and observe various facets of it that there seems to be no middle ground for how people of color are viewed in mainstream society. It’s either that they are special or nothing, wise or trash, proper or freaky. I seem to observe almost no typical opinions of people of color in society outside of Southwestern U. As someone who is passionate about art history I observe this same issue in historical art. Using Gauguin as an example: he painted native Tahitian people in such a way as to perpetuate popular opinions of their otherness and wrote letters describing them as wise and ‘primitive’, endowing them with a sort of childish wisdom. This trivialized Tahitian culture, and he seemed to have no problem viewing them as artistic objects of inspiration. Other artists of his time either did the same kind of harmful projecting or viewed native peoples as savages. There was apparently little chance of seeing them as simply people with experiences and lives, and I feel that the same thing is still happening. I see this kind of fetishizing behavior in duCille’s observations of how eager critics of all kinds are to dive into Black feminist writings when perhaps they are doing so for misguided reasons, and in the mistaken words of people from my hometown who say that Black people ‘are just really good at sports and stuff, they have different bodies for it, it’s just their thing’.
I unfortunately don’t have a solution for how to remedy this beyond attempting to raise awareness of racial commodification, but these are some observations of parallels I’ve noticed between duCille’s thoughts and my own.