Toward a More Respectful Discourse
I am very grateful to Meena for inviting me to contribute to this series. When I received the invitation, I realized I wanted to take the opportunity to express some thoughts about being a person of color – in particular, what my perspective on the issue is as a multiracial person. What came out is a response to much of the race-related awkwardness I’ve experienced in professional philosophy and interactions with people more generally.
Over the course of my life, I have repeatedly discovered that people play a sort of guessing game behind my back about what my ethnic background is. (I am in many contexts white-passing, likely in part owing to my surname, but in others not.) Sometimes I find it funny, other times I am annoyed.
Why do people do it? I think it’s mostly curiosity, but sometimes it’s practicality. Ethnicity has become increasingly relevant because of efforts to increase diversity. Conference lineups, special volumes, and hiring committees often seek diversity. And most people who play this guessing game don’t mean to be cruel, hurtful, or malicious. In fact, I know that many people who have done this would feel horrible if they thought I were hurt by it.
But I don’t think these guessing games are the best approach. In this post, I’ll explain what’s so frustrating about this situation, and then suggest a concrete alternative.
Two initial caveats: These reflections come from my experience as someone of mixed race in the United States. I can only really speak for myself, but I hope it will be illuminating for others. Part of what I aim to explain as frustrating is the idea that people of color all think the same things and want to be treated the same way. So while I will offer some general information and advice, I cannot and will not presume to be offering The Right Way to interact with people of color. Second, I am not a philosopher of race and I haven’t come close to addressing everything I would want. So, I’m sure there are distinctions and relevant points that I’m overlooking.
Respectfully interacting with people of color involves at least two things. It requires some degree of understanding, and it requires respectful behavior.
There are two central things to understand.
First, not all people of color are the same. Our experiences vary in incredible ways. Our own families and cultures have different histories, have come to the US in different ways, have experienced different sorts of oppression, and have assimilated into white American culture differently. This varies not only across cultures and families, but across individuals. Thus, to think that there is one solution to racism or one all-purpose, best way to treat people of color is to make a foundational mistake.
Second is one very common and uniting experience. This is one (and maybe the) central source of discomfort faced by ethnic minorities, and in a notable form for mixed race people.
This frustration arises from being approached as a curiosity. In a predominantly white society, people of color are experienced as a curiosity, and as a result experience themselves as a curiosity, too. It is difficult to just be; one is constantly subjecting oneself to third-personal examination. For example, one experiences oneself as a black/Asian/etc. that likes certain things rather than simply as liking certain things. This is a subtle but crucial distinction.
Sartre said it, and others have said it too: when you notice that people treat you as an Other, you can’t help but also experience yourself that way. I find parts of Franz Fanon especially poignant on this score. He writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics” (112). He later adds, “And so it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there” (134).
So one is forced to make choices in this third-personal way: given that I am an X, how will I behave? One questions oneself and one’s motivations: “Why do I really listen to this music/eat this food/want to take this trip? Is it just because I want to be more/less authentic?”
As multiracial, and thus not immediately identifiable as one or another race, I have experienced a particular flavor of frustration with this in two ways. First, it’s not clear which category I belong to. Given that I am a … wait, what exactly am I? What does it even mean to be culturally authentic, when you’re multiracial?
Second are the guessing games I mentioned above. The feeling of being a curiosity is all the more palpable when I find out about such a game. It is a conversation in which I, the person under discussion (the object of discussion), am prevented from participating and so, in an important sense, really objectified.
II. Respectful Behavior
Let me underscore here that I only speak for myself, but I would much rather someone simply ask me than speculate with others. In general, I don’t hold any ill-will toward people who ask. For me, it approximates the way that it’s interesting to know what people think your age is: it can be depressing, surprising, or just awkward. I have never found an actual guess offensive or hurtful.
Some people prefer not to be asked, preferring to address it themselves if and when they choose to. This is obviously thorny territory if you don’t already know the person’s preferences. But in my case, this results in guessing games because people simply won’t stop thinking or wondering about it, even if they’re too nervous to ask. And in cases where it is practically important, e.g., for diversity measures, avoiding asking may not be a good solution. Incidentally, this is why databases like the UP Directory can be incredibly useful.
And there are better and worse ways of asking. Some approaches feel objectifying, and others just feel like the person, in completely good faith, wants to know about me and my experiences, background, and life. Unfortunately, there aren’t exact rules because every person and situation is different, but here are some pointers:
Don’t let it be the first (or even second) question out of your mouth when you meet someone. Better to get to know the person a little bit first. Don’t say things like, “So are you Indian or what?” or “You look so exotic/interesting.” These are definitely bad. Better option: “Hey, you don’t have to tell me, but I was wondering, what’s your ethnic background?” Err toward restraint, and try to read the individual’s personality.
I have a second suggestion as well: ask open-ended rather than closed-ended questions. Some people are comfortable saying simply, e.g., “I’m Asian.” Others are more comfortable saying, “I’m Chinese,” or, “I’m Han.” Some people will say, “I’m half Indian,” with the tacit understanding that the other half is white; or “I am half-black, half-Mexican.” (Incidentally: I am half Han Chinese and half white Western European.)
These are all fine answers to open-ended questions like “What is your ethnic background?” But these are not always acceptable answers to closed-ended questions, which are often the questions people face.
What to do when one must tick a box on a form or answer a question like, “Are you a person of color?” Notice that the space of answers is constrained. What if my box isn’t there? Is there an “Other” or “Multiracial” option? Does my ethnicity count as non-white? (Hispanic, e.g., officially counts as white in the US.) Can I tick more than one box? Maybe I have to choose an allegiance, whether to be white or Asian today.
The question whether someone is a person of color (or, in Canada, a “visible minority”) is more difficult and conceptually loaded than it appears. It clearly isn’t about actual skin tone, but about race. But that doesn’t resolve the question.
It forces me to wonder what someone wants in asking such a question. Are they really asking what race I am? (Which races count?) Are they asking whether I’ve faced a certain set of disadvantages? (Which set counts?) Are they asking about pure percentages: how white or non-white I am? (Which percentages count?) Are they asking to trick me into saying yes when they think I should say no, or vice versa? Are they asking to figure out what I take it to be, to be a person of color? (This CollegeHumor short captures the experience pretty well.)
Furthermore, it’s often taken that person of color and white are contradictories. But I am a person of color as well as white. What I am not, is only white.
Asking these form-like, closed-ended questions set the terms of discourse. But thankfully, you are a person, not a form, and so you can ask questions that let the person you’re talking to set those terms in whatever way is most comfortable or appropriate to their situation. This is to treat someone with the respect and sensitivity that any fellow human being deserves.
So, am I a person of color? I tend to say yes, in part because I want to demonstrate that there are many ways to be a person of color, with mine just one among them. And I am very grateful for this invitation and series, especially as an opportunity for us to set the terms of this discussion for ourselves.