Whenever I meet someone for the first time, or simply make eye contact with a stranger on a street, it’s always the same look of curiosity that wipes across their face as they try to figure out my race.
It’s not always white people that look at me this way. Women of color sometimes give me the look but they tend not to ask and instead continue the conversation. Some of them will ask me if I speak their language in Spanish, but when I say no, they usually smile and don’t pry into my background. Some white people are the same way, but generally speaking, they are the ones who become really intrigued by my skin color, especially during the summer season when my skin looks “tan” or when I look “sun-kissed.”
Men of any ethnicity are the worst to deal with because they not only look at me with an eye of curiosity but they immediately sexualize me as an exotic woman. While most men of color will dance around the subject asking questions such as, “Where are you from?” and “Where are your parents from?” or “What languages do you speak?”. They generally assume I’m Latina or Spanish.
But it is white people who are usually the ones that ask the two questions that bother me the most: “What are you?” and “How are you so tan?”
Men of any ethnicity are the worst to deal with because they not only look at me with an eye of curiosity but they immediately sexualize me as an exotic woman.
Regardless of their race or intention for asking these types of questions, I wish people would take a moment to process why they are asking and consider how it might feel to be on the other end of a query that questions someone’s identity.
Growing up, I always struggled to know which box to check on forms and applications. My father is an immigrant from South India, which makes me half-Indian — so does that mean I mark “Caucasian,” “Asian” or “Two or more races” or “Other”? What about when it just says “White” or “Asian or Pacific Islander”?
As a half-Indian woman with Caucasian and Italian ancestry from my mother’s side, I am racially ambiguous to a lot of people. What always made this more difficult for me is the reality that I grew up in a small, conservative, and predominately white town in America without many cultural traditions from my Indian heritage. Sure, I grew up cooking and eating Indian food with my father, but I’ve only ever been to India twice in my life. When I tell people that I’m half-Indian, they assume that I speak Hindi, cook amazing food, grew up traveling across South Asia, or that I am Hindu or know anything, really, about Indian culture. And so when I’m unable to discuss these topics with them or answer their questions, it makes both them and myself feel as though I am not truly Indian.
This bothered me a lot growing up and impacted my understanding of my identity because, even though I’ve always known I was half-Indian, I started to question if I could even call myself “Indian” since I did not grow up with the culture. As I grew older and started to recognize this identity struggle, it became more difficult to understand because I started to look more like my father — with my strong, dark eyebrows, deep brown eyes, and a brown skin pigment that would heavily darken in the sun.
I had to explain over and over again that my parents are two different races. I know the intention is not always one of malice but these seemingly kind compliments are racially insensitive because they strip me of my Indian identity.
When you’re a teenager already struggling with understanding the world and how you fit into it, having this constant questioning of “What am I?” and an obsession of my skin color really started to frustrate me. I had to explain over and over again that my parents are two different races. I know the intention is not always one of malice but these seemingly kind compliments are racially insensitive because they strip me of my Indian identity.
After being asked these questions, I would wonder, “Am I brown? Or am I just tan?”
So when people ask me, “What am I,” I want to look them in the eye and simply say, “I’m a human, what are you?”
People never seem to recognize that what they are doing is rude and hurtful. And when I do call people out for asking these questions, or explain a better approach to asking about someone’s ethnicity, the reaction I get is usually from a defensive standpoint. Then they tell me that I “know what they mean to say” and make me feel bad for creating assumptions about their intention.
I know this is something I will always have to deal with as a racially ambiguous person.
I get it — people are curious and want to know if their assumption of my ethnicity is correct. But the thing is, I don’t owe you that explanation. I’m bi-racial and I’m a human, that’s all you really get to know unless I decide to bring up my background and mention it. Because regardless of if my skin color fits your description of what brown looks like, and even if I don’t look Indian to you, I am always brown and half-Indian. And at the end of the day, for all of us, we’re just human, so don’t ask, “What are you?” when you could instead ask, “How are you?”