I cannot begin to tell you the countless times I’ve been told I’m exotic by numerous people, at various occasions: friends at university, festival-goers, conference delegates, teachers at school, retail assistants, doctors and even fellow commuters of public transport systems. Apparently, I’m not beautiful by mainstream beauty standards; I belong to the foreign, exotic variety.
Exotic as an Othering and Objectifying Mechanism
Of course, the issue of this three-syllabic, complex, doubled-edged, back-handed compliment ‘exotic’ is not simply a figment of my imagination or an exaggeration of anomalous experiences. Nor is it a manifestation of my overly sensitive, over-thinking, self-victimising mentality or a cry for some frivolous, selfish attention, which are wonderfully false claims, in denial and ignorant of its significance and implications. Its usage is problematic and here’s one for starters: how are people so comfortable describing women of colour, mixed-race or ethnically ambiguous backgrounds, with a word Oxford Dictionary reserves for plants and animals?
Exotic is not a compliment. It’s an otherising mechanism reserved for the foreign, strange and unfamiliar. It’s a microaggression. Then there are underlying questions such as: who is exotic, and why? What makes one exotic? Are women of shades not human or beautiful enough to simply be called ‘beautiful’ – or do they fall shy for that adjective? To describe one as exotic is to imply that the subject in question does not belong and leads to another question – exotic to whom? There is a certain gaze, a certain expectation, a stereotypical type of appeal drawn out for such women: the spicy Latina, the buxom Africana, tasty mocha skins of South Asia, mysterious Middle Eastern eyes. Such beliefs and expectations are endless, objectifying, and otherising. It must be noted that the objectifying nature of “exotic” is not only restricted to women of colour. It also applies to men of colour, to cuisines, customs, costumes and entire cultures.
The Fetishizing of Ethnicity and Culture
This has aided, if not created, the unhealthy phenomenon of fetishizing ethnicity and cultures – as well the promotion of Western fantasies that have led to the widely popular, unquestioned, misrepresentations of cultures. These accepted misunderstandings and uninformed, ignorant regurgitations of culture have been incredibly problematic; this makes self-determination and autonomy an incredibly arduous task for those whose cultures have been stripped away from dignity, as they are removed from its authorship. Classic examples include the fetishizing of belly dancing, Raqs As-Sharqi, reducing it to a Western fantasy, a seductive activity, though in its cultural context it is not a sexual dance aimed to please men. It is simply a cultural dance. Another example of this is the idea of the harem, purdahs or zenanas. Popularised by Western writers, what was traditionally simply women’s living quarters, forbidden to men, has been redefined to denote a haven for sex slaves and concubines.
The attitudes surrounding twerking, reinforced by popular culture, is yet another example of a people’s dance, twisted to suggest this dance is inherently sexual. This is not so much a sexual dance than it is one of resistance. African Americans have suffered a history of being extradited from their native lands, stripped of their identity, language, culture, even their names, without being socialised, integrated or accepted into their new surroundings, and subjected to unspeakable debasement. The act of having unconventional names, developing their own dialect, accent and dances, are part-in-parcel to their civil rights movement. To compartmentalise twerking, then, is to reduce the power of those who resist, by once again preventing African Americans of having ownership of their own culture. Many white entertainers, and black ones as well, lack the understanding and knowledge of this historical, autonomous act of resistance and on-going legacy of oppression. It’s no wonder they actively appropriate black culture to regain and express their sexuality, relevance, and their cool appeal.
Sexualizing and Stereotyping Women of Colour
The other issue with this term, exotic, is its kinky connotation. Historically and traditionally, and in the current colonial world construct we live in, fair women have been associated with purity, moral superiority and delicateness while women of colour are thought to be inherently sexual beings – and definitely not as pure and delicate. A fairer, light-skinned woman is someone you’d take home to your parents. A darker woman is someone you’d take to your hotel room. To top it all off, strippers are also described as “exotic dancers”. There are far too many connections between the usages of this word for this to be a coincidental application.
The sexualisation, even fetishization and exotification, of women of colour is so pervasive – it is no surprise such convictions are commonplace in their representation. The Walt Disney Company is beyond guilty of this, but is not the only outlet that does so, playing into not just sexist stereotypes, but racial ones as well – creating an intersectional blow for non-white women: the story of Pocahontas is flawed. It takes the false story John Smith created, a version Pocahontas herself refuted and asked John Smith to stop spreading – a request that fell on deaf ears and now immortalised into mainstream thought. The story of Pocahontas not only glosses over the inhumane treatment of Native Americans by European settlers, but also expounds the idea that Native people are at one with nature, as well as reinforcing stereotypical cultural practices and costumes. The same can be seen in Peter Pan. Jasmine and Esmeralda are also unnecessarily sexualised, more so than their white Disney Princess counterparts. Princess Tiana’s character is stylized with the strong, independent Black woman stereotype. What kind of unhealthy messages does this send to young girls of colour? Does mainstream media and societal thought really expect and accept these stereotypical ideals to be fed and ingrained into their system, so they may fulfil these prophecies laid out for them?
Imperialism’s History, Rhetoric and Legacy of Oppressing Women of Colour
Add to the issue of representation, some historical complexity and context; there are other roots to this problematic notion of the inherent sexual kinkiness women of colour possess: during the time of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, a West African slave woman costed more than a male one – because unlike slave men, her usability was not just limited to cotton fields. Her premium made her available for the white slave master’s sexual exploitation. Fast forward to the present day and we still see women of colour the subject of white men’s discourses – how these righteous men are to liberate these foreign, oppressively clad women.
Liberating women of shades from their evil, uncouth men and suffocating culture is not a new Western narrative: the British colonisers held the same mentality and saviour sentiment when they took over Egypt. The same ideology is held by modern-day France, dictating their unapologetic stance against ‘evil’ cultures belittling women. This notion is not just in the political sphere. How many Hollywood movies portray unhealthy people of colour relationships and how many movies portray a woman of colour saved by the white man. It’s the same coin, same problem. Just flip it.
Taking things at face value can only be afforded by those privileged enough to be unaffected by it, or those unaware of this microaggression, or the long complex history of othering, fetishizing, exoticizing women of colour through objectifying dehumanization.