Answering “So, What’s Your Background?” – 201


A little while ago, I was at a party that was mostly white. It’s been a long while since I was in a mostly-white setting, and I’d maybe forgotten some of the issues that arise disproportionately. So while I wasn’t surprised when the question came  – and it came about five minutes after I’d stepped into the house – by a total stranger,  I was definitely rusty in my response.

Hilariously, I think I went “uh… like… where I was born?” I was still stunned that I was being asked this.

Her : “Well like your background, ethnicity”

Me: “Oh uh… India…”

Her: “Where in India?”

My brain, slowly clicking:  It’s that type of conversation. Remember? The “What are you” conversation! Ugh you are so out of practice, girl!

And,  I’m definitely not the first person to write about this phenomenon: this has been written about in a million ways, and analyzed by a million people. (See here, here, and here for just a few notable examples for this particular type of casual racism.) The infamous “What are you” question. It’s the awkward-silence-creating “Where are you from” question that white people selectively ask to people of colour. And it’s the “No, where are you really from” when you try to evade by saying “Canada”. And some people really are so thick that they won’t understand a tongue-in-cheek response like “Ireland.” As Hari Kondabolu famously said, this question is code for “Why are you not white?”

But this is not a post about why this particular interaction was racist; as far as I’m concerned, all the links above that I’ve provided explain well enough why the interaction was racist. I’m more interested in my response to the racism, and how I chose to handle it, and why I left that interaction, and the party feeling warm, happy, and contented.

It’s true: despite the awkward interaction, I still had a great time at the party – and there are a few reasons for this. I’m going to list them out as strategies that have worked for me, that may not necessarily work for others, but which may help turn a negative situation into a positive one.

  1. There is no white person in the world who can make me insecure about my identity – at least, not in a party setting, of all places.
    I’m at a place where I’m incredibly secure in my identity. It took me decades to get to where I am today. Part of the fear I had around this question was the kind of boxes that white people were implicitly categorizing me into – after all, what are they possibly learning from me if the only thing they care to ask me in five minutes of meeting me is where I was born, how long I’ve been in Canada, and where my parents are really from, particularly if it’s a place they’re almost completely unfamiliar with save for stereotypes? My fear, when  I was younger, was that my family, customs, traditions, would be stereotyped – the “India” box. the “dot forehead” box. The “elephants-for-weddings” box. But here’s the thing: I care very little these days about what white people – who are strangers – think of my background. I have basically, a next-to-nothing emotional response to what they have to say or ask about brownness. My baseline with white people is “turned off, until proven otherwise”. This means, I’m never hurt, offended, fatigued, or jaded by their lack of ability to talk about race because I have 0 expectations on this front.  Only one person is going to be (eventually) flustered in racist interactions with me – and it’s not going to be me, ever. I know that they don’t know enough to comment on things, and if they try to…
  2. I have enough humour to clearly and decisively show that I know more and that they sound ignorant, and I’m able to do it in a way that generates laughter rather than tension.
    This girl was pretty relentless, not gonna lie. She wanted to know where I was from, and when I came here.Her reason for asking? Because her parents also came from Eastern Europe.  Except she didn’t grill most other white people in the room, and definitely not for as long or as extensively as she grilled two darker people. At one point, I’d extricated myself; I was going to get a beer – “Grab me one!” She called. I cleanly passed that task onto someone else, and joined another conversation. (This is a good skill on its own: peaceful disengagement) When she’d moved on to quizzing another person about their background, at one point I laughingly interjected with “oh we’re still on the ethnicity conversation, are we?” As people laughed, she blushed and responded:
    “Well, I mean – it’s not racist! it’s good to know about – others! My family are immigrants too!”Right. Singling out people of colour in a room isn’t racist. But the irony was: I never called her behaviour racist; I was just… commenting on the nature of the conversation, and naming it for what it was in a lighthearted way.
  3. I am respectful of the context I’m in and I genuinely love connecting with others.
    Toronto is a hard city to live in and maintain friendships, and for me, the party was an opportunity to connect with others there. But more importantly, there was no way I was going to make a scene and make this hard on the host of the party – people (and yes, they’re both white!) that I care tremendously about and who I know care about me- and who have shown that care in other ways. They may not know how to respond to specific instances of racism like this.It’s true that of course, I’d like any of my white friends in general to work on addressing racism that they see, or racism that they participate in however inadvertently,  but their inaction in that specific moment absolutely doesn’t need to be the defining point of our friendship as a whole. I write this now, because four or five years ago, I’d have probably made a scene. It’s also likely that other people of colour reading my post now might be feeling uncomfortable, or chalk up my response to internalized racism or respectability politics. Except here’s the thing: I made a conscious choice here – I chose to  value a deeply meaningful friendship over one meaningless interaction. I chose to see that  meaningless and racist interaction as just one tiny part of an otherwise fantastic, beautiful party. I connected with others, including other people of colour who were there and other white folks who I connected better with. But there’s another reason I didn’t spiral into a Racism-101 rant:
  4. I don’t give free education to white people about racism anymore. I’m more focused on making my life, and the lives of other people of colour, easier. What productive value does a rant in the middle of a party have? Would it make me feel better ultimately or would it generate a whole bunch of toxic emotions inside me? I understand that some people need an outlet for their rage – for microaggressions they deal with on an every-day basis. But I know for me, I can’t feed those flashes of anger and turn them into rage – it’s ultimately been destabilizing for me, as a person, to do that, and it doesn’t achieve a state of well-being for me, nor does it act as a legitimate outlet for anger, and nor does it educate. In other words, ranting about racism to white strangers depletes my already-low emotional and mental reserves. But there is also one other reason i didn’t respond in anger to what she was asking, and it’s this: 
  5. I try my best to meet people where they’re at these days, and that includes, to some extent, white people when they say ignorant things about racism.
    When I’m in all-white, or mostly-white settings, I’ve decided I’m making a conscious choice to accept what those settings might bring up. This is neither a fear-driven response, nor is it a response that relies on feeling helpless. It’s a response that recognizes my immense knowledge about my own culture and background – that has the ability to stay rooted to my core and not be buffeted about by racist winds. It’s simply recognizing that people don’t know what the hell they’re doing sometimes. I’m pretty sure no one has ever told this girl that what she was asking was kind of rude. I’m sure she has a lot to unpack about her own racist tendencies. I believe that she has the potential to grow and learn and change as much as the next person.  But also, none of that is my problem in that moment, unless I choose to make it my problem – it’s simply hers to deal with, if she chooses to.
  6. I am doing a lot of community-driven work in addressing issues that affect South Asians – this lets me more effectively channel my anger about racism.
    That is my outlet. It’s rewarding work. There is no way that getting angry at a white person at a party comes even a little bit close to actually building solidarity within my community, helping me productively channel my anger about racism,  educating those that need to be educated, or the oft-cited goal of changing systems. And, these days, my anger doesn’t stay with me, eat away at me – it’s just a counterpart to a passionate response. It isn’t stomach-acid-spewing-rage – and believe me, I’ve been there before. I’ve been so viscerally angry in the past, but I can tell you that the person that was most negatively impacted by that anger was me. That kind of rage isn’t handled well by human bodies – the kind of adrenaline that results from that kind of anger is a stress-response, a fear-response that disproportionately makes people of colour age faster, and also has negative psychological impacts. (There’s further evidence that experiencing sexism also produces similar responses). Of course we’re not responsible for the microaggressions that come our way, not at all; but our first priority in any situation *must* be to care for ourselves and show compassion to ourselves. If we know that this kind of anger has such negative consequences on our health, we need to find ways to channel it more productively, without it eating us from the inside out. So my lack of rage in this situation was not disempowering: I don’t feel disempowered, because white people’s lack of party etiquette is so meaningless in my vast, rich life, that it couldn’t possibly disempower me.

When I left the party,  the host walked me out. I believe in our friendship and trust it to grow and strengthen. I believe we have lots to learn from each other, and I trust that we will connect again and grow. I’m excited to know her. I’m even excited in some bizarre way to have met her slightly-borderline-racist friend – and I say this tongue-in-cheek, because who knows? Maybe she’ll grow too. 🙂

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This entry was posted in Articles, Mental Health, Tackling Racism, Thoughts on Life, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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