In 2014, when Giorgos, a freshman from Greece, was making a short video about the freshman experience at Skidmore, he asked me which word I would use to define the school. I immediately responded with “exotic.” Skidmore is an unusual place—strange, yet dear; goofy, yet beautiful. Skidmore is exotic because of the ridiculous number of unusually overweight squirrels wandering around campus, giving students nasty looks. It is exotic because Zankel is shaped like a saxophone, and Filene like a piano. It is exotic because the sunsets from the ninth floor of Joto are absolutely breathtaking, and because my friend once said we could see Canada from the window.
I liked how I had to roll my tongue to be able to pronounce “exotic.” It was my favorite word until one day while working at the dining hall, one of the chefs insisted on inquiring about my ethnicity, saying, “There is no way you are American” because “you are too exotic.”
Surrounded by educated people within and beyond the confines of this campus, I have been appalled by the number of uneducated comments made by those surrounding me. My friends' parents have referred to me as “the exotic middle eastern princess.” In an attempt to adulate me, men have previously said, “You are not the blonde and normal beautiful. You are the exotic beautiful that makes me drool.” For the sake of my sanity, I have convinced myself that most of the people who have labeled me as “exotic” have merely sought to extol me. While they did not intend to cause any detriment, they did.
The primary meaning of “exotic” is “from the outside.” Over time, "exotic" has evolved into an Orientalist word, used when referring to strange plants, food, or items from foreign countries. For decades, Western women used clothing or other items from the Orient to be perceived as “exotic,” as per the demand of Western men—yet another illustration of the active practice of Orientalism by the Occident. The term implies non-nativity and connotes inferiority.
Now, “exotic” has become a trendy term. People want to visit so-called exotic places, drink exotic cocktails, sit on exotic carpets, and even be with exotic women. At the same time, while some men claim to be infatuated with “exotic women,” they rarely wish to pursue a future with the women they choose to label in this way. For many, being with an "exotic" woman has simply turned into a checklist item.
Degrading a woman by referring to her not only as an item, but also as an item that is “too unusual to be normally beautiful” is salacious. It others women based on their appearance and divides them. It is a dismal insult—a micro-aggression against the so-called “racially ambiguous women.”