How To Politely Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity

265720Last week I conducted a phone interview that left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. I was calling this man for research help for a book I’m working on, and within the first ten seconds of the call, he interrupts me to ask me where my name is from. I barely even had time to thank him for speaking to me before he started explaining how he had never heard of “Saxena” before and how it sounds so “exotic,” that he just simply had to know its origins.

Ask anyone with a “weird” (aka non-white) name or look, and they will have a million stories like this, either endlessly being asked where they are from (and getting the “no, where are you really from?” when “New Jersey” isn’t an acceptable answer), questions about “exotic” names, or people just assuming they know where you’re from based on your brown-ish skin color. More than once I’ve had people start speaking a different language to me–Spanish, Hebrew, Greek–and was then made to apologize to them when I revealed that, sorry, I’m not Israeli.

A lot of biracial, non-white, and otherwise “ethnically ambiguous” people are, rightly, fed up with dealing with this and refuse to answer those sorts of questions. Quite a few times I’ve refused too, but after telling another non-white friend about this latest incident, she asked me the honest question, “is there any context in which a question like this is okay?” I think there is! I understand that, despite my name being incredibly common in India, most Americans have likely not heard it, just like I’ve likely not heard most names from other places around the world. It’s natural to be curious about people’s backgrounds, and I think there are ways to talk about it without coming off as an intrusive asshole. It just requires some finesse.

By the way, most of this is written with the assumption that it’s a white person asking a non-white person about their ethnicity. Not that other variants of this don’t happen, but ask around–white people tend to be the ones messing up here. This is what it looks like most of the time.

1. Ask yourself why you need to know. One of the most frustrating things about being asked questions like this all the time is having the experience of being asked, answering, and then watching the person walk away once they’ve gotten their information. Seriously, multiple times I’ve had strangers walk up to me, demand “What are you?,” and leave once I’ve panicked and responded something about my Indian heritage. Do you care because this person seems like a new friend and you want to get to know them better? Are you trying to hit on someone and think this is a good way to break the ice (it’s not)? Did you just see a person who doesn’t look white and want to know why? Would knowing someone’s racial background change how you think of them, and how you interact with them? Dig deep.

2. Understand that you have no right to know. You have every right in the world to ask someone about their name, ethnicity, and country of origin, and they have every right not to answer you, and to call you an asshole. “What’s the matter?” you may be asking, “I’d have no problem talking about my great-great-grandfather who moved here from Scotland if someone asked me.” That’s because having a great-great-grandfather from Scotland is the standard in this country, and I’m speaking as someone who also has great-x-5 ancestors from Scotland. Questions about a white person’s ethnicity rarely result in questions of their belonging, of their right to be where they are. No one asks where you’re “really” from, because the assumption is that it’s here. Most non-white people have at least one story about being asked where they’re “really” from, and then being angrily told to return.

3. Do not open a conversation with this question. If there are no other rules you remember, remember this one. No one likes feeling accosted for personal information, no matter what it is. Walking up to a stranger and demanding to know their racial makeup is incredibly invasive, so if you need to ask, have a decent conversation going first.

4. Think about your relationship to the person you’re asking. I really enjoy talking to all my friends about our various backgrounds. Ancestry and genealogy interest me, so these types of conversations come up all the time in really great ways. However, since they’re my friends, there’s an understanding that they’re interested in and care about me as more than a racial curiosity. I don’t have that trust with a stranger at a bar, or even someone I’ve met once or twice.

5. If you need to ask, make it about your own ignorance. And maybe about names instead of skin color. There’s a big tonal difference between a “What the hell name is that?” and “Wow, I’ve never heard that name before, where is it from?” The former makes the person being asked the weird one for having such a “strange” name, and the latter makes it clear the asker knows they’re ignorant. Most productive, polite conversations I’ve had about my race with someone who didn’t know started with a question like that, in which I could respond that it’s an Indian name, and then we get into a conversation about my heritage. Nothing like that has ever come out of being asked “Wow, why do you look so ethnic?”

6. Be willing to answer every question you ask. Like I said before, these questions have different connotations and consequences when your answer is “we moved from England to Pennsylvania in the 1700s,” but unless you’re willing to dive into your family’s history, don’t ask anyone else about theirs.

7. Read the conversation. Obviously this etiquette advice is apt in any conversation, but especially in ones with “tricky” subjects like this. Is the person excitedly responding to you, or are they trying to change the subject? Do they seem uncomfortable and slow to answer your questions? Make yourself pay attention to things like this, and apologize if you get the sense that you’re coming off as intrusive.

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14 thoughts on “How To Politely Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity

  1. In so many ways, YES! My name is ethnically ambiguous, my physical appearance an entire continent’s worth of options, but my manner of dress and carriage is very American, so the struggle is very real as strangers feel they have a right to pigeonhole me without even asking my name first. Imho, there is never an appropriate time/way to ask, because I don’t think of myself as anything but a person when it comes to “what” I am. Also, as a professional writer, the best is having my English complimented or being asked if I speak English. 😛 Also, along the lines of “not a pickup line,” you left out, “Oh, I have a thing for X women.” Ineffectual lol.

  2. I can’t tell you how many ignorant people there are in this world that have no idea that they are being rude by asking. And not only asking, but asking bluntly. This has happened to me my whole life to point where I am fed up. What I would like to know is how to refuse to answer the question politely.

    • I usually just enthusiastically answer that I am an American. If they push, I don’t answer and ask them what their heritage is. If they answer in a friendly way that indicates they are interested in a conversation, I might choose to share my info with them. If they bluster, I just move along.

  3. I’m a Hispanic woman. People ask me where I’m from all the time. I, sometimes get mistaken for Indian or Middle Eastener. Sometimes it bothers me and sometimes it doesn’t. People are people so the question itself doesn’t offend me. What bothers me is that after I tell them where I’m from, they treat me as if I were some low class ignoramus. What bothers me is that people don’t see me or take the time to get to know me because they make assumptions about me.

  4. I am pretty obviously black or African American so I have no idea what it feels like to experience this situation. I looked this article up because I am learning to speak Korean. I have found it difficult to know whether they are Chinese or hmong or Vietnamese so I find myself leading with this question often, so I am guilty of that. I find people seem to relax, though, once I tell them I am learning a language even if it doesn’t happen to be the one they speak. I have made it a point to know a few words, like hi and thank you, in the other languages I run into to prove I am only interested in practicing what I know not just knowing your business. Or maybe I ask about the language and not necessarily the race or ethnicity, though they sort of go hand in hand.

  5. Coming in really late on this one. I googled this very question because I was looking for a polite way to ask. Yes – I am white and recognize that many have different reasons for asking. In my case – I have traveled the world for both work and personal reasons. I see it as a conversation starter to talk about common places that we know about and perhaps new places I would love to visit (if they have family in those regions of the world, the cuisine, culture, etc.). I have traveled to Europe many times and asked if I am American or Canadian and have never been offended by that. So while most folks come across rude by asking about ethnic backgrounds – how do you propose someone like me – who is genuinely interested in learning more about someone – ask? (or perhaps the answer is that I still don’t and suck it up – lol). Is the context of this article for those asking other fellow Americans these questions about ethnicity or just in general? I can see how it can be different in either scenario. Thanks!

  6. Very well said! I get a lot of this as people think I don’t look like where I come from. I think it’s fine to ask someone a question, but if you see your question made them uncomfortable, then apologize and never raise this topic again!

  7. My husband often asks people where they are from. He generally waits until they start talking and detects an accent. As he is well travelled he then talks about their country of origin. I would never do this but find he develops a great bond with most people he talks to and they don’t seem to mind. I know when I travel I’m pleased to answer questions about my funny accent (Australian). What I have learnt is that what is OK for me is not OK for some others.

  8. I’m half Syrian but born and raised in America 2nd generation and I’ve never been bothered by this. Im from tx and I’ve been through some racist shit but I don’t see the issue most people are just interested in other cultures. I’ve actually been treated hostilly at first when I’ve asked about someone’s ethnicity til they find out I’m Arab. And also that I have a master’s in anthropology

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