“Where are you from?” Nine times out of 10, this is the first question I encounter when I meet new people. I know they really want to ask me what my ethnicity is, but I play an admittedly mean little game with them and get this formality out of the way until they muster the courage to ask that question.
“Los Angeles,” I answer.
“No. Where are you really from?” they persist.
“Los Angeles, California.”
“Okay. Where are your parents from?”
When I finally tell them that I am Filipino, I am greeted with one of the following: “You don’t look like normal Filipinos.” “But you look like [insert any Asian/Latina ethnicity because I’ve been associated with them all].” And my personal favorite, “Are you sure?”
What has plagued me my whole life seems to be a common occurrence with my friends who also don’t look like the stereotypes of their ethnic culture. My friend can’t possibly be black because of her pale complexion. My other friend has to be half-Asian because at 6’2” he’s too tall to be a full Asian. What is it about these physical stereotypes that some people can’t seem to get past? And more important, why do people asking about your ethnicity come off as insulting?
I’m 100% Filipino. Both my parents emigrated to the states from the Philippines in the ’80s, and I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. I had pale skin (which is so revered in Asian cultures) up until I was 7. It was either the West Coast sunshine or genetics from my dad’s side of the family, but my white complexion turned into a nice golden tan that I’ve had ever since.
The problem isn’t the question itself; the problem lies in the intent and reaction to the answer that’s given.
The Philippines itself is also such a melting pot of different cultures. I’m sure if I invested time and money into Ancestry.com, I’d find out my great-great-great-great-grandfather is at least part Spanish. (Fun history fact: The Philippines became a Spanish colony in the 16th century before being taken over by the U.S. when Spain lost the Spanish-American war.) Mix all that with a European last name that is not Spanish, and I totally get how people end up classifying me as every other Asian and Latina race out there. There’s an underlying racism to this point of view.
You are more than welcome to ask what someone’s ethnic background is; most of the time I enjoy when someone asks. I think it’s great when people take a genuine interest in wanting to know more about someone’s background. The problem isn’t the question itself; the problem lies in the intent and reaction to the answer that’s given. What does a normal Filipino even look like? According to a discussion on Quora, this is what people think we’re supposed to look like: short, brown skin, flat nose, curly black hair, and round eyes. Except for the curly black hair (mine is straight), I have all of those things. I’m always surprised when I am told that I don’t look like “normal” Filipinos. It makes me wonder if that is an insult toward me or Filipinos in general. I’ve realized now that the answer is both.
Assigning someone’s looks to an ethnic stereotype belittles their culture. It automatically puts someone in a box, and if that person doesn’t check off everything on a checklist, they’re either seen as not good enough for their own culture or better than it. There’s an underlying racism to this point of view.
Sometimes I feel like people only want to know what I am because they want to figure out how they should treat me. It seems that they’ve already made a list of which ethnicities they approve of and they’re just waiting to see if they approve of me based on what I end up saying. It is evident in the reactions people give when I tell what I am; I’ll hear a sigh of relief or see a subtle nod of approval. Other times I get shocked reactions, making me feel like a unicorn, but not in a good way.
Just as we can’t stereotype an entire race with a particular character trait, we shouldn’t stereotype looks either. You should be able to celebrate your physical appearance, instead of fear that it might not live up to someone’s idea of what you should look like. We criticize brands and certain industries for not being inclusive enough all the time. But we should start with ourselves and how we think about how people’s appearance is connected to their culture.
I’d much rather have someone ask me outright what I am rather than dancing around the question—it just feels more genuine. I can tell those who ask directly are genuinely interested in learning more about me and Filipino culture. If you feel like you have to tread carefully when asking (which is awkward for everyone involved), you might not be asking for the right reason to begin with or you might unintentionally come off as insulting. Something to think about the next time you meet someone who looks different from you.