Exotic, an adjective better suited for non-native objects such as fruit, plant or animals, has often been used to describe a person of color’s beauty. It also happens to be a word many Asians, a massive chunk being women, are told describes them when people “compliment” them.
Because it implies that there is only one “normal” standard of beauty, calling someone’s looks exotic is, in effect, a form of microaggression, if not, even borderline racism.
Despite the intention to express a compliment, the term “exotic” is always a subtle suggestion that people of color are less normal than White people.
So how does one respond to a demeaning “compliment”?
During a Q & A panel at the Asian American ComicCon at the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, Asian American women working in the entertainment industry were asked how they react when they are called “exotic.”
Paula Williams Madison, who is of black and Chinese descent, shared a story from her seat in the audience, according to PRI.
Former NBC TV executive Paula Williams Madison, who was has a seat in the audience shared her story, being a woman of Black and Chinese descent.
During a tour with for her documentary “Finding Samuel Lowe,” which is about her family’s quest to find their long-lost grandfather, she stated that a white audience member who saw her mother’s photo said she looked “exotic.”
Her mom, Nell Vera Lowe Williams, was a biracial Chinese and Jamaican woman whose features are predominantly Chinese.
“My cousins, who are Chinese, looked at me, like ‘Uh oh,’ and I kept my face just straight,” Madison shared.
“But when he finished, I said to him, ‘My understanding of the word ‘exotic’ is that it means ‘rare’ and ‘unique.’ The most populous people on this planet are, in fact, Asian. You appear to be Caucasian and male. You, sir, are exotic.’”
Hollywood Reporter Rebecca Sun, who was moderating the panel, exclaimed after Madison finished her story: “That just rocked my brain, right there.”
Speaking with an interviewer after the event she explained:
“Sometimes it just takes looking at something from a different angle. Otherwise, someone might call you ‘exotic,’ and you might take it as a compliment because no one has put in front of you a real argument about why you should not allow this.”