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 that that’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.
“Oh, wow. I thought Mexicans were all really short.”
“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.
Kat Lazo is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a self-proclaimed social commentator, media critic, and overall, a woman who questions everything. Having studied Advertising and Marketing Communications at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she’s ready to add some feminism to the ad world. Check out more of her writing at TheeKatsMeoww, watch her videos on YouTube, and follow on Twitter @TheeKatsMeoww, Facebook and Tumblr. Read her articles here.