The “what’s your ethnicity?” question has been one that tends to spark mild and unnecessary outrage.
I fall into what some would call the “ethnically ambiguous” category, so I like to have fun with it. Whenever somebody asks me about my ethnicity, I tell them to guess.
Usually, I get some combination of Native American, Hispanic, or Indian. I’m never offended by these assumptions. When you have a conversation about age or ethnicity, you’re quite literally asking someone to judge you based on your appearance. Unless you have a distinguished identifier like an accent, the “Guess My Ethnicity” game can be a fun party trick.
However, the downside of the “guess my ethnicity” game is when I tell people my ethnicity and they’re not happy about it, as if they’re offended because I’m not what they want me to be, or that I’m lying to them. What is it to you that something as shallow as my appearance can falsely imply who my ancestors really are? But more importantly, why are you so offended by it?
A few years ago, I indulged in this game with Dennis, the electrician who never left the burger spot a few doors down from my old job.
Dennis was in his fifties and he looked like a real life version of Hank Hill from King of the Hill. He was tall with a very square body. This man was unrefined in every possible way. He had a very pronounced dent in his head that we all knew not ask about and he would shamelessly brag about how wealthy he was and how many guns he had (as if those two went hand in hand).
Anytime Dennis came to visit, he would linger and make endless small talk. His favorite thing to talk about was his never ending disdain for his ex-wife. As far as he was concerned, this women caused 9/11; she was Al-Qaeda, the Dark Web and ISIS all wrapped up into one wicked women. The kind of hate that walked the fine line of comedy with a sharp undertone of deep rooted anger. He never shared specific stories of why he hated her so much, but he wanted it to be known that he was a 50-something-year-old divorcee with heart problems who absolutely hated his wife, but loved his kid, which is the one reason why he’d never harm his ex.
Anytime the conversation dipped, Dennis would pick it up with a comment like “So, I started going to the gym again…I fucking hate it”. “Cool, Dennis” we’d all reply, all asking ourselves why he thought we would care.
We weren’t impressed by him, and he didn’t realize that his big talk made him distinctly uninteresting. He was harmless, even if he fancied himself a thuggish tough-guy.
I was working in a candy store and it was near closing time. Dennis came in for his usual; a white chocolate Oreo and a milk chocolate covered pretzel with Reeces Pieces or something from the candy bins. For a man who was very candid about his chronic heart failure, he ate like he was invincible. I was behind the counter when Dennis struck up a conversation with me. At this point, I knew how to politely dodge his weird comments about his ex-wife and converse without oversharing.
“What’s your ethnicity?” Dennis asked, he didn’t mean anything rude about it, he was just curious.
“Uh..What do you think I am?” I replied back, a common response I fire back when asked this question.
“Uhhh…Spanish? You look brown enough” Dennis said. Sadly, comments like this were very common from him, so I wasn’t too taken aback.
“Nope…try again” I said, trying to look busy so he’d understand that I wasn’t trying to prolong this conversation.
“Hmm..well you gotta be something brown.” Dennis said, shrouded in his usual jumpsuit of ignorance.
“Really?” I said, unenthused.
“Oh I know…” he said, and the look on his face was like a child on Christmas morning, because in that moment, he thought he figured me out. “Are you this kind of Indian?” He thought he was a comic genius,fired back obnoxiously mocking Native American culture like a scene out of Peter Pan by doing a cartoonish war cry. “ Or this kind?” Immediately followed by pointing to the center of his dented head, implying a red dot.
I was shocked. I don’t identify with those nationalities, but I was offended for them.
It was like he took the most stereotypical depictions of these cultures and blurted them out. It was then where I hoped the unsightly dented forehead was the reason he lacked intelligence.
“WHAT? That was super racist.” I retorted, still in shock. “And you’re wrong. I’m not Indian or Native American.”
“Eh, whatever” Dennis said, this was commonplace for him. He would make provocative statements like that often, as if the terrible thing he said didn’t matter. “What the hell are you then? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Well…I’m half Greek and half Italian” I said.
“No you’re not.” Dennis fired back.
For a moment, I stood there silent. Of all the times I played this game, I was never told I was ‘lying’. I was anticipating an ‘oh that makes sense…’ kind of response.
“Yeah, I am.” I replied. “What makes you think that I’m not?”
“Uh.. I don’t know, you’re like too brown to be Greek or Italian. It doesn’t really add up”, Dennis said, trying to justify his comment. It was summer, I was more tan than usual, but that wasn’t an excuse.
“What does it mean it ‘doesn’t add up? I don’t even know what to do with that kind of ignorance It’s one thing to think that, but you don’t have to tell me nor do I CARE or WANT your opinion, you barbarian child.” That’s what I wanted to say.
“Huh…Just cause I’m ‘super brown looking’ doesn’t mean I can’t be Greek and Italian. Just because you think I don’t look like what I am doesn’t mean you can change it for me” I responded with venomous undertones. “That’s just not how that shit works…in case you didn’t know.”
“Eh…” he replied. I knew he was dissatisfied by my rebuttal but I didn’t care.
He wandered around for another moment. I could tell he was waiting on me to continue the conversation or switch the subject. But I wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction, and then he left.
While this may be just one, bizarre conversation, I can’t help but think about other people, especially people of color who have experienced similar interactions or worse.
It’s sad that people can’t understand beyond what they can (or can’t) see. Look deeper than just the color of someone’s skin; you’ll find a real person. That’s how human connections are made.
I live in New York, representing the East coast portion of Words Between Coasts.