How do deal with racially-based questions about appearance?
December 24, 2004 8:51 AM   Subscribe

What is a firm but uninsulting answer to the myriad of possible questions and comments about one's "racial appearance"? Examples of such questions are:
"What race are you?"
"Are you mixed?" [Are you black, indian, mulatto, etc.]
"Your skin is so pretty! You have an ivory complexion! Do you have caucasian in you?"

Thanks for any help you can give me, because I've been searching for a good answer to this stuff for years!
posted by Jenesta to Society & Culture (103 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
"I'm just another face in the world, though I'm pleased to meet you. For the sake of discussion, however, let's leave it at that."
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:56 AM on December 24, 2004


this is probably not the answer you're looking for, but what's wrong with just telling them? i am mixed and get asked this question constantly...and it's always been easiest for me to just state my ethnic background.
posted by ch3ch2oh at 9:05 AM on December 24, 2004


Why not just tell them your heritage?
posted by adzm at 9:07 AM on December 24, 2004


ch3ch2oh beat me to it... i swear i didn't see that on preview ;)
posted by adzm at 9:09 AM on December 24, 2004


It's worse if you are asian. Everyone asks you, "Are you Chinese?" Or someone walking down the street will pass you and say, "Ka Mee Chee Wah!" Just tell them you're American.
posted by orange clock at 9:09 AM on December 24, 2004


I can never believe how totally rude some people are. A friend of mine was once asked the following question by a stranger at a campground: "So, my husband and I have been wondering - you're Indian, right? Are you red dot or woo woo?" We have been laughing about it for years now; really, it's the only thing you can do, I think, with people who are that clueless.

My friend has perfected the icy glare, raised eyebrow, and "I'm sorry? I'm afraid I don't quite understand your question?" which tends to get the point across for any but the terminally idiotic, and for them, walking away may be all they understand.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:15 AM on December 24, 2004


If the question is asked with ill intent, the best thing to do is not to dignify it with an answer. Just a cold stare.

Some people might just lack manners; others may be malicious. There really can't be one catch-all response because of all the different contexts.
posted by adzm at 9:16 AM on December 24, 2004


I don't see the question itself as a problem; the problem is that a surprising number of strangers feel entitled to personal information. I'm hapa in a predominantly white area and I get this question several times a week. It's more about nosiness than it is about race, I think. I wouldn't walk up to a stranger and ask about his income, and that is the level of "personal-ness" I see the question as being on -- not really a big deal, but not something to be handed out to every busybody cashier and clerk, either.

Orange clock: yep, yep, yep.
posted by Marit at 9:19 AM on December 24, 2004


It's worse if you are asian.

Yeah, I used to work with this Asian guy. After about two weeks i turned to him and said, "Bob, yoou mind if I ask you a question?"

"I'm Filipino."

Guess he got that a lot.
posted by jonmc at 9:30 AM on December 24, 2004


well i get this (white person in chile) and, frankly, i'm sick to death of it. i don't care whether it's friendly, or culturally insensitive, or whatever - it's just absolutely tedious to have the same question again and again and again and again and again. really.

so you have my sympathies. and people saying "well, i don't mind" or "just tell them" - either you're saints or you don't know how bad it gets. either way, it's not a helpful answer.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:32 AM on December 24, 2004


Answering the one question tends to lead to other questions, and I'd much rather just nip it in the bud. These are clients at the center where I work, so they really shouldn't be nosy to begin with. Right now I either answer, or tell them the question isn't appropriate, but it rarely ends at that.

So it just comes down to too many people being nosy about something I find quite irrelevant. I'm on a quest for a succinct answer that gets my point across without hurting any feelings.

I'll go with orange clock and Marit for now. It should discourage at least half of them, and I suppose the ones that press me on it will get a slightly ruder answer. :)

Thank you muchly!
posted by Jenesta at 9:41 AM on December 24, 2004


Ask if some sort of colour-coded, star-shaped badges would help them in identifying who is what.
posted by teg at 9:44 AM on December 24, 2004


Funny how people feel they can ask anything they want. I guess I do, too, but I really try to be respectful about how I ask questions and I drop it if someone seems put off by my question. Maybe I need to rethink that maybe I shouldn't be asking in the first place.

This just comes to mind after reading this thread and the one about people being nosy about yr marital status.

Common problem, with many applications. I know people with disabilities get a lot of quesitons, too. Or they get people who don't mention it at all, but who stare. And some of them don't mind answering questions, feeling it's better than staring and some of them wish people would mind their own business.

What is it that makes people want to know so badly?

on preview: not everyone would get the reference, teg. But a very pointed approach.
posted by raedyn at 9:50 AM on December 24, 2004


one thing i've considered (it wouldn't cost much here, perhaps more in the usa, and not really appropriate if you're at work), is getting a small summary printed on a piece of card (business card size) that i would just hand out. it would answer the first few basic questions and then explain briefly that i don't want to explain more/find the attitutde offensive/whetever. an extra advantage for me is that it can be in spanish (when i'm annoyed my poor spanish gets rapidly worse).
just having this already prepared, on a printed piece of paper, would (i hope) illustrate just how tedious and often-asked the question is.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:53 AM on December 24, 2004 [1 favorite]


(sorry, one more thing - one difference between this thread and the "boyfriend" one, is that here it's a new person every time. so there's no chance to "train" people not to do it).
posted by andrew cooke at 9:56 AM on December 24, 2004


What's the big deal? If I have a cast on my leg, people will ask how it happened. If I have an unusual colour of hair, people will ask about that. People ask about the things that differentiate you from the average person. If you don't want to answer, fine, that's your choice. But don't act like someone being curious about something that differentiates you from the average is an insult.
posted by fvw at 9:59 AM on December 24, 2004


And yes, I'm pretty sure Do you have caucasian in you? wasn't curiosity but a come on.
posted by fvw at 10:00 AM on December 24, 2004


I don't think it's so much an insult; the impression I get is that it's more annoying than anything else.

I just tend to respond with 'Canadian.'
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:03 AM on December 24, 2004


"Why do you ask?" would be a good response. One of the better pieces of advance from Dear Abby Landers. I can't understand why someone would ask that kind of question -- generally, I find people tell me the stuff they want me to know about them. I don't have to ask intrusive questions.
posted by debgpi at 10:04 AM on December 24, 2004


Don't see what the big deal is. This coming from someone who is all Caucasian, but with a heavy genetic dose of "obscure Southern Slav nation", who is routinely asked, "Are you Jewish" (if they're looking at the nose). Or Italian (if they're looking at the skin). I could interpret this as potentially offensive, or intrusive, or racially "loaded," but that causes ME more discomfort than the more straightforward, Occam's Razor-type interpretation: I look a little different, and people are curious about differences. *shrug* Why chose the interpretation that makes me feel all victim-y?
posted by availablelight at 10:09 AM on December 24, 2004


the reply to "why do you ask" is, invariably, "because you're not from round here". which is, apparently, sufficient.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:10 AM on December 24, 2004


>I just tend to respond with 'Canadian.'

this brings up MY pet peeve. I was born in Montreal, raised in Montreal, lived in Canada all my life - yet, because I look somewhere on the spectrum of Scandinavian to Slavic people will often ask 'so, where did you grow up?' 'in Canada!' 'no, I mean, where are you FROM'

It used to bother me so much, when I was a teen. I was raised in French, went to a French language school - yet I just didn't fit in.

Years later, the pain of not fitting in has passed. But I still get a wee bit irritated when someone questions my Canadian heritage.

When I travel to the States, of course, everyone just assumes I'm American ;)
posted by seawallrunner at 10:16 AM on December 24, 2004


Clearly some of the example questions are rather insensitive, but in most cases i agree with fvw -- it shouldn't be taken as an insult. I've had many interesting conversations initiated with "What is your family's background?", asked by either myself or whomever I'm speaking with. I think people are genuinely interested in the history and stories of those they know.

That said, if it's from a random person on the street (or in a campground!) it is inappropriate and responding with the country you're current homeland (Canadian, American, Chilean, etc.) works.
posted by kaefer at 10:19 AM on December 24, 2004


Girl I work with has gorgeous, gorgeous skin. I commented on it and got her entire family history, which was funny, interesting, involved racial intermarriage at a time when it wasn't remotely socially acceptable, and also a complete rundown of her current and former husbands. Me, I expected to hear about face soap, but then again, given this discussion, I'm not surprised about her response. But she seemed genuinely happy and proud to talk about her family's history. Your clients may not be the proper people to talk to about it, but, hey, Barack Obama talks about it to the entire world. Like everyone says, it depends on the context.

You could always say, "Maybe I was born with it, or maybe it's Maybelline. Who knows?"
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:27 AM on December 24, 2004


You need to find something witty...

Normally avoiding the question would be a hint that you don't want to talk about it, but the people you are talking about are already too forward (rude?). In this case avoiding the question will often just solicit more questions. If you can make a joke it will reset their train of thought a little, and there is less chance they will come back to it again. You also avoid looking like a jerk.

Oh ya, like most responces I am firmly in the "why do you care" camp, but I guess saying that wouldn't be answering the question...
posted by Chuckles at 10:28 AM on December 24, 2004


My suggestion would be to turn the tables and respond with, "nigga please".

I'm not being facetious, but I do understand you may find this approach less than respectful. My experience in giving this answer (to other questions) leads me to believe that there are two types of responses, laughter and the nervous "Did he just say nigger?" look.
posted by sequential at 10:32 AM on December 24, 2004


I have a very Polish-sounding last name, but I don't look particularly like anything other than "white guy". It's my experience that people ask what nationality/race you are because they want to tell an ethnic joke and want to make sure they don't pick the wrong one. Therefore, I endorse being as evasive as possible, let them figure it out on their own.
posted by tommasz at 10:33 AM on December 24, 2004


A lot of people I have come into contact in various capacities have volunteered information to me about their ethnicity well in advance of a time that I would have asked. And I have been asked on many occasions, by white and non-white people, what my ethnicity is (I'm white and don't have a particularly ethnic appearance, in my opinion; maybe a little Jewish). In other words, I guess I have come into contact with a lot of people to whom their own racial heritage is an important thing. This is not because they are racists, it's because they're interested in their own ancestry, and that makes them interested in the ancestry of other people.

In other words, to meet someone (or, at least, to meet someone in a cosmopolitan area in the U.S.) who is not easy to place in terms of ethnicity given where you met them, is to meet someone who, there is a decent chance, considers their ethnicity a big part of their identity, and wants to tell you about it.

Ask if some sort of colour-coded, star-shaped badges would help them in identifying who is what.

If I heard this, it would teach me nothing except that the person I was talking to was an asshole. It's an argument that really answers itself. Jews are more vocal about letting you know they're Jews than any other group of white people. No group of people persecuted by the Nazis emerged from the war announcing that from now on, they would try harder to blend in.

I understand that in some situations, there may be a chance that answering the question is actually going to have a negative affect on the situation you're in (e.g. the person asking the question has something against your ethnicity, and that's why they were asking). And I also understand that in a rural area, or any area that is ethnically very homogenous, if you look different than everyone else, a lot of people are going to ask you where you're from. I'm sure that can get annoying quickly, but there isn't any answer you can give that is going to keep someone else from asking you the same question the following day.

On preview: For those who are promoting 'Why do you ask?' as a good answer, I have to say that, as the person who might be asking the initial question, that would really do absolutely nothing to deter me or teach me a lesson. Is the implication supposed to be 'You asked because you're a racist pig, now why don't you go off in the corner and self-flagellate?' I might have asked because I figured it was an important part of who you are, or to educate myself, or because I think you're beautiful, or because I'm just curious. I might also ask about your accent, or about more mundane details like who cut your hair or who made your watch or your shoes. People sometimes ask each other these questions. 'Why do you ask' just shows that you have a big chip on your shoulder, and it really makes you look rather weak. It will certainly end the conversation in many cases, but you won't have spread any new appreciation for the right way to deal with you...if anything, you may cause people to think that you're ashamed of youreself.
posted by bingo at 10:34 AM on December 24, 2004


I guess I'm kind of shocked that so many people consider this to be such a rude and/or personal question. I've had the subject come up in conversations with a hell of a lot of people and I can't remember anyone ever once being offended. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever asked someone I had just met thirty minutes before.

I should add that if I ever did offend someone with this sort of question, I'd apologize profusely. Just because I don't see it as a taboo subject doesn't mean that their take on it is any less valid or reasonable. If the question is offensive to them, then it's offensive.
posted by Clay201 at 10:39 AM on December 24, 2004


Just tell them you're adopted.
posted by borkencode at 11:02 AM on December 24, 2004


I deal with this issue a lot. My father was Mexican. My mother was Danish. I am 5'8", have fair skin, full lips and dark eyes. This is a common exchange:

Idiot: What are you?

Me: Mexican.

Idiot: You don't look it.

Me: What do Mexicans look like?

Idiot: Well you know, not like you.

OR:

Me: I'm Mexican.

Idiot: No! Then you're just a little bit Mexican.


The idiots in these exchanges are stupid and show their own deeply held stereotypes by stating that they know what I am supposed to look like. I guess all Mexicans are short and dark. This really pisses me off. These people are condescending and paternalistic.

Being curious about someone's identity is not in itself insulting, but it should be asked with some sensitivity and respect. And don't argue with the person or question the answer that you get.

What's as bad is when I tell people that I prefer the term Latino instead of Hispanic and they proceed to tell me why Hispanic is a perfectly acceptable term for them to use to describe me!

I used to answer the "what are you" question with "American." Or, I would give the eye stare that has been promoted above, but I found that this actually created a lot of problems when the idiot is a coworker. People don't like their stupidity pointed out to them and I've found that it can create a lot of tension in the workplace. So, now I just say "Mexican" and try to change to subject. I try to avoid getting into conversations where I feel that I am somehow justifying my self-identification.

One day I'll get enough guts to reply to "you don't look Mexican" with "and you don't look rude biatch!"
posted by Juicylicious at 11:12 AM on December 24, 2004


But Juicy, as you just said yourself, you're half Mexican and half Danish. If you describe yourself simply as Mexican, and someone suspects that you're not telling the whole truth, then they're right. You don't have to reveal anything, but if you choose to give only half of the relevant information, and then get indignant when the person you're talking to reacts as if you've given only half of the relevant information, then the resulting animosity on either site is your own doing. I've met you, and I've lived in Mexico, and it's true, you don't look very Mexican. Cop an attitude about it if you want, but the battle is all in your head.
posted by bingo at 11:29 AM on December 24, 2004


I always thought it was sort of amusing when someone, usually quite ethnic looking, when asked about their heritage, answered, "Irish". It always seemed like a good way to deflect a stupid query with some tact and usually didn't lead to further questions.
posted by docpops at 11:32 AM on December 24, 2004


So when a Black person who has one White parent identifies themselves as Black, they're lying? If that's true then there are a lot of lying people out there.

and then get indignant when the person you're talking to reacts as if you've given only half of the relevant information,

Who the hell do you think that you are to have to right to get indignant about someone's ethnicity?

Your post is exactly the type of bullshit exchange that I detest. I favor my father physically much more than my mother. I come from a long line of tall people and a lot of Mexicans are fair skinned, blonde even.

Everyone has a right to self-identification. Period.
posted by Juicylicious at 11:36 AM on December 24, 2004


bingo, i find your answer insulting in two ways, and you're not even replying to me.
first, the problem is how to deal with people asking the same stupid question all day long. that's the root cause of this, and if someone chooses to supply only half an answer, in their frustration, that doesn't shift all moral responsibility for bad feeling on them.
second, how come you're the one who judges what a mexican should look like? if someone tells you they're american and they're not white, fat and stupid, do you also assume they're lying?
posted by andrew cooke at 11:40 AM on December 24, 2004


oh, or what J said.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:41 AM on December 24, 2004


My looks are generic enough to fit in anywhere, but I do have a strong Slavic accent. I can't really convey how insulting it is for someone to initiate a conversation (stranger asking for directions, grocery store clerk, etc), and upon hearing you reply switch into "OMG! I am talking to a foreigner!" gear. And this is in Seattle, which is far far less homogenous than other parts of US of A.

Anyway, once they are in that gear, out comes the inevitable outpour of questions. And I try to not be a dick about it, but having to go through a dozen of these experiences on a good day I am tired of it. So... a typical conversation goes like this:

Person: this will be 15 dollars. cash or credit card?
Me: credit card please (hear that rolling 'r'?)
Person: ok [... rings me up ...]. So, where are you from?
Me: Nebraska
Person: No, I mean, where are you ORIGINALLY from?
Me: Nebraska. Seriously.
Person: That doesn't sound like a Nebraska accent to me
Me: [... signs the credit card slip, walking away ...] Trust me. (or if I am in a really bad mood, I'll say that I have a speech disability)

So, which one of us is a biiger asshole? It's debatable. I have to say though - being constantly reminded that you are not from around here and do not belong - it will get to anyone.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 11:58 AM on December 24, 2004


This is a serious question. Blind, would it be okay if I met you and upon noticing an accent, I said "You have such an interesting accent, I can't quite place it." Or, "I really like your accent, I can't quite place it." And then wait for you to give me more information if you choose?
posted by Juicylicious at 12:01 PM on December 24, 2004


if someone chooses to supply only half an answer, in their frustration, that doesn't shift all moral responsibility for bad feeling on them.

I'm not talking about moral responsibility, I'm talking about actual causal responsibility. And if the resulting bad feeling comes about as a direct result of someone answering a question inaccurately and then getting angry when they're called on that very fact, then yes, I believe that the responsibility for the 'bad feeling' is wholly their own.

second, how come you're the one who judges what a mexican should look like? if someone tells you they're american and they're not white, fat and stupid, do you also assume they're lying?

You have got to know in some recess of your mind that this is a ridiculous comparison. I'm not talking about what Mexicans 'should' look like. I'm talking about what most of them actually do look like. If she was living in Mexico, and she told the people around her that she was 100% Mexican, then they probably wouldn't believe her either, and as she has explained herself, they would be right.

To Juicylicious:

So when a Black person who has one White parent identifies themselves as Black, they're lying? If that's true then there are a lot of lying people out there.

They are not lying, but if one of their parents was Swedish, and they are getting jumpy at the suggestion that 'black' may not fully describe their ethnic makeup, then they are not being reasonable, either.

Who the hell do you think that you are to have to right to get indignant about someone's ethnicity?

Actually, the word 'indignant' in the sentence you're quoting refers to you, not me.

I come from a long line of tall people and a lot of Mexicans are fair skinned, blonde even.

'A lot' in the sense that there are a group of Mexicans descended more or less directly from the conquistadors; sure, they exist. But the truth is that the vast majority of Mexicans are not fair-skinned or blonde. It is therefore not unreasonable to say that someone does or does not look Mexican.

Everyone has a right to self-identification. Period.

That is true, but it doesn't mean that you have magical powers that you can use to shift reality around you to match your self-identification, and other human beings do not have an obligation to bring their own perceptions into line with the way that you want to be seen.
posted by bingo at 12:04 PM on December 24, 2004


andrew: People ask you your race? Or where you're from? Chileans can be (and are) a nosy pain in the ass, but the "where are you from" is actually them being friendly, trying to find some sort of common-or-not ground with you. They can't very well ask you what high-school you went to or whether you're related to the Talca Cookes, can they?

bingo: I get the feeling that Juicy is mexican, with Danish among the many different ancestors. Being Latinamerican, like being gringoamerican, means most peolpe have a pretty mixed bag of genes. I have jewish, spanish, mapuche and (probly) aymara ancestors, as well as Jebus knows what else, but identify as simply Chilean, whenever somebody asks. If somebody ever said "you don't look Chilean", there would be snarkage. Of coure, I look the part, so no worries.
posted by signal at 12:11 PM on December 24, 2004


signal: Scroll up. Her mother was Danish.
posted by bingo at 12:14 PM on December 24, 2004


That is true, but it doesn't mean that you have magical powers that you can use to shift reality around you to match your self-identification, and other human beings do not have an obligation to bring their own perceptions into line with the way that you want to be seen.

No, but if you want to exist in society you should be more respectful to other people's self-identification. I know that you believe that the one year of your life that you spent in Mexico somehow makes you an expert on all things Mexican, but really it doesn't. And the fact that this comes from a White man makes it even more insulting.

Try to wrap your brain around this:

I am a Mexican person. I identify myself as such. You are a White man. You have no right to impose your paternalistic stereotypes on me. Ever.

You and others of your ilk are the reason why Janesta felt the need to post this askme.
posted by Juicylicious at 12:16 PM on December 24, 2004


I don't get quite the same question, but as a white guy living in Japan, I'm very familiar with the "getting asked the same goddamn question every day" curse. I generally try to answer the questions straightforward, but when I get really tired of answering, and the person asking is a good person, but just asking a question I've been asked a billion times before, I find myself making joke answers. After the first joke, they'll ask again. Joke again, and they may ask a third time. Joke three times and they drop it.

By the way, I don't mean "make a smarmy asshole joke", I just mean be goofy. If the person asking is a good person, the jokes naturally come out lighthearted. Not particularly funny, of course, but light.

A: "What are you?"
B: "A human"
A: "No, I mean where did you come from?"
B: "Right over there. See, across from that convenience store? And then up a few blocks."
A: "No, where did you come from originally?"
B: "Oh! I get it. Sorry. Uh, Pangaea."

Side-splitting humor? No. But light, disarming, and a good change from answering the litany of "America. Texas. No, we don't have cowboys. Yes, my house is big. No, I don't have a gun."

Of course, on preview (er, review), I see that this is for clients, so just pretend that I didn't write that.
posted by Bugbread at 12:18 PM on December 24, 2004


signal: Scroll up. Her mother was Danish.

Right, and she's Mexican.
posted by signal at 12:30 PM on December 24, 2004


Jucylicious, I was just about to ask the same question, with regards to the accent analogy. I'm not sure how your above concern about "self-determination" works with that, though. I think they are both completely innocent questions - I'm just interested in that sort of thing, and if I ask someone "Excuse me, but where is that accent from?", and they get snarky with me and just say, "Boston," I don't see how it's rude at all to clarify my query by responding, "No, I can tell that there's some New England in there, I meant, what part of India did you grow up in?" Would you be offended if you were the Generic American Whitey, and I asked the same thing, because I was curious whether that was an accent from Georgia or South Carolina, or if I wondered what part of England you were from? I'm sure there are all kinds of assholes out there who just want to make some creepy point or joke about your "race" when asking about your heritage, but there are plenty of people who just like learning about stuff.

Everyone has a right to self-identification. Period.

And I don't buy that at all. Yes, you are absolutely free and right to call yourself whatever you want to, but that doesn't change what you actually are, and it's simply obnoxious to give an honest inquirer grief about it. Me, I'm one of those people who believe that "race" is a purely social construct, that people of wildly different ethnicities are vastly more alike than they are different, but at the same time, I'm fascinated by the geographical flow of families and heritage, the same was that I love to trace which languages and dialects came from where and when and how. Don't let the jerks ruin it for everyone. Just because there are stupid people asking stupid questions, doesn't mean that you have to automatically become aggressively defensive about the issue. I understand how some people might think that the question itself is rude, but it doesn't seem much different than asking where you bought that jacket you're wearing today. Sure, if you're dealing with a high shcool mentality, they may be asking just to put you down or whatever - but then, who the hell cares what that kind of person thinks, anyway?

On preview:

I am a Mexican person. I identify myself as such. You are a White man. You have no right to impose your paternalistic stereotypes on me. Ever.

Taste the irony.
posted by majcher at 12:31 PM on December 24, 2004


People ask you your race? Or where you're from?

i've never heard a chilean ask anyone what their race was. but if i walk down the street they stare at me. the only time they don't stare is when i'm with a black friend, because they're staring at him instead. they shout random things in english at me - "hey mister!". i've been standing in a queue at a shop and someone has called across the room to ask me where i'm from - first question, no introduction. i've had kids say "look, daddy, gringo" and point at me. i'm sick to fucking death of rude, ignorant, close minded chileans who think they're just being friendly, signal. ok?
posted by andrew cooke at 12:34 PM on December 24, 2004


Andrew: Getting angry isn't going to help a whole bunch. I went through my "sick of being singled out randomly" phase too. Hopefully, you can relax and it will pass. If not, you're just going to live a suck-ass, irritated life. It isn't really worth it. And there's not a lot you can do to give people a taste of their own medicine, because half the time the annoyance is with getting asked the same question so many damn times. There's no way you can turn the tables unless you get twenty co-conspirators to shadow someone and individually, "spontaneously", ask them a question.
posted by Bugbread at 12:53 PM on December 24, 2004


sorry, i think i've been too agressive here. this is making a mess of my day, so i'm off. i know i'm supposed to be tolerant of others, but sometimes doing all the tolerance work for a whole damn nation gets a bit much. yes, chileans are fiendly and well meaning. yes, i look different from the average. sometimes i get just a little tired of living with it. even when i'm the rich white imperialist. so long.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:56 PM on December 24, 2004


Just for the record, even gringo ang moh crackerhead gwailo gaijin haole types like myself get asked this question all the time on their home turf, at least here in New York City. But then, we have different standards for what's rude and in a chutney salsa mulligan stew potluck salad bowl fondue melting pot kind of place it's always a sure conversation starter.
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:01 PM on December 24, 2004


I know this slightly veers into a wider topic at hand (strangers asking personal questions), but I felt the need to share my thoughts and experiences. You are welcome to skip over my comment if you think it's not applicable here. :)

I can completely sympathize with the issue of strangers coming up to me and asking quite personal questions on why I limp or do not have full functioning use of one hand at a relatively young age (due to a disability). After years of going through a roller-coaster wave of emotions ranging from shyness, hurt, anger, and so forth for being singled out, or stared at - I have reached a point in my life where when appropriate, to educate those asking.

My common answer to the question of the awkwardness of my gait is usually one being honest about my condition, but I try to keep it short and simple and let the audience know that I perceive it as a minor part in my life and would rather focus on other topics of conversation. Obviously, I tailor my responses to different age groups, but the underlying message of me being a person is first. It might seem pretentious, but I have yet to find anyone opposed to this message.

Personally, I hated being asked those questions because of the preconceived (usually negative) notions of the 'categories' people put others in when they can, but that's partly due to human nature. I like to think that by educating others I can possibly change stereotypes. Perhaps it's too lofty of a goal.

I'm sorry for rambling, and not necessarily answering your question Jenesta, and hope you find a solution soon! I know I'm trying to find one too.
posted by carabiner at 1:04 PM on December 24, 2004


This is a sad discussion. Is it that hard for people to grasp that even well-meaning questions become intolerable when repeated over and over and over? When I was teaching in Taiwan a fellow American teacher had a little girl with flaming red hair. She was quickly coming to hate Chinese people because they all stared, pointed, reached towards her, touched her hair, and made endless comments to her and her parents about it. Were they evil assholes? No, they were just curious human beings. It's natural human behavior. But if you discover, perhaps through a conversation like this, that even though you mean no harm, the reaction may well be one of dismay and irritation, do not respond with "It's OK, it's natural, no disrespect is meant, get used to it" -- back off and learn something. If a black person tells me he objects to "niggardly," I can give him an etymology lesson (which will merely make me look like an insensitive jerk) or I can say "OK, thanks for telling me" and try to avoid it.

If you see a guy with what seem to you "typically gay" speech or mannerisms, would you ask (in a friendly way) "Say, are you gay? 'Cause you seem gay to me." What kind of response would you expect? Why exactly is this so different?
posted by languagehat at 1:10 PM on December 24, 2004 [2 favorites]


andrew: no worries, I can sympathize with your annoyance, and would be the last to defend my compatriots' tact or openmindedness.
FWIW, when close-minded, rude gringos ask me why I speak English, I usually answer "I read a lot" or "I watch a lot of movies". A surprisingly large amount of people accept this as a straight answer. Maybe you could start telling people you're from Talca, and everybody there looks and speaks like you.
posted by signal at 1:16 PM on December 24, 2004


If you see a guy with what seem to you "typically gay" speech or mannerisms, would you ask (in a friendly way) "Say, are you gay? 'Cause you seem gay to me." What kind of response would you expect? Why exactly is this so different?

If you see a guy in a military uniform, would you ask (in a friendly way) what branch they were in, or where they served? What kind of response would you expect? Why exactly is this so different?

The difference is, of course, the implication that being foreign/racially different/gay/etc is bad or shameful somehow, and that's just crap. I understand the million questions angle, but we all get asked our own particular brand of stupid quesion over and over again, and we all deal with it. Why is this so different?
posted by majcher at 1:26 PM on December 24, 2004


I'd just shrug and say "I dunno" in the tone that best conveys that I couldn't give a crap.
posted by rushmc at 1:28 PM on December 24, 2004


If a black person tells me he objects to "niggardly," I can give him an etymology lesson (which will merely make me look like an insensitive jerk) or I can say "OK, thanks for telling me" and try to avoid it.

Sorry, I agree somewhat with the main point of your comment, but truth and fact at some point must trump "politeness." There are many people in the Deep South who will be genuinely offended if you offer any objection whatsoever to their ingrained and (to them) natural culture of bigotry, but I draw the line at smiling, nodding, and (implicitly) accepting it, just because to reject it would violate some prissy notion of friendliness.
posted by rushmc at 1:32 PM on December 24, 2004


Juicylicious: The way you're talking to me drips with the same kind of prejudice that you're ostensibly speaking out against. People of my 'ilk'? My race and gender affect my credibility? You feel free to label my perspective as a 'paternalistic stereotype.' Yet it's offensive for me to say, accurately, that you're not being honest with people about your own heritage when you pick a fight with someone who doesn't believe that you're 100% Mexican?

Honestly, it sounds like you have some personal reason for 'feeling' more Mexican...maybe you like Mexico better than Denmark, maybe you identify more with your father than your mother, etc. And such choices of self-identity are indeed valid, and I'm not trying to demean them. What's more, if someone asks you about your race, you certainly have the right to refuse to answer. And if you tell someone that you self-identify as a Mexican, then of course, it's silly for them to argue with you. But saying that you self-identify as a Mexican, and saying "Mexican" or "Latino" when someone asks about your genetic makeup are not the same thing. You might wish that they were the same thing, you might care much more about one than the other, but they are still two different questions.

Sure, if someone asks you an open-ended question like 'What's your ethnic background?' then answering 'Mexican' because that's how you self-identify is understandable. But if they press on, and ask whether you're 100% Mexican, then the conversation has changed. Now, of course, you have the right to not answer, or walk away, or tell them you're from Pluto. But if you tell them, with a full understanding of the context in which they're asking, that you're completely Mexican, then you're a) lying, and b) picking a fight. Sure, race is a sensitive subject, and a lot of people, especially a lot of white people, believe that the worst thing they can do is offend another person's racial sensibilities, so the person who dared to ask about your ethnicity will probably back off. But that doesn't mean that you're right, or reasonable, or doing anything other than making someone else suffer for a battle that's going on in your own mind.
posted by bingo at 1:41 PM on December 24, 2004


Majcher: That's the thing. If you see a guy in a military uniform, in a place where the military is uncommon, you very may well ask him what branch he's in. And that doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you a normal person.

However, you could take a second to think, "Damn, how many times a day does he get asked that question? He must get pretty damn annoyed at answering the same question over and over and over and over again. I'm curious, but I'm just gonna ignore that curiosity." That would elevate you from a normal person to a great person.

There's nothing, in my opinion, "wrong" with people asking this kind of question. But I wish they would stop. Nothing wrong with you if you don't, but very appreciated if you do.

"we all get asked our own particular brand of stupid quesion over and over again, and we all deal with it. Why is this so different?"

Do we? I never got anywhere close to the number of identical questions about any subject until I moved to Japan. In college I got "what's your major" a bit, and a few "where are you froms", but we're talking complete orders of magnitude of difference. Plus the fact that, unless you move somewhere relatively urbane, or go Howard Hughes and lock yourself at home, it's never ever going to end. I dunno, if everybody gets the same stupid repeated question over and over, why didn't I get mine until I moved to Japan?
posted by Bugbread at 1:43 PM on December 24, 2004


I am a white woman who has fairly dark hair, but apparently somehow I look ethnic enough that my HUSBAND gets asked if I am a) Italian b)Mexican c) Indian -as in Native American....they never ask ME. (I am one fourth Greek supposedly, but whatever.)

I was even asked by a store clerk if I dyed my hair. Nope, this is my natural color.

My take on the "irritating question" is it really depends who is asking and what I perceive the motive is. And if I am curious about someone else's heritage, I just get to know them and wait till they tell me.


My most irritating question is " Are you related to Ronald Reagan" but I don't get that one much anymore.
posted by konolia at 1:50 PM on December 24, 2004


Bingo, while I agree with you that the question being asked ultimately isn't a subjective one, that's what makes it all the more offensive.

Whether you realize it or not, the question is obviously racially charged. It's offensive simply because a lot of people get offended by it. And the motives for asking are irrelevant. You may not think you judge people based on their ethnicity, but the world still isn't colorblind. Consequently people feel uncomfortable when asked because it makes them feel like they are being sized up and pigeonholed. Your intentions can be benign, but the question is inappropriate because despite your intentions, you will make many people (usually strangers) feel uncomfortable. This is particularly true because it's often one of the first questions that gets asked by someone you meet, and you're left wondering "what's the deal with this jackass? This is important enough to him to ask within two minutes of meeting me?"

My answer to it depends on how annoyed I am and how benign I think the intent of the question was. Anywhere from teg's which I've actually used on people I really find idiotic, to "I'm adopted," to the straight answer. But whatever the case, asking certainly never wins points in my book and is a good way to distance yourself from me.

Asking is neither wrong, nor does it make you a bad person necessarily, but the question offends many, and to continue to ask it of strangers despite that fact... well... you decide what that makes you.
posted by drpynchon at 1:55 PM on December 24, 2004 [1 favorite]


What's the big deal? If I have a cast on my leg, people will ask how it happened. If I have an unusual colour of hair, people will ask about that. People ask about the things that differentiate you from the average person. If you don't want to answer, fine, that's your choice. But don't act like someone being curious about something that differentiates you from the average is an insult.

I think it's more than a bit naive to equate ethnicity with a temporary physical condition. I am a brown man that grew up in the South and there was not a single day where I was not reminded of the fact that my ethnicity "differentiated me from the average person." Being constantly reminded of that difference sometimes is grating - and not because I am constantly having some battle with myself as some posters have stated - but because more often than not, my ethnicity frames my experience, affects how people interact with me, and influences their perception of me.

I've had great conversations with people that started with this question. I don't have a knee-jerk negative reaction to this - but just the same, I've also been called everything from a nigger, a spick, to a chink (none of which hit it quite right), and sometimes it feels like my being asked to classify myself is done for the benefit of the questioner so they can categorize me.

This isn't always the case - I understand that, but those of you who are reacting to us who sometimes take offense at this question, may be the privileged sort who think that ethnicity and heritage are incidental markers of identity, and that it is our own cross that we choose to bear. Being an immigrant minority in the U.S. is not what I think of myself as, but because of external forces day in and day out, it has become a large part of my own identity. When people casually refer to it, inquire about it, joke about it, sometimes it rubs me the wrong way. That's all.
posted by buddha9090 at 2:18 PM on December 24, 2004 [1 favorite]


It's interesting to see (in this case, read) the different ways people handel this stuff. We have a friend who calls himself "Philorican" because his mom is Philipino and his dad is Puerto Rican. He knows his looks confuse the hell out of people, and he thinks it's funny. His wife is something like 1/8th Navajo, and he passes there. People ask him about his ethnicity because they can't place him. I dont think there's a crime in that.

To some extent, everyone has the chance to get something like this. I'm from Georgia. I grew up here. I do not -- do NOT -- have an accent. Common exchange:

Person: Where are you from?
Me: Here.
Person: Nooooo. You don't SOUND like it.
Me: Don't sound like what?
Person: er. Ah. Um.

They want to say, you don't sound like a redneck, or you don't sound uneducated, or a million other related things. Fact is, I was brought up to speak properly, and I can speak "redneckese" as well. Most of the time I end up taking it as a compliment, rather than an accusation of carpetbaggery.
posted by Medieval Maven at 2:38 PM on December 24, 2004


My father was a foot taller than his peers. As a child, I observed that he graciously endured the endless remarks, even the assigned nick-names such as "Lofty" and "Stretch". One day I asked him whether this ever got to him and he replied, "It is often tedious, but I consider my height to be my calling card. People will recall me because I am different."

Decades later, the truth of his words kept coming back. I would be introduced to someone and they would ask if I was related to that "really tall guy"? Then they would ask about how he was and "what is he doing now"?
posted by RMALCOLM at 2:41 PM on December 24, 2004


Asking is neither wrong, nor does it make you a bad person necessarily, but the question offends many, and to continue to ask it of strangers despite that fact... well... you decide what that makes you.

Someone who isn't worried about offending people.

drpynchon, I appreciate your reasoned and thoughtful response, even though I disagree with almost all of it. But I should clarify that, despite my enthusiasm in this argument, I do not regularly go up to strangers and ask them their ethnicity. I've been to a few meetups and (someone correct me if I'm wrong, maybe I am) I don't think I've asked any fellow mefites about their ethnicity. It's not a subject that I'm chomping at the bit to discuss with everyone I meet. But I'm interested in history, and the stories of different cultures, and the differences in perspectives that come from inheriting different ideas about perspective, history, theology, etc. And I've met a lot of people who wanted to talk about their ancestry, and it's interesting to me, and in a world full of racial and cultural tensions, I don't think it's healthy to pretend to be colorblind. I believe that the way to deal with difficult issues is to confont them and examine them. Part of getting to know someone is getting to know their attitude about their heritage. And yes, I said 'attitude'; people can lie about their DNA if they want, but that in itself can be telling. Despite Juicylicious' comment to the contrary above, my time in Mexico (or Holland, or Japan, or other places) did not make me an authority on the countries in question, not by any stretch. But it did teach me (if I ever had any doubt) that culture, ethnicity, race, or even nationality are not abstractions that can be put on or taken off at will.

on preview, buddha9090: I certainly do not think that you are having any sort of battle with yourself; your situation and attitude is (in my perception) markedly different than what we were discussing earlier.
posted by bingo at 2:51 PM on December 24, 2004


I believe that I already said this, but it's not asking someone's ethnicity that is annoying. The rudeness comes in the form of the question and follow up comments like "you don't look like it." Anyway you cut that, it's rude. You don't think that I "look" Mexican based on your one year of living in Mexico. I didn't think you "looked" rude when I met you. Apparently both of us were wrong.

You don't seem to get that this is a very personal issue. Why is it so difficult to respect other people's feelings?
posted by Juicylicious at 3:02 PM on December 24, 2004


Despite Juicylicious' comment to the contrary above, my time in Mexico (or Holland, or Japan, or other places) did not make me an authority on the countries in question,

Then why did you cite that as authority for your statement that I don't look Mexican? "I've met you, and I've lived in Mexico, and it's true, you don't look very Mexican."
posted by Juicylicious at 3:05 PM on December 24, 2004


Because those things are true. You don't have to be an 'authority on all things Mexican' to know that you don't look Mexican.

You don't think that I "look" Mexican based on your one year of living in Mexico. I didn't think you "looked" rude when I met you. Apparently both of us were wrong.

No, it was just you.

The rudeness comes in the form of the question and follow up comments like "you don't look like it."

This is bizarre, and you can get as offended as you like, but you don't look Mexican. Your insistence on a Mexican self-identity doesn't make you look Mexican. And obviously, this hits a nerve with you because it has happend more than a few times. How strange that people keep mistaking you for someone who doesn't look Mexican. They must all be closet racists and/or slaves to the patriarchal paradigm.
posted by bingo at 3:12 PM on December 24, 2004


And obviously, this hits a nerve with you

Yes, it does. Actually it really hurts my feelings and I've cried about it a lot. Thanks.
posted by Juicylicious at 3:25 PM on December 24, 2004


I get asked all the time where I'm from, based on what I assume must sound like a non-American accent, and when I say "Chicago," they say, "No, I mean, where in Europe?" I've even been asked what my first language is (English is my first and, unfortunately, only.) It's never occurred to me to be offended. Giving a straight answer seems to confound them enough.
posted by transona5 at 3:28 PM on December 24, 2004


Juicylicious, just out of curiosity (and I'm really not trying to be an ass), but what if someone responded to you by saying, "Oh, wow, you look a lot like my friend so-and-so, and she's Italian! I would have thought you were Italian, too." That particular brand of response, from say, a coworker, would seem to be a comment on the amazing variety in genetics, rather than some sort of put down (to me, anyway).
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:52 PM on December 24, 2004


Again, bingo, it's about context. I have a good female friend. Were I to ask her her cup size or make a boob joke it wouldn't offend her because she already has an idea of where I'm coming from. But I don't go about doing the same to strangers.

Yes, there's a lot to be learned from other cultures and how people see themselves or self-identify relative to their culture/heritage. However, when you don't know or just met someone and they ask you your background, the default assumption is not that they're performing a sociocultural inquiry in order to bring human beings closer together. That's just not the world right now -- a fact, whether you care to accept it or not. People still judge by race. People still see someone, make an assumption about their genetics based on their looks, and then go on to make all kinds of assumptions from the way they drive to how much money they make or how smart they are. You are free to ask your friends about this sort of stuff because they have a rough idea of the type of person you are and where you're coming from. Asking someone you don't know, however, is still inappropriate.

We're not talking about a probing philosophical conversation about the definition of race, how ethnicity and heritage informs identity, and the like. We're talking about strangers who (perhaps even despite their best intentions) prejudge based on looks/background. I get asked the question a lot and never once has it amounted to a meaningful conversation.

And not being affraid to offend is the flip side of being inconsiderate which isn't all that far from being a jerk.
posted by drpynchon at 4:03 PM on December 24, 2004 [1 favorite]


I usually answer "What are you?" with, "Part caucasian, part Human Being."

That gets looks of confusion that only a fellow native can appreciate.
posted by kamylyon at 4:07 PM on December 24, 2004


Maven - You're not being ass at all. That's a great response. It's all about the form of the question/response and the attitude conveyed. I would probably reply to you with something like "Really? Thanks" with a smile.

drpynchon - You articulated what I was incapable of doing myself.
posted by Juicylicious at 4:07 PM on December 24, 2004


I've run through many variations of the question "what are you?". I understand it can be frustrating since many times in my experience it doesn't stop at one question even for the innocently curious and feels intrusive especially from strangers who you aren't trying to get to know well enough to discuss your life history.

I don't think there's a way to keep from answering the question; the only solution may be trying to keep the conversation from lingering on it the subject. I know after I've answered, "Well, both of my parents are African-American", I'll tilt my head and smile patiently or change the subject with any questions that follow.
posted by nuala at 4:09 PM on December 24, 2004


Don't worry Juicy... Sometimes your heart just gets in the way. Happens to the best of us, and only the best of us. Just keep it out of the courtroom or whatnot.
posted by drpynchon at 4:20 PM on December 24, 2004


Reading some of these exchanges has been very interesting. I feel a little less alone now. Of all the things that are different about me visually (and there are many), the racially motivated ones are usually the most intrusive and/or rudely stated.

This entire thread has now reminded me of something that happened in high school. I used to dye my hair purple every so often, but you couldn't tell unless the light shined on it just right.
Girl (after seeing my hair in the sunlight): Is that your natural hair color?
Me: Yes. I had a lot of x-rays done when I was a child.
Girl: Really?

I felt kinda guilty when her friend had to let her know I was kidding.
posted by Jenesta at 4:26 PM on December 24, 2004


I have a last name with way too many consonants for most people to deal with and I look ambiguously Middle Eastern. People ask me all the time about my background and I gladly tell them. I can't think of a reason not to! I'm not ashamed of my background and often it's a great conversation starter.

If it's something you'd rather not talk about, then just say simply that. I think it would be a touch cruel to try to make someone feel as if they had committed a universally recognized faux pas.
posted by 4easypayments at 4:31 PM on December 24, 2004


In Louisiana, there's a long tradition of racial diversity. A lot of people ask it more gently, though: "So where's your family from?" That seems perfectly polite in my opinion.

I'm rarely asked what I am quite so bluntly, mostly because you have a little of everything around there. When I get "so what are you?" I always treat it as if someone's said "so where's your family from?" and that works as a decent conversation starter. It can get annoying if you have to explain where a country is, or if you get "Is that near China?" but overall it will tend more toward family-type conversation if you treat it that way.
posted by honeydew at 4:56 PM on December 24, 2004


drpynchon, I'm not worried about whether you think I'm a jerk, but beyond that, I don't think that you and I are arguing. I don't really have a problem with anything you said in your last response to me.

If I'm hanging out with someone, maybe even for the first time, getting to know them, and we seem to be having a meeting of minds, then I might ask about whatever aspect of their background seems the most revelant or interesting. So far it hasn't gotten me into trouble, so maybe I'm a good judge of context, or maybe I'm drawn to the sort of people who aren't offended as easily, and vice versa. Anyway, for whatever reason, I have had enough productive conversations on race, with enough people, of diverse backgrounds, in diverse contexts, that I'm far from concerned about turning into a symbol of ethnic imperialism. There is a difference between decency in dealing with other human beings, and pussyfutting around unreasonable people with huge chips on their shoulders, and in the latter I have no interest, nor am I interested in encouraging it in anyone else.
posted by bingo at 5:37 PM on December 24, 2004


I always just say "I'm a mutt" when asked about my background (which is usually due to my big nose or my goofy last name).
posted by mathowie at 5:48 PM on December 24, 2004


There are entire fields of research devoted to how we categorize things as a fundamental part of thinking. (You'll have to google that for yourselves.) Some researchers consider that categorizing is so fundamental that thinking, as we know it, would be impossible without it. While most categories we use are generally accepted and form the basis of language, there are other categories which we construct from personal experience. The act of categorizing a new event or person or object makes reacting to it much simpler.

A German acquaintance once remarked that while he found it relatively easy to meet and get to know other Europeans, he found it quite difficult to do so with Americans. He thought it had to do with the diversity of cultures found in America, so that he was unable to anticipate the sort of responses he would get during a conversation. He found that his attempts to be polite were constantly being misinterpreted and in mirror fashion, he was for ever misinterpreting the others.

This is an example of how categorizing is used in a social context. I suspect that many inquiries about nationality/ethnicity are an attempt to categorize for the purpose of becoming more comfortable during the social exchange.
posted by RMALCOLM at 5:51 PM on December 24, 2004


Sometimes, people you're around a lot just want to know what you consider yourself (the Federal government went through a phase where they asked "What ethnic group do you most closely identify with?" Overly PC maybe, but they tried to be tactful.) It's often intended as a sign of respect, they just want to think of you as the way you think of yourself. However, whatever you say at that point should be the final answer. If that's a polite smile and a vague answer, that should settle it. Treating it as "where's your family from" is a way of side-stepping a more direct answer if you chose.
Lots of people will ask about an accent, because a surprising number of them pride themselves on being able to identify accents. It's a harmless hobby, and they consider it a conversational opener, giving you the opportunity to offer as much or as little information as you wish.
The world is full of idiots, and they come armed with all sorts of topic sentences. It's not a plot, they're just idiots. These are the same idiots who think nothing of asking what's wrong with your baby's face, or how did you get that hideous scar, or why is your hand crippled. Some people just have no class, and fortunately, you know how to act better than that.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 6:34 PM on December 24, 2004


On RMALCOLM's point.

[ot]Check your birth certificate, Mexican is not a race so to align yourself with someone who has a birth certificate that does say Negro might be offensive. People confuse race and nationality often. Culturally you may feel aligned with one but that might further raise curiosity. It should be okay for people to be curious but it does not allow them to be insensitive.[/ot]
posted by geekyguy at 7:12 PM on December 24, 2004


"I don't know. I was adopted. What would you guess?"

(I'm not adopted. I'm half-Danish (like juicylicious) and half other stuff: Hungarian, Japanese, etc. I guess I look like a mix because I'm often asked about my background. I m tired of answering, ergo the above response. And I'm interested in people's answers, just out of curiousity. Mostly people say Italian.)
posted by TimeFactor at 10:53 PM on December 24, 2004 [1 favorite]


hippie: I have to agree on the accent point. I'm not really any good at identifying accents, but if I hear an interesting one, I'm naturally (to me, at least), going to try to politely inquire about it if I have the chance.

Oh, and my two year old son has eczema, so I do get the "What happened to him?!" a lot. I know it looks different, so I don't pretend he looks like he doesn't have sores standing out. It doesn't become an issue. I do acknowledge that if he got older and he were bothered by it, I'd have to rethink that.

Juicylicious: You are probably getting overwhelmed by the attention here as much as by unwanted racial/cultural questions. :) That having been said, if I said to someone "You don't look Mexican," I would be saying it in a (how do I say this) humorous, shared joke sort of thing. Not to mention in the self-depreciating "shows you what I know" angle. Now, I know that *you* know that you don't look stereotypically Mexican. And I know damn well that there are fair-skinned Mexicans. It might not even be a great joke, but it seems to me not entirely devoid of humor.

What am I missing? I would certainly not be trying to deny any cultural heritage, nor would I be trying to argue with you about who you are (what a waste a time!). But where I live, I do see a fair amount of Mexican people, and they are in fact very commonly not Danish looking (making an assumption here. You get the point. :)

I think there really is a confusion between location of upbringing (accent), location(s) of family origins that contribute to genetics (physical features), and cultural identity (um...I'll just say "complicated"). If I'm talking with someone, I'm naturally curious and will want to find whatever portions of those I am privileged to discover.

On preview: Is it just that everyone is tired of the same question? Is it my responsibility to come up with a unique question for everyone? I'm afraid I'm not always that creative. I certainly don't think it's incumbent upon others to, if I ask a common question, come up with a answer I've never heard of before.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:00 PM on December 24, 2004


Go with the flow. Stop identifying yourself with a certain race or culture.
In the USA, I speak English with a strong french accent. So, I'm thus french. *shrug* I speak Danish like a Suede, so in Denmark I'm Swedish. I speak French with a slight slavic accent - I'm thus Russian, or something eastern european. And yes, my Polish is tinged with french, so I'm back to being french.
If someone tries to prod me further, determined to know my race, culture or nationality as if that's some defining aspect of who I am - the poor sob - I answer that I'm an economist.
"An economist!? But....?"
"Let me explain why:
A mathematician, an accountant and an economist apply for the same job.
The interviewer calls in the mathematician and asks "What do two plus two equal?" The mathematician replies "Four." The interviewer asks "Four, exactly?" The mathematician looks at the interviewer incredulously and says "Yes, four, exactly."
Then the interviewer calls in the accountant and asks the same question "What do two plus two equal?" The accountant says "On average, four - give or take ten percent, but on average, four."
Then the interviewer calls in the economist and poses the same question "What do two plus two equal?" The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and says "What do you want it to equal?"
"
If that doesn't get a chuckle outta my inquisitor then I abruptly change the tone with something along the lines of, "I see that my humorous attempt did not amuse you. I apologise and from now on, I will refrain from indulging in non-work related discussions. The data stongly suggests...."
posted by ruelle at 1:07 AM on December 25, 2004


I'm with Bingo on this one. Ethnicity is not something to be ashamed of. If you're tired of being asked the same question over and over again, try and remember it's your very uniqueness that's spawned the inquiry.

It may very well be that it's the tone of the question that bothers you more than the question itself. "What are you?" is a simply awful way to broach the subject -- the connotation is "You're not one of us." Separating intent is important, however. I once met a Korean guy who's father was black, and he was one of the most amazing-looking guys I've ever seen. When I asked him about his ethnicity from the vantage point of, "You look cool as hell," he wasn't annoyed at all.

This is coming from a native southerner ("Really? You don't sound southern") and geneologically French/English ("Really? You look Jewish") person who's seen his fair share of cultural ignorance.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:15 AM on December 25, 2004


I'm surprised (and trying to learn something) from how sensitive everyone seems about this issue. People have lots of different ways of trying to figure out who you are, and they vary in different cultures. In Spain and France, "Where are your from" and the usual followup "And where did your family come from before they moved to New York" are the most standard, banal conversation starters imaginable. On the other hand, asking someone what they do for a living is sometimes seen as intrusive rudeness.
posted by fuzz at 9:42 AM on December 25, 2004


I'm an American in Greece, so I can't open my mouth without being asked where I'm from... Which is usually followed by why I'm here, and how do I like Greece, and do I have any children (and 'why not?')... And, yeah... sometimes I just wish I could blend, but it never really bothers me. I actually think it's kind of sweet, because people are really eager to show off their English, or try to help me with my Greek. Nice. But time-consuming.

On the other hand, pretty much nobody here hates me because I'm American (so far) even though they vehemently disagree with current American policies and actions. People who sound and/or look Albanian, or Russian, etc. don't necessarily get the same indulgences I do, so I can certainly see the pain there.

For Jenesta, I really liked mathowie's answer - "mutt", or I might say something like - "oh, I haven't quite figured it out yet - if you do, let me know". Or maybe "Aries, with Zebra ascending". Actually, I think a good party theme would be to get all your friends together and spend the evening eating and drinking and coming up with all sorts of different answers to these questions. People will never stop asking, so it might be good to have some fun with accumulating different answers for different people and levels of niceness or rudeness.
posted by taz at 10:02 AM on December 25, 2004


Fuzz:

Keep in mind that, for some of us at least, it's the frequency that's annoying. I personally can't think of a single question, no matter how nice and innocuous, that wouldn't annoy me if asked repeatedly, just like I can't think of any songs that wouldn't annoy me if replayed constantly.

On preview:

Ok, I thought of a question that I've been asked a billion times and never annoyed me: "What's up?"

Let's just call it the exception that proves the rule.
posted by Bugbread at 10:09 AM on December 25, 2004


My most irritating question is " Are you related to Ronald Reagan" but I don't get that one much anymore.

Mine growing up was always "hey, do you play basketball?" So of course I refused to do so, not wanting to give the presumptuous poops the satisfaction.

Yes, it does. Actually it really hurts my feelings

Why would you want to look Mexican (I spent 3 months touring around Mexico this year, and there certainly is no one identifiable "Mexican look" in any case)? Or American (the idea that there is one "American" look is clearly laughable, and none of us obsess over not "looking American," so why would one feel any differently about their Mexican heritage? Certainly the country is less ethnically heterogeneous than the U.S., but it's not homogenous)?

What's wrong with looking like yourself?
posted by rushmc at 11:50 AM on December 25, 2004


I personally can't think of a single question, no matter how nice and innocuous, that wouldn't annoy me if asked repeatedly

"Your place or mine?"
posted by rushmc at 11:51 AM on December 25, 2004


Another exception that proves the rule!

I'm starting to realize that there are a hell of a lot of exceptions to my rule...meaning it must be a hell of a good rule, I guess.
posted by Bugbread at 11:59 AM on December 25, 2004


To me, it's like asking where an interesting vase originates from - it doesn't say anything about its artistic merit etc., but still, it's interesting to know. I've never asked this type of question yet in my life (albeit that there's only 16 years of it so far), but I'm not offended at the idea - if someone is racially implacable, I just have the impulse to ask, it's no more objectifying than asking about an implacable smell.
posted by abcde at 1:32 PM on December 25, 2004


Why would you want to look Mexican (I spent 3 months touring around Mexico this year, and there certainly is no one identifiable "Mexican look" in any case)? Or American (the idea that there is one "American" look is clearly laughable, and none of us obsess over

I think rushmc gets it in many ways.

I've just encountered this thread and I have to strongly disagree with the other poster above who said that they see a lot of Mexicans and so they should have some idea of what Mexicans look like. What they have encountered is not Mexicans but more likely, the subset of Mexicans who have immigrated to America. This makes a big difference.

My larger point is that when you say something like "I know what Japanese people look like" you may be likely saying: I know what Japanese-Americans look like and Japanese I have seen in films etc. We all have filters on however enlightened we may think we are.

And so, when I am confronted with the question of what ethnicity I am (people usually think I'm Middle Eastern) and then I tell them I'm Mexican, all sorts of ugly stereotypes come out sometimes without the questioner being aware of it.

Yes, there are blond mexicans. There are tons of them. One whole side of my family is blond. Another side is half-Chinese, having married into a Chinese family that has been living in Mexico for four generations - they dont even consider themselves Chinese, of course, and speak nothing but Spanish. When you say to someone "You don't look Mexican" you are saying "You dont fit my narrow, pre-established view of what a Mexican looks like." you are revealing a narrow-minded side of yourself and it is not a great way to get a conversation off the ground.

I think what makes me bristle about the original question is that the questioner's intent is rarely: I am enlightened person who wants to find out more about your cultural heritage. More often it is: i want to be able to categorize you quickly and need some pre-established stereotype so I can frame you as quickly as possible.

i am happy to answer the question in those cases where the interest is genuine and not where the questioner, after having received their answer "Yes. i am Mexican" merely nods their head and moves on.
posted by vacapinta at 6:32 PM on December 25, 2004


I've just encountered this thread and I have to strongly disagree with the other poster above who said that they see a lot of Mexicans and so they should have some idea of what Mexicans look like. What they have encountered is not Mexicans but more likely, the subset of Mexicans who have immigrated to America. This makes a big difference.

Yes, good point, I suppose it does. I would have to definitely agree with you on that point. Not to mention the idea mentioned that "the idea that there is one "American" look is clearly laughable", which is another good point. While Mexico is by no means as large as the US, it's certainly big enough to have a little diversity.

I would still be puzzled at someone taking offense at my saying they "didn't look Mexican", though, since it's clearly just my error and simply a statement on the subset of Mexicans I've seen compared to the person standing in front of me. I am, however, frequently puzzled at many things I say that are occasionally taken offense at, so I suppose I shouldn't really obsess over it. :)
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:55 PM on December 25, 2004


I come from a long line of tall people and a lot of Mexicans are fair skinned, blonde even.
'A lot' in the sense that there are a group of Mexicans descended more or less directly from the conquistadors; sure, they exist.


Not to pick a fight, but this is one of the more profoundly ignorant things I've read in the last 6 months or so.
posted by signal at 6:43 AM on December 26, 2004


When you say to someone "You don't look Mexican" you are saying "You dont fit my narrow, pre-established view of what a Mexican looks like. I think this is quite often true, vacapinta, but I think it is an unwarranted (though sometimes accurate) leap to then conclude "you are revealing a narrow-minded side of yourself. "Narrow-minded" should, it seems to me, carry some additional negative connotation beyond mere "ignorance." The average American doesn't know that there is a group of white natives in Japan, but does this really make them evil bigots? I'd say an encounter of this sort is better viewed as an opportunity to educate rather than a racist assault (not that one should ever feel obliged to act upon it if he doesn't wish to).
posted by rushmc at 9:36 AM on December 26, 2004


Not to pick a fight, but this is one of the more profoundly ignorant things I've read in the last 6 months or so.

Look, it's not like I'm arguing phrenology or eugenics here. There were Latino groups protesting the theatrical release of 'The House of the Spirits' because they thought it was offensive and wrong for Winona Ryder, Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, and Glen Close to play the leads in a story about a Latin American country (the protestors were wrong, though, because those actors were playing elite aristocrats descended from Europeans; see my elided comment above).

What they have encountered is not Mexicans but more likely, the subset of Mexicans who have immigrated to America.

I went back over the thread and I can't figure out who this comment could refer to. I've been all over Mexico. I've also been to Denmark. Sure, people in neither of those countries are made in factories that churn out a long series of identical children. But some features are much more common in Mexico, and some features are much more common in Denmark. The people in each country naturally look different from the other people in their own countries, but in general, the people in those two countries also look markedly different from each other. In fact, if someone were to create a parody of this conversation, it's hard for me to think of two countries that would be more dramatically juxtaposed in their makeup in terms of physical characteristics than Mexico and Denmark. Iceland and Ghana, perhaps? China and Ireland?

The fact that exceptions can be found no matter where you look, does not mean that every nation is a rainbow of diversity in which a Benneton ad could be created by randomly filming people on the street. I was born in Japan myself, but on that day, the definition of what it means to 'look Japanese' did not change. And when I went there again as a teenager, I had a surprising number of conversations (none of which I started) about what it means to 'look Japanese,' 'act Japanese,' etc. In fact, I would have really offended some people (or just sounded willfully ignorant), if I had started talking about how there actually is no such thing as a Japanese look. If I had started talking about a group of white natives living in the country, it would have definitely been perceived as a symptom of a racist/imperialist desire to co-opt their culture, a la Tom Cruise's blue-eyed 'last samurai.'

A lot of people understandably bristle at a sentence that begins with "Most Mexicans ___" because, through conditioning and/or experience, we're taught that this could be the beginning of a racist/jingoist remark. And yet, "Most Mexicans are beautiful" doesn't come off as negative (even though, in a sense, it is, i.e. we can't all be beautiful, hence Mexicans must be generally more beautiful than some other group, and what does that say about the other group, etc. etc.), "Most Danes ___" could go either way (at least in America, i.e. "Most Americans don't know much about Denmark,") "Most Americans ___" has the feel of a sentence that is going to get nasty, but that's okay because it's 'deserved,' and "Most Japanese ___" is likely to evoke, from someone Japanese, a cocked ear waiting to find whether or not your statement will be accurate.
posted by bingo at 10:57 AM on December 26, 2004


Suggestion:

Idiot: What are you?
You: Blah.
Idiot: You don't look Blah.
You: You should travel more.
posted by Jonasio at 11:05 AM on December 26, 2004


I'm also surprised at how offended so many people are by questions of ethnicity. I kind of like talking about family heritage - I'm a quarter russian, but it's visually the strongest quarter and also kind of the most interesting. My grandmother's family fled russia before the revolution & went to mexico, and she met my grandfather there, but he was scottish and on a film shoot. Some of her siblings settled in mexico though, so we have a mexican strand of the family. Even my grannie's strand of the family has a strong "mexican pride" thing just because she grew up there etc - comparisons with russia's cultural heritage come up a lot (brightly colored crafts and churches, eg), and family food is much more often mexican than russian.

Anyway, those people are mexican in that they grew up there etc, but they also have pride in their russian heritage, and would never attempt to hide or deny it by insisting they were flatly and purely "mexican", given that the question is obviously a curiosity about categories. It's interesting to understand the different genetic and cultural strands in a family. it's like asking about the breed of a dog you meet, what kind of mix they are etc. And if you're going to say it's demeaning to humans to compare them to dog breeds, I'll just say I think it's demeaning to dogs to suggest our categorizations for them are demeaning! It's just a human fascination with "compare and contrast". It's scientific curiosity, not malice [except of course in rare cases when it is malice, in which case, well, some people suck & deserve to be told as much.]
posted by mdn at 12:54 PM on December 26, 2004


Okay, I didn't read this thread, because it was too long. However, I will share with you my mother's perfect response for questions like this:

"{Questioner's name}, I know you didn't mean to be rude by asking that question, but you should probably know that many people would find that to be a very rude question." Big smile.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:30 PM on December 26, 2004


(In case anyone's still reading...) Answering "I don't think I know you well enough to answer that" in however friendly or unfriendly a voice is appropriate might work.

It sounds, from many comments on this thread, that it's not really the question that's the problem but the assumption that strangers have the right to know. That might clue them in that it's not an appropriate thing to ask 30 seconds into meeting you.
posted by occhiblu at 6:33 PM on December 28, 2004


I think this thread is dead but nevertheless...I decided to check this out as juicylicious is a friend of mine. She and I have had this conversation many times. My grandmother was Native American. She grew up in Oklahoma as many displaced Indians did. She was orphaned at age six and she and her siblings were sent to (a) missionary boarding schools with aims of assimilation or (b) to live with older siblings who had already been through the school system.

My grandmother was sent to live with her sister in Missouri who had been converted by the Methodists and at this time much of her heritage was lost.

After high school she went off and joined the WAAC and met my grandfather in England. They returned to the states after the war and were married. At this time my grandmother converted to Catholicism.

Growing up I was incredibly proud of my heritage and my ethinicity. Like Matt, I consider myself a mutt but I do consider myself a Native American.

I have been amazed at the reaction of people who feel that they can deny my ethnicity. That I can't consider myself to be an Indian because I grew up in an affluent suburb. I get this reaction from friends of mine and natives alike.

Do I have to deny my heritage simply because of the way my grandmother's life turned out? Because I am not Indian enough? We are the only ethnicity on the planet that has to carry cards declaring our "percentage" of our ethnicity.

No matter what anyone says...it is my identity. My only wish...that we weren't confined to checking a box.

Also, as I have spent a lot of time with Juicy, I have to say that she does look like a Latina. In my opinion, very much so. I also have pictures of my great grandparents who are Muscogee. They do not fit the stereotypical image of Native Americans. In fact, there are over 500 recognized nations in this country and it is amazing how much the aesthetic differs from nation to nation.
posted by Lola_G at 9:10 AM on December 29, 2004


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