4 Things People Say When They Aren’t Very Good at Race

I live in Berkeley, California, which has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most liberal cities in America.  I like living here for all the reasons you’d imagine — it’s super-diverse, there’s a great we’re-all-in-this-together ethos, and the food scene is fantastic — but given the city’s reputation, I’ve been surprised by a few of the interactions I’ve had at the Starbucks downtown, a few blocks from my home.

I was once sitting at a communal table, typing away on my laptop, when a middle-aged white man sat down across from me.  He was disheveled and slightly unhygienic, and he was reading the New York Times and carrying a thick stack of papers.  He could have been a homeless person or a professor; in complete seriousness, it’s often hard to tell in this town.

As he sat down, I briefly made eye contact, smiled politely, and returned to my work.

For a few minutes, he alternated between looking at me and reading his paper.  Finally, he set it down and asked, “Are you Chinese?”

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7 thoughts on “4 Things People Say When They Aren’t Very Good at Race

  1. Is it a race thing to say I believe this to be a caucasian way of conversation, when I am caucasian myself? Oddly, it doesn’t stop at race. You can insert South Dakotan, or New Yorker in place of Chinese, and that still fits the caucasian way of entering conversation.

  2. I should have thought more deeply about my reply. Now I am coming through very disjointed. In a parallel situation, I have been approached by white people immediately asking where I am from (whereas they just assume your ethnicity) then proceed along the same lines of stories about the trip they took to South Dakota or suggesting a place to go because they thought I must be a under-educated man with simple tastes.

    I would be curious to see a study in Sociology for instances like these with the white majority, to see why this is a line of speech very seldom heard with African-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc. Would this also be mimicked in cultures where Caucasians are the minority? (I doubt it). Once again, Elizabeth, you have tickled my brain waves with a topic that will not leave my head for a good while.

  3. jalunzman: thanks for the kind words — i appreciate them a lot! i don’t know if this is a specifically caucasian way of starting conversation; i keep going back and forth. it could be, but i regularly ask people where they’re from (usually phrased as “are you originally from [this area]?” so they know i’m not assuming they’re a foreigner), b/c that’s basic information that i like to learn about people as i get to know them. i also think all people tend to want to categorize things, and asking questions like “are you chinese?” is a way of trying to figure out what box to put you in. i’ve certainly gotten that question from older asian immigrants who want to know if i’m “one of them.” all that being said, i do think that some people of color are more sensitive about how they ask these questions b/c of their experiences of being alienated by those who’ve asked these questions insensitively.

    so all that to say: maybe? i’m not entirely sure. thank YOU for getting me thinking as well!

  4. You have certainly trimmed the fat from my statements. What you say makes a lot of sense and is more accurate than my own musings after contemplation.

  5. yeah totally! i mean i can agree with many of the things you say since well our own very University go thru its own trials and tribulations at times as well =)

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