A White Woman Reads Letters From Women Of Color Who Want You To Stop Calling Them Exotic

I've had it happen. A lovely person tries to say something nice, giving me "the compliment that wasn't." Don't be that person. Here's a quick primer on what's cool and what's really really not.

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Cristen: Things that you can acceptably call "exotic". Rainbow Lorikeets. Ooh. Mangosteens. Ahh. Lily pads so big that babies can rest on them. Ooh.

What shouldn't be called "exotic"? People.

Now, you might be wondering why someone who looks like me, with very pale white skin, who has never, ever been labeled "exotic" is talking about this. But this is actually a conversation that I've been having for months now with "Stuff Mom Never Told You" podcast listeners.

It all started early in 2014, around Academy Award season when everybody was talking about Lupita Nyong'o in her incredible role as Patsy in "12 Years a Slave". Critics and the public alike were hailing not only her incredible acting but also her beauty, which was being described over and over again as "exotic". Which, as a number of people quickly pointed out, was not exactly a compliment.

When you exoticize and fetishize someone, it's actually an example of what's called a "racial micro aggression". Say it with me. Racial micro aggression. A racial micro aggression can be defined as "an everyday slight, put-down, indignity or invalidation indirectly targeted toward a marginalized group". You might be thinking, "But I mean it as a compliment. My intentions are good." Your intentions, sort of, don't matter. Chescaleigh has an entire video on that, that you should totally watch if you don't really know what I'm talking about.

A lot of times, the message that it communicates to the recipient is, "Hey, I think you're super hot and desirable because you don't really look like what your ethnicity would lead me to believe you should look like."


But don't just take it from a pale white lady like me. No, no, no. Take it from all of the "Stuff Mom Never Told You" podcast listeners who wrote to us, sharing exactly what it is like to be called "exotic".

Listener, Taj, who is half Sri Lankan, half Caucasian, wrote to say, "I'm in the entertainment industry and when I first got an agent, they were so excited to find out I was 'mixed'. They told me because people can't really identify what I am, I'm considered 'safe'. I'll be honest and say I'm still not really sure what that means."

Lillian, who is of Puerto Rican and Chinese ethnicity writes, "The first person to call me 'exotic' was my white male homeroom teacher in my freshman year of high school. Now whenever someone calls me 'exotic' I say, 'Oh great. Another one who wants to put me in a cage.' A parrot is exotic, I'm from New Jersey."

Kim writes, "My friend is bi-racial, black and white, and I am from Trinidad, with almond-shaped eyes and bone structure that often leads people to assume that I have Asian heritage. This guy, who is black as well, starts to chat us up and at some point asked what ethnicity we are. To which we respond, 'Black'. His response, which pains me to say, was, 'You guys are too pretty to be just Black.' "

Em writes, "My mother is Lebanese and my father is Slovak. I have olive skin, light blue-green eyes, and curly hair. I think the least offensive thing I've ever been called is 'exotic'. I actually prefer the general description instead of playing the guessing game of where I'm from. The guessing game sometimes makes me feel like I'm a species of bug that needs to be pinned and labeled."

Isabel writes, "I'm half Caucasian, half Brazilian, and during a 200-person lecture in my college class, a guy came up to me and asked me to settle a bet with his buddy whom he had been discussing my race with. Apparently they had been guessing and wanted to know my racial background because I looked a little 'racially ambiguous'. Needless to say, I did not settle their bet."

Alexis, who is of Spanish and Cuban descent, wrote about how once people discover that she's Hispanic, something changes. "The whole world suddenly shifts and I'm a new person", she writes. "When I'm white to people, they use certain adjectives. But when they find out that I'm Hispanic, 'Oh you're so sassy, Alex.' 'Oh wow, there goes that Latina spice.' It's beyond irritating."

Lena writes about the sometimes challenges of dating as an Asian woman, saying, "In some areas it's better, I would assume, but I've had a number of disappointments with guys I thought were cute, until that 'I love Asians' comes out."

Jasmine writes, "I'm a bi-racial female with a lighter skin tone, and I've been classified as exotic not only because of the color of my skin, but also because of my name. When you combine the two, you have an exotic storm. I've even had guys say to me, 'Wow, I've never been with a Black girl before', as if there's some sort of ethic magic I should bring to the bedroom. I immediately picture that guy parading me around like a new pet or trophy, showcasing my physical appearance and my exotic heritage, instead of the awesome young woman that I am."

And Robyn writes, "To start off with, I don't know a woman of color who has not had experiences with people making her feel like a conquest of some kind. 'You're really pretty for a Black girl.' Or, 'You're really nice, for a Black girl.' Or maybe even, 'I've never liked a Black girl like this before.' Compliments, right?"

Not to go on and on, and on, because I wasn't kidding when I said that we got an overwhelming response from women about that episode, because it hit such a personal nerve with them. Suffice to say, the next time you want to call someone "an exotic beauty", just don't. Find a better adjective. There are a lot of them out there.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

This video features Cristen Conger for Stuff Mom Never Told You. Can't get enough of Cristen's wacky facial expressions and epic rightness? Subscribe to the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast or YouTube channel.

Aug 25, 2014

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