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Travelogue: An 'Exotic' Adventure

Turquoise water ripples around your ankles. The translucent hue of blue is vibrant and persuades you to step further into the depths. Your feet, sliding into the sediments, begin to investigate the sand smuggling between your toes. You notice fish swimming fast, and the sun refracting off their scales reminds you of needles sewing silk. Surrounding you is a wealth of greenery. The trees are ever expanding their branches, competing for the sun to kiss their leaves. It’s marveling how light can even pass through the canopy overhead, how you can hear yourself think amongst all the wildlife chirping, calling, serenading, and rejoicing life. The grass is tall and moss carpets almost every rocky surface. The Earth blushes as amanita muscaria mushrooms embellish the forested floor with hints of red. The ecosystem, untouched and at peace, convinces you this sanctuary has never faced man-made destruction. You are an outsider in this majestic environment, an observer who experiences a culmination of nature—a truly exotic sensation.

If ever in search of a truly exotic destination, I encourage you scope out the unfamiliar yet ultimately mystifying terrain of Socotra, Yemen. The island of Socotra is home to more than eight-hundred rare species of endemic flora and fauna, including the stupefying dracaena cinnabari, commonly known as the dragon’s blood tree. The dragon’s blood tree, which can grow for up to three-hundred years, received its name from rich, red sap that bleeds from the trees whenever they are cut. Globetrotters claim a journey through Socotra is like stepping foot into a science-fiction film, and National Geographic believes Socotra is Where the Weird Things Are. They are correct to think so, especially when you consider this tropical island, despite its size of only 83 by 27 miles, ranks among the world’s most important centers of biodiversity, combining elements of Africa, Asia, and Europe in ways that still puzzle biologists. Intriguingly, Socotra—an aggregate of jagged mountain peaks, dry lowlands, and pockets of shrouding mist—explores almost all corners of the Earth, yet the majority of Socotra’s wondrous ecosystem does not exist anywhere else on the planet. It is unlike any traditional travel destination, which is why some claim the life that flourishes on the exotic island of Socotra is magic.

In the 1600s, the word “exotic” was used to define magic, such as witchcraft and other exoticke artes. One can imagine Socotra’s famous bleeding trees could fit into this definition because the word “exotic” was understood to be strange and inexplicable. Although today’s interpretation of “exotic” is similarly described as unusual or strikingly different, the modern day definition communicates an excitement for the unknown, and perhaps that is why Socotra has made such an exotic name for itself. However, in 1651, any person of foreign origin did not have as fortunate an opportunity to make a name for themselves. Instead, they were conditioned to give up their identity as other people of (white) power would ultimately acknowledge them as “an exotic.” Individuals, all ranging from diverse ethnic backgrounds, were marginally grouped as a foreign entity and rarely viewed as full human beings. No matter their country of origin, foreigners and immigrants were “otherized” because the power of language, the ability to name someone as other, enabled a racial hierarchy.

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 righteous 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 racially diverse individuals. Merriam-Webster defines “exotic” as introduced from another country; not native to the place where it is found; strikingly or mysteriously different; of or relating to striptease. Today, the word “exotic” literally characterizes plants, animals, flavors, and even promiscuous art forms, but I’ve noticed how people incorrectly (and quite often) use the word to characterize people, specifically people of color.

Don’t wanna be your exotic, some delicate, fragile, colorful bird, imprisoned, caged, in a land foreign to the stretch of her wings. — Suheir Hammad

When using the word “exotic” to acknowledge a person, the opposite effect is achieved because describing an individual as exotic debases their existence to be less-than-human. People are not plants, animals, places or flavors. You may have eyes that are green like palm tree leaves and your clothes might smell like the curry spices and incense that flood your kitchen, but that does not mean you are exotic simply because your normality is someone else’s anomaly. Naming someone exotic dehumanizes their existence because the literal definition is not applicable to people. People are human beings, conscious of their identity and where they belong in the world.

Using the word “exotic” to describe a racially diverse individual does not encompass that individual’s background or what culture they practice; “exotic” ends up being a word used in the absence of their ethnic and racial heritage. It’s reflective of how some people don’t care to acknowledge cultural differences and will simply slap a label on it instead—a label that strips diverse individuals of not only their ethnicity and race, but their human condition as well.

Latinx are, and have long been, an integral part of U.S. history and culture. They are Americans, yet they are frequently confronted with the word “exotic.” Perhaps it is their physical appearance that leads some to assume Latinx are something “other.” But that kind of thinking then leads to questions, like what’s the metric that features commonly branded as “Latina” are being measured against? Maybe it's the accent; maybe our L’s linger on a little longer, our R’s slightly more curled and pronounced. Is that exotic? And if so, for whom? Most often, the intended usage of “exotic” is to signal a positive compliment, but even then, it is important we recognize how many harmful stereotypes are built on the very best of intentions. There is thrill in being presented as “new” or “different” and even “sexy,” but this form of praise ultimately hinders our attempt at truly understanding any group of people as just that: People4. All intentions aside, we cannot justify how the term’s cultural currency on the internet, as exhibited by the previous Google search, fails to promote social mobility, especially for Latina women.

Some women, however, choose to adopt the term “exotic,” especially when their job description requires it. Many will argue that “exotic dancer” is a politically correct way to say stripper, and in this respect, the word “exotic” is doing its defining job of “othering” one dancer form from its counterpart. Unfortunately, the word “exotic” is also responsible for “othering” these dancers from other types of workers, specifically speaking in legal terms. There is a detrimental misunderstanding that exotic dancers work “off the books” and don’t deserve equal rights. This is incorrect, and many exotic dancers suffer from labor violations, violence in the workplace, and more. To dismiss this issue because these dancers “choose to work in those conditions” or “put themselves in that situation” is disrespectful. These women are human; they are citizens who deserve access to their legal and promised rights just as much as anyone else. Alas, their job title suggests otherwise, and with that being said, it’s easier for people to dehumanize their existence because of the label exotic dancers are given.

I am a first-generation immigrant and because of my heritage, I have been labeled exotic. I am both Brazilian and Portuguese, my grandmother was a gypsy, and my roots trace back to Natives in the Amazon. In my own experiences, I’ve been branded as exotic because people seek to acknowledge my diverse background as a form of rare beauty, deserving of praise. I love your curly hair. It’s so kinky and exotic! Some friends would also comment on my mother’s accent, saying it was funny, but by making a distinction that her accent was also exotic, any negative interpretations should be dismissed. Nonetheless, I felt insulted because I never thought my mother’s voice was laughable or strange, nor did I think my natural hair was considered odd; which is essentially what they were saying, in spite of the fact they meant well. As long as I can remember, being called “exotic” was a compliment from those that admired my inherited features, and I continuously notice how people are still using the word 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 (white) norm, being named “exotic” does not empower me or other people of color, but instead limits us. And we will continue to be limited until our (white) peers thoroughly understand the power of language over black and brown bodies; until they discern the how the consequences of their actions have affected our black and brown bodies; until they recognize how their ignorance perpetuates the historical narrative of breaking down black and brown bodies.

If one were to replace the term “exotic” with one of its synonyms, is it still a compliment?

In the Sephora Beauty Talk chat forum, user 19blue19 poses a question to the Sephora beauty community: What does it take to be an exotic beauty?

ChicDabbler: Just say thanks and don't worry about it.

Runy: I usually find the person who uses the term "exotic beauty" that it is more telling of them than you. Usually when someone has used that term on me, it's because they've never seen someone who looks quite like me. As in they are unfamiliar with others whose features resemble mine or have never seen all these features in the way they are in me. It is a compliment, one way or the other. I think people usually say that term because—yes as others have mentioned race is a factor of how people view beauty in the US—they view you as beautiful in a very different way than they are used to seeing beauty.

Sephoramusthave: It’s a compliment, so just take it with a smile.

Meg82: Exotic has been used in history to separate "real" beauty (the white american standard) from "other" beauty (people whose features are harder to place.) It sets up a weird dichotomy culturally and is kind of a messy word.

Ghkim: In my experience it means that you are not white. Plenty of Asian/Indian/Persian women get called this. I think 'exotic' is also typically associated with east or south Asian ethnicities more than African or Hispanic. Are you white American or do you have any other ethnicity in you?

The Dictionary definition of “ethnic” is pertaining to or characteristic of a people, especially a group sharing a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like. Although some will argue the word “ethnic” primarily characterizes members of minority groups, the literal and most general definition seems to apply to all groups. In the Sephora Beauty Talk, user Ghkim asks 19blue19 if she is a white American or...any other ethnicity. It is important to note, however, that Ghkim may not actually be referring to ethnicity at all because “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and the mention of “white” further alludes that Ghkim is discussing race. “Race,” is defined as a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits, such as skin color or facial features. It is important to understand the difference between ethnicity and race, especially when attempting to make sense of the mess that occurs when referring to someone as “exotic.” For instance, actress Zoe Saldana was casted to play the role of Nina Simone and received immediate backlash from those who felt Saldana, a Latina, was too “exotic” to play the role because her light-skin was stealing jobs from real black actresses. In this respect, “exotic” is being used negatively to limit Saldana as “unusual” or “strikingly different” in comparison to Mary J. Blige, the singer Saldana replaced. Saldana self-identifies as both a black and Latina woman, and it is absolutely normal for her to identify as such because her race (black) and ethnicity (Latina) are separate. Opposition to casting Zoe Saldana instead of Mary J. Blige is unacceptable if Saldana’s Latina ethnicity is the sole determining factor for opposition.

On Twitter, the hashtag #LatinasAreNot attempts to deconstruct negative stereotypes and the language being used towards the erasure of Latin culture in (white) America.

Maria, born in the United States, identifies as a third-generation American whose ancestors immigrated from South America several decades ago. John is a white American male who is unfamiliar with Maria’s Argentinean background, so he plays it “safe” and refers to her as “exotic,” like a tropical piece of fruit. John considers Maria to be exotic, implying she is not native to the United States, simply because her ethnic background is different than his. But how different are they, really? Maria has lived in the United States her entire life, with English being her first language. If John had considered how the United States is a country of immigrants, he would have likely realized his ancestors immigrated as well. Although John may self-identify as a white American, his lineage reveals his ethnicity is actually German and French. There is no American ethnicity, yet both Maria and John share an American nationality. Is there anything truly “exotic” or “unusual” about Maria in this circumstance? But wait a minute—John was only trying to be polite because he didn’t know about Maria’s culture, right? Wrong. They share the same American culture, a culture that emphasizes freedom and opportunity. Yet when John refers to Maria as “exotic” because her last name is difficult to pronounce, he strips her of the opportunity to identify as an American, as Argentinean, and as a human.

I wasn’t a person after all. I was simply this exotic thing for people to observe and investigate, an alien in any environment I was in. ― M.B. Dallocchio

Addressing a person of color, as “exotic” is a microaggression because it is the unintentional discrimination of ethnic and racial minorities. Microaggressions are everyday interactions that relay denigrating messages to people of color, and the pervasiveness of these daily exchanges is why many of these microaggressive acts are dismissed. The most common microaggression is the denial of individual racism, which is witnessed had John said “I’m not racist toward Maria. We’re friends!” When we name a person of color as “exotic,” we perpetuate the historical narrative that feeds stereotypes like the crazy Latina or the aggressive black male. When we name a woman of color as “exotic,” we fetishize her black or brown body, associating her beauty as an object of sexual desire and not one worth. An “exotic beauty” assumes a person of color is somehow different from “true beauty” which is a discriminatory sentiment. In doing so, the term “exotic” is responsible for the othering black and brown bodies, just as the definition encouraged hundreds of years ago. In our current society, it appears that the term “exotic” isn’t necessarily being used with the intention to dehumanize people of color as seen in the 1600s. Nevertheless, both past and present uses of “exotic” when addressing individuals achieve the same effect of marginalizing people of color.

Perhaps the misinterpreted use of “exotic” is because the word itself has been exoticized by those unaware of its historical context. To “exoticize” is to romanticize or glamorize a portrayal of something as unusual. For those unperceptive of the racist connotation, an “exotic beauty” is exciting, flattering and enticing. Urban Dictionary defines “exotic” as foreign, unusual, unique (in a good way). Usually directed at something fresh, new, different, and cool. Allow me to reiterate that people think it is cool to be considered exotic; but if these people genuinely appreciate different cultures, ethnicities, and races, they would divest from using language that continues to limit and dehumanize people of color. Many of the individuals guilty of misusing the term “exotic” are oblivious of the fact they are doing so. That is why we are obligated to enlighten those who may not know any better. We must engage in those uncomfortable conversations about power structures and racial hierarchies with the intent to correct further misuse, otherwise we are no better than those who perpetuate the marginalization of minority groups. We must be better.


Works Cited

Akitobi, Emmanuel. “We Need To Educate Ourselves On Race vs. Ethnicity (And Other Things I Learned

From The Ongoing Zoe Saldana/Nina Simone Conversation).” IndieWire. Penske Business

Media, 16 Aug. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Alvarez, Alex. “What People Actually Mean When They Say Someone Is Exotic.” We Are Mitú. We Are

Mitú, 17 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.

Barba, Wendy. “These #LatinasAreNot Tweets Slays Stereotypes Perfectly.” We Are Mitú. We Are Mitú,

19 July 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

“Ethnic.”, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

“Exotic, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 25 April 2017.

“Know Your Rights.” We Are Dancers NYC. We Are Dancers NYC, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.

Lorelili. “Exotic.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, 29 Mar. 2005. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Saedi, Goal Auzeen. “What Is “Exotic” Beauty? Part I.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 15 Apr.

2011. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Sephora. “Exotic Beauty?” Beauty Talk. Sephora, 24 July 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

White, Mel. “Socotra: Yemen’s Legendary Island.” Socotra – Pictures, More From National Geographic

Magazine. National Geographic, June 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

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