The Problem With Being Told “Wow, You Look So Exotic!”
This article is a tribute to every young woman of color that is fed up with being described as “exotic.”
As women of color, we are used to people telling us, “Wow, you look so exotic, what are you?”
It is such a weird word; it makes me feel like a specimen for someone to awkwardly focus on me with magnifying glasses. Ever since I was younger, due to my tan skin and Middle Eastern eyes, my race was one of the first few topics in conversation. I want to be seen for my words, for my hard work, not the Bollywood films that shimmy in the room behind me. Why do we need to be objectified for our non-white features?
Why do we need to be objectified for our non-white features?
When this happens in different spaces, I humor the responses as politely as possible by telling people that my grandmother is Afghani and my family is Indian. After their shock slips away, the other odd comments come in. “Yes, this is my real hair. No, please do not touch it.” “Yes I know how to dance.. ‘Indian.’” “Sorry, what? You want me to say something in ‘Indian?’ ”
Where did this even come from?
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Mainstream media describes women of color as these conservative, mysterious devoted women who will do anything for their family. Within that conservative culture, women are portrayed as desperately craving for any form of freedom they can possibly get within the Western culture. The “exoticism” lies in their clash between the East and the West, and the West sexualizes this clash. It is actually a xenophobic social microaggression, and the marginalization of Muslims and women of color is exponentiating in the media.
Some of us have a weird feeling about this word, but don’t exactly know why. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why being “complimented” in such a weird way doesn’t feel like a compliment; it just felt dirty. It’s because “exotic” means erotic; it is a sexualized “compliment” that objectifies non-Eurocentric beauty standards, and has nothing to do with seeing a person for what they bring into the space outside of the confines of that.
“Exotic” means erotic; it is a sexualized “compliment” that objectifies non-Eurocentric beauty standards, and has nothing to do with seeing a person for what they bring into the space outside of the confines of that.
The word takes you to silk materials, Arabian nights, sheer scarves, shy glances, and belly dances of Indian/Middle Eastern worlds. The media constantly perpetuates the stereotypes of Muslim women and women of color as extremes, and when you have someone who is religious, but “Western,” it confuses people and they want to shove us back into boxes.
We need to continue talking about this to ensure that Muslim women of color are being seen for more than what labels society wants to shove in the room with us. We need to be seen for our words and what we bring into spaces, not for our outward appearance for objectification.
Follow me on Instagram at @rabhi__ .