#bumble | #tinder | #pof I’m not a piece of fruit, or an animal, so don’t call me ‘exotic’


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I’ve been called exotic twice in the past 10 days, by different matches on Bumble (Picture: Hanna Woodside)

‘So, where are you from?’ is a pretty standard question in that initial flurry of back-and-forth when you match with someone on a dating app. For me, it’s slightly loaded.

Do they mean where in London am I from? (Camberwell). Or where I grew up? (Devon). Or, as I tend to pre-empt, ‘Where are your parents from?’ (Hong Kong and the North West of England).

I’m wary of the question because in certain contexts it means, ‘Why are you different?’ or simply ‘Why aren’t you (completely) white?’

I know that it can come from perfectly genuine curiosity, or be a simple conversation starter. But nothing makes my heart sink faster than when someone uses the ‘e’ word.

‘Oh, you’re half Asian? I thought you looked exotic!’ Or the double whammy: ‘You look exotic – where are you from?’

Fruit can be exotic (i.e. not native to this country). Animals, OK. But not humans. Calling a person exotic is instantly othering – it means ‘you are not from here’ or ‘you belong in a far off, distant land’.

I acknowledge that I could be considered ‘white presenting’, in that some people will look at me and see me as completely Caucasian. (Which often leads to the complete non-compliment: ‘Oh you’d never know! You look white to me’.)

But to other people, I am not. I’ve been called exotic twice in the past 10 days, by different matches on Bumble. It happens pretty much on a monthly basis.

For me, it instantly kills any tiny rapport we might have built; I see the word and feel a thud of disappointment. Any hopes or excitement that were bubbling instantly evaporate and I end up writing off that match.

I am happy to talk about my specific bi-racial identity, but lumping all BAME people under the term ‘exotic’ is dehumanising and, well, rude. It’s fetishising – like ‘exotic dancer’ – suggesting that part of your appeal is due to the perceived foreign-ness of your features.

Exotic winds me up so much because I’m often expected to be pleased or flattered by the label. When guys mention my ‘exoticness’ on dating apps, I usually reply: ‘Exotic isn’t a word you use to describe people’ and leave it at that.

Cue a puzzled: ‘Why not? It’s a good thing!’ or ‘But it’s cute! You’re pretty. I like that you’re exotic’.

I don’t have the time, energy, or responsibility to provide an in-depth lesson in semantics; that’s not why I’m on a dating app.

Personally, if one of your opening questions is ‘So what’s your ethnicity?’ I will feel instantly othered and have my hackles up (Picture: Hanna Woodside)

But exotic is not a compliment, especially when it’s thrown at me in this context. It tilts the whole conversation so I feel like a specimen, a curiosity, marked out as different and unusual in a comment-worthy way.

I’m aware that being called exotic is small fry compared to the overt racism that many BAME people, of all sexual orientations and gender identities, experience on dating apps.

Bios that state ‘No Blacks. No Asians. No Middle Easterns’. Messages that say, ‘I don’t usually like brown people, but you’re fit’, as a friend of mine received. Fetishising comments like, ‘I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have sex with a black guy.’

‘There are two sides to racism that people encounter on dating apps,’ Professor Viren Swami, social psychologist and author of Attraction Explained, tells me. ‘There’s explicit discrimination, but there is another version, where expressing a preference for a race or “exoticness” is packaged as a good thing.

‘They’re saying, “You should be happy I like this” – but it is objectifying. It reduces people to nothing but their race.’

Professor Swami also points out that ‘exotic’ is often applied to East Asian women to characterise them as sexual and/or submissive. ‘It taps into a “geisha girl” stereotype, where they are seen as only there to serve the needs of men.’ Which is, of course, nonsense and offensive.

Interestingly, outside the bubble of apps, I’ve never had a man call me exotic to my face. (I’ve only really experienced Boomer-generation people call me exotic in real life; I have to admit, in the past I’ve let it slide because I can’t face correcting them).

More: Sex

Perhaps the relative anonymity of chatting on a dating app just makes people lazy or more insensitive when it comes to the questions and language they use – in the same way people are less likely to say something aggressively sexual or crude to your face.

If you are curious about someone’s heritage when you match with them on a dating app – and they haven’t mentioned it themself – you can ask. Just do it sensitively and respectfully. Prof Swami suggests on a face-to-face date where there is more space to have a proper conversation might be preferable.

Personally, if one of your opening questions is ‘So what’s your ethnicity?’ I will feel instantly othered and have my hackles up – there are a million other things you can ask to get to know a person. But that’s just me. Not all BAME people will have the same reaction.

Just remember, people are not fruit. Please don’t call us exotic.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing stephanie.soh@metro.co.uk 

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