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Inquiring about someone’s race is offensive

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Inquiring about someone’s race is offensive

Statistics courtesy of FCPS, graphic by Maggie Markon

Statistics courtesy of FCPS, graphic by Maggie Markon

Statistics courtesy of FCPS, graphic by Maggie Markon


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“What are you” is a question that I am asked on a daily basis; whether I’m at the gym or in school, I am asked to divulge private information at the drop of a hat. Sometimes people aren’t as blunt and disguise their “curiosity” with wordings like “where are you from?” or “where are your parents from?” Regardless of how they word it, what they really want to know is the same. When you are more ethnically ambiguous, as a majority of mixed race people tend to be, outsiders feel that they are entitled to know the ins and outs of your genealogy, and while I am not able to speak on behalf of all mixed race individuals, I do know that a good majority of us do feel that this question is not only objectifying, but also plain rude.

When I was younger, I never really saw the harm in people asking me what race I was; I just thought they were being nice. I did, however, begin to question my racial identity when my answer was followed by “oh you’re not black” or “I don’t believe you.” From a young age, I felt the need to qualify my ethnicity and prove myself. It become so frustrating that at one point I began to tell people that I was just white but tanned easily.

Some people even felt entitled enough to ask my parents, again disguising their “curiosity” with questions like “is her hair a perm” or “how did you get her lips like that.” This constant questioning of my racial identity increasingly made me feel incredibly insecure and hyper-self-aware. My mother, who is also mixed, answered these questions for me with little thought, my father, however, has never been as quick to answer. It was from him that I began to think about these questions a little more critically.

When I am posed with this question, it makes me feel like an oddity or novelty. Being questioned about something that has to do with your outside appearance being out of the “norm” makes one feel like they don’t belong. I remember feeling like an outsider as a little girl because there was no one around me who looked like me, not even my parents really looked like me, nor were there people on TV or in the media who looked like I did. As I got older, I changed my appearance in an attempt to fit in. I began straightening my hair and wearing makeup that was a few shades lighter than my actual skin tone, and this quickly turned into getting hair treatments that would make my hair less curly, the effects of which have permanently changed my hair,  and heavily researching rhinoplasties so that when I turned 18 I would be well informed for the nose job that I was inevitably going to get.

In this information revolution, people have gotten so used to having a question, and being able to have it answered right away along with the prevalence of social media making everyone’s life a public spectacle; there is less of an emphasis on privacy.  While I understand that you are just “curious” and that you may think it to be a sort of complement, it is still intrusive and rude. Imagine someone coming up to you and asking “what different diseases run in your family?”


2 Responses to “Inquiring about someone’s race is offensive”

  1. Keith Upah on April 19th, 2018 1:54 pm

    I agree – I think these kinds of questions are irrelevant and intrusive. I have to admit that as a white male I rarely get asked about my race or ethnicity, but I firmly believe this is a very personal matter…

  2. Emma Andreas on October 26th, 2018 6:21 pm

    Love your unique perspective on this topic, Lauren! However, as a mixed person myself I love it when people ask me about my heritage. I am proud of who I am and my culture (not saying that you aren’t) and when people ask me about my race I can’t wait to tell them more about me and my family’s history. Although I can understand how your personal experiences may have factored into your opinion. People asking about your appearances and only caring about your skin color instead of being interested in the culture that you family holds can be annoying.

    When people ask me about my race is typically isn’t in the more general question, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” It’s typically people asking me if I am a specific race. Such as, “Are you Hispanic?” or “Are you Filipino?” Normally, the people asking these questions are, in this example, Hispanic or Filipino themselves. I feel as if people just want to make a connection with me that relates us on some level.

    One occurrence of this happening that I remember very vividly was when a custodian had asked me if I was Chinese in the hallway after school. I had talked to her on numerous occasions before this and was bewildered that she had guessed my ethnicity correctly. (As background information she may be the only person that has guessed I am Chinese before.) After inquiring about how she could tell, we were able to have a deep conversation about each other’s lives and family history. I learned that she is from China and now is able to live in America. She was able to learn that my family is ethnically Chinese, but technically my grandfather is from Cambodia.

    So, to anybody wanting to ask me about my race and culture: don’t hesitate. I would just like to reiterate Lauren’s point and say that if you are going to ask about somebody’s personal life, do so respectfully.

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Inquiring about someone’s race is offensive