‘Exotic’ Is Not A Compliment: How The Term Stems From Colonialism

Think twice about using the word “exotic” to compliment someone. The use of exotic to describe women of color is insidious in nature – its use stems from colonization and it has contributed to the pervasive exploitation of women of color in sex trafficking.

Exotic implies there is one beauty ideal – the western, white standard of beauty.

This standard of beauty lists features such as light skin, light eyes, a slim body, and straight hair as valuable to society.

The use of the term “exotic” to describe women of color maintains the idea that these women fail to meet the beauty ideal because they lack these features, since they are not white.

An “exotic” woman is not seen as beautiful on her own terms; her beauty is constantly judged against a white, western standard.

Using “exotic” to describe a woman’s beauty dismisses it by referring to it as not “true” beauty because her beauty does not fit the ideal. Her beauty is different; it is strange.

Calling someone exotic implies that they’re an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong here, a foreigner.

By definition, for something to be exotic, it must be the Other. In the United States, white women by default are neutral, therefore women of color are considered the Other.

The idea that women of color are “exotic” positions women like Asian Americans and Latinx Americans as perpetual foreigners – making them feel excluded even though they have roots in this country.

This is made even more problematic by the fact that even though the United States is an ethnically diverse nation with people of color rapidly becoming the majority – women of color are still forced to subscribe to a white beauty standard.

Calling women exotic reduces them to objects.

The adjective “exotic” was used by colonizers to describe new places, plants, and animals.

“Exotic” objects were seen as primitive, savage, and inferior.

Indigenous people from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Australia – who were captured by colonizers on expeditions -were kept in cages and exhibited in human zoos, such as the World’s Fair, from the 1500s until the 1950s, where millions of white men and women flocked to see them and be in awe of their “exoticness.”

Therefore, using the word “exotic” to refer to a person is not only insulting, but also dehumanizing.

Exotification is the fetishization of women of color based on their place as the Other – due to their appearance being divergent from the white, western beauty ideal.

Exotification regards women of color as objects to be conquered. This can be traced back to colonial legacies that legitimized mass rape and enslavement.

Historically, to justify the exploitation of women of color who inhabited colonized lands, white men framed them as hypersexualized, immoral, uncivilized, and savage – in short, they exotified them.

The abuse of women of color was then seen as trivial – lending way for the systematic rape of Black women who were trafficked to the United States during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Today, women of color are still bought and sold – the majority of human trafficking victims are women of color.

According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, 77 percent of victims in human trafficking incidents reported in the United States were people of color.

The disproportionate amount of women of color exploited in sex trafficking can be partially attributed to the perception of women of color as “exotic.”

In the United States, exotification fuels the human trafficking market.

Many white men purchase commercial sex with women of color because they perceive them as exotic – they find them sexually desirable for their so-called “uniqueness”, but do not value them for anything else.

Women of color who are victim to sex trafficking are treated the same as exotic creatures – they are treated as less than human and their bodies are used by others at whim.

The widespread radicalized sexual exploitation of women of color from the time of colonization and slavery to now is influenced by societal beliefs about women of color as “exotic.”

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Joshel Melgarejo

Joshel Melgarejo, PGP: she/her, is a journalist, activist, and photographer with a BA in Political Science from Hunter College. Her interests include petting bodega cats, gorging on ethnic street food, collecting bottle caps (for the post-nuclear apocalypse), attending rad punk shows, and smashing imperialism.