Exoticism is a fancy, million dollar word to describe the “charm of the unfamiliar.” At its essence, exoticism can be viewed as curiosity. I experienced exoticism for the first time in my life when I started going out to parties my sophomore year at the predominantly white, wealthy, university in New England that I attended.
I remember the first time a white girl I was talking to drunkenly told me, with a wink, “I’ve never been with a black guy before.”
It was a strange feeling and I didn’t really know how to respond, so I took a sip of my beer, and made out with her because why not, college.
This was the trend for a while and it was awesome. I stood out, it was easy, and I got to hook up with girls. All I had to do was show up with my brown skin, afro hair, and “urban clothes.”
It was always the same conversations: “Whoa, you’re from the Bronx? Is it dangerous? Have you ever been mugged?” Yes, it can be, and once in the 6th grade.
I understand it’s pretty common to talk about where you’re from, but when strangers would constantly ask me to touch my hair, it became annoying pretty fast. Oftentimes they would introduce themselves to me like this: “Oh my GOD, I LOVE YOUR HAIR, CAN I TOUCH IT?” I grew tired of talking about my hair, race, and ethnicity. The questions and fascination with my look got so tiring that I would get angry in my responses.
“Can I touch your hair?”
“Only if I can touch your boobs,” I would say back sarcastically.
What I now understand is that exoticism leads to a sense of isolation. It makes people out to be a spectacle of sorts. And that’s when I stopped letting people touch my hair. Exoticism constantly led me to feeling alienated and lonely. It’s the wrong type of attention, where instead of being admired for who I am, I was made to feel like a novelty. Having dark skin and an afro became my defining characteristic in a way that made me feel demoralized.
I’ve talked to people with alot more self-respect than I have, about their experiences with exoticism. African-American girls having to “explain” their natural-hair since childhood. Indian-American girls having to deal with guys who view them as exotic objects to add to their list.
Excoticism is common, and it’s not just white people who are guilty of it. Excoticism occurs when a group of people are constantly scrutinized because of their appearance or background and treated as being different from the mainstream. The “tricky” part about excoticism is that many times, it comes across as harmless curiosity. There is a romanticism or idealization attached to it. For example, “Oh you’re from Brazil? That is so sexy.” Now imagine being a Brazilian in America and having to hear that same line over and over again. “So what?” you may be asking. Well, stop it. Exotifying someone is akin to objectifying someone, which, at the very least, is rude.