More ridiculous questions about race and ethnicity

Hearkening back to last week’s post about the dreaded “Where are you from originally?” question, thought I’d share an interesting — and somewhat horrifying — article I came across this morning. NPR’s new race, culture, and ethnicity blog, Code Switch, just did a feature about the ridiculous questions people have been asked about their race or ethnicity. The slideshow alone is well worth your time.

Apparently the “where are you from originally?” question is alive and well, but on the milder end of the spectrum of ignorant questions people get asked about their race. Asians get asked if they “see in wide-screen.” Black people get asked if they shampoo their hair. Black people also get asked if their blood is red (as opposed to, what color, exactly?). Non-Mexican Latinos get asked to bring tacos to potlucks. SIGH.

One person quoted in the article makes the point that, as mind-blowingly stupid as some of these questions are, he feels bad for criticizing any attempts at cultural dialogue, “even if clumsy.” He is a more charitable person than I, apparently! The article notes:

Eric Deggans, a friend of Code Switch, has a good point. It’s easy to punish well-intentioned folks who really just are curious about different cultures. But part of our aim was to create some dialogue about how we deal with questions that could quickly go awry.

Hm. I’m not sure about the best way to deal with some of these questions, other than to remain calm and politely set the person straight. Another commenter suggested that a person asked a bizarre question regarding race should ask the questioner, politely, why they’re asking, to try to get at what the questioner is actually curious about. In other words, the person could be asking a legitimate question in an ignorant way. Could be. Or people could just be stupid.

What’s the most ridiculous question you’ve ever been asked about your race or ethnicity? I’ve heard a lot of weird stuff, but one of the weirdest was when the daughter of my CCD (Catholic religious education) teacher asked me if I was Jewish (despite the fact that I was in her mother’s CCD class), and when I said no, she looked me up and down and sniffed, “Well, you look it.” Well, shoot, let me abandon my Catholic education since you’ve decided that I don’t look the part! Point me to the local synagogue, kind madam! Granted, she was a child, and so was I, but even then, I knew she was suffering from a severe case of the stupids.

Also, I looked like this:

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What’s that little Jewish girl doing, receiving her first Communion??

Okay, okay, I wasn’t wearing my Communion dress when she asked me if I was Jewish, but come on.

Similarly, when I was touring a Catholic girls’ school when I was in eighth grade (I was considering going there for high school), one of the students asked me if I was an Arab. So… there seems to be some confusion here. Anyone else have any good stories about crazy questions you’ve been asked about your race or ethnicity? Do share!

4 thoughts on “More ridiculous questions about race and ethnicity

  1. M.Early

    someone at work saw a picture of you in my office and said you look like Kim Kardashian. Let’s add Armenian to the line up

  2. anna

    I’ve been mistaken for being a member of ethnicities and cultures which I’m not part of (Norwegian, Russian, Irish, German…), and I have never found it offensive at all. In fact, I find it quite amusing and completely harmless. I do agree that sometimes people are just curious. And yet, you sounds a bit angry and offended….. Just wondering why that is. After all, Catholicism is not an ethnicity, you know. You could be a lot of things as a Catholic, and people could still be curious about your origin. Being Catholic, you could be Irish, German or Polish just as much as you could be an Arab. What makes you think there’s a confusion here? You do realize there are Catholic Arabs, right?. As for being mistaken for a Jewish girl…. well, given the circumstances it definitely sounds like ignorance (at best!) – but it doesn’t sound like she “decided” to send you to any synagogue or make you abandon your faith. So why the somewhat angry overreaction? Looking at your photo, you could be a Jewish girl, or a French girl, or a Bulgarian girl, or any number of other ethnicities. Unless…… well… Is there anything offending about being Jewish? Or being an Arab?

    1. Stephanie Post author

      Anna, I’m afraid the tone of my piece might have gotten lost in translation. The tone of this piece was meant to be lighthearted, not an “angry overreaction.” And if you think I’m implying that there’s something “offending” (sic) about being Jewish or an Arab, you’ve missed the point of the piece entirely.

  3. David Green

    Hi, Stephanie. In some parts of East Texas and Louisiana people have difficultly understanding my Scottish accent. Since my English is not understandable to them they assume that English is not my native language and they will a) say “nice to meet you” and wander off or b) talk slower and louder (the universal approach it seems for people who might be a bit slow to catch on).


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