Public Service Announcement: Exotic isn’t a compliment

“Wow you’re so exotic, I wish I looked different like you!”

This is a sentiment many women of color hear and experience throughout their lives. From well meaning friends to romantic partners to strangers who pass you on the street. They are all just trying their best to hype you up, and give you the praise you deserve! Well, I’m here to break the news and set the record straight. Calling someone exotic isn’t the best way to show your care and appreciation for someone. In fact, I have to inform you it is not a compliment at all no matter how well meaning the intention is. There is exotic fruit from tropical countries, and exotic animals you can go see at the zoo. However, likening a human being to this same standard…is certainly problematic when you start to think about it. No one wants to be treated like a piece of tropical fruit.

Oftentimes, the word ‘exotic’ is used to describe a person who doesn’t fit into the Western standard of beauty. The Western standard of beauty is white and European. Think barbie. Blonde straight hair, blue eyes, pale skin, thin figure. This ‘compliment’ of exoticism is often only relegated for use towards women of color.

Exotification is a form of ethnic objectification. All women have been exposed to and felt the pressure of the male gaze. However, for women of color, there is an extra added layer to the equation. They are objectified and othered all at the same time! Exotification serves as a way to dehumanize and conform someone’s worth to their appearance, despite the intention to express a compliment. What is actually being communicated by using these words is a stark backhanded compliment. It is a reminder to women of color that they are considered by society as less normal, less human, and less beautiful because they are not white.

This objectification is actually a part of a larger picture and problem in today’s society. Women of color continue to be bought and sold at disproportionate rates. A study by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Statistics of human trafficking task forces found that 94 percent of victims of sex trafficking are female, and roughly 75% are people of color. The majority of human trafficking victims are women of color. Being called exotic, however seemingly trivial, is rooted and entrenched in violence. While on a superficial level, it appears complimentary, and at worse, an uncomfortable comment, it is unmistakable that  the historical and current impact of exotifying women of color has them targeted for sexual violence.

Have you ever had someone comment on your appearance with seemingly positive intentions that just left you feeling worse? Words have meaning. I would implore society as a whole to just stop normalizing commenting on people’s bodies and appearances, no matter how well meaning it is. Because these words can have a tremendous unseen impact on the recipient. But at the very least, we can pack it up and reserve the word exotic for plants and animals.