If there was one question I’ve never been fonder of answering, it would be the one I receive on daily basis from complete strangers. The waiting for my coffee, trying to make conversation question. The “I bet I’ve got you all figured out” question. The question that precedes an immediate, “no wait, let me guess” followed by a series of answers as diverse as Native American to Armenian and everywhere in between.
I never fail to be amused by the “what are you?” question, as if there was a proper response to the inquiry of what
precisely I am, other than a human being, a living, breathing, flesh-filled person who, just like everyone else, is forced to be clumped into a specific category in order to make sense. And not that I mind the inquiry, really I don’t. I consider myself racially ambiguous enough to warrant the interest, however; once I finally answer, the reactions themselves are somewhat unsettling. “Really? I wouldn’t have thought that at all, you speak English so well,” or “That’s such a cool mix, you’re so exotic.”
So here’s the thing about these “so-called” compliments. Dismissed as innocuous, and perhaps subconscious, they are a pressing reminder of not only stereotypes of racial minorities, but also the fetishizing of race, two real problems that are often swept under the rug due to lack of outward aggression, but more of a passive, yet offensive nature of the statements. There’s an actual term for it too, its referred to as racial micro-aggression, or simply stated, a racist, backhanded compliment that further perpetuates malicious racial stereotypes.
And before you roll your eyes and dismiss this as another girl who is making it a “race thing,” lets dissect the root of the problem.
I’m not an immigrant, and even if I were, acknowledging the fact that I can properly speak English is far from a compliment- it’s a denigration to literally every non-native English speaker. But it doesn’t stop there, micro-aggressions as such are not limited to the scope of language, but practically any behavior or trait which seems to defy the normative stereotypes that people, in an attempt to make better sense of other people, perpetuate. For example saying, “your hair is really pretty for a black girl,” or “but you’re too light to be Indian” are prime illustrations of this phenomena- and while you’re reading this thinking, “there’s no way people actually say that,” the truth is- they do- and often because they are blissfully unaware of what they are saying, and how they are subtly stereotyping an entire race, as well as objectifying various traits of a person based on their race and the connotations associated with that. They are not compliments, regardless of whether they are seemingly harmless in nature.
A particular mirco-aggression buzzword, one that is often considered synonymous with rare beauty, especially unnerves me. Exotic. I find the multiple implications on the various ways this word could be used to be quite interesting. “You’re an exotic beauty” could be taken very differently than “you’re an exotic dancer,” yet the idea behind fetishizing a certain aspect of someone that you find different, is the same.
Calling someone exotic, which by the very definition of the word means outlandish, not native, and foreign in character, insinuates that there is something fundamentally different about that person than everyone else. It not only singles them out, draws attention to solely one part of them- their race. That is truly what makes it a race thing. I’m not a parrot, or a rain forest, or a new toy, one different from all of the others. So don’t call me exotic.
There is a lack of realization that culture and race are not tangible characteristics such as brown hair or freckles. Race is not simply a biological composition of what determines who we are, and how we are perceived. Race, along with culture are sacred to one’s identity and failure to recognize them as such vilifies their value, and the value of the human being behind the racial veil. This is not to say that race and culture shouldn’t be recognized, or celebrated, because they should be. However; they should not prelude assumptions or categorize people. They should be honored and respected as a beautiful part of this world- the fact that there are thousands of languages, traditions, and cultures is something to be celebrated, not objectified. My race is not your fetish.
Is there any harm in asking where I’m from? Absolutely not. I’m not ashamed of where I come from, nor am I offended by the inquiry. But before you take a look at the curly hair, or the olive colored skin and decide to put me into a definitive category with a particular label, understand that “what are you?” is not a proper way to address the question, and “a person” is the answer you’ll get.