How to Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity Without Being an Asshole


If you haven’t been able to surmise from my little avatar photo off to the side and my non-WASP name (although, sometimes I like to prance about in Victorian lace numbers and call myself Marjorie Altringham), I am Not a White Person. This means I am a walking version of this fun little game called “What Kind of Not White Person Are You?” Here’s how it goes: I introduce myself to you at a party or some such social gathering. You introduce yourself as well. In an attempt to get to know me better, or maybe just keep the conversation going, you want to know exactly how I am a Not a White Person. Which is totally fine at the right time and place, because I love gabbing on about my immigrant parents and how much I love mango pickle. It’s all good fun in post-racial America, like wearing a red, white, and blue dashiki on the fourth of July (who knew you could don a dashiki and be patriotic at the same damn time?!)

But the majority of the time I play this game, supposedly well-intentioned people curious about my brownness go about asking it in the wrong way. No, not the wrong way- the ASSHOLE way. I get it, really. You grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis and no one ever taught you how to not be an asshole. That’s actually my life story, too, but you can’t always throw Indianapolis under the bus as your excuse for being ignorant.

Fret not, dear reader. I’m here to sift through insane Yahoo! Answers and my own Brown Girl Feelings to tell you exactly how not to be an asshole when asking a Not White Person about their ethnicity. It’s really very simple once you get the hang of it! Let’s practice together, shall we?


Bring it up right away.

Hint: Do not do this:

-Hi, my name’s _______.
-Nice to meet you, I’m ________.
-Cool. So, like, what is your ethnicity?

This is instantly othering. It might be okay to ask, “where did you grow up?” But even then, proceed with caution. It’s fine to be curious, and asking about where someone grew up is a good way to figure out if they smoked weed for the first time in the back of a minivan next to a Dairy Queen or on a fire escape next to a vegan co-op. But asking about ethnicity right off the bat is an obnoxious way to ask about something that isn’t really relevant to basic introductions. Ask how I know the host, or if I watched the game last night (I didn’t). Unless I’m sporting a button that says, “Ask me about my ethnicity!” you really just need to let that burning desire to figure out my brownness go.

“No, but where are you really from?”

For most people, “where you’re from” is where you grew up and lived for the majority of your life, or maybe the city where you were born. But asking where someone is really from is not the right way to figure out where my bushy eyebrows and gigantic nose are really from. (They’re from ancient Mesopotamia, jerk!) Again, this is othering, making a person feel like they need to explain why they look the way they do.

“But like, where are your parents from?”

See above explanation. Rinse, repeat.

“Let me guess where you’re from!”

The guessing game is the best way to make someone feel like a trivialized object for your viewing pleasure. People who play it sound like the Earl of Burma attempting to pinpoint the specific village from where some subject of the British Raj hails. My ethnicity is not a game, so save your guesses for Twenty Questions.

Say anything about me is “exotic.”

Here’s how the dictionary defines “exotic”:

exotic: [ig-zot ik] adjective: of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized: exotic foods; exotic plants.

Guess what? Everything everywhere in the world is non-native now. They have KFC in Japan and sushi in Sacramento. They’ve got Pakistanis in Norway and Norwegians in Nepal, etc. etc. It’s called globalization, people, and it’s made this colonial word obsolete. Nothing about my suburban-Indiana upbringing was exotic, let me tell you, so please refrain from describing me as such.

“What are you?”

Sigh. This question. There are many ways to answer it, like, “I’m hungry,” “I’m human,” or “I’m Tan Mom,” but most often, the frenzied mix of anger and disbelief prevents me from answering with words, leaving me to the only other form of communication I know: rolling my eyes and a slow SMH, at best. Take this question, tie it to a rock, and throw it to the bottom of the retention pond in your neighborhood so no one has to hear it ever again.


Don’t ask at all.

Seriously, the best way to find out is to let someone volunteer the information.

“What’s your ethnicity?” (At the appropriate time and place)

See! It’s not so hard! Ask when it’s appropriate, like when you’re about to make a racist joke about an entire people and you want to cover your bases. JK don’t do that. Being curious about someone’s ethnicity is perfectly fine, but just be aware that how and when you ask it has an impact on people, and if you’re an asshole about it, the impact is othering. I’ve never been curt enough to say it when people ask me about my ethnicity, but the question that always pops up in my mind is, “Why? Why do you need to know at this particular time?” Ask yourself why you’re doing it before you question someone about their background. If their ethnicity is relevant to the conversation, or perhaps you’re at a point in your friendship where the question is appropriate, then it’s fine. But chances are, if you’re asking just to ask, you really just shouldn’t.

In the words of Dodai, “Keep yourself in check and don’t be a jerk.” It’s that simple.

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