Sunday, July 17, 2011

How to talk to your mixed race friend, family member, or stranger

With America becoming increasingly diverse, there is a growing need for education about proper etiquette when approaching the topic of race with a mixed race contact. I myself have many white friends and family members who struggle to find appropriate and politically correct terminology when discussing race with me. I know their fumbling comes out of a genuine desire to bridge the racial gap and assert their acceptance of me and other mixed race individuals. Below is a crash course in what -- and what not -- to say.

1. Don't ask: "What are you?"

Many mixed race individuals including myself will be offended by this question. While the question itself comes from a place of natural curiosity, the way it is worded implies that the person in question is somehow subhuman or defined entirely by his or her race.

Instead ask: "What is your ethnicity / ethnic makeup," etc.

Many mixed race individuals (also including myself) love this question when worded this way. Are we being nit-picky? Maybe. But unless you're a minority yourself, you represent the majority and we represent the "Other." In general we love to celebrate our otherness with those who are genuinely interested and who show that they view us positively through the way they ask.

Caveat: Some mixed race individuals don't like this question at all, so the guideline above only works on a case by case basis.

2. Don't say: "You're beautiful because you're exotic."

Again, such a statement may make us feel subhuman and more like an animal in a zoo. We don't want to be beautiful because of the way we differ from whites. Rather, we want to be beautiful of our own accord, and we believe a white person can be just as good looking as we are. In fact, if we are part white ourselves, saying we're beautiful because we're exotic means that half of our ethnic makeup is not beautiful.

Instead say: "You're beautiful."

Who doesn't like to be told they're beautiful? This statement is sure to flatter the receiver and you can steer clear of race talk completely.

Caveat: Some mixed race individuals do love to be noticed for their exoticism, so again, I can't speak for everyone.

3. Don't say: "I'm color-blind" or "I don't see color."

Mixed race individuals don't like this statement because we can't relate. We see color every single day, there is no way around it. We notice the one black student in the class, or the one Asian student at the party. We notice the races of all the characters in every TV show or movie, of every person in every commercial, and in every magazine ad. We don't notice these things because we are obsessed with race. Rather, because of growing up as an "Other," there is no way for us not to notice the races of those around us.

Rather say: Nothing. There's really no PC equivalent to this statement. Just avoid it!

Even "I love every color of the rainbow" or "I appreciate everyone's differences" can be taken as an insult. Why? Because like it or not, every single human being has prejudice inside them, even us. We should all fight against it, of course, but not being at all affected by race isn't possible.

4. Don't say: "African-American." 

Once upon a time, African-American was politically correct. Much in the same way that homosexual was the PC term over gay. However, just as gays have taken back their original definer, so have blacks. African-American is now passe, because it's an irrelevant definition. After all, we don't call whites European-American, and many of us have ethnic roots in America that go all the way back to the 1600s.

Instead say: "black."

Remember the Black is Beautiful movement of the 60s? Well it's back.

Caveat: The plural of "black" is most often "black people," not "blacks." And especially not "the blacks." Again, this may be a nit-picky criteria, but no one wants to pull a Donald Trump and say "I have a great relationship with the blacks." We're not one unit, we are all individuals.

Mixies: What rules of etiquette do you have to contribute? Are there any here that you disagree with?

--Shannon Luders-Manuel


  1. Hi! I just mozied on over to your site from a link I found while exploring I am a mixed gal like yourself: Black, Italian, Blackfoot Indian, Irish, English and Cuban. At least once a day I get asked the infamous question, "What are you?" I am so utterly used to it that I expect it. I also can identify when people want to ask but haven't figured out what the polite way of asking is, and I find that QUITE amusing. Lol. I find the uncomfortableness and awkwardness they unknowingly express somewhat of a payback for their stupid need to racially categorize me. SO, I say all this because I can identify with this post 100% and will share it with others as an overly needed PSA.

  2. Lol. I agree. It is totally hilarious reading this. I'm half black and half taiwanese, yet am often mistaken for being a pacific islander (nothing at all against pacific islanders--nothing but love). IT NEVER OCCURS TO ME TO ASK ANYONE WHAT THEY ARE!!!! Pardon the caps, but seriously!!! I have never, never, never, never, never, never asked any human being what they are/were. Why? I see them as human and that's that. The other funny bit is when people ask to touch my hair. Am I a dog to be petted? NO. Do I wish to touch anyone else's hair (I don't even like dealing with my own curly mess although I love my curls)? No. What's even more rude is when others actually reach out and touch my hair without asking permission. Um, hello? Personal space? The exotic bit is hilarious. The moment I hear that bit, I lose respect for the other person. When someone says that, and it is sadly more often than I would like, I respond with, "I'm not a plant."

  3. I'm of South-Asian (Indian) descent but grew up in Canada and the States, currently living in New York. Love this post! My character in my first YA Novel titled, Swimming Through Clouds is mixed and she calls herself an "ethnic cocktail." :) Are you interested in reviewing the book at all? Saw your name listed at TeenReads. Would love to connect. Thanks! rajdeeppaulus dot com :) -raj

  4. I found your link from Teri LaFlesh's website. It's great to embrace a mixed race heritage. No one can take that away from me. As a former New Yorker having traveled several times to Europe, the Far East and the Caribbean, my encounters with the people there was amazing. They didn't care about my skin color but saw I went out of my way to speak their languages and understand them and their cultures. It created a bridge. Because of that, I speak French and Italian almost fluently and am learning Hebrew.

    I am a Sephardic-Jewish woman married to a wonderful Jewish man. My hair is also very curly and I've been natural for almost 10 months. My husband loves my hair; he doesn't care about my skin color but the content of my character. My mother is a Sephardic Jew (Spanish); my dad was a combo of English/Cherokee/Choctaw/Jamaican. His family came from Liverpool, England en route to Kingston, Jamaica then settled all over Florida. The problem we face in America is--the reality of racial diversity is not going away. Folks dealing with these prejudices need to grow up and get over is what it is.

    Instead of trying to put mixed raced people into boxes they don't fit into anyway, or attempting to pacify racial prejudices, how about treating each other the way we want to be human beings!

  5. Oh my gosh, I love this page! I totally agree with you about number one. It's exhausting to answer the question of "What ate you?", and I find it quite insulting. I'm a Filipino, Chamorro (a Micronesian islander), Chinese, Spanish, Irish, English, and Portuguese...and that is it. How am I this mixed? Through mixed marriges over the last 150 years. It's just as simple as that... I'm mixed.