BAP Quarterly
Bap q spacer Bap q spacer

Journey to Exotic

Prologue: How I became non-white without knowing it

By Zeynep Kilic

When I arrived in the US in the summer of 1993, I had no doubt about my race or ethnicity: Caucasian, white, fair, European, Mediterranean. I mean, everybody knew in Turkey that there were black people from Africa (after all, we all cried our eyes out watching Kunta Kinte’s misery in Roots), there were Asian people, the Native Americans (of course we lovingly called them ‘Redskins’), and then there were white people, like us. Hence we thought these were enough to categorize the world’s population. I thought that I looked so different from an Asian, a Native American and a black person that there was no doubt that I would be identified as white by all. Though my accent was giving me away, my racial identity was not something to be questioned, so I thought.

After a year on the east coast, I ended up in Arizona where you rarely came in contact with black people. When an African-American student at graduate school befriended me, my sociologist-self could not help but feel a bit special. I wasn’t sure what in my personality attracted her but I welcomed the opportunity to spend time with her. Perhaps, I was a bit cooler, and less generic-white, than I thought I was. Then, one day she walked into my office and came face to face with the wedding photo of my parents. The picture is of my lovely mom sitting pretty with hands crossed on her lap, trying not to smile while my dad stands by, hovering over his new bride, all the while looking like a member of the Kennedy family himself.  She stopped in front of the picture with a shocked expression on her face and gasped;
           - Your dad is white!

I didn’t know what to say for a moment, thinking to myself “What did she think he was before? Don’t I look white?” Also pondering “And so is my mom!”

Puzzled, I said
           - Yeah, my parents are white.

She looked at me even more puzzled and said
           - No! I mean, white-white, like, American-white!


I knew I had disappointed her. Had she liked me because she saw me as non-white? My dad looking like an Irish-American made it no longer possible to portray me in that light.




Needless to say, that friendship did not go anywhere after that, perhaps for different reasons than my dad’s reddish-blonde looks.







These moments of mismatch between what people saw when they looked at me and what I saw when I looked in the mirror repeated through the years.



Though I initially thought my research would focus on Latin America, I soon felt the urgency to do something more relevant to my own identity. I had to search for other narratives which I could personally relate to. While I regularly interacted with curious inquisitors about who I am or how I felt about America, I was usually not offended by questions about where I came from. At the end, I did live elsewhere until my 20s, but what if I was born and raised here? Would I still welcome or pardon the questioning? To answer this question, in my journey as a researcher, I found myself in Berlin, conversing with second generation German-Turkish immigrants about their identity dilemmas and making comparisons to my own. And there were plenty to consider...

From the Arabic name of a fragrant flowering plant (Zaynab). She was also the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad (from
). According to Arabic history, the original Zeynep (Zebbo) became ruler of the state of Tedmür when Üzyne died in the year 266. With permission of the Romans she expanded her borders, into Egypt. But afterwards, when the Romans turned against her, she was defeated. As a slave in Rome, she is said to have amazed everyone with her beauty and intelligence. From

The Research: What’s in a Name?

I routinely get questions about my name, Zeynep; the meaning, the origin  and how to pronounce it. On American tongues, it tends to   morph into “Z” or Zeyna, or “Xena, the warrior princess,” but who am I to object to being a strong, beautiful, ass-kicking princess?

Bottom line is, a name says a lot about who we are, or more aptly, who we are not to others.

Since I received so many questions about my name and understood that it is a significant process for non-Turks to gauge “who I am,”—or what I represent to them-- I wanted to ask other immigrants about their names as well. During my research trip in Berlin (Kılıç, 2006), I asked second generation Turkish immigrants about how they introduced themselves to strangers, what kind of information they revealed about their origins, what kinds of questions they received about their identities, if any, and particularly about their names. I asked how they felt about questions relating to their identity and how they dealt with such situations. I also inquired to see if these introductions changed based on who was asking or what the context was.

Berliners felt that most of the questions they received were loaded with assumptions and judgment. Turks are the largest minority in Europe and in Germany, and Berlin is the largest Turkish city outside of Turkey, as a result of a labor agreement between the two countries that dates back to the early 1960s. Though greeted with open arms in the 1960s, Turks have become undesirable with the economic downturns and rise of unemployment rates in Germany. Further complicated by this historical and economic connection, Turks in Berlin are discontented with the German model of belonging, as they feel excluded by German society.  They are frustrated with the German identity discourse and they create alternatives to combat being pigeon holed into static Turkish stereotypes.

A few Berliners with lighter complexion mentioned that they were not immediately assumed to be Turkish or an immigrant. When they identified themselves as Turks, Germans were surprised. A fair-haired participant, Zehra, told how Germans asked her “so there are fair Turks as well?” The majority of the Berliners suggested that any question relating to their identity—or roots as they mostly referred to—stemmed from the assumption that they were not German.

Berliners mentioned that Germans initiated conversations about identity by asking about the name, or the root/ethnic background of the name. If the Berliners simply stated they were Berliners or they were from Germany, Germans asked where their parents were from. As Demet, the 26-year-old who found German policies racist, explained, immigrants feel that Germans have questions to ask about Berliners’ ethnic background once the names are spoken, sometimes even before, as their appearance gives away their likely ethnic background.

I am Demet and that’s what I say when I am introduced, but I can see the burning question they [Germans] have. Sometimes I feel like saying, go ahead and ask, I know you want to ask me something. And at the end they always ask. My name is never a sufficient answer. Usually they ask apprehensively, a bit scared or ashamed to ask. But they ask because they need to put me in a box. But I don’t fit into their categories. They don’t know what I am. I don’t correspond to the picture they have in their head, and I don’t want to fit. When they directly ask, I say I am a Turk, but not in the nationalistic sense. I say I was born and raised here. I mention the village I came from. That’s it.

Once it was established that the Berliners were in fact, not of German but of Turkish origin, two lines of inquiry followed. The first was specific to women and happened when Germans felt that it was all right to ask some questions (in other words, if the Berliners were not reactionary and closed off to further inquiry). Germans usually inquired if the Berliner women were “full Muslims” (practicing Muslims) to establish the degree of religiosity. Then questions about how controlled their lives were by their fathers or husbands, if they were allowed to leave the house by themselves, and similar questions followed. No male Berliner ever reported having been asked such questions. Such questions seemed to be reserved for women only. One woman in this sample was wearing the hijab (covering her hair according to Islamic rules) and another did for a temporary period in the past. They were particularly questioned about the reason for this change and if they were forced to do so by their families or if they were suddenly married off to a husband who demanded that they cover up. Berliners were frustrated and exhausted by such questioning.

Germans also transitioned into asking more about Berliners’ background by commenting about their language skills. This was one comment that almost all Berliners mentioned that they received from Germans. Germans’ surprise with Berliners’ language skills (accent-free and grammatically correct German usage) made Berliners very resentful and angry about the German society because it showed that they were still judged by the same stereotypes that were applied to their parents’ generation. Compliments about Berliners’ language skills were defined as backhanded compliments that actually exemplified the prejudice of the German society. Especially comments about how the participant did not come across like a Turk bothered Berliners.

Esra mentioned how Germans ask her if her mother was German, because her German was impeccable. She was puzzled that Germans could not comprehend a Turkish person born and raised in Germany as capable of speaking impeccable German. Similarly, Turgut, a professional born and raised in Berlin, mentioned how his German grammar and pronunciation received comments as if he had been in the country only a few years. He explained the meaning of such compliments by Germans as reserved “for a foreigner.” A more extreme example was the novelist Zafer Senocak, who reported in dismay that he was complimented on his language and writing skills all the time. Esra continued about the troublesome nature of such seemingly innocent compliments:

And then there is the typical German comment: “You are so not like the other Turks, not that I have anything against foreigners.“ I have to scold these people then, I can’t help it. I ask them, how many years has it been that you live together with these people. Don’t you see anyone on the street, don’t you ever talk to them? This prejudice, and the bizarre way of complimenting me for not coming across like a Turk, I can’t stand it, and I have to argue then. It bothers the hell out of me.

Overall, Berliners felt that Germans ask these questions when they have already made up their minds about Berliners in a negative light. Many stated that they find the German scrutiny about their identity troublesome and very negative, while a few suggested that sometimes it is done with good intentions or can be a result of natural curiosity. And some had mixed feelings about such questions, having experienced both positive and negative encounters.

Berliners overwhelmingly mentioned that being put in a situation of having to always answer questions, educate people, and correct misunderstandings exhausted them. Ömer, the PhD who intentionally worked in a Turkish environment and avoided social contact with Germans, said he felt like a defendant against a German judge and the jury most of the time. He shares:

Never ending explanations! Constant questioning of why Turks do this or that! I don’t think they ask to learn. At least they never gave me that impression. On the contrary, they are trying to prove that there is something wrong with it, like your name is weird, not quite right. I honestly don’t think it is curiosity either. My impression is that there is an accusation lurking behind. That is why we feel like having to defend all the time. 

Similar language was used by other Berliners: the feeling of having to give an account of one’s life to Germans, having to educate or correct Germans, having to refute misconceptions, and to always defend their families that they are not strict, overbearing, or controlling. As a result, Berliners frequently found themselves weighing each situation before answering, and pondering the motivation of the German inquirer. Canan, the 24-year-old student, explains how she makes the decision to go along with the conversation or to end it:

When someone really wants to know, really wants to understand, it is quite obvious that they really are asking to learn something about it. But when someone asks because they belittle you or they are condescending, like [imitating ‘German’ voice], ’but you are like this, aren’t you?’ When I see that intent, I simply won’t engage. It is a waste of my time. You have already judged me yet you act like you want to talk about it with me. Well, I am not interested.

In short, questions about Berliners’ identity from the host society are defined as anything but harmless. Berliners cannot escape their Turkishness. Neither can they avoid questions about their “origins.” Such questions are an integral part of the immigrant experience as they straddle multiple terrains of identity. Unlike “the natives,” however, they must clarify who they are and where their allegiances lie. Their identity processes are expected to be transparent and public which most of us take for granted as intensely personal and private experiences.

I’m not the black man
I’m not the white man
I’m just the type between them
I’m a Turkish man in a foreign land.

Rap by Turkish Power Boys (Tertilt 1996)

Epilogue: How I became exotic…

Even after living in the U.S. for 15 years --a green card, two graduate degrees, a full time job, a mortgage and a passport later-- I am faced with more cultural shocks than I expected. As I settled into my identity as a naturalized Turkish-American, I started dating “white Americans” for the first time after recently becoming single. To my utter shock, my dates defined me as “exotic” which they naively meant as a compliment. Though the straightforward dictionary definition of “exotic” as “of foreign origin, non-native” fits perfectly, I understood that they used it in the context of “strikingly unusual,” not realizing the negative connotations for a social scientist in a colonial sense, as in Edward Said’s Orientalism .

Exoticism, by definition, is "the charm of the unfamiliar." Scholar Alden Jones defines exoticism in art and literature as the representation of one culture for consumption by another. An archetypical example is the artist and writer Paul Gauguin and his representations of Tahitian people and landscapes for a French audience. Edward Said in his controversial 1978 book Orientalism, uses the term to describe a tradition, both academic and artistic, of hostile and deprecatory views of the East by the West, shaped by the attitudes of the era of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. When used in this sense, it often implies essentializing and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples. (from Wikipedia)

When I asked about what they meant, they routinely compared me to the “Scottsdale women” with straight blonde hair, “enhanced” breasts, manicured hands and feet, tanned skin and different kind of jewelry. My unruly dark hair, big (clunky? ethnic?) jewelry, my apparently “cute accent,” noticeably un-tanned skin and what sounds like unkempt hands  must have stood out while I walked around thinking I easily passed as a “white-enough” American. I realized, long before I spoke and my accent gave me away, I was already labeled as an unlikely American (or Arizonan). Well, this was news to me.


I view identity issues from the personal lens of a 1st generation immigrant woman who thinks she is white. A feminist, woman of color friend, finally declared one day,

           -Zeynep, you are a woman of color, you just need to embrace that!

Needless to say, I couldn’t/can’t quite embrace it because I get all the privileges of being white—and apparently the advantages of looking like an exotic woman too. So, I feel like a con artist if I talk like a woman of color, as I simply do not feel like one even if others perceive me as such. What I strongly identify with is being an immigrant; a ‘white’ immigrant, from the developing world who calls America ‘home for now.’ This identity conveniently allows me to move between Turkish, American or Turkish-American me, based on my mood or my conversation partner. The question is, can I convince others that these fluid categories in fact are, my God-given right to claim as pieces of my identity? Will my narrative be always judged against what my pictures and my name signify to others?


Berliners Mentioned in this Text:
Canan: She is a 24-year-old vocational student who recently moved out on her own. She and her family are naturalized, and she is a dual citizen who also believes that Germany should recognize dual citizenship. She was born and raised in Berlin and works part time as an educator. She has an African boyfriend and considers moving to Africa more of a possibility than living in Turkey in the future. She doesn’t define herself as Muslim. Islam is her parents’ religion, and her family has a mixed sectarian background. She defines herself ethnically as a Turk. She attended Turkish community organization functions as a teen but does not participate in any organizational activity anymore. She is a leftist who is against non-citizens voting in local elections unless they are very informed about the local politics. She feels close to the Social Democrats (SPD) or the Green Party. She never follows the Turkish media. She sees herself as a Turkish-German.  In her 20-statement list she wrote “KREUZBERG” as the number one thing that describes her. Among the twenty things she also listed: “succeeded in living on her own,” “both Turkish and German,” “has issues with Turkish friends,” “comes from an open minded family,” and “can’t keep up with Berliner Turks.”

Demet: She is a 26-year-old who is studying to pass the high school equivalency exam. She is a Turkish citizen and does not apply for the German citizenship as a political statement, even though her family is naturalized and urges her to do the same. Born and raised in Berlin, she is an Alevi atheist who defines herself as “Kurdish Turk” or “from Turkey.” She is a leftist who favors SPD. She does not use German Turk as a category to define herself and has no plans of ever living in Turkey. Her 20-statement list included “Turk” as second and “living in Germany” as third.

Esra: She is a 30-year-old university student majoring in education, German, and political science. She is the only one in her family who is naturalized, and is pro dual citizenship. She was born in Berlin, but lived in Turkey as a child. She is a non-practicing Alevi and defines herself as “from Turkey” rather than as a Turk. She follows both the Turkish and German media regularly, and feels close to SPD  and the Green Party. She does not believe in German-Turkish as a category. She wants to try living in Turkey to learn more about the country. She is for the right of participation in local elections for non-citizens. She is involved with several Turkish community organizations in educational projects. Her 20-statement list starts with “woman,” “from Turkey” and continues with “a girl raised between two cultures,” “an ambassador,” “child of immigrants,” “child of an Alevi family,” “loves multiculturalism.” 

Ömer (1st generation): Omer is a 37-year-old PhD, who came to Berlin in his teens with his diplomat family. He naturalized when he was 28, is married to an Austrian, and is a dual citizen. As a journalist himself, he closely follows the Turkish and the German media. He politically defines himself as left of center, regularly votes, and is pro local election rights for non-citizens. He uses Turk, Turkish-German, German of Turkish origin, German of Turkish parentage, and similar descriptions in different contexts. He makes a point about keeping his social life closed to German colleagues, and is happy to be working with Turks, Turkish, and Germans. In his 20-statement list he listed “Dr,” “born in Istanbul,” and “lives in Berlin” as the first three statements. Later he listed “weary of political developments in Germany,” and “believes in Berlin’s rich cultural scene.”

Turgut: He is a 31-year-old professional who naturalized at age 20. His family members are not naturalized, but he is a dual citizen. He was born and raised in Berlin. He is married to a German citizen of Turkish origin (who does not have Turkish citizenship). He defines himself as a Turk, but mentions that his parents are Kurdish. He is an Alevi. He is involved in both the Turkish and the German organizations and is a liberal who voted for SPD. He agrees with the category “Turkish-German,” and has no plans to live in Turkey. He wrote in his 20-statement list “dual identity (German/Turkish, Turk/Kurd),” and “Berliner.”

Zehra: She is a 25–year-old university student studying German and social sciences. She was naturalized at the age of 21 and is a dual citizen (and believes dual citizenship should be a natural right). Most of her family is also naturalized. She was born in Germany but was left in Turkey with relatives as a young child. She defines herself as a Sunni Turk but does not practice Islam. She rarely follows Turkish media, is a liberal, and is not active in any Turkish or German community organizations. She believes Turks should have the right to vote in Berlin’s local elections regardless of citizenship status. She would not live in Turkey. She sometimes calls herself Turkish-German or German-Turk.

Kılıç, Zeynep. 2006. Reluctant citizens? Belonging and immigrant identification in the era of transnationalism. Doctoral Dissertation. Arizona State University. Tempe, AZ.

Tertilt, Hermann. 1996. Turkish Power Boys. Ethnographie einer Jugendbande. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp.


Bap q logo