Feature photo by brandydopkins

Especially since I entered college, my ethnicity has a tendency to be a focus of discussions with strangers. I often get the somewhat dreaded and loaded “what are you?” question or backhanded requests for information like non-existent traumatic tales of being an ethnic child in an Anglo world.

However much it unsettles me when people I meet first and foremost want to know about my ethnicity, by now I’ve learned to roll (my r’s) with the punches. Meeting people is fun, but sometimes first impressions can be exhausting when people feel the need to figure you out on their own terms or say things worthy of a facepalm.

Here is a short list of some of facepalm-worthy assumptions, comments or inquiries people have made in reference to certain characteristics of mine.

1. Mexican-American: “My friend is from Mexico too!”  
Disclaimers: I am U.S. citizen, I was born in Chicago, and I am of Mexican blood. These simple facts throw some people off, especially because they are in combined. Baffles the mind.

2. Bilingual: “Why are you studying Spanish in college? Don’t you already know how to speak
it?”
“I guess I like to waste my time. All of those English-speaking people out there studying English language and literature very much enjoy wasting theirs too.”

3. Vaguely ethnic-looking; “exotic”: “Oh, of course the Asian girl would make a math joke!”
And this quote is an example of why my favorite party game is ‘Guess Ilene’s Race!’ It’s a hoot, and I desperately want to turn it into a mildly distasteful game show.

4. My cultural tastes: “So you don’t really like rap that much, huh? But you’re Mexican.”
Yes, I have every Fleetwood Mac album ever made, and I absolutely love Frasier. I must have lost my Latin@ cred somewhere during that Flaming Lips concert; probably dropped it in a puddle of PBR and shiny body paint.

5. Spaces I inhabit: “I’m sure you’re very smart and qualified too, but I bet to them it made a huge difference that you checked the ‘Hispanic’ box on your forms.”
I went to high school in a fancy Chicago west suburb, I go to NYU, frequent fair-trade coffeehouses and lame rooftop parties sponsored with trust funds and now I live in Williamsburg – the hipster-mama of all gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The obvious ‘reason’ why? Affirmative action?

I’m disinclined to write off the above as mere examples of people’s ignorance and inability to perceive when they’re saying something a bit boneheaded. Rather, I think at the root lies a general assumptive nature that people cannot always avoid. We live in a time when being PC is celebrated and discrimination and stereotypes are still realities of daily social and political life. But whether we like to admit it or not, we people tend to judge others by placing them into any of a number of categories we have created on our own and as influenced by our many social networks and influences.  Whether it’s meeting new people or even just seeing them walking around in public, we make these judgments to manage ourselves, to make sense of things – and of people. Our shallowly created notions are usually harmless, but sometimes the assumptions people make about others can be range from slightly annoying to rather offensive or damaging when they are at a crazy extreme. I think it was Nietzsche who said insanity in groups is the rule.

However important to one’s identity it may be, what’s interesting and significant about a person should be and is about more than just what you can tell by looking at them or assume based on a few minor details like what race they are. At the very least we can really listen when we ask questions, in case they have something to say. Those of us who are lucky to be around lots of different kinds of people can learn a lot about them –and maybe even ourselves – from our interactions with others. Like Nietzsche also wisely said, if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

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