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Tales of a coffee-holic

Seeing the difference


"What are you?" is probably never a question that most white people will ever be asked without some confusion.

Those of even a slightly darker complexion, sadly, know exactly what it means.

I have quite a few friends who had told me they deal with this question on a regular basis, but had never actually witnessed it until last weekend.

I was eating with Daniel, the guy I'm dating, at a restaurant in a nearby panhandle town. At one point, out of nowhere a man who was sitting nearby asked him if he was Black Irish. Black Irish generally means a person of Spanish and Irish descent with dark hair and a dark complexion. Daniel said no, he was not. Then the man continued to say that Daniel had the right "coloring" and type of hair to be Black Irish. Luckily I was facing the opposite direction so the man couldn't see my face. Although Daniel is unfortunately used to being asked this on a fairly regular basis, I wasn't. I was outwardly cringing and inwardly begging the man to stop talking.

Daniel replied that he was not Black Irish and did not offer any more information. The man then asked a question he obviously found to be completely appropriate. "What are you?" Daniel then explained his entire background. The worst part was that the man was older, couldn't hear Daniel and made him repeat it. Then after Daniel got to the African-American part the man loudly replied, "What? Afro-American?"

Daniel replied yes and this was the end of the exchange. It made me outrageously uncomfortable. People of mixed race wear their heritage for everyone to see. They obviously have no control over this. For some reason, many people think it's ok to ask them about it, out of nowhere. These people don't seem to understand that when they do this, they are telling the other person that upon first glance, the most important thing about them is their race. There are many things about ourselves that we can't change. Our physical appearance is one of those. People of color have no control over the fact that they look differently than you, but you have complete control over how you react to it.

Sure, especially when you live in a less-than-diverse area, you might find someone who looks different than you intriguing. However, having darker skin should not signify an opening to berate a person about their background with no regard as to how it might make that person feel.

Although seeing someone who looks different than you, of indefinite race might interest you, you might consider how you would feel if a random person you'd never met came up and asked, "What are you?" Do you think the most important answer, the one that really defines who you are and what you're all about is your race?

"What are you?" is a loaded question. Sometimes this question might really mean: Do you maybe believe in a different god than me? Might you be in this country illegally? Were your ancestors slaves?

I know the man who asked Daniel this probably didn't think he was being racist, but there is no way he or I could ever really understand how uncomfortable this makes Daniel feel.

A good childhood friend of mine, Annelise Morris, a PhD candidate at University of California at Berkeley has dealt with this question innumerable times over the course of her life.

"The crux of the issue lies in the fact that the White person (and I use the capital letters purposefully) lives in a world in which Whiteness is unmarked," Morris said. "It is so normalized, that they assume that to be white is to have no identity - when the reality is that Whiteness is so much the dominant identity that shapes their lives and their worldview, that it's too big to see."

These people, who don't understand that the culture of white dominance is still inherent in our society might have a hard time grasping the fact that it means something different to be anything other than white.

" the end of the day, they see us as curiosities, in a way that's quite dehumanizing," Morris said.

Daniel said almost exactly the same thing about the experience. Sometimes people treat you like an exhibit in a zoo, he added.

People will ask Morris if they can touch her hair, along with other odd personal questions that would normally be considered rude. Because brown-skinned people look differently, those who aren't used to seeing them might think there are a whole plethora of other things about their lives that are different.

"We're not White, so what else are we not?" Morris asked. "Do we not eat the same things? Do we not feel the same way? How else don't we fit? So they ask us these things because, deep down, they don't actually see us as other people, or at least people in the same way they see White people."

So the next time you have a rampant curiosity to know what someone's racial background is, maybe take a step back and remember that although this person is different than you, they have emotions and feelings much the same as yours. They also might have an ethnic history they don't feel comfortable sharing with someone they don't know.

When you see someone who's appearance is interesting to you consider, does knowing this person's race really have any affect on my life? Is it really polite for me to be asking this? If your racial curiosity is so great that you can't stand being in the same room with someone without knowing exactly what box they would check on a census form, maybe you should take a good look at yourself and what makes you think it's alright to ask "What are you?" Are you ok with treating someone like an interesting specimen in a science project rather than a person?


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