Across campus this week, students are being asked, “Wanna go on an Exotic Date?” by posters for a charity fund-raiser. Despite the good intentions and deeds of the event’s organizers, and the humanitarian ends they seek, this event’s title is degrading, insulting and poorly conceived.
The event in question is a “date auction,” co-sponsored by the International Student Organization and the Amnesty International club, and hosted at BAR this Friday. The proceeds from the event will go to Dignity! Period., an NGO that provides sanitary napkins to women who cannot afford them in Zimbabwe, and who need such supplies to live with dignity. In other words, the fund-raising effort is nothing but positive for women.
Its title is another story — and an unfortunate one. The people being “auctioned,” while both male and female, and all volunteers, are called “exotic” — a name which creates a number of problems. First, it creates an artificial group deemed “exotic,” as opposed to those who are normal; strange and foreign, as opposed to familiar. That wording is unacceptable because it makes those so labeled feel unusual and out of place, less comfortable and less safe. This feeling is anathema to AI, ISO and indeed all who should strive to make each other feel accepted and united.
Second, the concept of “exotic people” has a long and shameful history, which is especially relevant in the precarious context of a “date auction.” The term “exotic” evokes “otherness,” and it also labels commodities. In the context of this date auction, the assumption is that if people want to purchase exotic goods or experiences, they must want to have an exotic dating experience (read: sexual experience). Whoever is made “exotic” loses humanity in the process, becoming a mere sexual experience to be desired. It is not far-fetched to imagine that someone who bids on an “exotic date” feels — perhaps subconsciously — entitled to sex, which greatly increases the likelihood of sexual assault and rape. Quite inappropriate for an event promoting women’s rights and dignity.
This interpretation is not frivolous, nor is it made up out of whole cloth. Descriptions of various people as “exotic,” often using that very word, have been used for great harm in the past. Label a colonized people as “exotic” and they become less human. Their rights and demands become less serious; their personal value is on par with a handful of rare tropical bird feathers. In nearly every ideology of imperialism and subjugation throughout history, a view of the dominated class as somehow strange and fascinating has been a central pillar. That is why we must be vigilant today about how we refer to our human brothers and sisters.
Some Yale students have told me that this event’s title is not offensive, that some organizers do not mind being called “exotic,” or that the title is clearly a satire given its context. These are justifications of ignorance, and they are contradictory. If the title is satirical, then the word “exotic” is clearly problematic. But if the word “exotic” isn’t offensive, where is the satire? Frankly, as a one-line title for an event, and without any further discussion of wording or context, the use of “exotic” here cannot be called satirical. This is important to note because many will only hear the title of the event, and not its laudable goals.
Being called “exotic” is a characteristic of racism, and it opens the door to more violent ideologies. The members of ISO who came up with the title “Wanna go on an Exotic Date?” could use some more training in issues of diversity. Indeed, we all could use more training. And if events of the past year have been any indication, Yale University should make colossal efforts to educate its students about racial and gender equality and sensitivity. Whatever steps have been taken so far have not been enough.
We should continue to educate each other about these issues. It is often out of ignorance, not malice, that degrading messages are sent, so let us learn. What is an offhand remark to me may be stinging and bitter to you, especially when it exacerbates underlying prejudices. We must be conscious of what we say, and we must not assume that our viewpoint alone will suffice.
The only way forward is to work toward mutual understanding and a higher consciousness about our use of words. AI fights for women’s rights, an end to discrimination and universal human dignity; I can only pledge that in the future, our chapter will be more vigilant in working for these goals. We look forward to participating in the dialogue on campus, and raising a loud voice to defend human dignity.
Edwin Everhart is a junior in Saybrook College. Although he is the co-coordinator of the Amnesty International club at Yale, the views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the organization’s leadership.