Project for Open Voices: “Exotic”

The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives courtesy of the Project for Open Voices. Today’s essay was published anonymously in POV’s first publication.

There is a lack of dialogue about diversity issues on this campus. As a student of color from a working-class family background, there are times when I feel like an Other because of instances of discrimination, racism, classism, or sheer ignorance that go unnoticed and are not discussed, as if this silence was a form of tacit acceptance. The fact that I notice how problematic such remarks are sets me apart; unless, that is, I’m with friends who recognize what’s wrong with things we often see and hear. Here are a few examples.

In a class, for a project, someone compiled her friend’s bucket lists and added illustrations and names. On the list of a male friend was “hook up with a black girl.” The quote reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s description of a native woman in the Belgian Congo in Heart of Darkness: “And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman…She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress.” Like Conrad, this individual depicted black girls as sexual objects he was keen to explore. Even if the list hadn’t been taken seriously, the attempt to present such a comment as humorous reveals the author’s ignorance of its racist, imperialist, sexist and oppressive connotations.

Aside from this individual’s ignorance, the silence regarding the entry in class was astounding. It’s not simply a matter of one person’s stupid remark. The student who compiled the book rewrote the entry; other classmates and the professor read it, and yet no one even mentioned it. I brought it up with a friend in class who shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess that is wrong” and then asked me about an upcoming deadline. The silence made me feel like the only person who realized how offensive that statement was. I wanted someone else to recognize it as degrading, making me feel like an exotic sexual object any time a man’s gaze lingers on my face or body, causing me to hate walking through upper Dempsey and thinking that any male who glances at me is only doing so because of my race, because my brown skin and black hair set me apart on this campus, because I’m so exotic, some kind of “wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman”, something to be explored and then tossed away because at the end of the day, the savage outweighs the superb.

I wanted someone besides myself and my friends to acknowledge how dehumanizing that statement was. I wanted to have a conversation about that attitude and how it is the reason why I can never have a random hook-up with a white male on this campus. I’m not assuming all white men are racist. I know not all white men see women of color in that way. I fear someone I’m hooking up with sees me as “wild-eyed and magnificent” or an item to cross off of a bucket list.

I tried hooking up. He was a gorgeous (white) upperclassman, and I was a first-year astounded that he started flirting with me, asking me if I wanted to go talk somewhere quieter. A few nights later it was over. I had learned his ex-girlfriend was Asian and the girl that came after me was Latina. Coincidence? Kenyon’s student body is 17% students of color with an even smaller percentage of women of color. It would be extremely difficult to randomly develop such a dating history. I figured you were Indian or something like that, he had told me the first night we met. That should’ve been my cue to run. Instead, I stuck around, ecstatic that such a gorgeous senior was into me, but after seeing who came after and realizing it was just a matter of skin tone and hair color and certain features, that quickly changed. It wasn’t the same way I viewed him. He wasn’t into me just because he found me attractive; he thought I was attractive because of my race. It may seem like a subtle difference, but if your race ever comes to define you, it escapes your control. I can’t decide to wake up one morning and look like everyone else. I can try to blend in – dress a certain way, dye my hair a light color, but it won’t work because I’m not white; I’m really easy to spot in Peirce, I’m exotic, I’m savage. He made me feel like an erotic object that exists solely for white men’s entertainment; perceived no differently that a beautiful savage in colonial Africa.

43 responses

  1. An interesting topic, indeed. Did it ever occur to you, though, that some white people (or really any race, for that matter) are just into other ethnicities, exclusively? It’s not always a voluntary choice – or a one-time thing – to want to get with those of different races. I, myself, find myself falling much more often for men of different races, simply by preference. Something else to consider is that as a woman, you’re always going to be objectified, regardless of race. Some of that attention you’re receiving is due solely to your gender, not just your race. I would give your classmates a little more credit and look at the complexities of their behavior towards you. I’m not saying that the prejudice you feel isn’t happening, or isn’t wrong, I’m merely presenting alternatives to what you’ve put forth. I’ve found in my experience that once you are looking for people who are out to get you, you will be able to find aplenty. My advice is, instead of being vigilant and tallying the wrongs against you, advocate for yourself and call people on their shit, don’t just allow yourself to be victimized by the situation.

    I feel for you, and absolutely hope that people think more deeply about racial campus issues and their own actions contributing to these injustices after reading this article.

    • Hey Anonymous,

      With regards to your advice, (“My advice is, instead of being vigilant and tallying the wrongs against you, advocate for yourself and call people on their shit, don’t just allow yourself to be victimized by the situation”) I think you’re being quick to judge. How do you know the author is just sitting there tallying the wrongs against them instead of raising awareness about these issues by A) submitting to the Project for Open Voices B) Allowing their personal submission to be published on The Thrill and thus subject to public and anonymous commentary C) How do you know they’re organizing events that deal with these issues on this campus? How do you know they don’t attend every POV meeting? How do you know whether or not they’re an activist?

      Who are you to say they are being victimized by the situation? Bringing an issue to light and raising awareness about their experience at this college, which is definitely that of the minority and not often discussed, IS advocating for yourself. You can’t just call people victims when they are acting as agents of change.

    • While I agree with the first point you bring up (that some people, including whites, may just be attracted to others of a different race/ethnicity without exoticism being attached – as a European-American & Latin mix, I pretty much by default always am), I think part of what the author is trying to express is something that women of color (I can’t exactly speak for men) often involuntarily think about when a man/woman of a different background is romantically approaching them – that is, “is this person’s primary interest in me my race/ethnicity?” It’s not something pleasant to think about, so I don’t think the author is “looking for people who are out to get” her.

      It’s not about allowing yourself to be victimized and not standing up for yourself. In fact, being willing to become involved with people of a different race/ethnicity demonstrates that you’re not allowing yourself to be victimized, nor allowing yourself to fall prey to societal views and constructions of interracial dating. It’s about having to live with this underlying thought of inferiority that gnaws at your self esteem every time you meet someone you’re attracted to whose different from yourself. Personally I wish it would go away, and from similar conversations I’ve had with friends of color, they do too.

    • If you are only attracted to people of “other ethnicities” that borders on the fetishistic and is exactly the kind of dehumanizing behavior the author is justly complaining about. Equally disturbing is your statement that women will always be objectified “regardless of race.” Time has long since past to stop objectifying people and start treating them like full and equal human beings. Only then is true intimacy possible. In the end men have to decide if they want intimate partners or trophies. To women like the latter is both juvenile and ethically unacceptable.


      • Oops! I have a typo. the last line should read…to treat women like the latter is juvenile and ethically unacceptable.


  2. The bucket list thing was indeed degrading. The obliviousness all around you compounded the offense. Thank you for writing this.

  3. I want to understand something that isn’t very clear from the article: so wanting to ‘hook-up with a black girl’ automatically means that the guy views her as an erotic object based on her colour? That he’s only into her based on her race?
    While the theory that she is now and erotic object may (or may not) be the case, the author seems to automatically assume that this can’t happen to white girls. Quite a few of my friends (and yes, they are black, if you want to know) have voiced opinions about wanting to ‘hook-up with white girls’. Do I find that people of other skin colours want to hook-up with me because I’m white degrading? Not really. Do I feel like an erotic object? No. Whether it is viewed as racism or not, I put it down to curiosity.
    Do I want to ‘hook-up with a black man’? I can’t see why not, if only to wonder at the beauty of a dark skin colour against mine. Should a white guy hooking-up with a black girl instantly be labeled as someone who objectifies women of that race, or does this only happen if he doesn’t pursue a relationship or goes through girls quickly? I don’t think we can make that decision.

    • “Do I want to ‘hook-up with a black man’? I can’t see why not, if only to wonder at the beauty of a dark skin colour against mine.” This sentence is literally the definition of exoticism. The phrase “to wonder” objectifies this hypothetical black man, insinuating that his skin color is intriguing, that his skin color makes him a marvel, that his skin color is something EXOTIC. This sentence also portrays the hypothetical black man as some kind of accessory when it refers to “the beauty of a dark skin colour against mine,” further objectifying his person.

      Objectification + Racism = Exoticism, and that’s exactly what just happened in this comment.

      • This is ridiculous. To say someone’s racial background is intriguing is racist? You assume that’s an objective fact when it’s highly debatable. I’ve been told I have a beautiful smile, how objectifying! I’ve heard a guy tell a girl she had ‘beautiful milky skin’, romantic? NO! OPPRESSION! Yeesh…

        Claims to mastery breed strife. Sometimes beauty is marvelous…

      • To Nawzim:
        When there’s the historical legacy of colonialism, imperialism, slavery and racism behind it, yes it is racist. props anonymous. i was thinking the same thing just didn’t know how to explain it.

      • Positive comments toward skin color is now an ignorant racist thing?
        Or is it only racist if we’re talking about non-whites?

        Honestly, if a person told me that my skin was beautiful, I would be ecstatic.

        And when did our natural sexual desires become the bane of all existence?

  4. It seems to me that the author of this post is primarily asking for there to be more dialogue about race on campus. A reaction that amounts to “nuh uh, that’s not racist” closes down that possibility. As members of the racial majority, most white people won’t ever experience what is like to look around the room and be the only person with white skin. Why didn’t any of her classmates speak up about the bucket list? Did they not see the comment as a problem or did they ignore it because talking about race is uncomfortable? If the author had brought it up, would her classmates (or worse, her professor) have told her to stop looking for enemies and that she should be less sensitive? If the bucket list item had been “hook up with a poor girl” or “hook up with a midget”, do you think someone would have said something then? It is really difficult to figure out how to talk about race when most of the people who should be involved in the conversation would rather pretend race doesn’t matter.

    • Not engaging the argument at large because that is a landmine, but I grew up in Hawaii–where caucasian is a significant minority–and have indeed walked into a room and been the only person with my skin colour, many times. It’s scary as hell and makes you feel alien, or like the target of everyone’s hostility. So even if I don’t come from a history of racism, I hope you can at least accept that I can sort of see where the author of this post is coming from and sympathize with her, even if I’m not a person of colour myself.

  5. Can I ask an earnest question? I’m a white woman, and I’m generally attracted to Hispanic men or (blond or dark-haired) white men. Now, I don’t find Hispanic men exotic or any such thing – I’m just physically attracted to the typical physical features of the race. Is this racist?

  6. I am astonished and saddened by some of the comments below that seek to justify the fetishization and objectification of women of color as somehow morally acceptable. Real intimacy is only possible between actual human beings. One can’t be truly intimate with an object or a trophy. To treat people in this fashion is truly degrading and humiliating. I would hope that this article and its responses triggers a a really necessary debate about race, ethnicity and intimacy on this campus. One good sign is that the people defending this kind of racial and sexual objectification are doing so anonymously rather than give their names which I assume in part is because deep down they know it is wrong or at the very least they understand there is a large population of people who understand that these attitudes are unacceptable. Let’s hope this is truly a teachable moment.


    • I’m offended by the fact that some people are complete idiots and think it’s always about race and sex.
      So now being attracted to another race is bad?Just because somebody tends to be attracted to someone of a different race now means we’re being racist?
      Isn’t that idea racism in itself? Let’s just separate the races and not mingle.

      btw: you’re pretty anonymous; stop being a hypocrite.

    • Oh goodness.

      1) Dissenting voices on issues of race and gender can become fodder for public shaming. There might be a fear that to oppose some narratives is tantamount to being labeled a bigot, racist, demon, etc. I think this fear has (to an extent) been borne out by the comments on this post.

      2) It’s pretty rich that you ascribe some conspiracy theory to blog-anonymity (what a shocker!) on a campus of 1,600 while you yourself are posting anonymously.

      3) “Real intimacy is only possible between actual human beings. One can’t be truly intimate with an object or a trophy.”

      You are arguing with a ghost. No one is disagreeing with you or has stated anything remotely otherwise. What HAS been said is that intrigue is a component of human intimacy. To comment on one’s physical appearance is not the same as gross objectification. The world is complicated, there are degrees. When we’re discussing a topic as fraught as this one it would heed everyone to think in terms of moderation and subtleties rather than a black/white (no racial connotation) dichotomy.

      4) ‘fetishization and objectification of women of color as somehow morally acceptable.’

      Again, no one is saying this, besides the person the OP posted about, in which case, I agree with you. A bucket list of exotic hookups is demeaning, no argument there. But to be fascinated with the ‘other’ should not be seen as an automatic indication of racism. Think of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The Arcadian Forest is a pretty wondrous place. Explorations of sexuality and communication (both physical and spiritual) with those unlike yourself are beautiful and important parts of growing up. Some part of that attraction is the very fact that there are those who are unlike you in very real ways, (ethnicity, religion, intellectual makeup, etc.) Lets not wave that all away by screaming racism.

      • Wow!!!! Well written.
        This is the best/most reasonable thing written on here so far.
        I don’t need to post anymore.

  7. it is not wrong to find someone attractive and have race be a part of the reason they are attractive. However, when it becomes the sole reason, that is an issue. That is adding to the objectification of people that has become too common in today’s society. There is added weight to viewing people of color this way because, like SN says, there is so much history behind the exoticizing of people who are not white that adds to the institutionalization of racism in this nation. It adds to the feeling of “otherness” that many people of color already feel by not being a part of the dominant majority. Feeling the need to “hook up with a white girl” does not carry the same weight because there are also so many messages in the media and in our culture telling us that white is beautiful, white beauty is the ideal beauty, white standards of beauty should be everyone else’s. Whereas women of color are seen not as beautiful but as untamed sex, saying there’s a savage or hypersexuality component to being a woman of color. We as students of this college should be aware of the weight of what we say. We are informed students and know the history of our nation and social implications of what we say. Come on guys we need to strive to not be ignorant, especially when we’re all educated.

  8. so. people can’t disagree with the popular (in this case, liberal as well) idea about this topic without being lambasted? interesting. and by interesting i mean stupid.

      • Well then why don’t you submit a narrative to the Project for Open Voices expressing your voice? No one is stopping you from doing so. In fact, at POV, we welcome you to. We published all the narratives we received and so we are open to ALL voices. If people choose not to submit narratives, well then that’s their decision and we cannot be blamed for that.

    • Roger, you are completely missing the point. It’s not about telling people they are right or wrong, it is about bringing awareness to the fact that what you are saying has larger implications. Larger than what a lot of people are aware of and I’m so grateful that POV is allowing these conversations to take place because it allows people to really figure out why something that doesn’t seem offensive to you is very much offensive to someone else. People get offended for legitimate reasons.

  9. I love this essay and all of its implications. At the beating heart of it all is the objectification of women. Some men find women of color to be exotic, some upper class men go “slumming” with working class girls….what’s the common thread here?

  10. I would say at the beating heart of it all is objectification, period. We are all objectified. Every one of us, by almost every other person in the world. It’s impossible to know a person as more than what you see or hear or observe until you actually understand them as an individual, and even then, it’s really, really hard to appreciate a person as more than the sum of their parts, but as a whole person with an entire physical and mental life that you’ll probably never know– few ever share or breach those divides.

    Sex makes these discussions especially difficult, because it’s a physical breach of you and me, often without any breach of the mental side (soul, whatever, I’m trying not to wax poetic here), and that is a sensitive idea. Some might say that in order to engage in casual sex, objectification of the partner is necessary. I don’t know how I personally feel about that, because if it’s mutual objectification, then is anyone really wronged?

    But, further generalizing of these objectifications/stereotyping also makes the discussion more difficult. If a person is looking at an individual as representative of an entire group, a general object, than the original issue explodes- it’s appalling, it’s degrading, it’s enough to make that individual feel less like a person. To me, that’s really the worst kind of offense you could make against another human being.

    I think it’s best to start at the root problem. Why is empathy so difficult for us, and maybe this generation in particular? Is the problem, maybe, the way we think of sex these days? Of friendship? Of acquaintanceship? Of strangers?

      • Maybe I’m just unread in the academic subject, but it seems to me that exoticism, and the racism and sexism that intersect to produce it, are still a form of objectification. It’s not a reduction- I acknowledge that the problem is far more complex than just objectification. But, address the root, and you bring up all the different forms and permutations of the problems that occur down the line. It’s just approaching the problem from the opposite end. More than one way to look at things.

  11. Pingback: Do It Tonight: Intersections of Race and Class Dessert and Discussion « The Thrill

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