Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The question I dread most in the world.

Though there are several questions that send me running to push the panic button, one pops out as being the most stress-inducing, wet-your-pants scary question of all time.

"What are you?"

Yeah, that's the question. As a woman of {indeterminate} color, I get this question at least once a day. No, I'm not exaggerating. What a loaded question! For those of you who can't understand why I would get upset at a question like this, I want to put it this way:

Imagine that your identity is questioned Every. Single. Day. Imagine that when you explain your background to someone, they don't believe you. Don't believe me? Oh yes, it's happened.

Imagine that you're minding your own business on the subway, and a person interrupts you to ask "Where are you from?" When you answer "Oh, I'm from Connecticut (or MA or CA or IA)," they give you a confused look and say "No, I mean, where are your parents from?" When you explain that your parents are Canadian citizens who now reside in Connecticut, they get even more upset and then finally ask "What's your ethnicity?" or, incorrectly, "What race are you?".

Imagine that when you explain your intensely complicated racial background, this person's face morphs into a look of disbelief. Imagine that people come up and ask you where your lips are done and when you say that your mother made you this way, they don't believe you. Imagine that when your hair gets blond streaks in the summer, people don't believe you and say that you're trying to hide the fact you dye your hair. Yes, these things are minor, but believe me, they add up.

I understand that people are curious, and I don't mind if a friend asks me to explain my identity, or if a stranger is truly interested in where I'm from. What I don't like, and what makes me panic, is when I feel like I'm being interrogated; like I'm on trial for looking the way I do. I CANNOT HELP THE WAY I LOOK.

So please, ask this question gently, because I'm telling you, it's not a simple one for some of us.

And yes, all of this stemmed from a woman asking me what my background was on the T this morning.

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