Webster’s defines the word “exotic” as “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual.” The street usage, however, is varied and oftentimes inaccurate.

I’ve heard more than a few men describe their affinity for “exotic” women. And by men, I mean brothers, ’cause that’s who I’m really concerned with. And by “exotic,” they often times mean biracial African-American women with White, Latino or Asian parentage. Kind of weird how someone with a Black American and White American parent from Boise, Idaho could be considered “exotic,” but okay. I’ve heard the word used to refer to non-Black women who weren’t exactly White girls, but weren’t sisters either (think: the Kardashians, Eva Longoria) and also to describe Black women from other parts of the Diaspora (i.e. Somalia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic).

Put aside any agreement or disapproval of interracial dating, that’s not today’s topic.

We know the drill at this point: a brother who shouts from the rooftops that he prefers dark-skin Black women with what we consider to be “traditionally” African features, is a good brother who loves his race and his mama. But if that same man had, instead, a light-skinned preference . . . then he’d be color struck.

We are pretty doomed, right?

So what about when a brother fancies Black women, but specifically those from other parts of the Diaspora? Is “Ethiopian women are the baddest” as bad as “Light-skinned women are my favorite”? But it’s better than “Give me a White girl over a sister any day,” right?  What do we say of a brother who has a preference for Black women who are Black, just . . . different than say the Black women who raised him?

How many times have we heard the term “regular Black girl” used to describe a woman who doesn’t have such traditionally European features as, say, Halle Berry? Why is it that Kelly Rowland is called “regular,” when she’s stunning? And how is it that Beyonce is “exotic,” despite being the African-American child of two African-American parents, with features that aren’t really so uncommon amongst Black people in this country?

And it makes the relationships between women all the more difficult at times, doesn’t it? Once I was made aware of the fact that Ethiopian women were fetishized by a number of African-American brothers (in particular, those who weren’t so excited by Black women who aren’t considered “exotic” or who wouldn’t go for an African sister who had darker skin and kinkier hair), I experienced a period of resentment toward them. It took me some time and some serious thought to realize that a sister is a sister and that I should not hold it against them that there are some men in our community who may value one sort of Black beauty over another one. Do I like it? No. I know that preference doesn’t always have deep roots, but I do know that certain hair textures and facial features (typically, those that are associated with European beauty ideals) get an inordinate amount of props from some of our people.

Full disclosure: I have also been described by some as “exotic” looking, a label in which I certainly take no joy. I’ve encountered men with whom I’d never have had a chance if I were any darker. Definitely not something I celebrate. I’ve also dealt with sisters who treated me a bit less than kindly because of the way I look. Does it make me angry? Yes. Do I understand it? To some extent. Again, if you aren’t exposed to the information you need to get past these issues, it’s hard to imagine how you would. Who’s feet get held to the fire then? Well, we aren’t the architects of our own pathology, as the ever-brilliant Esther Armah once quipped. Our conditioning has been conditioned, etc.

Once someone has the information available to help them to question their preference or bias and they still don’t see an issue with said preference, perhaps, then, there is more room to criticize.

I told y’all this was complicated.

In an era where representations of Black beauty in the media are more diverse than in the past—yet still skew toward certain aesthetics—how do we collectively even out the playing field regarding the ways in which we judge beauty? Where do we find the space to teach ourselves not to make one sister “regular” and the other “exotic”—and to abandon the tendency to fetishize the mixed woman over the non-mixed one, or the East African stunner over the West African honey? Are we doomed to keep up a litmus test for Black beauty that still has the stain of Europe written all over it?

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