12 BAME women share their experiences of being exotified by men.
Earlier this month, I wrote an article for Incl. Publication about the Exotification of non-white women in Western society. The ‘Exotic Experience’, explores the etymology of the word ‘exotic’ and the dark colonial history behind the fetishisation of BAME women. In the article, I urge men to think twice about using the term ‘exotic’ to describe women. Although I appreciate that those who refer to women as ‘exotic’ may do so with flattery in mind, they must be aware of the implications this so-called ‘compliment’ can have upon a woman’s emotional wellbeing.
Growing up in such a cosmopolitan city like London, many of my close friends have different ethnic origins to me. Fortunately, my exposure ensured from a young age that I became aware of and sensitive to the issues that people of different ethnicities face daily. Following puberty, it became increasingly difficult not to notice the differences in how men would interact with my female friends of colour, compared to how they would interact with me and other white females.
Having overheard numerous conversations and observed interactions on nights out, I felt impassioned to discuss and challenge the predatory behaviour displayed by some men towards my BAME friends. The way some white men have looked at my friends is overtly sexual; as if they’re undressing them with their eyes. There seems to be this tremendous sense of urgency in their body language like they’ve never seen a woman of colour before. This cringe-worthy behaviour is typically followed by a thread of excluding questions and remarks, dressed as compliments: “Wow, you’re so beautiful, where are you from?”, “You are so exotic”, “Is that your real hair?”, “You’re so spicy”, “I’ve got a thing for ethnic girls”… The list goes on.
I have always had a naturally maternal side, so when I hear men talking to my friends in such a manner, it quite literally repulses me. I have also seen first hand the knock-on effect these comments can have upon young women’s self-esteem and sense of identity. That is what makes these conversations even more uncomfortable to overhear. I can hardly imagine how exhausting it must be in romantic encounters, to constantly be quizzed about where you are from and told that you are ‘exotic’, before even being asked about yourself.
It’s important to clarify that I am not saying all white men interested in non-white women are fetishising them. There are lots of white men, who are respectful and avoid making BAME feel like a dating ‘wild card’. Nonetheless, it is vital to address that there is still a large percentage of men, who are genuinely convinced that they are charming with these excluding remarks. If not challenged, they will continue to do so, under false pretences. This article hasn’t been written to belittle the men who exotify women, instead educate them about the implications of their actions and explain why Exotification is far from a compliment.
We all have types to some degree and who we find attractive is our prerogative. My dating history signifies that there is a clear trend that typically I’m attracted to non-white men. But that doesn’t mean that ethnicity is a prerequisite for me to date someone. It also doesn’t mean that I would never consider dating a white man, because “I only date ethnic boys”. Whoever I’m dating, who they are as a person and whether we vibe precedes everything else. No one wants to feel like they are some sort of experiment or that the thing you like most about them is their skin colour.
That’s why for this blog post, I wanted to build on my argument further and collect real-life experiences from BAME women, who have been exotified by men. I hope by reading these personal anecdotes, it becomes evident why placing a woman’s ethnicity above who she is as a person is depleting to her self-esteem, and must be avoided at all costs. All the women who contributed to this article have so much more to offer than just their physical appearance. It’s about time some men realised this.
Have you ever been described as ‘exotic’ by a man?
How did it make you feel?
“I was described as ‘exotic’ after a guy in my hometown hit on me. He was well known for his type of girl he prefers to date. They were all Asian girls. One night, after my sister turned him down after he hit on her in the club, he tried to flirt with me. I told him straight that I‘m not interested and that I had seen him going after all Asian girls in this club, no matter how they are or looked like. He was pretty offended and responded by telling me that although it sounds like a fetish, it isn’t, he is just into ‘exotic’ girls. That was just a lame excuse. I just felt like a sex object. It wasn’t just what he said, it was the way he looked at me like I was a rare exotic animal in the zoo.”
“I’m commenting on this from the perspective of a black woman who has spent much of her life in majority-white spaces. I didn’t notice that I could even be fetishised until my late teens. The fetishism presented itself in the form of overtly and inappropriate sexual comments said to me by much older white men. These men would often stare at me, making me massively uncomfortable. The staring would be followed by comments about my body shape and it almost always ended with me being described as ‘tropical’ or ‘exotic’.
Another common comment: “I have never met such a beautiful black woman before”. These episodes depleted my self-esteem. I spent most of my late teens in tracksuits to cover up and avoid this attention.”
“Somehow, I used to think it was a compliment. I then grew up and the more someone would say the thing they liked most about me was that I was exotic, the more uncomfortable I felt. It was like my only value was that I didn’t look like other people, even though my exoticism should have stopped at me being French. But somehow, the colour of my skin was more important.”
“Yes, It made me feel weird.”
“Yes, I have been described as exotic by my boyfriend when we started dating. It surprised me as I never really thought of myself as exotic. Although my mum is from an island in the Caribbean, I grew up in Paris, which is anything but exotic. I wasn’t offended by the term as it is a term relative to where each and everyone’s from. I understood what he meant when he explained it to me. I have different family origins and I am from France, which to him means that I match the definition of exotic: originating from a distant foreign country, which in a way is true.”
“I can’t remember exact moments, but I have occasionally been called exotic on nights out by random men. I haven’t ever felt angry by it, but I have always thought that there is a better compliment to use than something like ‘exotic’. It makes me feel like I’m a fruit!”
“I have definitely had my share of being labelled ‘exotic’. Naively, when I was younger, it seemed dressed as a compliment, so I viewed it that way. Now I’m older, I know that it is anything BUT a compliment. Exotic implies the atypical; that the person or thing is non-conventional to the environment. If we talk about exotic animals we’re talking about something we wouldn’t typically assume to be in our ecosystem and something we aren’t used to, like a tiger for example.
Ultimately, being called exotic is just a form of ‘othering’. It makes me feel more isolated and a bit like a fetish, or your wild card dating choice. I would rather not be someone’s experiment. I want to be treated as though I belong here in this space and interaction, just as much as anyone else.”
“Either directly or indirectly, I probably have been described as “exotic” by a man – along with the words oriental and ethnic. I used to have quite low self-esteem so to be sexualised in that manner kind of alleviated some of my insecurities about myself and gave me a little bit of an ego boost. It’s taken a bit of work and self-love for me to identify my good traits and this so-called “exoticism” is not one I would count.”
“I have not been referred to as exotic personally. However, I have seen this in films when a white man is describing a black woman. I have been around white people from work who have expressed just listening to another colleagues accent (African) makes them feel like they are on ‘Holiday’. If a man approached me and called me ‘exotic’, I wouldn’t necessarily be offended, but I suppose that is more to do with me expecting this from a white man.”
“Both white men and white women have called me ‘exotic’. They have referred to my skin as tanned, caramel, golden, and they think they’re complimenting me. But I’m not tanned. I’m not my skin colour because I’ve been out in the sun, this is my natural skin colour. What’s really sad is that people compliment me on my complexion – “it’s beautiful, gold, exotic” – but had I been 3 or 4 shades darker like some of my Tamil friends, then it’s no longer exotic or beautiful anymore…”
Do you believe you have ever been fetishised because of your ethnicity? Feel free to share your thoughts on this.
“During my third year at university, I was talking to an international student for a few weeks. At first, he seemed nice, but it later became clear he was just really eager to have sex with me and was not interested in my personality at all. He would always compliment me on my looks but never really asked me much about myself whenever we saw each other. I eventually found out that he came from a very strict Christian Polish background and that he always tried to rebel against his family and their views. One night, I asked as a joke whether talking to me was another way of him rebelling. I still can’t tell if he was joking or not, but he said it was. Eventually, he stopped talking to me when he realised I wouldn’t have sex with him any time soon.”
“I have been described as both “exotic” and “foreign”. I have also generally been made to feel fetishised by men on numerous occasions. I have even had some experiences of men explicitly telling me that they like Asian women because of things that are usually sex-related. It made me feel very awkward, uncomfortable and degraded. The men that say it seem to think that it’s a compliment and are surprised when I take offence. I think that comments like this are very normalised in society today and because of this, so many women brush it aside without realising the problems that come with it.”
“I feel disturbed when I hear that men fetishise women based primarily on their ethnicity. There are times when I’ve even heard my own friends talk about they have an inclination towards “ethnic girls”. After having discussions with other BAME women, and reading academic texts on orientalism, I feel much more prepared to challenge men if this ever comes up in conversation.
I also think the term ‘oriental’ is as problematic as exotic. I now know the word has evolved to relate to things and people of South-East Asian origin, but when we trace it back to its roots, it was used by colonialists to create this dichotomy between themselves and the ‘other’ (orients). I think a lot of people aren’t aware of that, even other Asian people themselves.”
“Being a young British Indian woman, living in western culture I can say surprisingly, I have not been described as ‘exotic ‘ by a male before. However, I do believe I have been indirectly made to feel as if I am a ‘fetish’ by men due to my ethnicity. This did not make me feel less of myself nor question my ethnicity or background. I found myself questioning the small mind of the opposing and walked away watching the look on their face knowing they would never get a chance with me, ha!”
“I definitely feel sexualised as a BAME woman who wears a Hijab because I think there is a lot of mystery surrounding my hair. I have had so many instances where men have tried to guess or make assumptions off of my eyebrows – my eyebrows are very fine and black. So they assume my hair must be fine, black straight and long. Asking me those questions and making assumptions defeats the object of me covering my hair in the first place. It puts me in a really uncomfortable position.
Another point I want to make is about Asian clothes. We have beautiful clothes and white people pay me lots of compliments, “you look like princess Jasmine” etc. That’s lovely. However, when there is a middle-aged woman who doesn’t speak English in public, she’s called a “Paki” for wearing cultural clothing. But I’m seen as exotic? Is that because I’m British Asian and I speak fluent English? Why is it that when I wear it it’s beautiful but when a first-generation immigrant wears the same clothing they’re stared at and met with racial slurs?
As an Asian woman who is covered, if I’m on the train and a white man is looking at me I feel so uneasy because I’m thinking is he checking me out? Or is he a racist who is going to punch me in the face? You just never know with white men.”
“Whilst working at a local restaurant, a couple of people called me chocolate as a means of flirting. I called them out every time, however they couldn’t fathom why I was offended.”
“I’ve been described as exotic more times than I can count, starting from adolescence. It was a way for older men to make me feel special, and at first, it worked. But after a while, it started to really weigh on me, and what I used to think made me special became something that made me feel degraded. Being told that you’re just a number because “I don’t date white girls” is never a great feeling.”
“The fetishism from white women shared similarities from those of white men. They often spoke to me about my body shape, asking me how to get a bigger bum, boobs and lips. These conversations became rather exhausting. I tend to respond with silence when I’m in a good mood and sarcasm when I’m not feeling great.
The most interesting fetishism has been my hair. Non-black people have often felt the need to put their hands in my hair, make it the only topic of conversation, and look to me as the only source of information on this topic when Google exists. As a result of this, I firmly believe that black women’s hair has been politicised. It is often referred to as a statement, when in fact it simply grows out of a black woman’s head. I have decided to use this positively to my advantage. I use my hair to express ‘statements’ that are symbolic of my ancestry and historic background. I intentionally choose specific hairstyles that reflect my inner being.”
“I don’t think my ethnicity (Arab) has been explicitly fetishised in my dating experience. However, one thing I will say is that ‘where are you from?’ is the first question every man asks when he is trying to make advances. It always begins with this question. It seems people want to make light of any ethnic ambiguity they perceive from the way I look or act.
I have also noted that white men trying to flirt with me always end with me having to navigate offence. Often they try to minimise my cultural identity by reducing it or making it feel more palatable. For example, describing my food, dress, looks, and other cultural facets that are important to me as ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Eastern’. It’s as if they are trying to make it seem more familiar with what their European mind is used to.”
“I feel that there is a fetishism regarding white men approaching black women. However, this isn’t a generalisation for all white men who are attracted to black women. Historically, I know white men used to use Black women as circus and zoo attractions due to having different body types. Black women were also raped due to white men wanting to experience what it would be like, to be with a black woman.
So yes, I suppose the word ‘exotic’ could be banned. But there is a long history of underlying issues that come from how White men see Black women and I’m not sure a word will change years of stereotypical views of a Black Woman being considered exotic fruit.”
In this article, we have seen how Exotification affects BAME women on a micro, personal level, which alone should be enough justification for why it needs to end. However, it is vital to note that the scope of Exotification stretches beyond this. On a macro, global level, Exotification of non-white women has had a ripple effect, fuelling toxic markets such as Porn, Sex Tourism and Human Trafficking. Exotification has played a definitive role in shaping these three markets and in turn, they shape its latest trends. As it is such a dense topic, I will be exploring the global consequences of Exotifcation in my next blog post. For now, we will stick with addressing Exotification as a microaggression.
Whilst collecting contributions, I found it insightful that a few friends chose not to participate because they struggled to understand why being called ‘exotic’ was problematic. Quite differently, some even went further to explain that they found it empowering to be thought of by men in this way. In comparison to the contributions, it’s interesting to note how some women mentioned similar feelings. Yet, they signified this was only in their youth. As they became older and more in-tune with themselves, they realised that being exotified was a toxic form of admiration.
For me, this highlights not only how normalised Exotification is in Western society, but more importantly, how much society teaches women that their physical appearance matters most. This fight to be considered the most beautiful causes most women to formulate insecurities about their physical appearance. Many of us women will hate to admit that when we find out who our partner finds attractive, we immediately begin to compare ourselves to them. “She has dark features, I don’t”, “She has straight hair, mine’s curly”, “My boobs don’t sit like that” etc.
When a society places a woman’s physical appearance above any of her other attributes, it is unsurprising that this inherent competitiveness exists between women. However much we wish we instinctively thought “just because she is beautiful doesn’t mean I’m not”, training our brains to think like this is such hard work when society has bred us not to. Exotification plays upon these insecurities and justifies objectifying women through falsely building them up. Some women will happily be referred to as ‘exotic’ because they believe this is their defining quality. They don’t look like others, so that’s the only reason why they are beautiful. How degrading is that?!
Western culture teaches us that our self-esteem and worth as young women is supposedly established and defined through compliments about our physical appearance, rather than who we are as people. And the compliments we receive from men are supposed to be the most important of all. Being objectified by men is something that we are programmed to strive towards, and we are to feel grateful when they do. Because this is so normalised, it makes sense why some men struggle to comprehend why women take offence when they do objectify them.
However, just because objectification is normalised doesn’t mean that it’s ok. Nor does it mean the term ‘exotic’ is ok because the men who apply it say so with ‘good’ intent. Many BAME women often brush these comments aside, but they shouldn’t have to. It isn’t a battle for BAME women to fight alone. I actively encourage anyone reading this to stand up for BAME women and confront men if they hear them making such remarks. There’s no need to be brash about it, just simply explain Exotification’s toxic nature.
Another point to cover is that because this article only addresses BAME women, it doesn’t mean that BAME men are exempt from being exotified. In particular, black men’s bodies are overly sexualised in Western culture. Many white women discuss black men in terms of presumptions about their bodies rather than who they are as people, which is I find just as derogatory.
However, I chose to focus on women because they are victims of Exotification on a much larger scale than men. Some men of colour have even fallen into fetishising BAME women themselves. The term “Lighty” in the UK is used commonly by men of non-white ethnicity to describe a mixed-race woman. Like other forms of Exotification, the reference carries presumptions that mixed-race women are high maintenance and self-centred because they consider themselves prestigious. They believe this because they have lighter skin and features, hence ‘Lighty’. Such Shadism demonstrates that even BAME women are subject to being exotified and excluded by men from their own ethnic group. Accordingly, we must prioritise ending the Exotification of BAME women before we move onto men.
On a concluding note, if you are going to date people with different ethnicities to yourself, you need to be aware of and sensitive to the issues that face that individual. Support them where you can and continue to challenge racial stereotypes projected by your friends and family. You can’t claim to only date black men/women but not support the Black Lives Matter Movement. That is fetishisation in it’s purest and most troubling form. Educate yourself on race topics and cultural differences instead of expecting the person you’re dating to be your only source of information. They are not your walking Wikipedia.