(Or ethnicity, skin color, physical features; whatever makes many merely glance at a person of color and question her or his identity; whatever makes many merely glance at a person of color and believe she or he is not from here)
I am a proud Dominican-American. I identify as an Afro-Latina with a mix of African, Taíno, Spaniard blood, but I recognize that my blood may be more mixed than that. My skin, hair, and eyes are dark brown. I am a dark brown woman living in a nation that is growing more and more racially and ethnically diverse, especially with the birth of more dark brown children here on American land.
Yet, in a land in which people of color should be considered part of the norm, my ethnic identity, my “origin” is often the first thing asked about. Not my name, not “how are you?”, but my “fromness.” I often get asked what I am, where I am from (translation: but what are you really? in what country were you born in? in what country did you grow up in?), as if though it is impossible to be American, to have been born or raised in or live here. Because my birthplace, my hometown, my insistence that I am from here, the good ol’ US of A, is not enough.
Don’t get me wrong here. I have no shame in claiming my Latina identity. As I have mentioned before, I am proud. And I also understand that as racially and ethnically diverse the States may be (and becoming), there are certain areas in which people of one racial/ethnic group outnumber another (e.g. more whites than non-whites). And I am not stating that race or ethnic identity should never be talked about or that people cannot be interested in learning about a race or ethnicity that is not their own. But what irks me is that there are many people who automatically believe that if you have dark skin or whatever (physically) marks you as a person of color, then you sure as hell cannot be American. And oftentimes (though not all the time), this exchange occurs between whites and non-whites, people with light skin and people with dark skin.
My current job requires me to frequently interact with whatever people walk in through the doors. They come in, I assist them. There are times when instead of asking for my help or my name or how I am doing, the first thing that is questioned is my ethnic identity. Like this lovely exchange between a man with white skin and me:
Me: Hello! How are you?
Man: What are you? Are you Indian?
Me: -taken aback by question- No…
Me: Um, not exactly.
Man: …oh. So what are you?
Me: I’m Latina. Dominican, to be exact.
Man: Oh! …well, your English is perfect.
Me: -still confused by unexpected questioning- Oh, well, I was born and raised here!
By the time the man leaves, smiling to have finally discovered what I am and where I am from, I am flustered, frowning, and still reeling back from the unwanted game of Twenty Questions. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that my physical appearance (i.e. my skin color) prompted this man to ask about my ethnic identity. I sure as hell know that he did not ask because of the way I spoke or dressed. I have no “foreign” accent (I have been told that I sound like a perky white girl on the phone, an observation I find annoying), and there was nothing “foreign” about my blouse and leggings (American college women can attest to that).
And there have been (and will continue to be) more surprising, intrusive questions like these.
I know I am not the only woman of color who feels this way. According to Columbia professor Derald Sue, racially-insensitive moments like these are what she classifies as “microagressions.” As stated in a recent BuzzFeed article, microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” That same article highlights a photo project in which students were asked to pose with a poster board naming a microaggression they’ve encountered (you can check it out here).
A post on Jezebel.com also highlights the frustrations of the inappropriate questioning of one’s “origin” (e.g. race/ethnic background). Scroll through the comments and a chorus of people agree that to be asked “where are you really from?” is utterly annoying and offensive (check out that post here).
Is there a right way to ask about a person’s ethnicity? I agree with the writer of the Jezebel post that perhaps the best thing to do is not ask and allow the person to volunteer that information if she or he wishes to. However, I know that, one, not everyone is offended by the question (it doesn’t mean that asking the question is a-okay, just that everyone reacts differently), two, it could provide people an educational opportunity to talk about their ethnic/racial/cultural identity, and, three, people are curious and do not realize that they may have offended the person they are talking to (which is sad to think about, but that’s ignorance for you). So, if you are that curious, when it seems appropriate or relevant to ask, try starting off by introducing your own ethnic background. The person might be pleasantly surprised that you are willing to volunteer information about your other ethnic identity, especially if you are white (or are white passing) and rarely, if ever, get asked about your “origin” but are willing to talk about it anyway. I cannot guarantee you that this will not offend the person you are asking; she or he might still feel like you are othering her or him, and she or he has every right to feel so (chances are she or her has dealt with this before and may be weary to answer any race/ethnic-related questions).
Simply put, don’t believe that just because a person looks a certain way (i.e. not Eurocentric white), she or he must have been born from somewhere outside the USA. In fact, her or his family might have a more extensive ancestral history with America than her or his light-skinned, light-haired, light-eyed friend’s family. And even if she or he were born in another country but now resides in the States, do not think that means she or he does not belong here anymore than you.
And if you are going to ask me, at least have the decency to introduce yourself and ask for my name first.