"The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall. " – Che Guevara
Most White men see little issue in complimenting a woman of colour with the label ‘exotic’. For him, the phrase merely highlights the woman’s darker skin as being unusually palatable to his regular taste in light-skinned blonde women.
But for many women of colour, ‘exotic’ is a degrading term that they feel demotes them into sub-human status, and the White patriarchy is commonly at a loss to understand how:
White feminism usually does well to explain to men how certain remarks made to women in general (“bossy”, “nice arse”, “menstrual” etc.) are offensive. But the typically colour-blind nature of White feminism induces a lack of inter-sectionality, making the movement divorced from ethnic minority liberation and thus ignorant to how certain remarks affect women of colour specifically. Colour blindness thus makes White feminism and the White male hegemony as bad as each other when comes to the compliment ‘exotic’, because their lack of regard for the political significance of colour obfuscates the racial connotations behind the compliment (I can’t seem to be able to write a single blog on race without having to bash colour blindness).
As a man of colour, I understand the significance of ‘exotic’s racial background, yet I’ve never myself incurred the experience that women of colour feel when they are given that label. To understand the institutionally racist hyper-sexualisation that this word induces we need to look at the colonial legacy of how women of colour were exoticised, and how the exoticisation of people of colour exists both as an expression of White power and a privately marketised product.
The pretexts used by Western imperialists to vindicate colonisation of the Third World were the secular ideologies of intellectuals in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, who believed ‘superior’ Western values to be forcefully prescribable to Black and Brown peoples in order to ‘free’ them from their traditional customs.
But colonialists asserted their imperial dominance over colonised people of colour by perceiving them as being no more human than the land that they invaded, or the spices and herbs that they imported for corporate profit; Australian aborigines were in fact only legally classified as human, rather than part of the flora and fauna, in 1967. When people of colour were dehumanised into this status they were labelled as ‘exotic’ in no different a way than their land and its natural commodities, and were thus fetishised as exotic products in the same light.
Now here’s an example of how exoticisation has been transmitted from past colonialism into modern institutional racism, which is the primary example of this blog: after years of European citizens gazing in amaze at exotic animals and products from the colonies being shown in display in markets and museums, ‘exotic’ people were eventually added to these exhibitions. Colonialists would bring native peoples from Africa, Asia, and the Americas to display as spectacles for a European audience.
Writers at the time recorded these human to have existed for the ends of giving their White colonialist audience a ‘kick’, for example some writers described Dutch audiences incurring pleasure from observing Surinamese Creoles displayed in Amsterdam’s Colonial Exhibition, who were exoticised and fetishised for their alleged ‘childlike’ qualities:
“The appearance of these groups of Creoles” Eigen Haard wrote in 1883, “had something childlike, that is naturally appealing; real children of tropical nature, carefree, that is naturally appealing; real children of tropical nature, carefree, enjoying life without worries, restless, keen on movement, noise, colour, light, bit also kind and sweet.”
Very recently we had one such zoo that was attempted to have been established in Britain!
In an article boycotting the project, Akala describes how modern ‘artist’ Brett Bailey intended to inaugurate an exhibition depicting Black people locked in cages, superficially as a historical lesson on slavery.
But to the contrary, Akala states that – just as we saw in colonial times – the purpose of this exhibition was to confer a status of power to the White audience over the displayed Blacks; a pornography of living, impotent Black bodies in cage giving an exclusively White audience “a sadistic kick” to witness as a result of dominant relationship that the observer has over the observed, just as Haard had noted. So, as I said in the intro, Black bodies being presented as exotic animals or objects expresses White authority; just as much nowadays as it did during colonialism.
Through this exoticisation, we see a fetishisation of people of colour yet a dire lack of respect for them. This example is hardly the only instance of a modern ‘exotic human exhibition’, and I will give an example of another later in this article. But for now what people need to realise is that these zoos are not products of individual, bigoted artists waking up one morning and thinking “hmm, I think I might make an avant-garde of a few negroes today.” Rather, it is a result of how people of colour are culturally and socio-politically regarded by the institutions of society, which permeates into the psyche of nearly everybody.
Now let’s get down to some inter-sectional shit: whilst exoticisation of people colour creates an objectifying fetish that expresses White power, how does it uniquely affect women of colour? The answer is hyper-sexualisation, which as true nowadays as it was in the era of direct European colonialism. As explained by the Hampshire Feminist Collective, one way colonists sought to liberate women of colour from the ‘barbaric’ cultures was to over-sexualise them. Lord Cromer, a British delegate to colonial Egypt, commissioned the systematic removal of head veils from women as a symbol of the ‘liberation’ of their sexual expression. But in the same swathe, dismantled the educational systems that existed in pre-colonial Arab Egypt which trained women in nearly every profession in which men were trained. Thus, Cromer’s campaign symbolically restrained women’s freedom as citizens whilst over-sexualising them through the removal of their traditional attire. Egyptian women were thus treated as sub-human, hyper-eroticised objects that a White European could fetishise.
As explained by Fabiane Santos, a school of scientific racism emerged in the 18th Century known as ‘polygenism’, which sought to prove scientifically that ‘exotic’ humans were a biologically inferior race to White. Many followers of this school, such as Louis Agassiz, saw hyper-seuxality as a congenital flaw within Black women.
As the bodies of Western White women were sanctified as innocent and pure, the bodies of the women of colour of the Orient were culturally regarded as the lustfully enticing, savage counterpart. Just as colonisers adopted a fetish for conquering land, a fetish was adopted for the bodies of Black and Brown women, which colonisers saw as being as enticing as cinnamon and indigo – as ripe for conquer through rape as was their country through colonisation.
A White man calling a woman of colour “exotic” can thus not only be understood in terms of sexual dominance by reducing her to an object that he owns, but also of racial dominance as a result of the legacy of colonialism.
Such hyper-sexualisation resonates from imperialism into the presentation of women of colour in culture and the media nowadays. The contrast of women of colour and White women in the music industry, for example – Akala noted that if White artists want to look ‘slutty’ “they will surround themselves with Black bodies,” rather than White ones, and will sell themselves off “sexualised images of Black people”. This imagery has been highlighted numerous times to exist in music videos. Lily Allen is a subtle example of a White artist marketing herself off hyper-sexualised non-White female bodies, Miley Cyrus is an obvious one. The contrast between White and Brown princesses in Disney. Burlesque dancing often being labelled ‘exotic’ dancing. So and so forth.
Now here’s a very recent instance of the socio-political sexual fetishisation of women of colour: whilst many – quite often colour blind – members of the Twittersphere have been debating Kim Kardashian’s recent nude photos for Paper in terms of how freely women should express their sexuality, they overlook the racial connotations behind the photo-shoot.
The artist responsible for the project, Jean-Paul Goude, has appropriated Kardashian’s photo-shoot from his earlier work, which explicitly fetishised animalistically-presented naked Black women in zoo-like conditions, as explained by Hannah Ongley, and this project is more than an expression of disrespect for women of colour – it is an expression of power.
In the past, Goude has described Blacks as “the premise of his work”, and included photo-shoots of Black women in cages in a pictorial display from the 1980s known as ‘Jungle Fever’. Yes, that’s right – Jungle Fever. Kardashian, an Armenian, has unknowingly been characterised in conformity to the seductive, barbaric caricature of Eastern women – a caricature intrinsic in the White power structure’s post-colonial psyche. Ongley cites Black feminist Janell Hobson’s remark on the racist objectification of Goude’s art:
“The subject wears an ‘exotic’ hairstyle and ‘smiles’ for the camera in the pose of a ‘happy savage pleased to serve,’” she says, “which suggests her complicity in having her body depicted as a literal object, a ‘primitive’ vision to provide pornographic pleasure and intoxication presumably for a white male spectator.”
Just as Bailey’s human zoo project, Goude models the bodies of Black women as primitive, inert objects that attribute a status of racial and sexual power for the White male viewer. Effectively – as Akala argued about Bretley’s zoo – the women in Goude’s display have been conquered through their hyperbolised sexualisation, and barbarisation.
Again – the fear element behind this otherisation pops up its head. Following American victory in the Indian Wars, images of captured Native Americans, which included hyper-sexual imagery of Native women, appeared in American ornament shops, as symbolic reminders that although one may fear these people as otherised savages, they have now been conquered through their objectification and sexualisation.
And his display of women of colour with large protruding arses has a long colonial history behind it. Fabian Santos points out that British polygenists between 1815 and 1820 frequently inaugurated exhibitions of women from the African Hettentot tribe, who had distinctly larger buttockses than White women. Polygenists saw this unique asset as proof of ‘exotic’ women’s alleged innate hyper-sexuality. Blue Telusma makes a specific comparison between Goude’s photo-shoot of Kardashian and the exhibition of Saartje Baartman, the most ‘celebrated’ Hettentot woman in the polygenist exhibitions.
Are the subjects of Goude’s work the only modern women with protruding buttockses to be exhibited in a jungle matrix? Nope! Draw attention to Nicki Minaj’s music video Anaconda. As well as being a video that verges on satire of the music industry, parallels can be drawn with both 19th Century hettentot exhibitions and Goude’s displays. The video is set in a – guess what – jungle, and the Black women’s buttockses are the fetishised targets of the film. Thus Black women are yet again de-humanised into hyper-sexual primitive inhabitants of a dark uncivilised continent, per the colonial European stereotype of African women. This comparison between Minaj’s presentation by the music industry and the imperial caricaturing of Hottentot women is made by Janell Hobson.
The tradition of exhibiting ‘exotic’ women and caricaturing their buttockses as super-humanly large, hyper-sexualises women of colour to such an extent that they are quite literally biologically objectified as their own arses. The fetishisation of their buttockses filters out any acknowledgement of them as human, and reduces them to mere sexual organs, per Franz Fanon’s statement on the sexual objectification of Black men for their large penises:
“The Negro symbolises the biological…One is no longer aware of the Negro but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is the penis.”
Unfortunately, Black women are not the only ones de-humanised in a Jungle matrix. Akala commented on the hyper-barbarisation of of an exclusively Black male crowd and the description of them as “hungry apes” in Professor Green’s music video ‘Jungle’. Yes, again, Jungle. Such an over-barbarised “niggerised narrative” – as Akala dubs it, which contrasts White masculinity as the intelligent counterpart to Black masculinity, is also given to the exclusive Black crowd in Wacka Flocka Flame’s video ‘Hard In Da Paint’, whose setting is described in the opening shoots as – drumroll please – “The Jungles”. If you’re familiar with how 1930s Black music events in Harlem were titled ‘Jungle Nights in Harlem’, you’ll know that de-humanising Black musicians to apes is absolutely nothing new.
The pictography of Black males manifesting savage behaviour in a “jungle” matrix in these music videos post-figures colonialist propaganda from European explorers of Africa, which ousted out the reality of African urban civilisation in favour of pictography that presented Africans as ape-like creatures living in jungles. Rather than associating Black masculinity with intelligence, as Akala explains, Black males are rendered the stereotypical colonialist image of African men as ape-like and hyper-barbairsed. Thus a White viewer is given a subtle feeling of superiority over the apparent oriental, uncivilised people that are presented to them, in the same way women of colour are presented in zoo pictography.
The implicit comparison of orientalised women to apes is also present in Goude’s work. It was French Enlightenment scholar Comte de Buffon who made one of the first biological comparisons between Africans and monkeys, and did so by arguing the Hettentot people to be the missing link between humans and apes. Thus if Goude’s women, including Kardashian, post-figure the Hettentot exhibitions, they are attributed with the classical African human-primate image in a similar light to the men in Green’s and Flocka Flame’s videos.
“White people” remarks Stamp Paid, an ex-slave in Tony Morrison’s novel ‘Beloved’ “Believed [that] under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, read gums ready for their sweet white blood.”
The hyper-barbarisation of Black masculinity, compared to the protagonised White masculinity, can be understood as the equivalent of Black femininity being regarded as the seductive twin to chastised White femininity. Pieterse comments on the Wite reception colonial imagery of African natives in postcards, saying:
“Part of this [imagery] is the pattern of attraction by the ‘feminine’, sensuous, seductive element, and repulsion by the ‘masculine’, threatening, primitive element. One hand the native beauty and on the other hand the cannibal.”
But as well as fetishisation, there’s another element behind this orientalisation of non-White masculinity and femininity. The post-colonial stereotype of ‘exotic’ human beings as savages warrants such people to be observed by a White audience at a ‘secure distance’, be it from outside an exhibition cage or from watching a music video, so that these ‘exotic’ people can be safely fetishised in addition to – as Morrison’s Stamp believes – being feared.
Whilst the White imperial mentality fetishises the alleged super-human sexuality and barbarism of non-White men and women, at the same time it fears them for their mysterious ‘otherised’ identity – a la Andrew Smith’s famous dictum “People fear what they don’t know.” (A good piece on the implicit ‘fear factor’ behind the exoticisation of Black bodies is Ben Carrington’s ‘Race, Representation and the Sporting Body’).
But why does a feeling of power only manifest from the observation of Black objectification from a White lens? Akala dubbed Green’s video as a “pornography of Black men killing each other” and that this display has a “certain rhythm to it” that would not be appreciated if White men were featured instead. The same fetishisation of Black male violence can be said about the fetishisation of Black women; just as Hobson dubbed Goude’s work a ‘pornography’, it is inconceivable that a White audience would incur the same power-hungry kick if ‘exotic’ zoos and photo-shoots featured White women. Why not? Because Whites are not the ones with the current socio-economic inferiority.
Akala’s article on Bailey’s zoo points out that a display of Chinese bodies in a zoo would not give a White audience that same power feeling, as a result of China’s current political dominance. But by virtue of Blacks’ socio-economic inferiority to Whites, fetishisation of inert Black bodies in a zoo is a microcosm of the power relationship shared between the two ethnicities in the socio-racial hierarchy. Human zoo pictography thus conforms to Jan Pieterse’s theory of “White on Black” imagery – colonialistic imagery which represents the alleged cultural and biological inferiority, or biologically objectifiability, of people colour for the ends of expressing White superiority, per Arthur Brisbane’s famous adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
And zoo pictography isn’t the only way that Black femininity has been fetishised for the sake of White art. In 2009 Dutch model Lara Stone was featured in a Vogue Paris photo shoot in which her skin was painted Black. In 2014, White model Ondria Hardin appeared in a feature for Numero magazine, in which – you guessed it – her skin was painted Black and she was modelled as an ‘African Queen’ – pictured below.
Many believe the ‘Black face’ phenomenon to just be the anxiety of an overly-sensitive university student union that kicks people out of clubs for innocently wearing dark-coloured Halloween costumes. But beyond that, the fashion industry has a bizarre history of producing photo shoots that fetishise and exoticise African female beauty and culture without – heaven forbid – actually featuring African women.
The history of Blackness and Black culture being emulated by White people using Black faces started with the ‘Minstrels’, 19th Century and early 20th Century performers who – since White people could no longer order Black slaves to entertain them – wore Black faces and performed Black music on stage for an all-White audience. This same style of racist fetishisation of African culture is found in the modern fetishisation of female African aesthetics; Black beauty minus the Black people. Pierterse comments, “The imagery of minstrels has been so potent as literally to blind the westerners to real black people functioning in other roles.” But when there actually is a Black woman to model for her natural beauty, she is Whitewashed. Thus, African female beauty becomes an exoticised but appropriated commodity for the White market that excludes Black women from participation.
Above all, as I mentioned in the intro, market economics has a significant link with the exoticisation and otherisation of non-White femininity. On the premise that non-White femininity is marketed as hyper-sexualised and ‘sold’ to a White consumer, women of colour are unknowingly reduced to economic commodities by whichever artist or industry ‘sells’ them. With regards to Goude’s human art subjects, their roles as unknowing participants in the otherisation of women of colour thus subjects them to economic alienation, whereby they engage in the process of creating the final product (i.e. fetishised images of themselves) but are not aware of the end products ultimate use to accentuate a relationship of ethnic power. Pieterse additionally notes that in post-Reneissance imperialist Europe, “[M]ercantile relations were depicted in an imagery of power and control” over colonised races, a relation that likewise applies to the marketing of human zoo and fetishisation imagery.
By virtue of this process, the selling of exoticised images of women of colour becomes a market in of itself, and is bolstered by laissez-faire ideology that allows this structuralised racism to flourish without hindrance.
This unrestricted marketisation also provides a platform for White privilege to operate. Building on Akala’s claim that White artists quite literally “sell themselves” off of non-Whites displaying themselves as hyper-sexualised, White artists are able to profit off the fetishisation of people of colour, thus giving birth to a system of racialised capitalism whereby the White capitalist (the artist) is dependent on the labour of the non-White proletariat (the ‘exotic body’) whilst simultaneously subjecting her to racial oppression. Inherent within this capitalism is also a culture of appropriation; what has been traditionally defined a ‘Black thing’ by the imperialist psyche, i.e. hyper-promiscuity, is appropriated by White artists and newly marketed as a ‘White thing’ which is now becomes recognised as an art form. The recent video of Russian girls twerking is an example, despite twerking being a Black invention.
Overall, the orientalised female ‘other’ is as much a market product for the White consumer nowadays as it was during imperialism. Of course, unlike in imperialism, the fetishisation of non-White female bodies is justified under the capitalist pretexts of ‘individualism’ and ‘free choice’, given that at least now women of colour choose to partake in exploitative human zoos and music videos. But ultimately, all these concepts mean is the freedom for the subject to unknowingly conform to a commodificative and oppressive system.
To conclude: there are plenty of compliments one can give to a woman of colour in order to highlight the beauty of her skin tone…but ‘exotic’ certainly isn’t one of them.