I get it. It’s not like you everyday person reading this guide are a “racist.” Actually, you take offense at the idea that you are in any way, shape, or form a throw back to pre-Civil Rights era bigotry or that you are a mean-spirited bigot at all. Maybe somewhere in your own background you might be like 1/225th part Cherokee or something else and you genuinely want to connect with people not “like” yourself.
And you know what, I totally understand in this mixed-up, ever changing world we live in, that multiracial people are the cultural legacy of the American melting pot. Younger generations, like Millennials, are even more open about their multiracial backgrounds than any American generation that has come before, plus people are curious creatures who want to know things and not everyone out there is a jerk.
But you know what’s not legit?
Assuming that just because you’re curious about a stranger’s heritage, that you somehow have the right to know where “they’re really from” in the first or second question you ask. And that’s the real rub: it’s not your automatic right to know.
As a multiracial woman of nondescript origin, I’m under no obligation to entertain anyone’s curiosity, so I don’t owe a complete stranger an explanation as to how I came into existence. And that’s what you’re asking someone when you start a conversation with them in this tactless manner.
If I decide to share my family origins with you because we’re in a deep conversation about race or whatever, that’s one thing, but otherwise I sometimes don’t even share that information on job applications or school census information. And if I opt out of self-reporting to potential employers and government bureaucracies about my “ethnic” background when given the chance, because profiling and racism are real factors brown skinned people have to worry about, what right does anyone have to ask this question as if it might not be somewhat of a recurring real world issue for the person being put on the spot?
So how do you interact with people who aren’t exactly like you, but you would like to get to know a little bit better, without sounding “basic” in the process? And for sure, you will come off as “basic” to a person like me if the first or second question out of your mouth is: “So, like, what are you mixed with?”, “What kind of Native/Indian are you?”, “What kind of Hispanic are you?”, “Do ever you go back to Mexico to visit your extended family?”, “Are you a San Antonino Latina, you look like one is why I ask,” etc.
Here we go!
First, let’s examine your intent: do you go up to random white people and ask them what their racial background is? Like say you’re at a party, do you usually ask all the people present that question within the first five minutes of conversation? If so, have you ever stopped to ask yourself how they might feel about that? I mean, do you rattle off your pedigree with every new social interaction you have? And if you do, have you ever stopped to examine why that is so important to you? Why do you do it? Are you expecting certain stereotypes to come into play the more you talk to someone? Really, why is race so important to you?
And then after that bit of introspection, my next suggestion would be examining the ways that other people might not feel that way. If your intent isn’t to piss people off, then you have to remember that interacting with the entire color spectrum that is humanity requires an understanding that you can never assume too much about anyone.
Second: there’s a saying about no question being too dumb to ask, and that’s not an entirely wrong outlook to have when it comes to many of life’s ambiguities. Curiosity is a good thing that should be allowed to flourish without prejudice, otherwise how would we ever learn new facts or make new discoveries? There are, however, awkward as shit questions that you should never pose to other human beings because there is no way to ask what you’re going to ask without sounding like a jerk.
It’s like when someone starts a joke or an observation with “I’m not a racist, but…” No. We all know that’s the key phrase that someone leads with when they are absolutely going to make a tasteless joke at the expense of a whole group of people who actually have to deal with everyday racism in one form or another: like unequal pay for the same job position and education level, social biases that effects their health (from missed diagnoses to equal access to treatment), and a whole host of other things you can map out on a graph and back up with stats.
If your goal isn’t to offend a potential new friend or acquaintance with backwards-ass questions, then finding the appropriate way to ask should be important to you. After all, you’re better than a jerk aren’t you? If you aren’t concerned without how you’re coming off to someone else, then asking your question about ancestry, heritage, ethnicity, all of it is truly none of your business.
And that’s really what it comes down to, just like Aretha Franklin sings it, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
On the flip side, I’ve been asked by other brown people if I’m from specific racial groups. I feel this is just as annoying, because I’m more than just my skin color, other Brown People. I have interests that are much more concentrated in specific subjects than the amount of melanin I was born with. Although I’ve come to realize that when you’re a minority, sometimes you just want to find others to share something in common with because you feel cut off from society at large. It’s a nasty side effect of modern racism as combined with living in a county where there has been a history of struggling social movements to overcome prejudice, inequality, and segregation.
And so I try to remember this when I’m at Native American events, because it’s not uncommon to be asked what tribe I’m from when I’m milling around in that crowd. For the record, my Native American is not recognized stateside. My family has “indio” bloodlines from Mexico, for the geographically challenged, Mexico is still in North America. But the United States didn’t oppress my ancestors directly, that was mostly Spain’s doing. Alas, since the Spanish government did an even poorer job of managing corruption, they took a harder hit during the global recession, to the point where other European nations had to bail them out, it seems Spain will not be giving me any gold recovered from sunken Spanish galleons to pay off my college loans anytime soon. Sigh. There go my reparations.
Anyway, I still find it an annoying question, because at some point you have to accept that we ALL need to move past color or ethnicity as the foremost thing that defines who we are. I, just like everyone else I know, had no control over my parents and grandparents sexual preferences. So while it is a part of my identity, it’s not the first quality about myself I would volunteer in a meet and greet. Honestly, the nationality of the dude my grandma decided to make babies with is not going to tell you as much about me as the kind of music I listen to, FACT.
Also, it’s annoying to be told I shouldn’t get hung up on these less than positive social interactions. That’s like the next worse thing you could say after asking someone tactlessly “what they are” instead of “who they are.”
“I didn’t mean it like that! You’re the one being ridiculous.”
You know, living in a place like Oklahoma, where I’ve had to deal with more ignorant comments than any other place I’ve ever lived, I’ve had to come to accept the term “microagressions” as a real thing. Microagressions are the ways in which someone with a bias of some sort forces their narrow view of the world on you as though it applies to you in some way. You might not think it’s a big deal, after all these are “micro-indignities,” and most people are good and mean well, but let’s read about the total sum of these “micro” social transactions.
These “microagressions” are often phrased as a backwards compliment (Oh, getting into college must be so easy for you, because, you know, you’re Black/Native American/Latino.), oblivious questions (Are you the nanny? – when you don’t share the same skin tone as your kids yet still have a strong family resemblance) or some other slightly disrespectful thing like renaming someone (I’m just going to call you this messed up pet name I invented because it’s too hard to learn to say your “ethnic” name and instead of asking you what nickname to call you, I’m just going to make up my own for you because we’re totally going to be friends now!).
Which brings me to my third way not to be a jerk: if you’re getting to know someone, instead of going for the obvious way someone is, or is not, like you, why don’t you ask them what they like? If you use questions about ethnicity as an ice breaker, seriously, stop that shit right now. Instead, ask what kind music someone’s been listening to lately, what their favorite books are, what’s the last TV show they watched this week, because wouldn’t that tell you more about a person, and how well you might get a long, other than the fact they’re obviously not entirely white?
So you’re a “people” person who doesn’t make race the basis of all their social interactions, how can you talk about food, for example, without sounding like a socially clueless person?
Well, imagine we’re at a grocery store. And I (and my brownness) are checking out with extra sharp cheddar cheese, tortillas from some obscure Sante Fe New Mexico brand, a jar of salsa (also from an obscure “ethnic looking brand”), some green onions (probably from Mexico) and small clutch of avocados (maybe from California, but probably still a product of Mexico). Instead of assuming that I’m making a family recipe handed down to me from generations of old Mexican women, you could just make friendly chit-chat with: “Hey, are you making avocado quesadillas later? Because those avocados look perfect for it!”
See how we made the topic of conversation all about the food and an interest in using avocados at the peak of their flavor and not about the person’s assumed nationality and heritage to make idle chit chat?
I mean, I don’t ask every white person I see with potatoes and beef pot roast if they’re going to make a pot roast just like their Irish grandma made.
It’s really just that easy to stop and think about ways you can talk about life without making it all about ethnicity and race unless it is something that comes up naturally in your conversation, like, “Oh, this fresh coconut, soy sauce, lemons, adobo seasoning, chilies, onions, and chicken are for a recipe called Kelaguen, which was handed down in our family from my Guamanian grandmother.”
Ok. So there’s going to be one person out there who thinks, “But if I couch it in polite terms, like ‘No offense, but I was wondering…’ or ‘You look exotic, I have to ask’…” and my answer to you, would-be apologist, is: “No, you don’t have to ask at all.”
You assume this is a compliment or that stating your good intent is a get out of jail free card for asking a poorly conceived question. Just know for every “you’re so exotic” comment you’re tempted to give, there’s a good chance that person has been harassed, either with small comments to seriously rude gestures, at some point in their life for not being like the other little lambs in the flock. Or this person has felt ostracized because he or she knows the way they look has made them off-limits dating material in certain communities. And as we established earlier, we want to be respectful, and really the best way to do that is to talk about a myriad of other human interests like recipes, hobbies, favorite things, shows we want to watch, articles we read, sports teams we root for, and not “Hey, what are you mixed with?”