Don't Call Me Exotic. Exotic is for Islands.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

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I once had a conversation with a co-worker about mixed-race females that made my blood boil.  This was just before I entered grad school, and I was getting many questions about the topic for my Major Research Paper (like a thesis, but smaller).  I spent quite a bit of time detailing my proposed research topic, and my reasons for engaging in this research area.  My co-worker then proceeded to state that "Mixed-race people are either really exotic and gorgeous, or plain and hideous.  They either have the best of both worlds, or nothing".  I really didn't know how to respond to that one, due to the sheer ignorace of that comment.  I could say the same thing about any other racial group and be met with resistance, so why is it okay for the same to be said about mixed-race people?  I did not handle that situation well, but boy did it light a fire under me.

It is so common for mixed-race people to be exoticized by others.  Another colleague of mine thought it would be appropriate to discuss how "exotic and rare" their new mixed-race friend's beauty was, and was confused when I told them that this actually is not an appropriate statement.  So for those of you who don't understand, let me break it down the same way I broke things down for them.  (This applies to anyone being referred to as exotic, including monoracial PoC).

The word exotic is used to refer to places and things that are foreign and considered unnatural or unreal.  We (as in us who live in North America) refer to islands and fancy flowers as exotic because we don't see them every day, and we quite frankly cannot understand them.  We flock to these places for vacations, and spend our time in awe at the beauty around us.  "Exotic" refers to that which exists for our amusement and enjoyment.  We are able to visit these "exotic" places and enjoy the "exotic" scenery, while ignoring the poverty and oppression that exists just behind the "exotic" curtain. (Now, I have my own issues with refering to tropical countries as exotic, but I'll save that for another day.)

When you call a person exotic, you are objectifying them.  You are in essence saying "Hey, I think you're really gorgeous, but you're also so strange, so different, and I'm in awe.  Let me stare at you, ask you invasive questions about who you are and where you're from, and ask to touch that caramel skin of yours".  Ok maybe I'm exaggerating a bit (although I have all of the above said to me on separate occasions).  My point is, when you refer to someone as exotic, you turn them into the object of your amusement and enjoyment.  You are also ignoring the history of oppression, racism, slavery, abuse, torture, etc., all tied to this view of people from the Southern Hemisphere as "exotic".  

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In addition, calling someone "exotic" is an example of a racial microaggression.  Microaggressions are those little snide comments with a hint of racism - not enough to blast someone with a cry of "RACIST!", but enough for you to do a double take and think "Wait a minute ... something's not right here".  When you call someone exotic, you're being racist enough to get away with in the average social setting, but offensive enough to leave most socially aware people with an uncomfortable knot in the pit of their stomach.

Not convinced yet?  I have one more point.  Do you know what they did to exotic people back in the day?  They conquered them.  Exotic people and their homes were invaded by the colonizers who were "curious" and wanted to "share in the beauty".  That's putting it quite mildly.  "Exotic" people were captured, abused, and slaughtered by the thousands so that European colonizers could have the land, commodities, and slaves that they felt so entitled to.  When you call me exotic, you're making me feel like the next object of your conquest, especially if you're a White man in pantaloons and a fancy wig (just kidding).

Now I know what you're going to say: "Jenell, it's just a compliment.  You're being oversensitive.  Get over it."  Guess what?  I'm not going to get over it.  While I understand you just mean to compliment me, it's not okay for that compliment to have racist undertones.  You think someone is beautiful?  Find another word.  Let's expand our vocabularies, and cut out those racial microaggressions.

The Defiant Dougla

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