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Social Justice Synonyms #23: “Exotic”

Welcome to another instalment of Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that discusses  reasons we should be critical of the language we use, and why we should unlearn certain words that maintain the status quo. Previous segments can be found here.


Today I’d like to talk about the word “exotic” and the way it’s often used to describe racialized (non-White) people. Although it’s typically thrown in as a “compliment”, its implications aren’t exactly flattering.

“Exotic” comes from Greek roots, meaning “outside” or “foreign.” Its meanings today as defined by Merriam-Webster are:

  1. Introduced from another country: not native to the place where found <exotic plants>;
  2. Foreign, alien;
  3. Strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual <exotic flavours>.

In general, we use the word “exotic” to describe something (or someone) as foreign. But often that foreignness is measured in direct reference to Whiteness, and the problem lies in how this word serves to reinforce White supremacy.

The word exotic becomes a word that serves to other anything and anybody that doesn’t look White, and normalizes the dominance of White culture. To “other” somebody is to view and treat them as different or alien. That is, by calling someone an “exotic beauty” you are subscribing to a set of beauty standards that enforces White beauty as the norm with the implication that “exotic beauty” is different from “true beauty.” You are saying this person is “somehow beautiful without being ‘beautiful.’”

This word also has highly gendered connotations of fetishization. The “Asian fetish” (also known as “Yellow Fever” or “Asiaphilia”) is just one such example wherein East Asian women are stereotyped (usually by White men) to be submissive, family-oriented, anatomically different, and of less “value”11 than White women, bringing up historical issues of sexism, racism, and classism all in one. This is why when White men say they love (East) Asian women, I’m immediately disturbed and put on high alert.

Exotification-turned-fetishization occurs for plenty of other minorities, a big factor in perpetuating (and normalizing) violence against people of colour. Mainstream stereotypes about Black and Latina women serve to objectify and alienate; further, exotification through (hyper)sexualization of Indigenous women has occurred since the beginning of colonialism across Turtle Island (North America) and beyond.

On the flip side, the sexualities of racialized men are also viewed differently. Asian men are forcibly desexualized, and Black and Latino men are hypersexualized, each through distinct but parallel histories of discrimination and hatred, resulting in the stereotypes and portrayals we see today. All in all, what occurs is a reduction of racialized peoples down to a single feature: their perceived sexuality and sexual worth, or lack thereof. When you use the word “exotic” to describe a person, often a racialized woman, you commodify and objectify that individual’s body; you turn someone into something, a plastic thing judged from within a plastic case labelled Foreign Import – no different from a foreign car or a tourist advertisement.2

As an Asian woman, I’ve been called exotic before, and I can tell you it sure didn’t feel like a compliment. It was a comment that made me feel as though I was judged, that I was different, that my very appearance says you don’t belong.

Thus, the use of the word “exotic” towards a person of colour is a racial microaggression.

The othering of non-White cultures has consequences for racialized people. Researchers found as early as the 1940s (and in studies replicated as recently as 2010) such ideas of White beauty being “true beauty” have a significant, measurable impact on the self-image and self-esteem of young Black girls. Perceptions of physical beauty also affect perceptions of intelligence, trustworthiness, and kindness. “What is beautiful is good,” or so we think through often-inaccurate heuristics.

Research by Sapna Cheryan’s group suggests that when Asian-Americans are asked “Do you speak English?” they change their behaviour to try and “prove” their American identity. A study out of UBC has found racial stereotypes can even influence how understandable we find others to be; when paired with a visual cue of an Asian face compared to a White face, the same audio clip is rated less intelligible. This study suggests that people have implicit positive associations of Whiteness and English proficiency. From the romanticization of European accents above all others, to the privilege of “sounding White,” to the results of this study showing implicit positive associations between White facial features and perceived intelligibility, it seems we have been trained well to accept White supremacy even in something as ubiquitous as language.

More generally in psychology, anything that seems unfamiliar (e.g. faces and skin colour) is perceived more negatively than if it were familiar. This is through a cognitive process termed processing fluency, which has been proposed as an explanation for bias against migrants. When these internal prejudices are unchallenged and unexamined, they translate easily to racism.

It doesn’t help that the last few years in particular have seen countless inflammatory remarks made about immigrants, particularly in political campaigns. Closer to home, there is much anger about Asian immigrants in Vancouver driving the rise in housing prices even though this has little factual basis (here and here) but plenty of local history: the Chinese head tax, Japanese Canadian internment, and the Komagata Maru tragedy are all closely tied to Vancouver. State-sanctioned racist policies in the form of Anti-Asian housing sentiments have existed since the 1800s, when these policies were first implemented; sadly, history repeats itself and the sentiments are still here in the present day.

Even if this scapegoating did have supporting evidence, the vast majority of Asians who feel the brunt of these lines of prejudiced thinking hold passports that are no less “Canadian” than that of anyone else, whatever this may mean on land stolen through colonization.

It bears noting that apart from people of Indigenous descent, none of our ancestors are from the country we call “Canada”. This holds true for White folks. But we still decry non-White features in North America: indeed, non-White physical appearances (e.g. Black hair and Asian eyes), non-White cultural customs, and English with non-European accents or other (non-European) languages in public places can all be points of condescension or even hostility.

To continually emphasize that non-White features are foreign (or “exotic”) contributes to these implicit negative associations and oppressive structures of systemic racism. With these norms of Whiteness in place, racialized and Indigenous people are forced to be chronically aware of race. In the worst of cases, too often, the colour of one’s skin can have deadly, tragic consequences (see here and here).  

Instead of reinforcing the dominance of White culture over other cultures in North America, some alternative inclusive words and phrases include:

“You look exotic.” “You have striking features/stunning eyes/a lovely shade of hair1.
“What an exotic name!” “I’ve never heard that name before! Please correct me if I mess up the pronunciation – I’m used to pronouncing the Anglicized names that people are pressured to give their kids because of the subtle racism that still exists in our society.”
“I just love exotic Asian/Black/etc. women.” Yeah… no, just don’t. Think about what you’re implying here.

Jennifer is a fourth-year Science student at UBC majoring in Physiology and minoring in Psychology. She loves green tea and has an avid interest in intersectional feminism, mental health, and fandom.

Special thanks to those who have continually encouraged me to explore my interest in social justice issues. (You know who you are.)

  1. It is, however, important to consider the circumstances and the comfort level of the person to whom the comment is directed. For some physical features there is a long history of racism and shaming; an example is the natural hair of many Black women.
  2. This is not to say the usage of the word “exotic” is entirely unproblematic in describing objects manufactured in other countries; exotifying components of non-White cultures in this way still contributes to the normalization of objectifying and fetishizing racialized people from these cultures. Presented with overwhelmingly distorted and misconstrued imagery about other cultures, we begin to perceive these cultures and the individuals from them through prejudiced lenses.

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