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Home arrow E-Library arrow Full Text Articles and Essays arrow 8 Things NEVER to say to a Mixed Race Colleague
8 Things NEVER to say to a Mixed Race Colleague PDF Print E-mail
8 Things NEVER to Say to a Mixed-Race Colleague
By Yoji Cole. Date Posted: May 07, 2022

It always grates when a person makes an assumption about you based solely on your skin color, hair texture or other physical features. For mixed-race people, that happens almost every day.

Consider a day in the life of Wei Ming Dariotis, assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. One day while visiting Seattle, Dariotis, whose mother is Chinese and whose father is Greek, Swedish, English, German, Scottish and Pennsylvania Dutch, was asked by a white man from England, "Where are you from?"

"San Francisco," said Dariotis.

"No. Where are you REALLY from?" said the man.

Dariotis tried to explained her mixture, but the man interrupted her, said she must be from an exotic island, and walked off.

"I wanted to say, 'I'm the American here and you're from some exotic island!' He saw himself as the norm and the majority," says Dariotis, who later that day was asked by another man about her ethnic heritage.

As the number of mixed-race people increases--Census 2000 counted nearly 7 million people who claimed to be two or more races--conventional views of identity are being challenged. A popular example is Sen. Barack Obama, whose mother is white and father is Black; he has a cultural, political and social outlook on life that is informed by both his "white side" and his "Black side." As a result, he has personal allegiances in both worlds. 

Common among mixed-race people is a feeling of being bound by race, says Louie Gong, vice president of the executive board of MAVIN, an advocacy organization for mixed-race people. Gong who is Chinese, Nooksack (a Native American tribe) and white, explains that "the multiracial group is not a group bound together by race. Our only common element is the way society responds to us--the common ways we're marginalized. We're actually a long thread that runs through the spectrum of race. Because we run through the spectrum, we represent different physical appearances and cultural heritages and different ways people will choose to align with groups."

In addition to "Where are you from," here are eight other questions or comments you should not say to your mixed-race colleagues:

"What are you?"

"It's almost an inhumane question," says Farzana Nayani, vice president of Multiracial Americans of Southern California. "It makes you feel not human or like an object. And a lot of times, mixed-race people are objectified."

"My first response always is, 'Human,'" explains Samantha Jones, who has a white mother and a Black father. Jones e-mailed DiversityInc her own list of what not to say to a mixed-race person after reading DiversityInc's "Things NEVER to Say" series. "I'm guessing the question that they're struggling with is, 'What is my ancestry?' I have no problem answering that question at all."

Gong was asked "What are you?" when he was interviewing for a job.

"Everyone wants to know because they want to know when you come to work, will they be okay with you?" says Gong, who at the time answered the question but says he would not do so now.

"Today I would tell them it is not OK to ask that in an interview," says Gong. "On the most basic level, it reminds you that you are the 'other' and that you're outside the norm. The default for this is that if you were white, then I wouldn't have to ask that question. So really, what they're asking is about power. They want to know what team you're on--it's about power and who has it. They need to know what stereotypes they can apply so they can feel safe."

Gong explains further that "when people try to impose their sense of who you are based on cultural heritage or physical appearance, it forces [the mixed-race person] into an advocacy situation. As a result, often, mixed-race folks are either ambivalent or they become racial watchdogs because they're privy to how race plays behind the scenes."

"What is your nationality?" or "You look foreign"

"Our nationality is American," says Gong. "The question reflects a poor understanding of the proper tools to talk about race … Using 'nationality' when trying to inquire about a brown person's ethnicity implies that white is a default race and shows a misunderstanding of what nationality means."

"That question stems from a time when ethnicity and nationality were connected more, but now with our global community, they're not as connected," says Dariotis.

As for "looking" foreign, the comment reveals the speaker's tendency to view white features as the cultural norm while categorizing the mixed person's "non-white" features as "non-American."

"I'm third- or fourth -generation 'American,' so I'm probably more American than apple pie" is how Jones responds to that comment.

"You're all beautiful" or "You make beautiful babies"

"When that is said to a mixed person, the mixed person either has to agree and fall into the stereotype or disagree; it's a catch-22," says Nayani.

Nayani says it can be particularly disturbing if either of these two comments are made in a business setting. "There's friction there because it's supposed to be a compliment, but if you say that's a stereotype, then that hurts that business relationship," says Nayani. "And if you accept it, you're objectifying yourself. [The comment 'You're all beautiful'] is the exotification of mixed people as objects."

Louie Gong adds that the comment "You guys make beautiful babies" is equally patronizing. "The physicality of the multiracial person is seen as a priority. The question reflects a sense that that's the most important reason to have kids. Who cares about love? Or who cares if you're a good person or an asset to the community?"

4. "Are you X or Y?" or "Which side are you more on?"

"I consider myself multiracial," says Jones. "It's only in recent years that we have had an option to belong to that [multiracial] group. On forms, applications, etc. It was always 'You must pick one!' It's shocking that wasn't an option for so many years."

Dariotis says people asking these questions really want to know where the mixed-race person's loyalties lie. "They're uncomfortable with idea that you could identify with multiple heritages," says Dariotis.

Gong says those questions are a direct challenge to a mixed person's identity.

"People of mixed heritage have been traditionally marginalized from mono-racial communities," says Gong. "That manifests itself [when those questions are asked] because if you choose, then you're OK. People can't step outside these constructs of race."

To find out her identity, Nayani says some people will cross-examine her to come up with a "racial tally."

"It's different for people who aren't mixed to understand that there's a gray area," says Nayani. "That feeling of ambiguity is unsettling for people, so they have markers they can check off. People like to nail you in a certain category. [Non-mixed-people] should allow people to identify themselves. If [a mixed person] chose to be affiliated with one group over the other, that's their choice."

"Have you been to the Philippines or Pakistan? Do you speak the language? Do you like the food?" are all questions Nayani has been asked. "However many check marks add up in their mind, and then that's how they label you.

Nayani also points out that corporate-diversity exercises that call for an executive to participate in racial and ethnic groups can be a problem for someone of mixed race.

"That doesn't work for people who are multiracial, and in terms of affinity groups [or employee-resource groups], executives can be forced to choose," says Nayani. "I've been to workplace gatherings where there were caucus groups that were slotted at the same time." Nayani could choose from groups that included South Asian, Filipino, Chinese and mixed-race employee-resource groups.

"Before 8:30 a.m., I had been to three caucuses because I wanted to identify with all, which is what I do in my personal life," Nayani says. "There's politics there--either you choose one and then you're perceived to be affiliated with that, or you over-perform and you try to do it all. That can be tiring."

"How in the world did your parents meet?"

Often a comment or question is considered rude because of the way it's addressed. Asked in the manner above, the question implies "that it's completely incomprehensible that your parents could meet. I think it's offensive because it casts doubt on the humanity of … your parents and yourself. It makes you seem and feel even more like an exotic animal," says Dariotis.

Dariotis points out that the way people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds meet is often pretty ordinary: "It's usually something really prosaic. My parents met at a party at the University of Hawaii. So the push back a lot of mixed people have to these questions is 'I'm normal,' and these questions seek to mystify us. But we're just normal people."

"You're the future" or "You have the best of both worlds"

Mixed-race people are often idealized as saviors of a world enveloped in racial strife. The thought is that the number of mixed-race people will force mono-race people throughout the world to cast aside their ideas of racial hierarchy.

"Mixed folk, like other people, are normal. They are not superhumans who, by their existence alone, will end racism," says Dariotis. "It's a burden even the parents of mixed children put on their kids by saying their children will do away with racism. They say their children don't have to think about identity because they're citizens of the universe. But the children will have to face questions about who they are."

"You don't look …" or "You're not …" or "You sound white"

Gong, who was reared on a reservation, is often labeled as not looking Native American enough or as not sounding as though he spent many years living on a reservation. For Native Americans, "living on the res" and dealing with trauma is a rite of passage that indicates one has participated in the Native Americans' plight and struggle.

"If I go there … they're going to look for how white I've gotten to see, 'Do you really belong in my group?'" says Gong. "Authenticity testing is an important issue … Black-American identity is based on what white people have done to Blacks. That reinforces the trauma. For Natives, it's similar. We see this with Barack Obama. People are measuring his authenticity based upon … if you're Black, you have to be from the 'hood. If you're Native, you have to be from the res. But we must realize that race is a political construct designed by prominent society based on what they needed."

"You sound white" is a label people slap on others to tell them they're trying to be something they are not, even though, in case of someone who is mixed race, the person may be as much white as anything else.

"What's implicitly being said is that you don't look or 'sound' African-American enough or Filipino enough," says Nayani. "The mixed person should say, 'Well, I feel that I am. I say I'm the new generation of people who will be looking like this, so this is something we should all get used to."

Jones says that comment usually provokes anger within her. "Depending on the situation or the ignorance level of the person doing the asking, I may or may not provide a response," she says. "However, I was raised in a very diverse environment, around Asians, Latinos, whites, Blacks and other multiracial people and families. I was raised by my white mother, but I have friends who are full Black who sound and conduct themselves as I do, educated and with common sense."

"If I didn't have the name [Wei Ming], I wouldn't be accepted by Chinese people because I look Filipina," says Dariotis, whose ancestry is regularly challenged by Chinese immigrants. "So we take on names in order to have our identities foregrounded. I have the right not to justify my ethnic identity. I don't have to prove that I am authentically who I am."

8. "Aren't we all mixed anyway?"

"I can understand that comment is trying to find unity," says Farzana. "But that doesn't acknowledge difference. It takes away from or diminishes that person's experience."

8 Things NEVER to Say to a Mixed-Race Colleague


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