I’m not someone who has ever fit well into boxes. For one, I’m a femme-presenting queer woman who’s usually presumed to be straight. For another, my inherent physical features err just far enough on the side of non-white to confound anyone who tries to place my ethnicity.
In my 1980s rural Massachusetts childhood, Caucasian kids constantly told me I didn’t look like them and asked me what my race was. Their inquiries made me realize I was different from them ― but unsure who I was the same as.
As an adult, I continue to be asked about my ancestry by a good percentage of the people I meet. I’m from a mostly white-identified family, but my MENA (Middle East and North Africa) heritage dominates my features; many people see me as a person of color accordingly. I’ve been spoken to in more languages than I can count by people convinced I was a member of their own community.
I wrote an article this summer about what looking racially ambiguous has taught me about my privilege. It yielded a lot of support from POC, as well as a heartening amount of “Me too!” from other racially-enigmatic-looking people. Sharing about my relationship with race also drew the kind of commentary from white people that I didn’t expect. In the comments of my Instagram post about the piece, I was praised for my “exotic” looks and told my “multicultural heritage” was “enviable” (despite the article touching on how suburban American my upbringing and family history was).
While this wasn’t the first time I’d been called exotic, it hadn’t occurred in enough years that I thought it wouldn’t happen again. I was under the impression that people now know it’s anything but a compliment.
Well over a decade ago, I spent time as a commercial model, and this descriptor was still common. “Exotic” was a word used regularly in the ads I’d peruse. A request for an exotic model meant they wanted someone who wasn’t white but wasn’t necessarily of any specific ethnicity.
Usually, these ads were seeking women for a gig in an area of modeling outside my chosen scope: car shows, perhaps, or bikini work or Maxim-style editorial. Exotic roughly translated to “sexy” and “vaguely dark,” and it was used only for women, never to describe men. Usage of that word denoted to me that the job would be highly sexualized, and I’d keep on scrolling.
Not answering ads for exotic models didn’t save me from hearing the word, though. Commenting on how racially ambiguous I am was the norm at photo shoots I was in. It would come up first when I’d be in makeup, as those artists would struggle to find a foundation that fit my skin. Then, during the shoot itself, photographers would often mention it, usually in relation to my facial features.
Because modeling is innately a bit dehumanizing, I did my best to not take comments about my physicality to heart. I hated being called exotic, but I never said anything about it because I didn’t want to be difficult and potentially lose work.
The most challenging part of being called exotic now is that comments like these are racist microaggressions, but they are proffered as compliments. Here’s why they are not.
Google gives as the main definition of exotic “originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country.” That means calling someone exotic is telling them that they are not of your world and don’t appear to belong in it.
Use “exotic” in conjunction with beauty, as in the comments following my article and the many, many other times I’ve heard the word in my past, and you frame a person’s physical appearance as admirable only within the context of how unlike you they are. To describe someone as “exotic” is the epitome of othering.
The latest remarks called my attention to the unfortunate but indisputable fact that even in this changing climate around race, white beauty and white experience remain centered as the norm in our society. The experience of being white in America and the cultural markers of beauty revolving around whiteness remain unchanged. They continue to be the lens through which people of all other races are viewed and judged — including those of us who hover at the edge of whiteness but are not fully perceived as such.
Additionally, I am neither a rare bird nor a flowering shrub. But dictionaries suggest usage of the word “exotic” should be mostly limited to plants and animals or inanimate objects. So not only is the “exotic” human attractive only inasmuch as they are foreign; they are of lower cultural value than a white person.
Thankfully, I’m no longer a 20-something concerned about losing a few hundred dollars if I speak up. As someone who is far less marginalized than POC darker than I am, I have a responsibility to squelch language like that.
When I was called exotic recently, I researched and found multiple articles that detailed in depth why calling someone exotic is racist and insulting, and then emailed the links to those who had made the comments. I stated in the email that I’d be happy to know the person had received my correspondence, but I wasn’t available for further discussion (read: emotional labor) on the topic. Instead, I encouraged them to talk about this issue with other white people.
I’d like to think we’ll get to the point where whiteness isn’t the default lens through which America views life and beauty. Until then, as someone who is afforded more privilege than countless others, I’ll do what I can to move us along that path.