"You're just ethnically ambiguous", my friend's voice echoed in my head. I was around the age of thirteen the first time I was referred to as "exotic". My vision of myself as a woman was still developing, and I don't think I genuinely understood what that meant – to be exotic. At the time, I quickly took it as a compliment. After all, having grown up in Venezuela, it had been hammered into my head that my appearance was the result of hundreds of years of interracial mixing; I was the result of a glorious, melting-pot of races, all united under the pretext of a "New World". What a bunch of crap. For years, I had silently accepted the word "exotic" as a compliment, not knowing that it was deeply harming my perception of myself as a woman of color, as well as furthering a toxic narrative about beauty standards in Western cultures.
1. It's degrading
It takes one (1) Google search to look up what exotic means – and in which contexts it is (or should be) utilized. That one Google search will define the word "exotic" as the following: "originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country". Above it, the words "physics", "chemistry", "plant" and "tropical" sit, matter-of-factly. A definition worthy of a textbook! It can only be inferred then, that the word "exotic" should only be utilized to describe, well, forest and fauna. I am neither an animal nor a flower, but when faced with the backhanded compliment, "You look so exotic!" I personally like to answer with a slew of bird noises.
2. It's an unnecessary way to single out a body of color
When you call someone "exotic" you are inherently othering them. You are implying that they do not look like the norm, particularly because they may look "foreign", and in most cases, non-white. Although your comment may be well-intentioned, the recipient of the backhanded compliment will just simply be made acutely aware of the differentiation you just placed between you and them through pointing out their appearance. I don't know about you, but sometimes I just don't want to be hyper conscious of the color of my skin and my non-white features 24/7. Especially at a predominantly white space – it is exhausting.
3. It perpetuates Western beauty standards
Think about this, what does it really mean to call someone's appearance "exotic"? Usually, when people call someone else "exotic" it's because they don't see their beauty as "conventional" according to Western beauty standards. Yes, I know I don't look like a white girl, but if you really wanted to compliment me, you would have said something else (perhaps just "pretty")? Certainly, then, calling someone "exotic" perpetuates the idea that only what is Western is conventionally beautiful. This all goes back to the idea that white = norm and non-white = foreign and unusual. We as a society should be way past the perception of white as the standard, as it is simply ignorant and naive.
Next time you find yourself tempted to mention how "exotic" someone else's appearance is, try to think of why. Why must you use this word? Perhaps they want to be complimented on something that is beyond the product of a normalized, white supremacist point of view.