People sometimes use the word ‘exotic’ when describing anybody who doesn’t necessarily fit into the Western standard of beauty. It’s almost like saying ‘you’ve got different hair texture/skin colour/body type/other physical features’ to me.
How many times, as a Mixed person, have you heard that? People, rather than asking about our heritage, they unshamefully boast out the “you look so exotic” mantra. What does that mean? What does it really mean?
When you google the term ‘exotic’ it first comes up with the description: “originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country”.
Cool! Although it is relevant to state out that it’s a word usually used to describe beauty that refers to tropical fruits or animals.
Whenever we’ve been called exotic, people have assumed it was a good thing. By their way of thinking, it’s great because we embody some physical attributes that people desire, and that we look interesting or unusual. But it can be very objectifying. Occasionally, this can be a prompt for questions like ‘what ARE you?’ or ‘where are you from?’, which immediately suggests you are not from here.
Ok! As my hair is long and thick, and my curl pattern is tight and springy, it may be that it’s the first thing people notice. I am light skinned, however my skin tone is marginally warmer than my white friends, and my eyes and eyelashes are both dark. If we look up the definition of exotic, it means “a foreign land, a distant place, an import”, and the most common reference is that of birds and food. Hopfully no one of us feel associate with the tropical birds or white sandy beaches nor an imported piece of fruit.
Most of us understands it in another direction: calling us “exotic”
You are sexualizing our racial identity. Are we “exotic” because we are from the African/Asian/Latina/Aboriginal/Indio side of the planet? Are you seeing us as the stereotype of the “submissive african/orient/latina” who will serve your every whim? Are you telling us that because we are not white, it is “different”, “exciting”, perhaps “rebellious” because we are only a little bit “foreign looking”? Exoticism is often to fetishise, and fetishisation of our bodies. It’s something that embodies racial the microaggressions we are used to see everywhere, from movies, music videos and the mainstream. Exotification is a form of ethnic objectification. Latinas are often seen as “fiery”, Asian women as submissive or over-sexualised and typically described as ‘exotic’ and ‘oriental’, while balck men and women are seen as “chocolate” and “hot”. Should I here remember how from the late 1800s leading up until the 1950’s, there were human zoos, from Europe to New York where people of color lived as exhibits? Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and Indigenous people were on display in makeshift “natural habitats”, stripped of their clothes, whilst spectators could pet and photograph them like ‘exotic animals’. And what to say about Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman brought from Cape Town to human zoos in Europe because of a genetic condition where she had elongated labias and large buttocks- millions flocked to stare at her body? People of colour were objectified and exploited because of their bodies, held captive for people to come and “suss out” because they were considered “unusual”, and even now this is still the case in so much of what we are exposed to. Touching hair and commenting on bodies is still seen as an entitlement in so much of society, when in fact our bodies are our own; not for anyone else’s scrutiny.
Exotification comes with fixations on things like skin color, hair, body size, eye shape, or other body parts. This shows up in ways people might obsess over Asian women’s “almond” eyes, “silky black” hair and petite figure; the fetishization of Black women’s butts and preoccupation with their hair; the unwarranted curiosity of where these body parts actually come when fascinated by the racial ambiguity of mixed race women. This also shows up in the ways that often times our bodies are simultaneously seen as unwanted. Asian eyes are thought to be slanted, small, and sinister. Black hair is kinky and weird. Dark skin is degraded.
You assume we are not born in this country. Just for context, most of us are born here. By referring to us as exotic, you are assuming we do not belong. It is another form of othering, of placing boundaries between our mixed heritage body and yours. It implies that we’re outsiders, someone who doesn’t belong to your same land. Is that really what you meant to say?
You are not interested in our racial heritage at all. If someone ever calls us exotic, let alone starts a conversation with it, it tells us that you are just seeing something ‘different’ and not actually interested in engaging with us as a whole person.
It implies there is a “normal” standard of beauty: White. By calling us “exotic” and othering our bodies, you are also referring to the fact it is not the “normal” beauty standard of white people you are used to. Much like telling us you prefer blonds with blue eyes, that means white people. To tell someone they’re exotic is basically defining them as a “very different” “strange” or “unusual”. It derives from the ideology that white is still the norm, and to be anything else makes you uncommon or rare. Exotification is a reminder that women of color fail to meet Western, white standards of beauty that favor light skin and eyes, straight hair, and thin figures. They can be simultaneously hyper sexualized and desexualized, creating feelings that their bodies just aren’t quite right. We’re made to feel like we deserve the worse ways we’re treated because of the way we look. These racialized beauty narratives impact us emotionally, mentally, and physically as we toil to look like a body we were never meant to look like or work to be okay with our bodies and our looks despite negative societal feedback.
Beauty standards are a form of social, economic, and cultural currency – beauty is a big deal because it shows up in whether or not individuals are treated with dignity and respect by society. For example, the way a Black woman wears her hair, whether it conforms or not to white standards of beauty, might impact whether or not she gets hired for a job. When beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and the beholder is often a white, cis-heterosexual man, beuty narratives become racialized. While white women are also burdened by standards of beauty, women of color are completely alienated and “othered” from this. An “exotic woman” is never truly seen as beautiful on her own terms.
It is also to say that the sexuality of women of color often gets pathologized as hypersexual. For example, the media representation of Latinas follows a pattern of sexualization and exotification. When women of color are perceived as exotic, another set of behavioral expectation is imposed in terms of personality stereotypes that make us more or less desirable: Latina women should be spicy and hot-headed; Asian women should be submissive; Black women should be “well-mannered” and simultaneously sexual.
Women of color are depicted as always wanting sex or available for sex, but not in a way that actually reflects our desire, our wants, or our needs. Hypersexualization is often imposed as hyper-heterosexuality – erasing the many ways women of color express and identify their sexuality. The myths that equate “exotic” with “promiscuous” have led to violent impacts where experiences of sexual assault by women of color are minimized, and worst of all, normalized and legitimized. Being called exotic is rooted and entrenched in violence. While on the surface, it seems complimentary, and at worse, a casual faux pas, the historical and current impact of exotifying women of color has targeted us for sexual violence.
Well! I get that this is all quite hard to navigate. It can be tricky to know what’s OK to say in every scenario. And maybe you think we are just another sensitive snowflake and this really isn’t such a big deal. But here’s the thing: The words we choose matter. And for minority groups that are feeling not so welcome in our very complicated cultural landscape right now, I would argue that it’s crucial to our sense of unity that everyone try harder to stop even small acts of racial marginalizing.
I do believe that our racial ambiguity is not there for anyone to fantasize over, and certainly not there for anyone to call “exotic”. Maybe you probably didn’t mean to indirectly call us “very different, strange, or unusual” , but you are most likely just curious about our ethnicity.It’s ok! But some of us don’t see this as a compliment! Most of us see that the most challenging part of being called “exotic” is that these comments are racist microaggressions, but they are proffered as compliments.
So anytime you want to give someone a compliment and you’re not entirely sure that it doesn’t qualify as a microaggression, here’s my suggestion:
Take a moment to think about the idea or feature you’re choosing to highlight, and do that fortune cookie thing, but instead of thinking “in bed” at the tail end, say to yourself, “and I would still say that if you had traditionally European features.” If you can agree with that statement in full, proceed. If not, abort the mission.
Stop and think before you tell someone they are exotic, and instead remember that they are human, have their own identity, and most importantly they are not from a strange land. Most of them are born and grew up in the same land you did.