Last 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.