Being curious and asking questions is generally how we learn things, but some questions can unnecessarily put the burden of anti-racist education on People of Color. Certain race-related questions can come across as intrusive, thoughtless, or even rude. As a Woman of Color, I’ve had my fair share of awkward encounters with often well-meaning white friends, but I usually wish they hadn’t asked me.
As a Woman of Color, I’ve had my fair share of awkward encounters with often well-meaning white friends, but I usually wish they hadn’t asked me.
Answering can be emotionally exhausting. For example, I like to provide a lot of in-depth information to help my friends and family understand the context around my answer. Pulling together a basic lesson on race during my 30-minute lunch break or over Facebook DMs can become stressful. And even when I put forth that effort, sometimes I don’t even receive a response or a quick thanks.
These questions are also often microaggressions: thinly veiled instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, and more. This often can be unintentional, but nevertheless, illustrate some bias towards a historically-marginalized group.
As a multiracial Latinx, I am exhausted by these types of questions, so I came up with a few Q&A examples to help educate and hopefully prevent more BIPOC from fielding them.
Below, check out the answers to five questions I’ve been asked on numerous occasions.
1. What ARE you?
This falls under the “rude” category and would be considered a microaggression. Questioning someone’s race/ethnicity/nationality assumes they are not from the United States. If you really must ask, phrase it in the same way you’d ask a white friend.
2. Why is your skin so light if you are Black/Latinx/Indigenous?
Scientists have been studying genetics for a long time, and still, they know only a little about how genes influence the pigment of our skin. So, even scientists can’t answer this question.
Just know that genetics is a complex and funny thing. My husband is very pale and has red hair, and yet he is Latino. His mother is Colombian and his father is Irish. Before asking anyone this question, please consider the quote from Mean Girls, “You can’t just ask people why they’re white!” The same goes for anyone else.
3. Why do you talk so “white”/why don’t you have an accent?
Let me turn the question around—why do you speak the way you do? It’s probably because you spoke in the same way as your family and friends did growing up. Our language models those around us.
And one of the amazing things about being a human is that people come from many different areas and have the ability to code-switch depending on the situation. Code-switching is the process of shifting from one dialect or language to another depending on the social context or setting.
For example, as a Woman of Color, I often switch into more formal English during interviews or while speaking to co-workers, but when I am talking with family and friends I use a lot of slang, have different mannerisms, and even switch languages.
I do this for many reasons, but mainly because people assume that I’m uneducated if I don’t talk like my white peers.
4. [Person] said [something] was racist, but do you think it really was? I didn’t mean it that way.
Yes. Nine times out of 10 it was. Honestly 9.9 times out of 10. When BIPOC tell you something is racist, believe them, regardless of your intention. BIPOC have no reason to lie about these situations and really don’t have much to gain by telling you something was racist.
Before you ask a friend these types of questions, research them yourself. If you still have questions, ask them if you can bring up the topic and respect their decision if they say no. BIPOC are not your free educators, and often, answering these questions requires a lot of emotional labor. There are a lot of people out there offering diversity courses for affordable rates. Plus Google and your local library can be great, free resources for learning more about race and identity.
5. We grew up in the same town, and everyone seemed very accepting. Did you really experience racism?
Yes. Just because you personally didn’t experience something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen to other people. I experienced racism even within my own family but often would not tell my white parents or friends because I knew that they wouldn’t understand.
To have someone we consider close friends or family deny our experiences of racism can be even more painful than the actual experience of racism. So that may be why you never noticed or why your friend/family member never shared the experience.