The definition of exotic is “not native to the place where it is found” or “mysteriously different or unusual,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Along with America’s ever-growing diversity comes the use of the word “exotic” to describe people of non-white ethnicities.
In its current practice, the word “exotic” is politically incorrect and must be phased out in order for society to fully accept all cultures. Referring to someone as exotic alienates them from the rest of America while implying that Caucasian features are the norm.
Writer and artist for Riffe Magazine Jasmine Thompson believes the word is wrongly used when describing foreign people.
“People sometimes use the word ‘exotic’ when describing anybody who doesn’t necessarily fit into the Western standard of beauty,” Thompson said.
Western features consist of light skin, light eyes, straight hair and slim figures. Anyone who does not fit this criterion is seen as different and referring to them as such makes them feel like an outsider.
While these terms appear to be compliments, saying a person looks “oriental” or “exotic” reduces them to a stereotype.
Indian actress Priyanka Chopra regularly experiences objectification in the media, according to an interview with Glamour magazine. The Bollywood and American actress commented on the degrading term.
“Exotic is a box—it’s the stereotype of snake charmers and face jewelry,” Chopra said.
Chopra strives to play non-stereotypical roles, as shown in her lead role as a special agent in ABC’s television series “Quantico.” Even so, Chopra and most other ethnically diverse celebrities are often limited by their non-white features.
The idea that non-whites are “exotic” stems from national and international history. In the early 1900s, African-Americans, Hispanics and Indigenous people were often confined in what is now known as “human zoos,” according to the Daily Mail. Large crowds would visit the zoos to gawk at humans that looked different from themselves.
These racist establishments could be found in European countries as well as America. Congolese man Ota Benga was exhibited in New York’s Bronx Zoo as a representation of evolution’s “missing link” in 1906, according to the Daily Mail. This exhibition attracted up to 40,000 tourists who viewed Benga as an “exotic object.”
It is evident that a multitude of Americans still differentiate people based on their ethnicities. Certain cultures are stereotypically depicted as Halloween costumes, such as Native Americans, Hispanics and Hawaiians, to name a few. While this issue has gained recognition on college campuses across the country, it remains prevalent despite America’s diverse society.
George Nicholas, a Simon Fraser University professor, educates his students about the presence of cultural appropriation in today’s society.
“[Cultural costumes take or use] some aspect of someone else’s heritage without permission or recompense in inappropriate, harmful or unwelcome ways,” Nicholas said.
By distinguishing non-white cultures as “exotic” and “oriental,” one encourages their objectification in society.
The word “exotic” is correct when referencing inanimate life forms but its use in describing other humans is objectifying. Calling someone “exotic” indicates that their ethnicity is their most distinguishable trait. Doing so can also be considered a fetish, since someone is solely focusing on their ethnic features rather than the individual as a whole.
As a society, we need to put an end to the stereotypical use of the word “exotic” and instead, encourage people to see one another for the individuals they are.