“What are you?”

This was original published in April 2011. I’ve since relocated to another country where I’m still ambiguously ethnic, but my accent gives me away. In Sydney, where I live now, I’m almost exclusively identified as “American,” which deserves it’s own blog post to unpack.

Depends on my mood…

It’s the question every brown-skinned American dreads to be asked because, well, the answer is so obvious to us.

Our coffee skin with varying degrees of added cream leaves most folks unable to label us.

Our un-identifiable hair texture leads to mislabeling and relabeling. It is not until we open our mouth do most of us give away our ethnic identity, but even then, a good speech coach can erase audible signifiers.

The inability to label us means you’re unsure if you could be the victim of a petty theft or act of terrorism by that brown-skinned youth with white earbuds and a look of defiance sitting on the back of the bus.

That uncertainty means you’ll speak in general terms when you discuss current events, fearful of offending someone if you bring up the earthquake/tsunami, lest they suspect you think they’re Japanese, when they’re actually Philippino.

How can you tell where someone is from even if you identify the part of the world they are from? Could you tell someone from Egypt apart from someone from Libya? Or tell someone from Holland apart from someone from Belgium?

It’s impossible to tell anyone apart these days, and segregationists of the past warned us it would happen; we are all starting to look alike. So don’t feel guilty because you can’t tell where someone is from. We know it’s hard. We have the same problem amongst each other.

It is the question within the title of this post that I take issue with. The first line of the post explains why; the answer to that question is painfully obvious. If you want to know where I am from, where my parents are from, my ethnic heritage, or anything else about my ancestry that lead me to come out looking as I do, then ask that, but do so with caution and poise. Put some thought into your question first.

When you blurt that question as a side note, or as a prompt for a potentially offensive anecdote, you appear as if you don’t care about the unique and precise combination of historical events that lead to our existence. Our cultural combination cannot complete a composite of our character in your consciousness, or at least it shouldn’t. Judge us how we judge you, by the way you act and treat others.

Why are you curious about our ancestry, to fill in a stereotype? Or are you just curious? Your curiosity makes us suspicious. We’ve all been labeled before, and we tend to label ourselves. But we wonder if those labels are what everyone else also sees.

Lots of people get it wrong; I’ve been asked if I was Egyptian, Puerto Rican, African, Native American, and many other nationalities.

But to the question, “What are you?” I only offer one response, one word: human.

Originally published at spiegro.blogspot.com.

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