There’s a word that pops up with annoying frequency in conversations about people of colour. But despite its popularity, it never fails to surprise me: there I am, reading or chatting away, when – SQUERK! – it pokes me in the eye.
The dreaded word? “Exotic”.
I admit, it doesn’t seem that bad. It’s neither poisonous nor inherently racist. It’s slightly comic, because of the silly euphemism “exotic dancer”. And often, it’s meant as a compliment. But most of the time, its subtler meaning is anything but positive.
Really? asks the skeptic. Exotic cars are expensive and rare; exotic travel is exciting and desirable. These seem like good things, to me. Where are you going with this?
1. “Exotic” focuses exclusively on appearance.
Let’s go back to the exotic dancer I joked about above. “Exotic”, in this context, means a special kind of dancer – not someone dancing for fun, with a partner or friend; not an artist performing something difficult and athletic, like a ballet. She’s a woman whose job is to be stared at, and whose success is measured by her looks.
2. “Exotic” means the person is an outsider.
The word “exotic” comes from Latin and Greek and means, literally, “from the outside”. You have to be foreign before you can be exotic. While this reflects people’s fascination with what’s different and new, it’s also a limitation. If you’re “from the outside”, you’ll never belong, never blend in. You’re interesting because of where you’re from, rather than who you are.
3. “Exotic” makes the person into an object, rather than a real and complex being.
In each of the Agency novels, there’s a scene in which someone remarks on the heroine Mary Quinn’s “exotic” appearance. And yes, she looks different from most Anglo-Saxons. But this is a point of frustration for her. It means that people are pointing at her, whispering about her, wondering what she is, rather than who. And that’s precisely my point.
Finally, think about who is usually described as “exotic”. Women, mainly. Beige- and brown-skinned women, specifically. And with some exceptions, it’s applied most often to women of Asian descent.
“Exotic” is a limitation. A label. Something that masquerades as a compliment but is more often damaging and disabling. And that’s why we need to be so aware when using it.