Sometimes you hear people use "exotic" to refer to something foreign to them. It can be a place, music, food, clothes, or even a person.

Some people argue that the word exotic has racist connotation because of its past history so it should not be used in today's conversations.

The question is does "exotic" still carry racist connotation or it has already put that behind and evolved into a non-racist word that can be used safely without labelling other people or cultures as inferior, non-native and distant?

Also in case "exotic" is racist, what would be a good non-racist synonym?

  • Have you discovered any dictionaries that give a warning along these lines? If you want to see how they do this, look up a word that is indisputably racist. Aug 11 '14 at 18:46
  • @EdwinAshworth, I didn't notice any warning in couple of dictionaries that I checked.
    – kaptan
    Aug 11 '14 at 20:53
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    That's as I expected. It's not so much racist as parochial (as Chris S says below). Aug 11 '14 at 21:29
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    A useful warning sign in cases like this is that describing somebody as "exotic" is applying a label to the other person when you're really talking about yourself. For example, if I were to describe somebody from country X as "exotic", what I'd really be saying is "I'm not used to seeing people from country X": that's a description of me and my experiences, not a description of country X and its people. Aug 12 '14 at 10:17
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    Intent is more important than context, which is more important than protagonists, which is more important than location, which is more important than the word itself. Aug 12 '14 at 13:32

There are many words that have racist connotations in some contexts and not in others. I think you'd be hard pressed to make a case that talking about "exotic cars" or "exotic loans" would be perceived by a reasonable person as racist. Describing a woman as an "exotic beauty," on the other hand, may well give offense.

Trying to sort all the nouns in the English language into safe-with-exotic and not-safe-with-exotic would be a useless exercise. The best you can do is pay attention to how people use and react to language, and err on the side of caution if that's something that's important to you.

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    An offence because of the "exotic" or because calling someone beautiful to their face is sexual harassment and behind their back would be sexual objectification? Aug 11 '14 at 22:17
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    @stevemarvell I would strongly disagree that calling someone beautiful is always or even normally sexual harassment, have you never seen someone called beautiful as a compliment, say at a wedding or other event when people are expected to try and look nice?
    – Vality
    Aug 12 '14 at 8:14
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    @Vality didn't think about all this, but if someone was said to be an "exotic beauty" at her wedding, I'm pretty sure she'd (he'd?) feel akward about the use of this adjective. Aug 12 '14 at 8:51
  • @ArlaudPierre That is indeed true. The only time I could see that being acceptable would be among very close friends, probably a little tongue in cheek. But yes, I do agree that the term definitely can be used to cause offence, I just argue that it does not necessarily do so dependant on context.
    – Vality
    Aug 12 '14 at 9:17
  • @Vality I was over emphasising the point due to not understanding assumed offence. Aug 12 '14 at 13:25

Collins Cobuild, the English Learners dictionary states:


Something that is exotic is unusual and interesting, usually because it comes from or is related to a distant country. ⇒ ...brilliantly coloured, exotic flowers. ⇒ She flits from one exotic location to another.

This has no warnings.

For reference, a swear word would normally add for example:

(very rude, feelings)

and a definite racist word would add:

(very offensive)

whilst a word that could potentially interpreted as racist or could be used to make a phrase racist might add:

This use could cause offence.

I suspect that any racist connotation associated with the word 'exotic' would be in the context, rather than with use of the word itself.

EDIT: More specifically, the intent with which it's used, like a knitting needle being an offensive weapon.

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    It seems likely to me that the perception of exotic as offensive is recent enough to have outpaced the dictionaries. The perceived connotations of words can change quite rapidly. Aug 11 '14 at 19:19
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    Cite your source? Aug 11 '14 at 21:34
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    It seems likely to me that any perception of exotic as racist is marginal. Aug 11 '14 at 21:34
  • @stevemarvell: A good example of this exists in the sitcom Better Off Ted. I don't have a link to the specific scene but someone refers to their Asian coworker as "exotic" in a inappropriate way. The potentially offensive use of "exotic" does exist whether you are Edwin have happened to encounter it.
    – MrHen
    Aug 11 '14 at 21:52
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    @MrHen That's could be a complement in a different context. It's not the word that's at fault. It's like calling a knitting needle an offensive weapon; it only is when it is. Aug 11 '14 at 21:56

I think the largest issue with exotic is it (like the infamous "flesh-colored" crayon or band-aid) presupposes a shared default cultural context, which is increasingly rare in today's globalized society. As such, it's become a much less useful word, and it comes across as tone-deaf when used in any context where a shared cultural context shouldn't be assumed.

It might be best to replace it with words that are either more descriptive or that are more clearly referenced to your own experience (not to a culture that you assume your listener shares):

The food there was quite exotic. >> The food there was all unfamiliar to me.
She has very exotic looks. >> Her facial features are very non-European.
We're planning a trip to somewhere exotic. >> We're planning a trip to a country on the other side of the world.

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    The fact that it's an English word makes it deictic. Are you saying that we might be better dropping words such as 'import', 'foreign', 'abroad'? Aug 11 '14 at 21:33
  • @EdwinAshworth: I would advice against referring to specific people as "imported," yes. See also: Fresh-off-the-boat (FOB).
    – MrHen
    Aug 11 '14 at 21:50
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    Equally, exotic food could be full or pleasant and rare ingredients and flavours and an exotic looking girl could appear sun kissed and wear beautiful clothes associated traditionally with another country. In the UK, where it rains a lot, an exotic holiday would be one with palm trees and sunshine. I can't think of anything that's exotic and bad. Aug 11 '14 at 22:12
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    @Edwin The fact that it's an English word is what makes it so non-deictic. Indian food might be quite exotic to someone living in a small town in northwestern Canada, but it's common as dirt to a Londoner; pale skin and freckles are quite exotic to many Jamaicans, but perfectly commonplace to people from Scotland. The point of this answer, as I read it, is that it implies a corroborating link between language and culture/setting that very often does not exist anymore, particularly in English. Aug 11 '14 at 22:56
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    @EdwinAshworth Abroad is deictic, but non-normative, while exotic is both deictic and normative. In my opinion, exotic is still perfectly appropriate in the case you are in a truly monocultural context (a remote small town, for example) or in the case that you wish your habits of speech to convey a message that you expect those around you to conform to your cultural expectations. Aug 12 '14 at 13:13

Many words can be used in both positive and negative connotation. Politically correctness has ruined much as people do not feel free to express themselves as someone might interpret what they say totally out of context. It is up to the speaker to say what he feels as clearly as he/she can. If the speaker means no ill, those interpreting it in such a way are at fault, not the speaker.

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    This is a marvellous answer, but I'm not sure it's strictly an answer to OP's question. Aug 12 '14 at 9:30
  • @ASaf, I agree with your point. I hate when political correctness forces people into self-censorship.
    – kaptan
    Aug 12 '14 at 18:36
  • If the speaker means no ill but it is being interpreted as such, then they are not being very clear. Know your audience.
    – Mazura
    Aug 14 '14 at 2:15

Yes, "exotic" frequently has a racist connotation. The primary reason for this is because of statements like this:

Have you seen the new girl? She is so exotic!

If her exoticness is related to her race, then you are making a big deal out of her race which is, almost by definition, racist.

This doesn't mean that all uses of "exotic" are inherently racist but it is definitely a word that should be used with care. If you are at all concerned with it sounding racist you should find an alternative.

An example of a non-racist example:

I just bought some exotic fish for my aquarium!

We have planned a trip to exotic Egypt!

The racist connotations mostly apply when using the word to describe a person.


Alright, since people seem to be completely misunderstanding this issue I'll clarify a few things. The primary reason "exotic" can be problematic is because the only way you can immediately label someone "exotic" is by their appearance. In the United States, minority ethnic groups can extremely sensitive about being singled out due to their race.

If you refer to someone as "exotic" because they appear Indian, it is very likely to turn the conversation awkward. Especially if they grew up two blocks away from you and are for all intents and purposes American.

Furthermore, the connotation of "exotic" is one of labelling someone as belonging to a different culture or group. Calling someone exotic essentially puts them on a pedestal and casually implies they do not belong to your own culture. Doing this based simply on appearances is racist and potentially offensive.

If someone actually is from a "exotic" culture it is much more acceptable to describe them as exotic. The issue is jumping the gun and committing a faux pas by assuming anyone who looks foreign must be exotic.

For what it is worth, this may be a "bigger" issue in the United States where racial tensions tend to be rather awkward. White people have gained a reputation for being racially exclusive. Automatically clumping entire ethic groups into a label of "exotic" isn't considered polite. It's an age old cultural sore spot.

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    This seems to be opinion-based. There may be some people who would consider it in a racial way but, there are many who do not. It depends on the personal opinions of individual people. Generally, people don't consider it to be racist.
    – Tristan r
    Aug 11 '14 at 19:12
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    @ChrisSunami: Generally speaking, referring to a location as "exotic" is okay. Lots of vacation advertisements use "exotic".
    – MrHen
    Aug 11 '14 at 19:47
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    How can being described as 'unusual and interesting, usually because it/they come/s from or is related to a distant country' be perceived as racist? Is 'vive la difference' a sexist comment? Aug 11 '14 at 21:40
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    @MrHen Racism is associated with assumed superiority based on race. Using race as a distinguishing factor is not racist. Calling someone Indian is not racist, nor is saying someone has black skin, a turban or clogs. When I was in China recently, I was distinguished in introduction by being called the white guy. That's because I was the only white guy in the room. In addition, is calling someone a woman sexist? Aug 11 '14 at 22:26
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    @MrHen: You are absolutely off the mark. It's racist to believe that someone is stupid, dishonest, dirty, because they are exotic. It's racist to avoid someone because they are exotic. It's absolutely not racist to believe that someone is exotic because they are exotic! People are what they are. Saying what they are is not racist. Quite the contrary, most people like to stand out and denying that an exotic person is exotic could be taken as quite insulting.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 12 '14 at 7:36

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