How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

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Unvoiced_Apollo
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How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Unvoiced_Apollo » Tue Feb 14, 6:39 2017

When someone asks me about my race, they do it in an indirect manner that takes three tries to answer the question they're really asking. It usually goes something like this:

Them: Where are you from?
Me: Lived in Georgia a bit when I was a kid but been in this area most of my life.
Them: No, I mean where were you born?
Me: Norway
Them (shocked): Really?!
Me: Yes. Dad was in the Foreign Service at the time.
Them: I see. What I'd really like to know is your race.
Me (exasperated 'why didn't you just ask me that?' look): Filipino with some German and Irish mixed in.

This confusion has happened so much I've started saying "The question has three answers, could you be a little more specific in what you want to know?" Anyway, this confusion has led me to think about why so many are tiptoeing around what should be a fairly straightforward subject. I know race shouldn't matter but I also don't care if someone is curious and wants to know more about my racial background.

To me it seems like an environment has been created in which people can't ask what I find to be such a simple question for fear of being too insensitive. But I can't for the life of me find anything to be sensitive to someone asking me "What's your race?"

What do you do when you find yourself curious about sleepless race? Do you ask the question directly? Do ask in a roundabout way like in my example? And how comfortable are you asking or answering such questions?

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Neko » Tue Feb 14, 7:26 2017

Depends on how familiar we are.

If I just met someone and I was super curious, oh yeah, we'd take a spin through the roundabout. Actually, it would take a while for me to work up even to that. Social anxiety would paralyze me because new people = unknown entities. I don't know if race is a sensitive subject for them or, really, anything about them. More data is required.

If this person is a friend and we're on silly terms, I'd say something like, "What ARE you?!"

Though, race doesn't interest me as much as language. I'll hear someone speaking in another language and it'll eat at me to know what it is if I don't recognize it. Despite that, I have yet to ask. But that probably has more to do with being socially awkward than fear of causing offense.
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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by DarkOne » Tue Feb 14, 7:53 2017

Unvoiced_Apollo wrote: Them: I see. What I'd really like to know is your race.
Me (exasperated 'why didn't you just ask me that?' look): Filipino with some German and Irish mixed in.
... this confusion has led me to think about why so many are tiptoeing around what should be a fairly straightforward subject...
But that example right there illustrates how it is NOT a straightforward subject. Because you were asked about race... yet your answer falls under what I would categorize "ethnicity", not "race". And thus the fun begins. Good luck finding a universal definition for "race" and what adequate answers for "race" are. Ask 100 different people and you'll get 100 different answers. Just to give you an idea of how complex the issue of race can be, see the links below... all the same site, a few highlighted pages.

http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm
http://www.pbs.org/race/001_WhatIsRace/001_00-home.htm
http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_0 ... -03-02.htm

So straightforward? No... Not by a longshot.
I know race shouldn't matter but I also don't care if someone is curious and wants to know more about my racial background.
...
But I can't for the life of me find anything to be sensitive to someone asking me "What's your race?"
Understood, you may not care. I usually don't care. That question can be asked out of academic curiosity, but it can also be asked with malicious intent. So asking the question will force some, if not most, people to navigate the realm of possible intentions and consequences from responding: will you judge me? WIll I be refused opportunities for answering this? Will responding affect me negatively? Positively? You don't mind if people ask you, so I suspect you'd be fine if you asked about race and someone told you "noneyabidness"... you'd probably say "ok" and carry on. But your reality is not universal, hence people tread carefully. It's a safe and considerate approach. It's a bit ironic that you get annoyed by behavior meant to not offend others... so no matter what, someone is getting offended/annoyed. Thie "tiptoers" chose to annoy the anti-sensitives rather than offend the sensitive people... seems like a valid choice to me.
What do you do when you find yourself curious about sleepless race? Do you ask the question directly? Do ask in a roundabout way like in my example? And how comfortable are you asking or answering such questions?

I usually don't ask. When I do ask, I don't ask it to random strangers. I ask it to people I know, who know me. People with whom I've established rapport, and who I am fairly confident will understand I do it out of intellectual curiosity and absolutely no malice. I do it to start a conversation about the subjectivity of the definitions of race and ethnicity. Personally, I have little trouble defining my ethnicity, but I have a hard time finding a "Race" box that I can check comfortably, and I have an even harder time convincing myself that it is relevant. Everytime I see a survey where "race" is asked, I feel like asking for their definition of "race" so that I can provide the information they really want.
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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Sonic# » Tue Feb 14, 9:28 2017

Yeah, I usually don't ask about ethnicity or race unless it's relevant to something more immediate than my curiosity.
DarkOne wrote:Understood, you may not care. I usually don't care. That question can be asked out of academic curiosity, but it can also be asked with malicious intent. So asking the question will force some, if not most, people to navigate the realm of possible intentions and consequences from responding: will you judge me? WIll I be refused opportunities for answering this? Will responding affect me negatively? Positively? You don't mind if people ask you, so I suspect you'd be fine if you asked about race and someone told you "noneyabidness"... you'd probably say "ok" and carry on. But your reality is not universal, hence people tread carefully. It's a safe and considerate approach.
To follow up on that, I find the question tends to lead people to make gestures to "relatability" that end up invoking stereotypes instead. There's a version of it adapted for comedy in this video:


It's like people are looking for a particular origin to validate assumptions about people. Maybe they had those assumptions before. Maybe they will create those assumptions on the basis of the new information.

And I think the nature of the question changes based on the perceptions of your race or social circumstances. If someone looks like they fit in a place or context, the question is mainly about regionality. "Oh, you're from the South." If not, then the follow-ups come: "You don't sound like you're from the South" (I've gotten this) or "Where are you really from?" The questions are about pigeonholing differences in dialect, langauge, and race into a stranger-friendly narrative of origin. That can be invasive, especially when it feels more like justifying one's presence.

Whether that's harmful depends on context - what are we talking about? Where are you coming from? Where am I coming from? Do we have some trust built up?

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Galen » Tue Feb 14, 10:39 2017

I'm mixed race. It's subtle, but detectable in my features. Most white people tend to assume I'm white, and don't ask. People of color, especially others who are mixed race, almost always ask, typically something along the lines of: "Wow you have an amazing profile (or sometimes: cheekbones). What's your ethnic background?" It doesn't bother me at all, and I've never felt uncomfortable asking the same of someone else.

I don't tend to read much into it when people ask--even white people. I don't experience it as racially-loaded or as some form of othering. I see it as coming out of our very human tendencies to be curious about anything that differs from whatever we've defined as the norm. To me it seems more like "Why do you look the way you do, which is different from how most people I know look?" I've never felt it as, "I have these assumptions and want to know if I can apply them to you or not."

It's complicated, though. Maybe I only feel this nonchalant about it because I do get taken as white all the time, so I have all the privileges that go with that. I have the luxury of not having to think about it much.

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by DarkOne » Tue Feb 14, 11:10 2017

Sonic# wrote: There's a version of it adapted for comedy in this video:
Oh, that made me laugh...
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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by rowan » Tue Feb 14, 13:11 2017

"Where are you from" I find is an extremely fraught question because it's often used as an othering tactic for people who are not white passing. So I try to ask other things if I'm curious about someone's background. I generally feel it's not my place to ask about race; if people are comfortable with telling me (mostly through telling me about their experiences) then I leave that up to them. I can envision times when I would feel ok asking someone*, but generally it comes up before that.

Also definitely with Neko on the language much more draws my curiosity; I assume everyone's "from here" unless there's something that indicates otherwise. I think I'm pretty good at recognizing local groups (such as our local Somali population).

*I mean other than on research surveys which I generally dis-aggregate from names anyway, but that's different)
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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Taurwen » Wed Feb 15, 7:59 2017

I can't think of a time where I asked. It's not an interesting subject to me. I'm more likely to ask the more inappropriate question of what religion they practise/were born into.

I'm a big mutt of mostly Caucasian heritage. I've notice whatever I reply people say "That's exactly what I would have guessed" or "Yea, I totally see tgat" except for the one person who decided I was Greek and wouldn't believe me when I said I was in no way Greek lol

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Enigma » Wed Feb 15, 10:20 2017

I don't ask people about that. To be honest I'm usually not that curious? It could have something to do with growing up in a fairly diverse area? But maybe not. It probably also has something to do with the fact that as a white person race becoming salient in a conversation doesn't tend to endear people to me. "Let's all just have an awkward moment of thinking about how my ancestors may have been assholes to your ancestors."

I've had people ask me a fair amount. I'm a mix of European countries. I find it weird and that's without the racial baggage. I feel like people are trying to put me into a stereotype box. The guess is usually Russian and people are sometimes disappointed that's not right?

I feel like it's a super touchy question so you'd better feel pretty comfortable in the conversation to attempt it.
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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by felipefs » Wed Feb 15, 11:03 2017

Enigma wrote:I don't ask people about that. To be honest I'm usually not that curious? It could have something to do with growing up in a fairly diverse area? But maybe not.
In the case of Brazil (which is pretty diverse): we do ask a lot, but not because of someones' etinicity, just curiosity :lol: 99.99% we just mean "where city are you from?"
But, as a very big country, we have different accents and slangs from region to region, even if we talk the same idiom. So people might ask because of that, too. But everyone is cool with that around here.

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Taurwen » Wed Feb 15, 12:35 2017

I find whenever I'm asked (barring that Greek dude) it's just idle chatter. A simple question akin to "What kind of sports do you follow".
But as I said, I'm white.
I've certainly seen ass hole customers ask my coworkers "are you even Canadian?"

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by rowan » Wed Feb 15, 16:54 2017

felipefs wrote:In the case of Brazil (which is pretty diverse): we do ask a lot, but not because of someones' etinicity, just curiosity :lol: 99.99% we just mean "where city are you from?"
I'm not quite sure but it seems like you're not asking someone's actual race then, which is what the question here is about? Or do you actually ask "what's your race" but mean "what city are you from"? Cuz that would confuse the heck out of me.
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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Bork » Wed Feb 15, 21:42 2017

It's generally not something that I'll ask. I figure that if it ends up mattering, the other person will volunteer the information.
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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by felipefs » Wed Feb 15, 22:56 2017

rowan wrote:I'm not quite sure but it seems like you're not asking someone's actual race then, which is what the question here is about? Or do you actually ask "what's your race" but mean "what city are you from"? Cuz that would confuse the heck out of me.
I should've quoted the youtube video. I mentioned that question "where are you from?" because it's the question asked by the guy :D

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by melsbells » Fri Feb 17, 13:26 2017

Worse than asking someone's race, I had to guess volunteers' racial identities for my last job in the U.S. It had something to do with funding, not so official that I should have actually surveyed our volunteers, just some demographic questions about who was being served. Am I ever glad I didn't actually have to conduct a survey among the ever fluctuating community garden attendees. I would have been able to convince about 5 people to fill it out among the more than 50 that passed through to volunteer on one day or another.

I have gotten super accustomed to asking people's nationality, but only when I know under no uncertainty that they are a foreigner and wouldn't do so in a place where I wasn't also a residing foreigner.

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by octarineoboe » Sun Feb 19, 20:02 2017

^ we had something like that in my last job, too - for job applicants we were supposed to fill in their race but not actually ask about it. The point was I guess to assess whether we were attracting diverse applicants but it didn't feel useful because we had so little actual data.

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Taurwen » Sun Feb 19, 21:06 2017

At a job I used to have we were supposed to make orders (waffles, crepes, coffees) that customers ordered at the cash register, and then deliver it to their tables. When I was on cash I would write things like "Brunette woman with pink sweater". When my boss was on cash he would write things like "Filipino Family."
I always had to get other people to deliver my orders because I could never accurately guess who he was talking about. I used to joke that I wasn't racist enough to work with him.

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by rinn » Mon Feb 20, 11:13 2017

I have a friend whose parents came to the U.S. from Lebanon. She would get asked *all* the time in middle school if she was Muslim and/or foreign. I've never once heard her speak a language other than American, and her family doesn't wear hijabs, so this baffled the hell out of me. now that she is older, you *definitely* can't tell if she is Lebanese because the way she looks is so Americanized (tattoos, makeup, dyed hair...she's more American than me practically!)

so when someone asks if a person is so-and-so race, especially if they're a minority, I feel like that's the same as asking a female whether or not she's pregnant...it's just assumption after assumption, and makes for offensive and awkward conversation.

however, if someone wanted to ask someone else what race they were...instead of using the word race, I feel like the word "heritage" is friendlier. because that is a term you'd ask anybody, whether Caucasian or not.

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Sonic# » Mon Feb 20, 11:25 2017

^ "Heritage" feels like a particularly loaded word, but that may be because "heritage" in the American South is often code for white people celebrating nostalgia for a Jim Crow-era or slavery-era South. (See also Confederate battle flags.) Maybe in other contexts it's okay?

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by rowan » Mon Feb 20, 11:37 2017

I think "heritage" a little less loaded up here in the north, but also awkward for Black folks because... well often they just don't know what part of Africa they were stolen from. So I would never ask a Black presenting person that. But I might ask other people that.

I was talking with a guy who was definitely Chinese yesterday while we were getting ready to ski and he was talking about the conditions and how warm it was out, but also the snow was better earlier in the morning etc. The only thing I asked him (aside from skiing conditions) was if he came here a lot. It sure seemed like he did (and he confirmed so). There are just more interesting things to talk about.
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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by Galen » Tue Feb 21, 8:25 2017

I love hearing about how people were raised, what kinds of things shaped them in life, etc., so to me, a person's race, and how she sees that as having shaped her (or not), is a fascinating thing. I would find talking about snow less interesting than hearing about what it's like to be (or look) Chinese (or Chinese-American) in America. Then again, I'm incapable of small talk. My idea of an icebreaker is, "What's the most morally-complicated situation you've ever had to deal with and how did it affect your worldview?" This is why I'm not allowed to go to parties.

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by rowan » Tue Feb 21, 13:06 2017

I will admit that would make me back away slowly. Here's why: It's an interesting question but as soon as I think about that situation my PTSD gets triggered. Here in a text environment I can manage to not actually contemplate answering the question but rather contemplate the question in a meta way (so this is not triggering me). But in a social situation where I'd feel like I was "supposed" to answer I would very very likely be triggered or at the very least find it incredibly invasive.
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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by melsbells » Thu Feb 23, 2:24 2017

Galen wrote:My idea of an icebreaker is, "What's the most morally-complicated situation you've ever had to deal with and how did it affect your worldview?"
I feel similarly to Rowan. I like hearing out people's worldview and events they identify that have shaped those views, but I would probably answer that question as honestly as I could and then pay for it later. Even just taking out the superlatives would make a world of difference. In my language classes last year, we had some questions that weren't well thought out considering how many refugees were in my class, such as "What's the worst journey you've ever been on?"

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Re: How comfortable do you feel asking about someone's race?

Post by DarkOne » Thu Feb 23, 6:31 2017

melsbells wrote: In my language classes last year, we had some questions that weren't well thought out considering how many refugees were in my class, such as "What's the worst journey you've ever been on?"
-_- Are. You. Kidding? Seriously, sometimes some people.... Reminds me of a lady who was interviewing the oldest of 4 orphaned kids whose *both* parents had just died in a flash flood: "How do you feel?" :mad: I would have throat-punched her if she'd been within reaching distance.

And Galen, maybe stick with "If you could have a superpower what would it be?" or "Is cheesecake cake or pie?" or "Coke or Pepsi?" for a while and see if that gets you more party invites...
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