What are you?

Sunday, September 30, 2018 - 5:24pm

Walking into one of the many bodegas on Mt. Pleasant Street in Washington, D.C., I’m instantly greeted in Spanish by the cashier. Without hesitation, I respond in Spanish, but I am not Latino. The first time I walked into what would become my regular barbershop on Georgia Avenue, the man yelled for someone to “take care of the light-skinned guy,” but I am not Black. In the elevator at University Towers last year on my way to work out, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and made me turn around and take out my earbuds only to ask, “Excuse me, are you Ethiopian? I’m Ethiopian.” Mostly, I find these events entertaining, happy that I can function as a racial and cultural chameleon.

On the other hand, meeting a white person for the first time, the following conversation is standard procedure:

Them: “Where are you from?

Me: “D.C.”

Them: “No, but where are you really from?”

Me (no hesitation): “D.C.”

Unlike the interactions in the previous paragraph, these leave me emotionally drained. Some are confused by this; why should an exchange in which a white person inquires about my race be more exasperating than one in which a person of color assumes it?

The key difference is intent, whether conscious or not. When another person of color identifies (or in my case, thinks they identify) someone of the same race, it’s an instant connection — finally seeing a familiar face in a sea of white ones; someone with whom you can actually relate and don’t have to tone down, or be apologetic about, your culture. This fosters inclusion. On the other hand, when a white person meets a person of color, and their first instinct is to seek out that person’s racial or ethnic identity, that is a form of direct exclusion. It means that they see that person as different than themselves and are seeking a tangible way to “other” them. More than that, it is seeking to categorize you and fit you in a neat box that doesn’t conflict with that person’s worldview. I tend to interrupt preconceived notions of race for many people because I’m mixed in a way that doesn’t neatly fit into any one box.

The point of writing this, if there is one, is to say one thing, specifically to white people: stop. If my racial background is something I care to tell you, or if it’s relevant, I will share it with you. Otherwise, don’t ask. It’s exhausting and a constant reminder that society is seeking to exclude me because of the color of my skin, and unnecessary for most conversations. Initially, I thought I’d conclude with my actual ethnic background, but upon reconsideration I figured to do so would be counterintuitive to the point of this piece. I am a racially ambiguous Brown American, and unless I decide otherwise, that’s all you need to know.