Whether it’s online dating or meeting new employees at my job, a part of me is constantly bracing for the possibility of that dreaded question: “What’s your background?” Rarely are they referring to my educational background or the desktop background on my computer. They’re almost always asking for my ethnic background.
When I first started at my current day job, a coworker whom I had seen around the office, but never spoken to, ended up smoking outside our annual Christmas party with me and some other folk.
“Oh, you’re new here, aren’t you?” he said to me, and I confirmed that I was. “What’s your background?” was the next thing he said, and suddenly I felt diminished. Here was a total stranger who didn’t know my name, or my position with the company, or why I was at said company—he knew literally nothing about me except that we had the same employer, and still his first question to me was, “What is your race?”
In a time rife with Islamaphobia, racism and ignorance, demanding to know my ethnicity is warning of an attack. When you meet me for the very first time and your initial curiosity makes you ask me what race I am, you are setting me up to fail, whether you know it or not.
When you demand knowledge of my racial background and claim it’s to make conversation or to get to know me better, all you’re doing is making me reveal a part of you that should be revealed only when I deem necessary. You have predetermined ideas about the various races, and some of them are negative — this is a non-negotiable fact: Racism is extremely complex and nuanced — and there’s a good chance that in this day and age, your preconceived ideas about my racial heritage are negative.
Despite how far we’ve come, there are still gross misconceptions about all races. We are definitely on the way to break down these offensive stereotypes, but people of color still go through their daily lives experiencing racial microaggressions that sometimes only we notice. Saying things like, “You’re really pretty for a [insert ethnicity here],” or, “So, do your parents [insert stereotypical ethnic tradition here],” is a microaggression. It’s your ingrained racism showing.
For me, it’s people being surprised that I speak both English and my mother tongue of Urdu flawlessly. On top of that, I’m also fluent in Spanish and can get by in a handful of other languages that are cousins of my linguistic triad. I can just barely understand being curious about someone who is multilingual in a broad array of languages and wondering what their background could be. However, curiosity isn’t a valid reason to put me on the spot and demand that I reveal my race to you. There are a number of reasons why, but I’ll focus on two.
The first is the fact that despite being curious about my linguistic skills (not to mention the large array of other skills I possess), you are honing in on the color of my skin. Whether intentionally or not, you somehow want to see how my ethnicity marries with my skill set; this is probably because you have a very specific idea of what brown people—brown women especially—are like, and I don’t fit that idea. You either want me as some sort of token brown version of not-like-other-girls, or you want to verify to yourself that it was my moving away from my birth country that made me as awesome as I am today.
The problem with these lines of thinking is that you think that my ethnicity and my skills are related. They’re not. I’m not good with languages or a fierce feminist because I’m brown. I happen to be those things while also being brown. I am the way I am because of my family, my experiences, my friends. My race has very little impact on my person. But when I’m asked what my ethnicity is, I’m being made complicit in helping to marry those two unrelated things. I’m helping you see that brown people aren’t just wildly misogynistic, militantly religious and really good at math and science, but the bigger problem is that you have that idea at all.
Which brings me to the second reason why it’s problematic for you to demand my ethnicity: It’s highly inappropriate. When you say, “What’s your background?” you’re actually saying, “What sort of ‘other’ are you?” I am not an other. Non-white people are not the other, especially in North America. White is not the norm and, nowadays, it’s not even the majority. This line of questioning is further problematic because there’s a very, very, very high chance that you do not ask a white person their ethnicity. For some reason, if a person is white, they’re worth getting to know as an individual; however, if it’s a person of color, they aren’t as interesting as their race. It’s sort of similar to how working men never get asked how they balance a career and a family; this is a question seemingly reserved for women even though there are plenty of men who also successfully and impressively balance a career and a family.
So, why am I only as interesting as my skin color? Why am I — an established writer, a worldly woman, a Dorothy Parker wannabe and an all-around, fucking awesome human being — being shaved down to just my race? Why are you more interested in my racial heritage than in me as an individual?
The next time you meet someone new, refrain from asking them about their race. That is information that is theirs to offer if they feel like it. You are not entitled to know anyone’s background and, in fact, ethnic background is not something you should be interested in arbitrarily anyway. Asking ethnicity isn’t going to help you get to know a person better, it’s likely just going to make them feel alienated.