Sunday, May 21, 2006

Reverent Racism Is Still Racism

Brownfemipower wrote about being labeled exotic. Then piny put up a good post on how "exotic" is not a compliment. So far, so good. There are some good comments on the post, but there are also these:

Or it says, “Good for you for not conforming to the standard beauty norm. I, for one, admire that and find it attractive.”
Brownfemipower clearly stated that the reason she was labeled exotic was because of her black hair. The person wasn't admiring her refusal to conform to beauty standards, she was making a point of bfp's other status.

I quite often wish I could be “exotic” instead of “ordinary white girl.”
People of color quite often wish they could be treated as fully human. You can make this statement and take this perspective because you have the privilege of being an "ordinary white girl". It's easy for us white people to think and say things like this because we can afford to think about looks while ignoring lives.

When people say “exotic,” it’s not a label of Otherness insofar as it’s spoken reverently. People don’t call homosexuals “exotic” — the word isn’t used interchangeably with “different” or “odd.” It very obviously has positive connotation. Now, we can vivisect the semiotic, but I’m quite sure that there’s no inherent racism or sexism here.
Bullshit! It is entirely possible to be reverent, or think you're being reverent, while still being racist. You're putting a woman of color on the spot and announcing that she doesn't fit the standard. You think you're admiring her. What you're actually doing is making a big deal out of her difference from you. You may say that her difference is good/neat/wonderful, but you're making that difference central to your interaction. By labeling a woman of color "exotic" you are separating her from the standard, which is whiteness. After all, you can't have an exotic without having a standard.

It's amazing that the third commenter is quite sure there's no racism or sexism in this situation. What does it take to make one think she can make pronouncements about people she's never met and a situation she didn't experience? Bfp, you can just relax, because total strangers have decreed that a) exotic is a compliment, and b) there was no racism in the remark.

I guess there's nothing to worry about.


cameo said...

and how do we handle being in another country and being told our skin looks like that of a porcelain doll? isn't this issue relative to where one is? and while i understand your point completely, how is one to reference differences relative to where they are and what they're accustomed to? there has to be some point from which to work. how do we try to convey an idea without being racist when it comes to differenciating races? and what about calling someone mousey, or kewpie-like, or classic beauty, or any other descriptive verbage. in a perfect world, we're all known for our personality and the qualities we possess. i'm not offended when i'm told i have a romanesque nose - should i be? don't want to piss you off, but i think i may need more elaboration on your point. i think i get what your saying, but part of me is having a hard time fully understanding this one.

hexyhex said...

I cop the reverse of this situation a lot. Due to my pale skin, I'm constantly being told "But you don't LOOK black". This even extends to such judgements as "You're NOT black" (yeah, thanks, white asshole... clearly it's your job to tell people of non-white backgrounds how to label themselves) and "but you look white!" and even a few times "Lucky you've got pale skin" or "Lucky you look normal!"


soopermouse said...

been there. I m an olive skinned black haired Romanian living in England... and everyone feels entitled to tell me how exotic I am, and people on the street feel OK with asking me where I am from.
It s the otherness, we "others" are treated liek strange animals, not quite human

neuralgourmet said...

I think there's acceptable realms to inquire or complement another on their differences to yourself or your idea of 'normal'. For instance, I have no problem when a friend says they like my face because of the Native American features. However when a stranger on the street asks me if I'm an 'Indian' it's a little offensive, in a rude distasteful sort of way. I guess like cameo I need further clarification on this one. When do you see the old Star Trek/Vulcan idea of 'Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations' (IDIC), i.e. celebration of our differences a good thing? Or do you see that as being totally the wrong idea?

spotted elephant said...

Cameo-I'm not pissed about you asking for clarification. :) In the US, for a white person to comment on a person of color's appearance puts the emphasis on "You're different" and without power. Now if two people are talking about appearances specifically, if that's a conversation they're having, then of course the rules change. IMO, the problem comes in when total strangers walk up to someone and point out their "exotic status"-it has the effect of saying-hey, you're one-down relative to me. I find the emphasis on looks offensive, period. But I'm sure that I'm at one extreme end of the spectrum on this.

You might not mind when people comment, and that's fine, but both of us have white privilege, so we're not in the same spot as a person of color on this issue. Now being called mousey, or kewpie-like, them's fighin' words for me. For me, it's the same as being told, you're little, you're weak, and I can mess with you if I choose. When women are told they're a classic beauty, I just wonder when we're going to move past looks. You don't hear any of our attractive women presidents being valued just for their looks, uh oops, never mind. Let me know if I'm not answering your question-I don't want to talk around it.

Hexy-Grrr, the audacity for someone to tell you who you are-I just can't get my mind around that-how could you ever think that was acceptable?

"Lucky you look normal!"
(weeps for all humanity)

Soopermouse-Yes, if you were "one of us", then it wouldn't be an issue. But it's as if you're a sidewalk attraction. Sick sick sick.

spotted elephant said...

TNG-oops, we were cross posting.

I think you nailed it. Among friends, almost anything goes, ideally. In important relationships, you should be able to discuss anything, including appearances. Pretending there are no differences between people is counterproductive. But as you and others have said, having a total stranger approach and comment on your features is at best rude, and at worst, an attempt at intimidation.

In the public sphere, people should really tread carefully. Anyone who belongs to the dominant group needs to realize that, in singling out a person of color, they aren't just discussing superficial differences in appearance, they're also bringing societal/power structure differences to the forefront. That's a really lousy position for the other person to be in.

neuralgourmet said...

spotted-e, yes, I think that's the thing -- to remember that there are power structures at play. As much as we want to think that's all behind us, it isn't. As such we need to be cautious of invoking those power structures. I still think celebrating diversity is a good thing though and promotes tolerance. Yet it occurs to me that depending on the degree to which one internalizes that attitude that it's possible different people may or may not be invoking those old power structures. In the end I think it just comes down to good manners. Is that trivializing the concern?

spotted elephant said...

tng-I don't think that's trivializing things. It's all about respect. I think the problem is, as always, when people with privilege don't see their privilege. If you don't see your privilege, you can think you're making conversation or paying a compliment to someone, when you're invoking those power structures (for them, if not for you!). So good manners involves an awareness that many people still don't have. But it would be a start.

EL said...

Reverence and respect are often confused and yet I find reverence more infuriating than regular old unadorned manifestations of the -isms.

I mean, as a woman, I've felt just as dehumanized by "women are just so good and pure and nonviolent and moral and blah blah blah" and "the female body should not be abused because it is beautiful and sacred in a way the male body is not" and all that jazz than I have by the "women can't do math and science" or "women are just balls of emotion" bullshit. So, I don't think "you're so exotic-looking, how lovely" is really an effective way of making a statement of "equality".

Arkan said...

Reverent X is still X
Reverent Y is still Y


i.e. [wow your hair is really exotic] Translation:(i think that you are a worthless nigger, but, it's not fashionable to say that, so I’ll be polite and say 'exotic', instead, as to presuppose that you are a worthless nigger while appearing being polite, because I don't want her to get all afro-crazy)

What offended was that the girl in question had a racist mindset.

Whether or not she communicated those views in a polite or rude fashion has little to do with the reaction she received.

Translation: that white racist doesn't know about our enlightened way of thinking, or just hides from it, I’m angry at her for not thinking like us and perpetuating her white privilege and white racism instead

People not socialized into your views seem to have problems interacting with ya'll.

Wonder why.

Heart said...

Great post, spotted elephant. Here's a relevant link to a great site (which is being redone, but there's still tons of good content):

Exoticize My Fist


Luke said...

Just stumbled onto your blog. great post btw.

Exotic label has some complex implications for mixed race people too, women especially. Especially bad considering that anyone White+Other (especially when that Other is Asian) is seen as exotic and said to be naturally attractive and "pretty" with suggestion that White heritage saves the ethnic person from being ugly. some people then say "well, that could just as well be said the other way around" but white always seen as model of beauty, at least in U.S. media.

my friend works as a server at popular family restaurant. people, customers, complete strangers, ask her without except day-after-day what she is and do so by saying "wow, you know you're just so pretty and exotic. we were all just wondering what you are!?" when she was playing soccer for her high school years ago, a parent from the other team would just walk over without any introduction and just flat out ask "what are you?" and then worst of all, people like to think that they have some "talent" for guessing someone's racial / ethnic heritage. i've heard of people having betting pools with their friends on who "guesses closest"

Justjuliefornow said...

Two parts to this comment.
1. When describing someone, for example, "the tall, dark-haired server was really nice" (assuming no name tags and it is not the same day so clothes description does not apply), is it acceptable to distinguish her with woman-of-color, heavyset, tall & thin, etc? What if there are 3 tall, dark-haired servers. I struggle with this. When does description become insult?

2. I am Jewish and grew up in a mostly Jewish area. From college until now I have been asked, "what are you?" I often reply with, "German, Russian & Polish (the truth)" and I am told emphatically, "no you're not" or "no, really, what are you?" I have actually been badgered repeatedly with this question when I do not give the answer that is expected. I am asked if I am Italian and when I reply, "no" I am asked again or have been told, "then you must be Jewish." I have given some very rude replies in the past. Usually now all I do is smile and ignore the question.

neuralgourmet said...

OK. I've just got to say that I did not realize that calling women 'exotic' was a widespread thing. I've never heard that term used before and thought you were talking about an isolated incident. I can totally get why you would find this offensive then. Sorry about any confusion from my earlier comments.

hexyhex said...

Grrr! Blogger just ate my comment.

I said something like:

It happens to me all the freakin time. Even when I have the patience to say "Well, YOU might use the word black to mean Has Dark Skin, but Indigenous Australians use it to mean Is An Indigenous Aussie, so by the definition used by people who share my background and culture, I am black." they still tend to stick to their guns, say by laughing and saying "Well, say you're an Indigenous Aussie, then, because you're not black!"

That exact response came from a friend of my partner's on Friday night at the pub. People can't see that they're being racist, and they can't get why it upsets me.

EL said...

In response to Julie Mora's question re: descriptors, I think there's a sort of ridiculousness to the way some people try not to say someone's race or ethnicity in describing them. There's one black guy in the room and they're going "he's the tall man with hair like this", I mean, I think that's just sort of insulting to everyone's intelligence.

spotted elephant said...

el-I agree, reverence is creepy and dishonest.

arkan-I think socialization is the key. Whether it happens in childhood or adulthood, people have to learn that their viewpoints may not only have serious limitations, but be outright offensive. And yes, politeness doesn't mitigate racism in any way. If only people would start *thinking*.

heart-thanks-I will definitely check this out.

206-I'm sure people of mixed racial descent get hit with this constantly-both the "polite" fawning and the aggressive statements. Even if you've never thought about race in your life, how do you get to a point where "What are you?" is an acceptable thing to say?

juliemora-Needing to describe someone so that everyone knows who is being discussed is a very different thing. Sometimes we do need to describe people. People can definitely take this too far-and pretend there are no physical differences between us. But that's very different from singling out a person of color and making a big deal out of her appearance. As you've experienced, people making a big deal out of ancestry for no reason is just offensive.

tng-The world of offensiveness is ever-expanding.

hexy-I know I'm like a dog with a bone, but WTF? How do they presume to define you?

el-Yes-the overcompensating by pretending there aren't ethnic differences is silly. But at least people who do that are *trying* to be sensitive instead of just walking up and saying "What are you?".

hexyhex said...

They presume to define me in a way that fits neatly into a pre-existing pigeonhole in their mind. To actually listen to me would force them to reconsider their existing definitions, such as the meaning of the word "black". Only people who can clearly be identified as "other" are able to hold labels like that.

brownfemipower said...

hey s.e.! finally made it over here!!!! what a great discussion!

i just wanted to add, because somebody mentioned the resturant thing--i worked in a resturant for five years too, and it was at the resturant that i grew to abhor being called exotic. i used to just sort of roll my eyes, but the resturant world brings out some really superior attitudes in people that are directed towards resturant workers--and i got "exotic" all. the. time. and it was so gendered too--when the rich white women said it, it was an insult..."oh, look at you, my husband wants you, so i'm going to cut you down and otherize you"--but when the rich white husbands said it, it was a horrible come on--"oh baby, you're sooo exotic". i got it from a lot of the workers as well--and then it was used as a come on as well. but most times, i got it from the customers, and they used the word in general as a pick up line or an insult.

now, i can't hear "exotic" without cringing. whether meant to be said with evil intentions or not, the foundation of why people call a person that is just no good imo...

spotted elephant said...

Hexy-I keep making the mistake of assigning some level of...critical thinking? everyone. Big mistake.

Bfp-I think it's telling that "exotic" was used differently by different groups, but was an insult either way.