How Are We Still Playing "Guess My Race"?

While it's one thing to have your own family jokingly question your parentage, it's quite another when the questions come at you from strangers.
Publish date:
March 19, 2012
etiquette, racism, race, strangers, ethnicity

"What are you?"

It seems like an innocent enough question, right? For most people, it would merit at best, a chipper "A cocktail waitress!" or "

Emotionally unbalanced

!" But, as much as I wish strangers were asking me about my job, affiliations, or precarious mental state, I know the score: They're asking about my ethnicity, and not even because they suspect they might be my biological parents.

Since the day I was born, I've had speculation about my heritage. My parents, who were both tall, tan blondes, often joked that the small, redheaded baby they had given birth to might have been the fault of a hospital's negligence.

In fact, directly before my father underwent surgery for colon cancer, he grabbed my hand and said, "If anything happens, I want you to know I'm not you're real father." When confronted about it post-surgery, he said, "Don't be such a f**king drag. That's just how we joke."

While it's one thing to have your own family jokingly question your parentage, it's quite another when the questions come at you from strangers. For me, it happens all the time.

For all practical purposes, I'm a white woman. My grandmother is a German immigrant, her husband's parents were also European immigrants, and my great-grandparents on my father's side are actually, documented members of the Choctaw and Cherokee tribes. A good deal of my genetic makeup has been lost to history. But on any given day, I'll readily admit that I'm a born-and-raised American -- I think of my looks as more Campbell's Soup kids than anything anybody is still deem "exotic" these days, although thankfully use of that particular term is ebbing a little.

But like a lot of people, I never realized that just having AN appearance was an open call for people to guess my ethnicity, or to give me their (usually kind of racist) reason for making their case for my background known.

The first time this happened, I was about 12. While I'd had creeps and other oddballs comment on my looks during my pre-pubescent faze, it wasn't until my hair sprung ringlets in my tween days that I began fielding questions about my ethnic makeup.

My friends and I used to hang out on St. Mark's Place in New York's East Village. While it's little more than a Supercuts and a bunch of karaoke bars these days, it used to be a fun place to do everything from buy drugs to get full-body piercings. It was here that one day, as I walked down the street toward my favorite no-ID required bar, I heard a woman yelling for me.

"Red!" she screamed. "Yo, Red, get back here."

I turned around to see a woman braiding hair on the sidewalk, beckoning to me. As I approached, she said, "What are you doing with that booty girl? Is your daddy black?"

Puzzled, I shook my head. "I think you got some black in you," she continued. "That booty is round, your nose is a little wide, and your hair is kinky."

"Well, OK!" I responded, and proceeded to walk down the street.

"Come back and see me if you want something done about that hair!" she yelled.

As I grew older, strangers began asking with increasing regularity. At a dinner party my mother was hosting, a guest asked my mother's friend, "Is that redheaded one theirs? She's so unusual looking." When I went to a new tailor to have some dresses altered, he told me, "I know you're Puerto Rican, with those curves."

St. Patrick's day has come to be my least favorite day of the year. While I am a die-hard fan of both alcoholism and poor decisions, the question of my ethnic heritage inevitably comes up. And by "comes up," I mean is shouted at me by someone in a Packers jersey as tiny drops of green beer fly from his pungent mouth into my open eyes. (Also, I don't know if this is a tradition, or just a convenient way of staying up while shitfaced drunk, but every St. Patrick's day, at least one asshole has to make some joke about my flame-haired funpocket.)

It's especialy strange that this is still happening in New York, where it isn't like nobody has seen an person of a different ethnicity before. I was raised here, but I still get, "Where are you from? I can't place that accent," or "But what language did you speak at home?"

Any "accent" I have is only attributable to my very American parents (Arkansas good ol' boy and combination WASPy-New-England/that thing Madonna's doing), but few people seem to pick up on what I think are glaring New Yorkisms.

Even the people who get my ethnic makeup right are unsettling. This is rare, because my looks do not correspond with the stereotypical looks of the groups who make up my ethnic background. But, because I don't hold any race in esteem above others, people who guess right are as bad as the ones who are way off. Usually because they almost always have a lot of thoughts on it.

Take the cab driver I had a few months ago who noted, "I know what you are," as I took a seat in the back. "You're German, right? Very good people, the Germans." Which is kind of alarming, as a statement, but not one I was ready to get into with him. So I nodded. "You're pretty," he went on. "And you know why?"

I shook my head.

"Because your people are good. They're like my people, the Bangladeshi. They don't mix with others, so your skin is snow white."

At that point, I told him to stop, paid my fare and motored, rather than further any conversation about the benefits of racial purity.

My real concern is the intimacy of the question, which may be lost on some of the askers. It's culturally rude to ask someone's age, and I doubt most strangers would call out to a stranger about her blood type or religion on the street. But when it comes to issues of race and looks, it seems like people are an open book.

There are even multiple online communities dedicated solely to posting photos of babies of various ethnic makeups, and others that expain the provenance of mixed-race celebrities and even ones who date outside their races.

Sure, it can be fascinating. Our ancestors came here from all over the world, and there are whole (albeit boring) shows dedicated to celebrities delighting in the discovery that their great-great grandfather was a Pakistani pirate abolitionist. But for the rest of us, it shouldn't be something we're obligated to address.

How has this, of all things, become acceptable? Can't we assume that this is something that, while not a cause for shame, is assumed to be private? You know, like how asking a woman how much she weighs is a felony in most states.