It’s been a good long while since someone has asked me outright, “What are you?” This dawned on me as I read the article below. At first I figured it’s just because I’m not that ethnically ambiguous, visually speaking. I have never thought of myself that way, though, and regardless of my self-perception I have been What are you-ed many times. When I got to the point in the article about nationality vs. ethnicity my confusion was cleared up. I have this conversation on a weekly basis. Unless I literally do not engage with any “new” people. It goes like this:
- new person: So, where are you from?
- me: Michigan.
- new person: (usually awkward giggle goes here) I mean what’s your nationality?
- me: American.
- new person: (usually frustrated sigh goes here) Okaaaayyyy, well where are your parents from?
- me: Kentucky and West Virginia.
- new person: either a) gives up or b) says, Well, what’s their background?
I usually give in here saying something like, “My mom is black and my dad is white, if that’s what you’re trying to get at.” Believe me my smart ass retorts could go on forever, but who has time for this kind of bullshit conversation? It’s true: I am not a puzzle to solve. In the past I have allowed these questions to make me feel less than the whole being that I am. Now, they irk me. Please don’t confuse my discontent with the content of these chats with me preferring that there be no discussion. As I said in the last post, we have to talk about it. But with the intent to understand and connect, not to separate, stereotype or pigeonhole. The difference is palpable. I can feel the intent behind the inquisitions and the stares. I no longer take it personally either way, but the pigeonholers lead me to a place of righteous indignation inside of myself that is not an optimal space from which to raise the vibration of love on the planet. So help a sister out here. Ask yourself why it is that you want to know so badly? Why, why, why, why, why? I beg you to get real with yourself on that one. I believe this will lead you to questions that are actually worth asking. And if you’re brave enough to truthfully answer them, those answers may begin to remove the blinders that keep us immersed in the illusions of society. The “right” questions and the honest answers will lead you out of the false self into your truth, the truth of the universe. I’m all for asking questions. But quality questions, people. Progressive questions. Unifying questions. Not bullshit ones. And if you really must ask because you couldn’t possibly go on living without knowing which box somebody “belongs” in, please follow the advice in this article. Especially that thing about accept the answer you receive. Sat Nam.
I’m Not a Puzzle to Solve: How to Speak to Ethnically Ambiguous People
September 9, 2013 | by Kat Lazo My father is Peruvian, and my mother is Colombian, which I guess makes me ethnically ambiguous. I say “I guess” because in my eyes, this seems to be a pretty boring combination. Yet, to many people, I seem to be a hard puzzle to solve. But unfortunately for them, I’m not a puzzle. I’m a human being. And that’s the problem when approaching ethnically (or racially) ambiguous people with questions about their backgrounds: Many of the approaches are dehumanizing. I’ve had complete strangers act nice to me only to find out they were trying to win a bet as to guessing what ethnicity I was. I’ve had people stop in their tracks and shout “What are you?” as if I were an alien. I’ve had men refer to me as an “exotic animal.” I’ve had people question how American I am. All of which made me feel less than the whole being that I am. I understand where the questions come from. I have almond-shaped eyes, light olive skin, Inca facial features, and straight black hair, a combination that is curious to some people. I understand how my appearance can be foreign and interesting to many people. But that doesn’t mean that my appearance is up for public discussion. Questioning someone about his or her appearance is rude, especially if you haven’t established a relationship with that individual to begin with. But if can’t control your curiosity and you really want to know that badly, here are a few things to keep in mind when approaching people about their ethnic background.
It’s How You Ask
Stopping a complete stranger on the street to interrogate them –whether it’s about the tattoos on their body or their ethnic background – isn’t always the best approach. Why? Because you’re a stranger. People don’t owe anyone an explanation for why they look the way they look,especially someone that they don’t know. That being said, if you still feel the need to ask, don’t bombard us with a thousand questions. It’s overwhelming and insensitive. There’s also something offensive about thinking that you are entitled to ask so many questions. It’s bothersome precisely because you’re not entitled to it. Please stop asking “What are you?” It’s not the right way to ask about someone’s ethnicity, and it’s rude. Though it may be a result of ignorance as to how to ask, it makes the other person feel like an object or less than whole. It’s as if you are insinuating that we are something less than human. The best way to ask is to be genuinely interested in getting to know a person and not just a slice of information about them. If you have a genuine conversation, it’s even possible that the person will disclose information about their ethnicity before you even ask. And if they don’t – or if they decline to answer your questions – remember thatthat’s okay. They have every right not to divulge that information.
Accept the Answer That You Receive
If you’re going to be so bold as to interrupt someone to ask such a complicated question, than be prepared for a complicated answer. Not everyone’s response is going to be as simple as you may have assumed. Remember that ethnicity is complicated in itself. It’s pretty rare that anyone in the Western hemisphere is 100% anything these days. And once you get an answer, please don’t continue pushing for more information if the response didn’t suffice your curiosity. Continuing to question someone after they’ve given you an answer is disrespectful. The answer belongs to them and them alone. The answer is not validated on whether or not it pleases you. Also keep in mind that for some individuals, perhaps those that don’t know their biological parents, ethnic background may be something deeply personal for them. In my case, I’m a mestizo (a person of both indigenous and European descent). So my dearest apologizes that when I disclose my parents’ nationalities, it does not necessarily appease your curiosity as to from where my almond-shaped eyes derive. But deal with it. Once answered, don’t keep pushing.
If you’re going to ask such a personal question, leave your biases and stereotypes at the door. Stereotypes are bad, even the positive ones. Making generalization about an entire group of people is problematic because it limits them to exactly that – a generalization. A stereotype not only limits an individual’s personal growth, but it limits you from genuinely getting to know them. If you want to really get to know someone, leave the stereotypes at the door. “I’m Mexican.” “Oh, wow. I thought Mexicans were all really short.” Or… “I’m Filipina.” “You’re a lot prettier than most Filipinas.” These types of remarks are rude. The people being questioned have opened themselves up to answer your question, and you respond by insulting the very people he or she is associated with? How could that be construed as not offensive?
No two people are the same, and therefore, no two people will respond in the same manner. Some will welcome questions and curiosity, whereas others may not. Personally, I find that I respond to people differently depending on how they approach me and depending on the mood I’m in. Sometimes I’ll play dumb. “What am I? Oh, I’m a human.” Sometimes I’ll take the opportunity as a way to teach others about my background. “I’m not exactly sure where my eyes come from because my mother has naturally almond eyes and my father’s country, Peru, has had a history of an influx of Japanese immigrants.” Or sometimes I won’t answer back because—well—I just don’t feel like it. And that’s okay. It’s my body, and I have the right to answer in any manner that I feel comfortable with – not necessarily an answer that makes you comfortable. And one of my choices is not answering at all. Remember: No matter how someone answers the question, it’s always appropriate.
Learn the Difference Between Nationality and Ethnicity
Other than “What are you?” the most commonly asked and irritating question I get is “What nationality are you?” To which, I give the proper answer: American. One’s nationality is the nation in which a person was born or is a citizen of. Another way to think of it is: It’s what’s on your passport. Ethnicity, on the other hand, isn’t as easily defined, but for the most part, it’s determined by a couple of factors, including country of origin, shared language, and ancestry. Hispanic, for example, is an ethnicity, not a race. One can be a Black Hispanic, White Hispanic, or Asian Hispanic. Ethnicity may be a little complicated, but one thing we know is this: It’s not the same as nationality. Precision of language matters. I don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why I look the way I look. And it’s my choice whether or not to disclose – and not yours to force it out of me. Understand that if you are curious about a person’s ethnic background, chances are that you aren’t the only one. There have likely been plenty before you who have asked the same questions. Having to answer the same questions over and over again can get tiresome – for anyone. And having so many people question your appearance can make one feel less-than. So ask yourself why you care so much. Revaluate how important it is to attain this information rather than caring about the person themselves. The truth is, it shouldn’t matter. Because just knowing someone’s background won’t tell you who they are. But a genuine interest might.