Exotic: There's that word again... (Updated: Nyachomba)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

frickinridiculous: rekaj: Carmen Solomons shot by David Sessions Wow.

Why, hello there.

So Nyash and I need your help/wisdom with an little matter that has us at each other's throats (well alright, not really, but definitely loud and bratty). It's about a pesky little word that kept us arguing all night with failure to come up with any form of a consensus. I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning...

A couple of nights ago, we were out having dinner with a few friends from out of town. It was lovely, the food was good and the conversation was pleasant, well pleasant enough up until one of our said friends decided he would pay us a 'compliment' by calling us exotic.

I have no idea that rubbed me the wrong way. When I asked for further clarification, he said that we were different; with regards to general appearance (what the??) and demeanor. All this was said with a smile and received with a raised eyebrow and quizzical expression.

Correct me if I'm wrong but when I think of the word exotic, I immediately think of rare reptilian animals or breath-taking landscapes as seen on desktop wallpapers. I know he meant this as a compliment, but I still...

As far as I'm concerned, there isn't anything exotic about another human being... Cultures are exotic but not physical traits. We have been seeing the same thing for thousands of years via the world wide web and good old television. Animals are exotic, plants are exotic; humans are just people. Granted our attributes vary regionally and from continent to continent, but individually, we are all unique, and thus we are all the same. I hope I'm not losing you.

The Online Oxford dictionary defines exotic as:
originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country:exotic birdsthey loved to visit exotic places

attractive or striking because colorful or out of the ordinary: an exotic outfit (as nounthe exotic) there was a touch of the exotic in her appearance

So pretty much anything that's foreign or appears to be foreign can be termed as exotic. With regards to race and population dominance, I would agree to some degree. Imagine me and my afro-bearing black self walking the streets of North Korea (a country with the lowest black population count according to good old Google), I am pretty sure I'd receive a few odd looks and a couple of ooohs and aaahs (I hope). In any case, I would definitely be an unusual sight.

If you support the notion that unique physical traits dictate exoticism, I implore you to shine some light on the point for my consideration. I don't quite understand it. My problem with this vein of thought, as far as my cynical mind is involved, is that this word carries some sort of classification thought process (racial, aesthetic, or what have you). It dictates definitions of beauty and/or normalcy.... I have a serious issue with this.

No two people are the same (save for identical twins, something that is unique to the individuals in any case). So why call out certain individuals for being different? What is different? Africans with green eyes? Albinism? Freckles? Red hair? ... What's more, if you are NOT considered exotic by your peers, would you accept the term 'ordinary'? Like hell I would!

Is exoticism synonymous with beauty? What is the correlation? The images in the post are the result of my Googling the word 'exotic models' on the search engine. I'll leave that to your judgment.

What are your thoughts? As always we invite any and all opinions... Heck, correct my ignorance if that be the case! I welcome it!


This post has incited a lot of opinions, some we agree with and some we dont. BTW I have missed you guys (Nyachomba) but I am back! I consider myself to be very expressive about my own opinions and love how you guys have come out to defend your own thoughts

Mary has had to explain herself in the comments but I think we still have a lot of social conditioning to get rid of. I believe that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and colours, we have done a few posts highlighting how we think that Africa is so blessed because of all the different colours we possess in the continent and how each and everyone is considered beautiful

However, I feel some comments went on to insinuate that biracial people are exotic to the continent or maybe in particular to Kenya. This saddens me greatly because again social conditioning has made Kenyans make biracial people feel like they should be on a pedestal and they are more beautiful because of their skin colour and curly hair. Yes they are beautiful but so I'm I with my dark skin and kinky curly hair, so are you with the ebony skin and so are you with the caramel complexion. I may go to Korea and be as exotic as strawberries growing in Turkana, does that make me more beautiful than them, I doubt it. They may grab at my hair considering they may have never seen an African with kinky hair...but that does not make me more beautiful than them

Please note that we are not attacking anyone, merely stating that everyone is beautiful! Exotic is only used to describe a state that is far from the norm to a particular area or place.

Enjoy the day. X
Imani said...

And why are a lot of women who rock their natural hair considered 'exotic'??? Things that make you go hmmm...

Kurly said...

Uuuuh! Child don't even get me started! It would appear that our natural hair is something strange and bizarre. Not the norm... SMH.

Jc said...

This is my view, if someone gives you a compliment with the intent of expressing something positive about you.............take it!

There are many women with natural hair but for every one of us there are 9 others who do not have natural hair. In truth finding two women rocking natural hair in the same room is highly unusual (right now!).

However I believe you are both rocking braids so the guy may not even be referring to hair at all. In truth natural hair for many women allows them to be more authentic, not make apologies for their hair or dress and free them to feel and look cute just because. You may indeed act and talk differently from the average Kenyan girl which in my view is exotic.

If someone told me, 'oh you are so fat, I love it'. I would say thank you because despite the phrasing, the intent is to compliment.......so I accept what comes from the heart not what I am conditioned to think is appropriate.

Kurly said...

@ Jc, Hello! You and Nyachomba are of one mind on the matter... She knew he meant no harm and was flattered by the sentiment. Braids or no braids, our friend has always been a sweetheart and complimented our swag.

I wish I had your calm disposition. I'm that girl with the ticking time-bomb in her brain! If someone told me 'oh you are so fat, I love it' I'd attack them with a blunt object, run home and stare at the mirror and ask 'Am I???' Lol!

I like to think we are all 'exotic' regardless. However the fact that we are natural does say something about women with natural hair, something about our personalities not so much our exoticism. It takes a lot to go against the norm (relaxers and the likes), something in ones character. But with regard to physical attributions, this difference should be accepted for our hair is in its natural, 'ordinary' state. Especially in Africa. But this is a Utopian ideal. I know I ask for a lot.

Njambi said...

As i was reading the post i thought "this must be Mary that posted this"...I'm getting to know you gals better! I would like to agree with Nyachomba and JC...take a compliment at it's face value and appreciate where the person who has offered it was coming from.
I do agree with you though that going natural says so much more about our personalities. Most often 'naturals' are perceived as "free spirits" and a little out of the ordinary...if i can say that without offending...and thus perceived 'exotic'. Embrace it and be who you know you are :-)

Kurly said...

@Njambi, haha! Really? I guess Nyash is the Ying to my Yang; she's the eternal optimist and I'm the cynic. But, I agree with all y'all ladies, it was meant in good faith. I have no qualms with our mutual friend.. it's just that word... it irks me!

And yes, I suppose we are all a little out of the ordinary! I love it. And we also look the part with our dense curls :)

SugarPuss said...

Interesting....i always thought exotic means different in a beautiful way, like a different kind of beauty you will will never tire from looking at and its details remain etched in your brain for a long time. You know like when u see a person and you can't just put ur finger on why they're so attractive to you.
But sometimes the way some people say it makes it sound like a jungle-fever-shaka-zulu-sex-scene type thingy..lol

Kurly said...

@ SugarPuss, as you have made me choke on my laughter! That descriptive definition now haunts my mind! LOL! Thanks hun!

" a different kind of beauty " I like how you put that.. I really do.

Maria said...

Um, Mary, I'm with you on this one. Side-eye to the max.

Exotic by definition requires a norm. It's relative. So anything can be called exotic depending on the speaker. MacDonalds is exotic to the average Nairobian.

The problem comes in when things that are associated with Western culture are universally thought of as the norm, and everything non-Western is permanently exotic. A similar example when "nude" is used to refer to a color that is the shade of white skin in particular, rather than than the skin of whomever is wearing the item. Eg an Elastoplast/Bandaid is "nude". Um, not on my skin it isn't.

That's why my eyebrow would be raised too if someone called me exotic, especially as you described it, regardless of their intent. Even if they meant to be nice, they are exhibiting internalized ethnocentrism and Othering me. You were in a restaurant (city, country, continent) where most people look like you. So, if anything, your visitors were probably the ones that were exotic.

Sounds like I'm overthinking it, but I'm big on words and their effect on our behaviour and socialization. So when I've been called exotic (and trust, I have) I don't go into a lecture about ethnocentrism, but I try to make the person think about their meaning by questioning them politely and with a smile. "Really, you think I'm exotic? Why did you pick that word? Do you think *your* hair is exotic? " They can't answer those questions without challenging their assumptions about what is normal/correct.

Anonymous said...

i live in the states and one word that bothers me is ethnic. especially when a white person says "you look very ethnic" in my conversations a lot of white people believe they are not ethnic, which is bizarre. we all have an ethnicity.

SugarPuss said...

@anonymous, now ethnic is a word i would consider improper, what does that even mean??

els said...

I'm a Ugandan living in Kampala and I get asked the 'where are you from' question (by my fellow Kampalans) so much it's boring now. That said, I'm straddling the fence with this. I agree with Maria, being put in the 'other' box is annoying, but also I wear my weirdity (not a word, eh?) with pride, and to some people that is different/exotic/unusual/not normal/whatever.

Global SweetHeart said...

In my opinion i don't mind being called exotic, wherever I am. To me it means different...in a good way. And I'm definitely not trying to blend in so I welcome it!

Nad said...

After reading this post, I was a bit taken a back. I have to agree with JC and Nyachomba on this one. Clearly your friend meant it as a compliment, why make it into something that is not?

I understand how important it is to be respected as a natural and I understand that hair is part of , but it is not all of you.

It is really important to pay attention to how you approach thing. If you feel like you always have to defend yourself. You will continue to fell attack when all that was coming your way was love and appreciation.

Personally, I'm getting a bit tired of naturals who feel they are being looked down by others because of their hair. I am not saying it never happens but if it's all your looking for or expect is confrontation then that all your are going to get.

I generally like your posts but I completely disagree with this one.

Anonymous said...

@Maria. I like to think a compliment is a complement at the end of the day, just accept it! Don't fight it.

@Nad, I think you have one thing wrong, the post is not about natural hair, it is about racial or ethic opinions and beauty. Mary is talking about acceptance of beauty (correct me if I am wrong Mary)

@Mary, I am biracial with long curly hair living in Kenya. I let's face it, I am exotic with regards to our standards i.e my skin, hair and my light brown eyes. I embrace it.


Mary said...

Whoa!!! ladies!! I appreciate all your comments/ thoughts and opinions. Super stars you are! I love a good debate as much as the next girl.

Ok, this might be long, sorry for not replying early enough. I've been hella busy. I might have to UPDATE this post.. Leggo.

@Nad, thanks for your feedback. Criticism is the spice of life, without it we are all 'yes men'. However, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the post does not stress on natural hair. I am guessing the comments swayed your perception, or maybe the North Korea afro statement... ideally I was looking at the definition of 'exotic' from a universal perspective.

Secondly, as an overly analytical individual (this will be my downfall) I tend to look at things beyond face value. My kindred soul Maria put it perfectly... Words have the power to create and destroy. As such, it would be out of character for me to accept a statement purely based on the intent and ignore the effect it has on my subconscious. I have a love affair with words, as such, I tend to take things very literally.

You (and Biracial Anon) stated that people should accept compliments for what they are, their intent and not over think matters. I respect that. Life would have fewer technical difficulties if I subscribed to that train of thought. But alas...

Anon from the States was called 'ethnic', something I presume was meant as a compliment. This statement came from a white person, as did my 'exotic' compliment. Walking away from such conversations (consciously and subconsciously) will alter to my personal perception and that of the world around me.

Imagine being told, "Wow, you look really nice today." by a college or friend, now add on a tone of pure shock and surprise into that 'compliment'... naturally I/ (maybe)you would say thanks and walk away, but in the back of my/(maybe) your mind you would go, "why was she surprised?". I'm the sort of girl who would ask.

Another thing that DRIVES me crazy is when my black AND white/ other friends tell me I talk like a white girl and I'm not black enough, or that because I like to read specific 'hard' reads, I am a coconut (I sense a post in the making)... This is NO compliment, I know, but they say so with no harm intended and as way to tell me I'm not your 'typical' African girl. This is the ultimate insult to me. I go rabid-hyena-crazy whenever this rubbish is brought up...

Case in point. The term exotic is, in my humble opinion, a word that takes away from universal individual beauty. We are All 'exotic' in my book.

Let me update the post.. Sorry for making this reply a mini post!

Mary said...

@Biracial Anon... wait, what? Kindly explain what 'standards' you have in mind.

Anonymous said...

@Mary! Regarding beauty and unique appeal. Let's be grown up and accept that point.5's in Kenya (and I am sure the rest of Africa) are regarded as different as far as beauty goes. Growing up in the UK for most of my youth I was nothing special, but coming to Kenya as a Kenyan, I find that men and even women love my skin color and my hair. I've never had a weave put on and everyday I am told my hair is beautiful, long and rare. I know this is not about hair but I am sure I speak for other biracial women when I say there is something exotic about us.

Eva said...

With you on this one Mary. And no, you're not mad or embittered or jaded or anything to question the standard that defines what you're NOT as the norm, then proceeds to label what you ARE as different. Exotic.

Same thing happens in gender matters. Medically and biologically, the male body is the standard human form; the female body is the 'other'. So that everything the female body has is extra ... in medicine, what She has is studied and treated under Ob/Gyn. In medical insurance matters, what She is and carries by virtue of being the 'other' requires higher premiums to insure like gynae visits or pregnancy for eg.

@Maria, you nailed it, child. That nude as white skin colour thing really ticks me off too .. coz like you said it, it aint nude on my skin!

Eva said...

And PS: Nyachomba, if you're as different from the guy paying you the exotic compliment as you are from him, then he's exotic too, right? So why weren't you and Mary the one's calling him exotic?

Because from a certain implicit world view that both he and Nyash (tee hee) have accepted, he's the norm. And you're not. And that's political whether you like it or not.

NubianEmpress said...

I agree with Anon(Biracial) in the sense that, we as Africans tend to uphold people with "whiter" features in higher regard in terms of beauty. Although I do believe that mixed race people are indeed beautiful, we term their beauty as "better than" or in comparison to that of the pure African, whose beauty also varies greatly. These are obviously post colonialism effects where we adapted an inferiority complex,that has stayed with us as a continent,and the only way we can rid ourselves of this backward mentality is by educating ourselves.
This mentality is not much different from what Mary speaks about when she says she is considered a "white" girl, in regards to how she speaks etc, and I have to concur with her when she says that that is NO compliment to me? like, what does that even mean! ugh
I however do not really have any quelms with the term "exotic" only because I believe it holds a positive conotation. No matter where we go, there will always be a norm, and a deviation from the norm, and that is what makes us as a people diverse. However one chooses to take being "exotic" is up to them, but then comes in the word "ethnic"...hmph...I could go on forever!

Sharon and Kim, xxx

Mary said...

@Eva, thanks for your comment! The bit on gender and medical definitions is quite the eye-opener; can't catch a break huh. That bit about insurance.. I must admit I was ignorant about that. WHO makes all of these decisions in society and, more importantly, WHY do we roll over and accept them?

On your follow-up comment, I should add that Nyachomba loathes any form of categorization as she has heard it all before. I'm not sure why, but she is more of the victim when it comes to being labeled; if she's not militia then she is definitely a drum-beating hippie or a neo-soul artist trying to break into the industry. She's used to people judging her for her swag, style preferences and of course her hair. When it comes to seemingly petty matters, rather than get overly emotive - like a certain someone - she takes it all in stride with a level of calm, and if we're lucky a follow up post!

As such, she weighs situations (like that from Sly up there...) and reacts accordingly. Her defense of our labeling comrade is a result of her penchant for accepting the nicer comments from a myriad of reactions; she's learned to accept the well intended and separate them from the snide and insulting. I see/ hear them all the time. Luckily, her personality allows for this. My personality may sometimes require a mild sedative... or tranquilizer.

We balance each other off that way :)

Mary said...

Hey Sharon & Kim, the chains may be gone but our minds remain shackled.

As always we allow for people to express their opinions on the blog, we have no right to admonish Sly for being honest. However, (forgive me Sly if this is another example of my being over analytical and/or judgmental) there is something in her tone that resounds a finality of the situation. Something that implies complete acceptance and, well, contentment.

I appreciate your point of view, it falls in line with what SugarPuss said about "a different kind of beauty", awesome response ladies :)

'Ethnic'... Give me strength.

SugarPuss said...

Talking about that specific word "exotic", i wouldn't place all .5's in that category, not ALL pointi's are exotic in my opinion coz not all pointi's are beautiful, yes there's the good head of hair, the light skin deemed universally pretty, but not all of them make me drawn to them and term them attractive.
The reason i have no problem with that word is because to me it means, beautiful in a different way beautiful is normally described, like Eva said "NOT the norm"(mami you speak truth)
That other word "ethnic" i dont understand...first what does it mean? and how does it relate to describing a human?

@Mary, i get your over analysis, am like that too except sometimes i weigh what should bother me enough to make a fuss about and what to just brush off my lazy ass. It's good you got riled up, it's always good to hear people's different opinions and gauge your own too :)

Anonymous said...

Biracial anon, never assume you can speak for a large group of people. Especially in a blog comment. I'm biracial as well, and i really don't like being described as exotic or unusual or rare or whatever. Honestly, i feel like it detracts from my Kenyan-ness, as people seem to assume I must be from somewhere else since there's no way a regular kenyan could have my features. And yet I'm nairobi born and bred. So different? I guess so. Relatively speaking, the mlami population isn't that large. But exotic? No thank you.

Anonymous said...

In Mary's case, I would not over analyse because in this case the person meant no harm, it was a compliment.

But on the general use of the word exotic to describe people, I find it's mainly used to describe someone who looks different from the norm especially in terms of physical attributes. Examples are bi-racial people in most cultures, africans especially those with nubian features i.e. tall, lean and dark-think Alek Wek on an international runway or fashion magazine. Whenever someone deviates from the norm in anyway whether intentional or not people take note. I personally would not take offence unless the word was used in some backhanded comment.

@NubianEmpress, I agree with you. While it's true that many bi-racial people are attractive, I think there's a bit of a colonial mentality hangover when they are automatically placed on a pedestal because of their "whiter" features. IMO, beauty comes in all shades-for every caucasian, african, indian, asian. arab etc person I have seen and thought was stunning; there's also quite a number I have seen and thought they were just ok. But this should not take anything away from their humanity or acceptance in society because in the end perceptions of beauty are highly subjective and often a product of our environment and the culture we are from!

Since the word "ethnic" has been raised by some commenters, I find it's use ridiculous. I live in the U.S. where most large and colourful prints are referred to as "ethnic". There's a tendency to lump anything that's not from western culture in this category e.g african, middle eastern, indian etc when in reality there are many disparities in the origin and meaning of whatever symbol is in question. These descriptions often extend to people, food etc. What would be more useful is to acknowledge the specific culture and or region. e.g. instead of ethnic print-> Malian mud cloth print, for food-Lebanese restaurant, Thai cuisine etc. While others find it offensive, I think it's too much generalization and sometimes it reflects ignorance.

@Mary, on not being typically African, I'd say let that go as well. Because really what exactly is a "typical" African? This is another attempt by people (guilty of this sometimes) to put someone in a box with a label they conveniently cooked up. A whole other topic....did I just open a can of worms?
Peace :)


Anonymous said...

Ethnic = sharing distinctive cultural traits as a group in society
= relating to a person or to a large group of people who share a national, racial, linguistic, or religious heritage, whether or not they reside in their countries of origin
=belonging to or associated with the traditional culture or a social group

Adj. = unusual, out of the ordinary, striking, interesting, mysterious, glamorous, colourful, outlandish strange (ANTONYM= ORDINARY)
Adj. = foreign, from abroad, alien, (ANTONYM= FAMILIAR)

Adj. = originating in and naturally living, growing, or occurring in a region or country
Natural, inborn = native, original, aboriginal, home-grown, local (ANTONYM= FOREIGN)

So basically at any given time every human being is Ethnic, Exotic and Indigenous;

double L said...

I am with you Mary !
I recognize my own usual raised eyebrow by reading this !! Indeed, the word "exotic" is quite improper despite the friendly smile. I guess people (and specially guys) think they stressed on the special trick about you, yr features or outfit but basically the term is really hurtful, sounds just as if we were some kind of unknown fruits or species (WTH).
And I am a "mixed blood" so I present quite "extraordinay" features but please do tell me I am kind of uniquely different, it'll be more respectful.

Still, may the odds be ever in your favor ! :)

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