Racism is very well alive in the United States. Our nation’s discussion on race is ever more prevalent, especially when movements, such as Black Lives Matter, seek to educate the masses and empower people of color globally. Language plays an important role on both sides of the altercation, whether it’s racial slurs or empowering remarks of equality. However, some language is used without the intent of being racist, but instead alienates people of color further. An example of such is witnessed whenever we use the word “exotic” to describe ethnically diverse individuals. I am both Brazilian and Portuguese, my grandmother was a gypsy, and my roots trace back to Natives in the Amazon. As long as I can remember, being called “exotic” was a compliment from those that admired my inherited features, but, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Merriam-Webster defines “exotic” as following:
Notice how the word “exotic” is used to characterized plants, animals, and even flavors, but not people. When we name a person of color as “exotic,” we denominate their being to be less than human, which has been historically witnessed with stereotypes of the wild and aggressive black male. When we name a woman of color as “exotic,” we fetishize her black body, associating her beauty as an object of sexual desire. If one were to replace the term “exotic” with one of its synonyms, such as “strange,” “different,” or “unusual,” the complement would be lost, and the racist remark becomes more visible. In doing so, the term “exotic” is responsible for the othering black bodies, just as the definition states.
I can name a handful of friends and acquaintances who have used the term “exotic” with no intention of being racist, yet despite their intention, however, the term is still prejudiced when applied to people. I believe this misinterpreted use of “exotic” is because the word has been exoticized by those unaware of its racist connotation. To “exoticize” something is to romanticize or glamorize a portrayal of something as exotic or unusual. With that being said, people today are using the word “exotic” as an appreciation for culturally diverse appearances that deviate from the American standard of beauty seen in the media. Although the intention is to acknowledge beauty outside the realm of pale features and skeletal figures, it limits its subjects rather than empower them.
Many people use the term “exotic” in the absence of one’s ethnic background. For instance, Maria, born in the United States, identifies as a 3rd generation American whose ancestors immigrated from South America several decades ago. John is a white male and can’t figure out if Maria is Argentinean or Chilean, so he plays it safe and identifies her as “exotic,” like a tropical piece of fruit. There are several issues with this scenario, especially John’s logic. He considers Maria exotic, implying she is not native to the United States, simply because her ethnic background is different than his. When you consider the United States is a country of immigrants, it is likely that John’s ancestors immigrated as well and there isn’t anything truly “exotic” or “unusual” about that. This is only one example of how the term “exotic” challenges people of color in this country, some who have lived in the States all their lives but are alienated because of their cultural background and the misuse of language that fails to recognize their being.
It’s time to educate ourselves so to avoid these microaggressions’ further alienations of marginalized groups of people. As Suheir Hammad once said, “Don’t wanna be your exotic, some delicate, fragile, colorful bird, imprisoned, caged, in a land foreign to the stretch of her wings.”