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The Colonial Hangover in Compliments: The Legacy of Looking 'Exotic'

Insurgent Empire

The Colonial Hangover in Compliments: The Legacy of Looking 'Exotic'

Amal Abu-Bakare

It’s an everyday innocent comment you’ll receive if you have been shopping at H&M for a little too long. Maybe it comes from a curious passer-by in the Bullring who just noticed your beauty and only wants to enquire. They begin by asking you ‘where are you from?’ (or maybe they will more subtly ask you ‘what is your ethnicity?’) If you are kind enough to oblige, the eventual follow up you’ll receive as they smile at you and continue on their way is:

Oh, I just thought you looked so exotic and thought I should ask

For some, this situation may seem baffling; why would anyone ever ask such personal questions? For others, particularly young women of colour, this is an everyday occurrence. In our multicultural society, internationally ambiguous facial and body features are being more frequently sought out. In popular culture, the essence of looking exotic like a Kardashian, like a Priyanka Chopra, like a Jennifer Lopez, is now in great demand. There are some YouTube tutorials that have garnered over 202,980 hits that show you how to have ‘exotic’ or what is sometimes referred to as an ‘ethnic beauty’ look. You can even find a person conducting social media experiments like the Who is Attractive? Blonde vs Exotic, as seen here.

While there is nothing wrong with giving or receiving compliments – it’s always great to spread good cheer – there is a problem, a particularly colonial problem, with the gendered, racial and cultural imperialism, that calling someone ‘exotic’ entails.

The Colonial Make-Ups of 'Exotic' Beauty

Historically, as a material project and process of the British empire, colonialism played a major role in people’s every day livelihoods. Academics such as Hiddleston (2009:2) argue that colonialism was about more than just physical evidences of control over territories and their indigenous populations; it was an active manifestation of imperialism, an ideology of cultural supremacy. This means that the era of colonialism essentially entailed the spread of both political and social ideas that continuously justified and normalised the superiority of the generally Caucasian British coloniser. This of course would influence the transfer of their ideas to colonised peoples, not just concerning society, how to govern, and what language to use, but also the very concept of what it means to be attractive. The idea of exoticism, being beautiful but foreign, arose amidst this context, amidst the interactions between the colonisers and those they encountered and subsequently subjugated.

Today’s standards of beauty, though evidently evolving, essentially derive from a European colonial past, where early practices of pseudoscience and biology were used to categorise people, particularly their colonial subjects, into races. This was so as to determine a person’s character or pathology (Swain, 2012:5). Facial or bodily features were used to determine if a person was or would be a criminal or sexual deviant, in a way that served the purpose of upholding the moral and social supremacy of colonisers and their way of living. And when non-European men and women were in fact glorified for their looks, they were highly sexualized and deprived of their rights to safety and consent. Extreme examples would include men and women being put in cages on display in human zoos, a famous example being that of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman in Britain. In 1810, when Saartjie Baartman was in her early twenties, she was persuaded by an English ship’s doctor, William Dunlop, to travel to England to make her fortune. However, as a Khoikhoi woman, she was considered an anthropological freak, and upon arrival in England, she found herself put on exhibition, displayed as a sexual novelty.

Complements to Compliments

The compliment of looking exotic holds a great deal of cultural weight in the colonial/imperial context, and as a result of this dark history, many women and men of colour are still struggling to come to terms with their own empowered conceptions of beauty today. Luckily, conversations about the politics of looking exotic are more open and honest than they have ever been before. What is important to remember is that while what constitutes beauty is obviously subjective, discussing beauty can also be political and meaningful to those around us. Being ‘exotic’ is not a compliment, but the sentiment of wanting to be appreciative and kind is always valuable.

So just add the education to your next endeavour to make someone smile – okay?

Hiddleston, J. (2009). Understanding postcolonialism. Routledge.

Swain, Fiana O., “Negotiating Beauty Ideals: Perceptions of Beauty Among Black Female University Students.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2012.

Amal Abu-Bakare

Amal Abu-Bakare is a Doctoral candidate at Aberystwyth University in Wales, conducting research that focuses on the theorized existence of racial world order, wherein global efforts to combat terrorism hypothetically reside.

Follow her @nawalabu_72