It’s astounding how one word can ruin your day.
Back in late August, I was sitting in the park with two friends, one blonde and one brunette. They’re both white. A man approached us: “Are you ladies friends?” We smiled and nodded curtly, hoping he’d leave us alone. Wishful thinking. Instead, he proceeded to tell us how we each embodied a specific stereotype. He turned to the blonde and said, “I bet you’re the fun one.” He turned to the brunette and said, “I bet you’re the responsible one.” Finally, he turned to me: “And you’re the exotic one.”
The exotic one. Of course. I had to muster everything within me not to laugh or scream in his face.
As someone of Taiwanese and German descent, I have small eyes that become even smaller when I laugh. I have black hair that will either fall straight down my back or decide to curl, depending on its mood. I have a sloping, bridge-less nose I get from my mom, and large, full lips I get from my dad. California summers can turn my skin dark bronze in a week, but that evaporates to a honey-yellow by the end of October. If I wear hoop earrings, people ask if I’m Hispanic. If I braid my hair, people ask if I’m Native American. Normally, I rarely think about my race. But it’s impossible not to when someone calls me exotic.
The last time I checked, exotic was not a personality trait. Nor was it a compliment, despite what countless people seem to believe whenever they encounter an attractive woman who is not conventionally of a certain race (read: white). Dictionary.com defines “exotic” this way: of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized. Things that people may call exotic include orchids, coconut lotions, and parrots. If you call me exotic, you put me in the same category as flowers, toiletries, and birds.
The other definitions of exotic include “strikingly unusual or strange,” or even “involving stripteasing.” After all, exotic is just one letter away from erotic. Exotic is sexualized — think exotic dancers, exotic lingerie — and I do not need to be reminded of this subtext every time someone approaches me at a bar. Yet being called exotic is a “compliment” I’ve lived with and heard innumerable times, ever since I entered high school.
Here’s the deal: Even though you might have the best of intentions, when you call someone exotic, you remind them that they belong to a racial minority group. You remind them they do not belong here.
“Exotic” is a term of micro-aggression, a word that is denigrating to people of color, yet so brief and frequent that it is often dismissed as innocuous, as defined by Psychology Today. Similar micro-aggressions can range from asking an Asian person to tutor you in math to Joe Biden’s infamous description of Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Many African-Americans took this to mean something like “most blacks are inarticulate and dirty and unattractive, except for Obama.” At worst, these micro-aggressions perpetuate the alienation of minorities as anomalies, spectacles, and deviations from the norm. At best, they’re backhanded compliments. You are bright and clean, unlike most other people who look like you.
Exotic means there, not here. Them, not us. You, but definitely not me. Exotic is a word defined by the speaker’s perspective, which assumes dominance and normalcy over the person being called exotic.
The only thing I hear more frequently than “exotic” is the quintessential “Where are you from?” While I want to respond “San Francisco,” I know if I do, I will only be barraged by “No, I mean where are you really from?” or “Where are your people from?” or even “Where are your ancestors from?” If you must know my race, be up front about it and ask. I will tell you. Sneaking around the question only suggests my race is something I should be ashamed to talk about, which I am certainly not.
A recent study found that the close social networks of white Americans are overwhelmingly, homogenously white. Ninety-one percent white, if you’re counting. If every white person had a social network of 100 people, 91 of those friends would be white. The remainder includes just one black friend, one Latino friend, one Asian friend, and one mixed race friend, according to the study. And it gets worse: 75 percent of whites have literally only white friends with no minority presence whatsoever.
That’s so depressing! And kind of bizarre. These statistics feel like they belong in the 1960s, not in the glorified era of the salad bowl or melting pot of 21st century America. Chris Rock voiced it best: “All my black friends have a bunch of white friends. And all my white friends have one black friend.”
Conversations about race, micro-aggressions, and sensitivity, which need to happen now more than ever, will be ineffectual and flaccid if they occur within a homogenous group of people. These conversations must happen between diverse groups of people who can offer their own perspectives, which may be why any problematizing of the word “exotic” is so often defended by “I only meant it as a compliment!”
Well, now you know. Even if couched as a compliment, “exotic” does not say I am beautiful. It says I am beautiful in spite of, or perhaps because of, my race. If you want to compliment a woman whose ethnicity you can’t quite place, call her beautiful, because she is. If you ask me about my race, be transparent about it and I will happily respond. But don’t call me exotic.
Sabrina Imbler is a Contributing Writer at THE WEEK HERE