“You should sleep with her. She’s exotic. She’s Sri Lankan,” said my flatmate to a Caucasian guy talking to me at the pub.
It was one of those crisp fall evenings. It had been about two months since I moved to the UK to pursue a Masters degree. Bright eyed and curious, I had already found a pub which I frequented Friday evenings, courtesy of my flatmate’s love for live jazz music(we will call him Mike). The two of us became fast friends and that particular night, the band was phenomenal. We put back a couple of pints and managed to create a little circle in the middle of the pub as we danced the evening away. After the band started packing, Mike and I sat down for another drink, and I spotted a guy at the bar with a friend of his who kept eyeing our table. At first, I assumed he just wanted the two empty seats at our table. So I smiled and invited him over.
They both came over, and the guy who kept eyeing me sat next to me and we got to talking. It started off friendly enough; mostly about University, where we were from, what we thought of the city. Eventually, I figured he was interested in me, mostly by his body language and the way he looked at me. I thought we were having a particularly decent conversation until Mike decided to point out the fact that I was, in his words, an ‘exotic’ woman of Sri Lankan ethnicity. We both ignored the comment and carried on conversing for a few more minutes. As the pub was starting to close, I bid him goodnight and Mike and I headed home.
I suppose Mike was drunk by then since the next words he slurred were, “You were his only chance to sleep with an ethnic chick.” I knew I should have said something at that point but I didn’t. I should have called him out that labeling me as an ‘ethnic’ chick was basically erasing all the qualities I have as a human being, and narrowing me down to simply the colour of my skin. I should have told him that even though he didn’t realize it, he was being downright ignorant and racist. However, I did not say any of these things. Perhaps it was because I was too sleepy, and had too much to drink, or perhaps it was because I didn’t want to start any trouble in our flat. Needless to say, that situation has bothered me from that day and perhaps it is why I decided to write about it instead. I told myself if I ever found myself in a similar situation, this time I would speak up.
Both ethnic women and men of various cultural backgrounds experience a kind of fetishization based on their ethnicity. For instance, Black men are often stereotyped as being well endowed, sexually voracious, and hypermasculine. Asian women are often looked at as docile, submissive, while simultaneously being able to cater to men. These stereotypes not only harm but also further alienate us by a form of ‘othering’. We are seen as the other, the exotic, the mysterious. We are simply reduced to a few stereotypes propagated by Western media, which the masses blindly consume on a daily basis to the point where these stereotypes are seen as the norm. By reducing us to these false characteristics, people have a pre-conceived image of us that they then outwardly project.
These projections can come through in everyday interactions such as the one mentioned above, or in the portrayal of certain ethnicities by White Hollywood tycoons. Though this may not seem overtly racist, it is a form of subtle racism that is now widely prevalent in society. No man or woman should be reduced simply to the colour of their skin and then sexualized because of it. By fetishizing ethnic minorities, it dehumanizes us and relegating us to a position of inferiority.
I’m not sorry when I say that I don’t want to be someone’s exotic brown girl experience. Not to mention the disappointment people feel when they realize that ‘said exotic experience’ is a fantasy that does not, nor will ever, exist. It is a façade that has been concocted in order to demean, demoralize, and keep minorities in a position in society where we aren’t able to exercise agency. By constantly being seen as the other, it diminishes the myriad of wonderful qualities which we have and productively use to contribute to society. Fortunately, times are changing and progress is being made. We are challenging dominant ideas surrounding race and identity that has been used to silence us. By speaking up about our experiences and adding our voices to the larger debate on racism, we are challenging people’s perception of ethnic minorities. The more we speak up, the more our voices are being added to the discussion, and the more notice people take. By collectively coming together, sharing our stories, and educating the masses, with time these harmful, false stereotypes will hopefully be eradicated.