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WaPo: Calling Food 'Exotic... Reinforces Xenophobia and Racism'

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

G. Daniela Galarza, a staff writer for the Food section of The Washington Post wants people to stop using the word "exotic" because, as you guessed it, is xenophobic and racist. Add this word to the list of what's problematic.

Early in her piece, simply titled "Stop using ‘exotic’ to describe food," Galarza laments that people complained her recipes used too many "exotic" ingredients. 

"I had a few productive exchanges with these readers on the subject so I could better troubleshoot their issues. My conclusion? What’s “exotic” to you isn’t “exotic” to my neighbor, might not be “exotic” to my mom, probably wouldn’t be “exotic” to my best friend," she wrote, in what is a fairly reasonable point, and what should have been the conclusion. 

Instead, she drones on for over 2,000 words, going on to write:

The first problem with the word is that, probably within the past two decades, it has lost its essential meaning. The second, more crucial problem is that its use, particularly as applied to food, indirectly lengthens the metaphysical distance between one group of humans and another, and, in so doing, reinforces xenophobia and racism.


It’s been a long time since European explorers traveled the world in pursuit of wealth, spices, coffee, tea, chocolate and places they would colonize or people they would enslave — in short, things they would label exotic — but that history is inextricable from the word.

“It’s completely tied to the history of colonialism and slavery,” says Serena J. Rivera, assistant professor of Portuguese and Spanish at the University of Pittsburgh. “If you are exotic, if you’re automatically an ‘other,’ you’re not one of us.” But for someone to make such a judgment, they would need to be in a position of power.

Another memorable point from Rivera is the "whitewashing" of foods when we call them exotic. "Calling a food exotic puts the onus of the puzzle on the people who make the food to define it, to rationalize, explain, or whitewash it until it’s palatable to the dominant culture," she's quoted as saying.

As a bonus, Galarza also warns of other words where there is a "problem" involved:

Like ethnic and alien, the word exotic was invented to describe something foreign. It comes from the Greek prefix, “exo,” or “outside.” It used to mean something “alien” or “foreign,” and though this is an archaic definition, it’s part of the word’s legacy. According to Merriam-Webster, in reference to food, its modern-day usage may describe something “introduced from another country,” “not native” or something “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different.” The problem is that it’s a definition that changes based on the user’s perspective.

Again, to note that the word "exotic" is a matter of "perspective," is actually a smart conclusion and could lead to dialogue about difference of culture, tastes, etc. 

But no, Galarza has to go and call people xenophobic and racist, thus ruining dialogue when people are just more likely to tune her out.

"Many people surely still think of 'exotic' as an objective descriptor," she says, before she bashes readers over the head with how "language is never inherently neutral. Context matters."

Rivera offers that "people just don’t realize how much power these words have, how much history they carry with them." 

And by being quoted in pieces like this, it's not likely people are going to be more willing to conform to this absurd way of thinking. People will tune such articles out, or, have a laugh over it, as they folks did with their takes.

Perhaps the smartest take is this one.

The Daily Caller also pointed out that the outlet had itself used the same term just a few years ago in a tweet and an article.

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