Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Million-dollar Question

I love this! Just found a link to this video on I've talked about cultural perspective and the differences between ethnicity and culture and how they relate to "hyphenated" North Americans on this blog before, but this video pretty much sums up my thoughts on the matter . . .

Yes, this goes out to all you "hyphenated" folks in North America who have to deal with periodically being asked the question "What are you?" Being a white Canadian who speaks fluent North American English, I never have, but come to think of it, why not? (This is supposed to be a rhetorical question. I already know the damned answer.) If you've read my 2012 post "The Hyphenated" ( and my other post from the same year, "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other" ( you'll know that I think about this kind of stuff a lot.While I feel it inappropriate to apologize on behalf of my "race" or some such pandering thing, I certainly find it irksome that many people feel it's perfectly legitimate to ask this question to my non-white friends in such an upfront and culturally (and I do mean CULTURALLY) insensitive way.

The problem with asking "What are you?" is that, aside from being an illogical question, it suggests that you are making assumptions about the people you are talking to. Namely that they are different from you in just about every way (including but not limited to such areas as ethnicity and culture). After all, that's why you would have to ask, am I right? While the appearance part is likely true, which is why you would feel inclined to ask such a question in the first place, ETHNICITY IS NOT THE SAME THING AS CULTURE and to think so is deeply problematic. When you ask someone "What are you?" you are assuming that because they look a certain way, they act a certain way. And people generally hate to be prejudged; I know I do!     

The truth is you can't make assumptions about ANYONE. Remember that old axiom "You can't judge a book by its cover"? That's never gone away! However, if like me you live in an ethnically and culturally diverse city and you're curious about people, as I often am, no matter what your ethnicity there are WAY better ways to pose this question, as indicated below. . .

1. "What is your ethnicity (or ethnic background)?"

This is the most direct and is not inherently offensive. You are not making any assumptions about the person; instead you are merely indicating that you are unsure of their ethnicity and are curious. If the person you're asking this of becomes offended, they are likely oversensitive for whatever reason. Simply let them know that you're just curious and want to know more about them. If they want to be a jerk about it, it's not your fault.    

2. "Where does your family originate?"

I would imagine that this could get complicated in cases of "interracial" adoption, but generally it's also not making any assumptions either. Same as the above, only the wording is more specific. "Originate" is the key word here. You are suggesting that while they may be culturally similar to you, it is obvious from their appearance that long-deceased members of their family came from a different place than long-deceased members of yours did.

3. "What are your ethnic roots?"

The use of "roots" here could be problematic. I'm not sure this is the best way to ask, but again I feel it's pretty safe. Again, not asking where they themselves are from but where their previous generations came from.  

4. "Where did your ancestors come from?"

Same potential problem as the third, but again deals with archaic origins and not the presently living generations.

5. "What's your cultural background?"

This one is widely accepted but I feel it's problematic because of the use of the word "culture." I feel that it makes too many assumptions. I may be nitpicking though.

Here are just five examples, and while these are likely not perfect, they are much better than asking "What are you?" in any case . . . unless you're talking about Halloween costumes. Ethnicity is what you're born with and often dictates the way you look physically, and culture is what you get from growing up in a certain environment. See? Different.

So there you have it! If you've ever wondered why people give you funny looks or get pissed off when you ask them "What are you?" then this is likely the reason. A little sensitivity will go a long way and make everyone just that much more comfortable. If you are interested in getting to know someone for potential dating purposes who is of an ethnicity other than your own, you may even score brownie points for asking this question in such a culturally sensitive way.

Afterthought: If you're one of those annoying people who think this is all just PC nonsense, then to you I say, good luck dealing with multiculturalism and globalization -- in case you didn't realize, these two things happen to be trending. Get with the program, that's all.         

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