I have a post in the works for Gene Expression about phenotypic plasticity in human mate preferences, and since this is my personal blog, I figured I'd provide a colorful example of this phenomenon from my own life.
Readers know by now that I'm not very attracted to women from the ethnic backgrounds I come from -- well, French perhaps, but in general I'm not attracted to Celtic or Northeast Asian girls. It's not a preference for a generalized Other -- in my case, any group outside of the icy climates -- since in general I'm also not attracted to those of sub-Saharan African or Australian Aboriginal descent, to name just two. Interestingly, females from the groups I'm not attracted to haven't shown much interest in me either. My ideal group encompasses the European and African sides of the Mediterranean (though more the former than the latter), the Near East, Middle East, and South Asia, as well as those who show non-trivial admixture from these groups (such as most Latin Americans). Ground zero for hotness, in my book, is Iran. And again, I don't require 100% purity; common mixed groups, such as Persian-Turkic or Persian-Pakistani, serve as equally illustrative examples.
Now, a common objection that I encounter is that I'm "exotifying the Other," which given the tone of voice in the surrounding text or speech is apparently a Very Bad Thing. It clearly isn't, or else I'd be suspected of criminal or sinful behavior -- what the faultfinder really means is that it is a Thing in Very Poor Taste, and that "behaving decorously" is necessary for "behaving ethically / morally." Without going into it, I disagree. In any event, why do such detractors invariably assign me the blame -- does it not take two to tango? I see at least two ways in which the female of another group is as responsible for my tastes: 1) as the grandchild of a Japanese grandmother and Franco-American grandfather, I probably have a genetic predisposition to romantically seek out the Other, which I have inherited from both my grandparents, in particular from my grandmother who actively sought out my grandfather when he was stationed in Japan. And 2) during adolescence, it was females from Other groups who sought me out, not vice versa, and I will argue in my Gene Expression post that such events contribute to one's preferences as an adult. In brief, they serve as cues to which females you will be successful with, and so your preferences congeal in a way that biases you toward taking the path of least resistance, rather than take an interest in groups of girls who are less likely to reciprocate.
So, part of the reason why a guy might exotify the Other is that one of his female ancestors did so as well. This could be true due to personality traits that biased her to seek Other men, or it could be due to colonizing men abducting local women as wives. Though the initial wife wouldn't necessarily have a personality bias toward seeking out the Other, her children likely would, including the daughters, in much the same way that the daughter of a Native American woman and an English colonist might have green eyes. This first-generation hybrid daughter would then have the personality bias already described. These are explanations that refer to genetic variation which accounts for variation in preferences, though clearly environmental variation can shape preferences too.
For example, when I was 11 or 12 years old and in 6th grade, I got a call from a girl I didn't really know, who was calling on behalf of yet another girl I didn't know; the first wanted to know if I wanted to be the boyfriend of the second. Not being encumbered by female-typical cautiousness, I of course agreed to go out with a total stranger. Well, I at least knew she was pretty (she also had the largest breasts of anyone in middle school, and could've rivaled those of high school and college girls, not that I cared -- regular readers know I don't care much for breasts). I never learned exactly where she was from, but the Latino community where I lived at the time was mostly Salvadorean, so based on that and on her appearance I'd guess Central American. Once when she, I, and a group of friends were hanging out in the cafeteria after school, the others bolted out the door when the bus arrived, while I went for my backpack -- and when I turned around, she had set up an ambush, so that I couldn't leave the cafeteria without confronting her. That was my first back-caressing, mouth-exploring kiss, and it lasted a good minute or two -- a pretty promising start for a 6th grader!
Two years later, I dyed my hair purple and caused a minor scandal with the principal (a racist martinet who punished the white students for trifling "disruptions to the learning process" such as dyed hair, while making excuses for the thugs and bullies). What surprised me was that the pretty, popular girls began to take notice of me -- bad boy appeal? -- and started talking to me in class. One in particular asked a mutual friend of ours to tell me she really liked me -- though unlike before, when the intermediary asked me if I wanted to go out with her friend, this time the friend just delivered a message. And I, being too introverted by nature, couldn't work up the nerve to ask this girl out, even though I had a huge crush on her up to that point, and despite being all but invited to ask her out. I don't have many regrets, but this is one, and I'll never get over it. The girl in question had an Irish surname, but she looked completely Italian (tawny skin, dark eyes and hair, Mediterranean facial features, etc.), as did her mother, whom I saw when she chaperoned a field trip once. So, she was probably Irish-Italian, a common mix in the Mid-Atlantic region.
My first real girlfriend -- the first one I went out on real dates to the movies with, for example -- I actually asked out, even if via a friend of hers. And by this time (that is, 10th grade), I at least had enough nerve to initiate some things like putting my arm around her at the movies. She was half-Persian and half-Anglo-American, though she looked fully Persian on the outside, like her mother; her sister looked Finnish, which serves as a reminder that inheritance is discrete rather than blending. Come to think of it, the friend of the girl whom I couldn't work up the nerve to ask out -- she herself was interested in me the year before, in 7th grade, when she was the only girl who would try to badger me into dancing with her at the school dances. (It's not that I didn't like her, but again just felt awkward dancing at that age.) I remembered her having fairly swarthy skin and Middle Eastern features (despite an Anglo last name), and I just looked her up on MySpace -- having seen many different groups of people by now, I'd say she's likely half-Persian (or maybe Jewish -- or maybe Persian Jewish). At least that's what she looks like.
In any event, these four girls were pretty much the only ones who showed any interest in me during my post-pubertal existence, up until I lived in Barcelona for awhile after graduating college. They were all average or pretty, while the one northern European girl who had a crush on me in 12th grade was hideous in appearance and off-putting in demeanor by anyone's standards -- so that's the best I could do if I liked Northern girls. Therefore, when my preferences were crystallizing throughout adolescence, it was these four Other girls who must have had the greatest impact on my tastes, in addition to whatever genetic bias I had toward the Other that I inherited from the interracial side of my family. (Think of how I would've turned out had I come of age in rural Idaho!) Whatever the relative contribution of each is, it's clear that the actions of Other females have played a decisive role in how my own preferences turned out, and it's therefore naive to suppose that people with exotic tastes have some sort of fetish rather than a common-sense plan to seek out those most likely to reciprocate.
Moreover, even among those who are driven more by fetishistic compulsions, their desires are no different from those who have a penchant for blondes rather than brunettes, or for the large-breasted rather than the large-rumped. Indeed, we could easily (and stupidly) say that a guy who has a preference for large-breasted, blonde introverts has a creepy "Nordic fetish." It doesn't mean he has obliterated the individuality of the various girls in this group; it simply means that he knows which group is most likely to contain girls to his liking. Likewise, a guy who prefers introverts to extraverts doesn't believe that "any old introvert will do." Thus, if we accept that guys with an "Asian fetish" are somehow erasing the individuality of Asian girls, then we're forced to accept that a guy who digs blondes or introverts is doing so as well, and similarly for guys with a preference for any trait or constellation of traits that vary among individuals. Since this is plainly ridiculous, we can discard the assumption that gave rise to it, namely that there's something creepily individuality-effacing about the preferences of guys who tend to go for a particular group or groups of girls. Lighten up, people!