“Exotic” can mean a lot of different things, but in film, literature, and just pop culture in general, exotic usually refers to someone – typically a woman – with dark hair and dark skin, but still holds elements of Caucasian beauty. Not only is she gorgeous, but she’s crazy in bed and can give you the time of your life. Unless she’s willing to assimilate, though, then she can’t stick around and must go back to the mysterious isles from whence she came.
Your fun fact of the day is that this is racist.
Why this is bad: Let’s break down the word “exotic,” shall we? Dictionary.com defines “exotic” as, “of foreign origin or character; strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance.” So what’s the big deal with saying Adriana Lima is an exotic beauty? She is, after all, Brazillian.
However, most of the time this phrase is used to describe someone, it’s from a white perspective. Is Adriana Lima technically exotic? Yes. But Beyoncé is also called exotic, and she was born in Houston, Texas! The United States is 72% white, according to a 2010 census, and that doesn’t include people who are here on work visas, homeless, or illegal immigrants. While 72% is certainly a large chunk, there are still millions of non-white people in America, and billions in the world.
Calling a person an “exotic beauty” is an example of a racial microaggression. Microagressions are “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them,” according to Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue. Microaggressions can be as simple as asking going specifically to an Asian person for help with math or suddenly feeling the need to tug your purse closer when you walk by a group of black men. Goal Auzeen Saedi at Psychology Today says, “calling [Adriana] exotic assumes she is essentially an other and somehow different, though the connotation is not particularly positive.” It is stating that she is a different kind of beautiful, but not fit to a white standard and must therefore have her own category.
So how does this come into play in media? When these “exotic beauties” appear on screen, they are almost always women of color paired with white men. The beauty will either serve to be a sexy one night stand for the hero (because they’re crazy in bed!) or the WoC will have to give up her culture and assimilate to white culture in order to stay. If the white dude decides to move in with the WoC, then he’ll teach the native people the error of their ways, and they will all adopt white culture.
What you can do to fix it: Your character thinking or referring to someone as an “exotic beauty” doesn’t make your writing racist. You, as the narrator, referring to someone as such? Yeah, that’s a little bad. If you’re going to have interracial relationships in your story, then you need to ensure that one person isn’t trying to “tame” or “civilize” the other. If the only PoC in your story is there to sleep with the main character or be a one-off relationship, you’re going to need to do some thinking about how that can be seen by other people. This can easily be avoided by – you guessed it! – writing complex, multifaceted characters who, if they do fill this trope, are not defined by their race or ethnicity.
Bottom Line: Exoticism is typically seen from a white perspective, and therefore can often be racist, even when shown in a “good” light. Keep your characters well-rounded and complex and their relationships mutually fulfilling, and you’ll be good.
So, go on, write and break that trope.