Monday, May 12, 2008

8 Things Never to say to a Mixed-Race Colleague

I found this post (8 Things Never to say to a Mixed-Race Colleague) through Racialicious today. I just got done writing about hybridity and mimicry issues in the Antioch Controversy, as presented by Paul in his Letter to the Galatians, and a portion of that paper had to do with racial/ethnic identification. Interesting that this article would be published today, if I hadn't turned in my paper already I'd include it.

Anyway, here's my answer on these 8 things. And yes, while I understand that people are caring individuals who are trying to express their appreciation or affection by trying to know more about the person, we really need to start questioning why we feel the need to know. And just so you know, I get these questions asked at me ALL THE TIME.

1. "What are you?"

I have to say, this question beats the hell out of "Where are you from? No, really, before that, where are you really from? At least it's honest, they really want to know why I look the way I do. Actually, most of the time I get, "What tribe are you?" because I seem to look either Cherokee or, it seems, Eskimo (that was the last one, "Are you Eskimo?"). Go figure. But here's the thing: What am I? Well, as much as I'd love to be, I'm not Gallifreyan. I'm not a Cylon, either. That alone should give you ample fodder for a more productive conversation about what I am (i.e. a huge sci-fi fan. And, oh yeah, HUMAN.). You don't get to ask this question without coming across as a total idiot, as there's no way to ask it intelligently.Trust me, if you're really my friend, it'll come up in conversation.

2. "What's your nationality?" "You look foreign."
If I lived in any other country on the planet, I'd have somewhat more sympathy for askers of this question. Nationality seems to have a racial/ethnic component to it in most of the world; that is, if you ignore the reality of minority populations in most countries that have been oppressed or dismissed (ainu or Roma, for example). In the U.S. -- we have no racial/ethnic component. Everyone gets to be a estadounidense. And unless you're First Nations, you're a foreigner, too.

3. "You're all beautiful." "You make beautiful babies."
Thanks for the objectification. So I guess beauty really is skin deep? That must mean that your monoracial kids are butt-ugly.

4. "Are you X or Y?" "Which side are you more on?"
The interesting thing about this question is, it's in the mind of the questioner more than it is mine. It also plays into the idea that we all wear just one identity. I identify with both my sides, more so one than the other at certain times and in certain environments, but it's not like my Asian side goes away when I'm at the calf fry singing along with Hank Junior. And it's not like we round up, either, i.e. I identify 55% with my Asian side, so that makes me really Asian. Nope. And there are no benchmarks: I don't speak, read or write Japanese, I don't often cook Japanese food and I'm not a Buddhist, and even if I were, there are plenty of non-Asian people who do any or all of these things.

5. "How in the world did your parents meet?"
This is a silly question in this day and age. We're so global, people move around so much, people from all over the place meet other people from all over the place. I actually don't get this question as much as I get the "Did your parents meet during the war?" And then I wonder which war they're thinking about, because I'm not THAT old.

6. "You're the future." "You're the best of both worlds."
Heh. If I'm the future, then does that mean you're history? Trust me, just because you're mixed race does not mean you're the answer to the world's problems with racism. We don't shag our racism away. And if in the future we were all mixed-race, then we'd just find another reason to be an ass about. And that "best of both worlds" thing is crap, too. Trust me, I get the worst, too, just like anyone. And again, thanks for the objectification.

7. "You don't look ..." "You're not ..." "You sound white."
I get to decide what I am, thank you. That's the right of any human being, we get to determine our own identities, even if they fall outside of the little check-here boxes. And I used to get the "You sound white" thing all the time, at least in the form of "You don't look like I expected when I talked to you on the phone." I found pretty quickly that the best way to get a comment from someone over the found was to match your accent to theirs so you'd sound like one of the bunch. I'm from here, I can have a local accent. But I really watch too much TV to sound local all the time. And what does "sounding white" mean, anyway?

8. "Aren't we all mixed, anyway?"
Technically, yes. There's no such thing as a genetically pure person. Race is a social construct. But if we really did accept that we're all mixed, then you wouldn't be pestering me with these questions, would you? The fact that I claim my biracial mix wouldn't be an issue. We'd all accept that we're each different.


Erudite Redneck said...


"it's not like my Asian side goes away when I'm at the calf fry singing along with Hank Junior."

Mention a tribe there and this a wonderful "nut graf" of the historical Oklahoma experience. :-)

drlobojo said...

Hapa, this is not confrontational, really:

I got my ass chewed once in Santa Fe by a Cree woman from Canada for asking what her tribe was. Such was a normal question in my world. I was raised with Comanche and Kiowa, so I recognized them pretty much on the spot. But in a State with 34 tribes most of which have political and historical problems with each other, I always insisted we started committee meetings that contained multiple tribal members with tribe(s) and clan (clans cross tribal boundaries)so we would all know who we were talking to.

Now, what's a person suposed to do if they are interested in knowing your background. What are acceptable questions that would not offend?

I look like a fat old white man, and indeed I am mostly, but when I open my mouth in Maine or Canada or Boston I get asked dozens of times, "Where are you from?" or "What kind of accent is that? or a more sinister,"Your not from around here are you?" Not the same I grant you as race, but comes from the same territorial imperative.

People are just that way, we always want to know what and why something is "different", it is part of our lizard brain function.

OK, have at me.