Othering Women of Colour

  • By Grrrl Power Liverpool
  • 07 Mar, 2017
Text by Jemima Khalli

Throughout history, Women of Colour (WoC) and the land they come from have been romanticised and ‘Othered’. This is a key component in the legacy of ‘Orientalism’ and made way for the belief of ‘The West And The Rest’ which infiltrates our society's consciousness today. The West is portrayed as a civilization build on rationality and reason. As a result of this, WoC, because they come from this Other and foreign land, are seen to hold polar opposite values than those established in a Eurocentric society. This is an examination into the treatment of WoC in wider society, searching for love whilst being depicted as ‘Other.’

Let me start by sharing something that happened to me a few years ago:

I was sat in a cafe. I went there nearly everyday to drink a banana smoothie and attempt to connect to the wifi. I was on an international placement in Cape Town where I worked in a school in the local community with five other Brits and there was no wifi in my host family’s house. One of the Brits became good friends with a girl who lives there, she was friendly and easy to talk to. Anyway, she turned up and we talked. She asked me if people in the UK thought I was exotic.

Exotic? I thought that was a word used to describe juice, not a person. I remember asking her what she meant and she was surprised that I questioned her.

“You know, because of your skin.”

And there we have it. I am deemed exotic because I am black.

The Oxford English Dictionary  defines ‘exotic’ as, ‘adjective: originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country’. Logically speaking, I may be labelled ‘exotic’ because, though I was born in England, my mother is from Nigeria and came to England when she was eight years old and my dad was born in the UK and has a mixed race heritage. So, if you were to go through my family tree then, yes, I originated in a ‘distant foreign country’ however, I wouldn’t say my characteristics did.

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Simone de Beauvoir stated that ‘Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought'. Thus, it is that no group ever sets itself up as The One without at once setting up The Other against it. Basically, ‘man’ is The One and ‘woman’ is The Other, but de Beauvoir’s statement also demonstrates a second diminishing dimension - that ‘white’ is The One and ‘non-white’ The Other.

In the 1960’s the word ‘nigger’ was commonly thrown off a tongue without hesitation alongside being found in many types of literature. We know it was derived from the latin word for black which is ‘nigrum’ but what specifically was ‘a nigger’? Who was ‘a nigger’? One of my favourite writers, James Baldwin, in a documentary called Take This Hammer , said that all the attributes which give form to a ‘nigger’, such as being violent, being uncontrollable, being hypersexual, being Othered, being stupid, being backward etc., were not created by black people, but were created by ‘the West’. This follows from Edward Said and de Beauvoir’s belief that The Other could not have its own existence. Said argued that ‘the Orient [The Other] was a product of the West and therefore it existed according to the wishes of the West.’

The idea of the West looking outward to find exotic, distant and foreign countries dates back to the 15th century and the start of what we now know to be colonisation. Foreign countries (and the people who inhabited them) were exoticised, mystified, fetishised and, specifically in Africa, hypersexualised. This is ‘Othering’ and it continues to be affiliated with WoC today; in particular when it comes to moving past objectification and experiencing love.

Two years ago I watched a documentary called Greetings from the Colony by Belgian filmmaker, Nathalie Borgers. It demonstrated a complex relationship between ‘Otherness’, WoC and Love. Nathalie’s grandfather was a Belgian agent working in Rwanda in the 1920s and, like many men from the West, had a relationship and fathered children with a woman from that country. He then left her once his term ended to return back to his wife in Belgium. This woman was ‘Othered’. Natalie’s grandfather, a Western man, was attracted to a woman not from his country and perhaps, for him,  not even from his world. He perceived her as an ‘Other’ being and was incapable of maintaining a loving relationship with her.

Nathalie’s Grandfather’s story is bittersweet in comparison to the trauma many WoC experience. For more than 50 years the British Military has continued to occupy Samburu, Kenya, a former British colony where more than 600 cases of rape have been filed against British agents working there. 

Black women continue to be perceived as animalistic and primitive which embodies the characteristics of ‘Othering’. All of which is rooted in various brutal histories such as slavery. In order for men to justify their rape of enslaved black women, black women were labeled as sexually rapacious. Basically, it wasn’t rape because black women ‘wanted it’. For cisgender black women our vaginas are the focal point of us identifying as cisgendered. Vaginas didn’t belong to black women during slavery. Vaginas belonged to slave masters and were the sole vehicle in maintaining slavery.

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Otherness is an issue tackled in Jean Rhys’ W ide Sargasso Sea , a postcolonial novel parallel to that of Charlotte Bronte’s Victorian classic Jane Eyre . Most know the story of Jane Eyre and the ‘madwoman’ in the attic but Wide Sargasso Sea deconstructs this and gives texture to the Creole character of Bertha Antoinetta Mason. I studied both while at University and was  interested in how Bertha was initially described by Jane in Bronte’s novel. She can’t explain what she sees: “What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell…it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair…hid its head and face.” This line from Jane Eyre exhibits the belief that WoC are perceived as animalistic, primitive and unable to exercise self-control.

Jane’s othering of Berta is significant. I was quite shocked that she doesn’t support, question or even help Berta upon meeting her. Reading that passage now, something quite different comes to mind: I think of how WoC build loving relationships with other non-WoC. WoC challenge the belief of the ‘Western Women’s Movement’. That is to say we challenge the assumption that all women share and suffer some kind of common oppression that can be understood predominately by non-People of Colour.

Rochester’s relationship with Bertha was built upon Otherness. He objectified her for her physical features and for her wealth. He refers to Bertha as his ‘prize’, a token. He also aligns her mental illness with her racial heritage. She is ‘mad’ because she comes from an exotic, foreign, distant land - a place away from ‘western rationality’- and “[because] she came of a mad family;--idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!"

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The general consensus in the media is to continue to validate the sexualisation of black women. I understand that women have the autonomy to wear, to act, to say whatever they want to - for example Rihanna wearing a see-through gown at the CFDA’s was incredibly sexy - it just becomes problematic when women who aren’t black use black women as accessories to heighten their own sexual image. As a black woman, watching Taylor Swift crawl through the legs of mostly black female dancers, twerking and furthering the fetishisation of black women is insulting. It implies nothing but comedy at the expense of black women and continues to shape how we are perceived sexually.

I remember being on a night out with close friends and the DJ had started playing R&B tracks. Anyway, a girl who wasn’t there with me started to grind behind me and then grabbed my arse. I turned around and she was stood there with this big smile on her face.

“Are you gonna twerk?”

I laughed. “Erm no?” and she walked away completely ignorant to her contentious actions. I’m sure this has happened to many WoC.

Society will continue to absorb the media’s limited depiction of WoC. If the media depicts us as intrinsically sexual it becomes embedded in society’s consciousness that we are. This in turn affects how a judicial system views a case on sexual violence. Othering women has serious implications. We have to question why WoC are less likely to report a case in sexual violence than white women.

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It’s taken me some time to come to terms with the fact that many people may perceive me as Other - even subconsciously - and being asked if people, from the country that I’m from, would consider me as ‘exotic’ just reaffirms that.

It was only recently when I was talking to my boyfriend about writing this essay and about exotifying WoC that I came across the term ‘Jungle Fever’ and ‘Yellow Fever’ (I didn’t even know there was a film by Spike Lee). ‘Jungle Fever’, supposedly, is when a white person is dating a black person and ‘Yellow Fever’ is when a white person is dating someone who is of East Asian descent. There’ll be people who will use this term not meaning to cause any harm or upset - I get that - but both terms are problematic, questionable and exercise the fetishisation of women of colour. ‘Jungle Fever’ dehumanises black women, insinuating that they are animalistic and primitive.

I’m in an interracial relationship and have been for almost six years now. It’s a beautiful, undoubtedly loving relationship. If I overheard somebody say to my boyfriend that he had ‘Jungle Fever’, it would completely reduce our entire relationship down to nothing but the colour of our skin. Even the word ‘fever’ insinuates you’re not thinking straight; it’s an uncontrollable illness that will pass. A phase. When it comes to being in a sexual relationship nobody wants to be considered a type, an experiment.

I listened to a podcast a few nights ago with two incredible women: Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chimamanda stated how interesting it was that people with privilege and power lacked knowledge of ‘The Other’ (despite that colonisation thing). It’s proving incredibly difficult for somebody to truly understand what it means to be a Person of Colour. Chimamanda said something in the podcast that stuck with me. She stated that in order for people to really understand People of Colour they have to really, deeply and completely love a Person of Colour. It’s not the solution in tackling racism and Othering, but it makes a significant difference in coming to an understanding.



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