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Questions, and racism

February 26, 2012

This is a reply that turned really, really long to a comment I got on G+, in response to a link I shared, so I thought I would just turn it into a post here.

I won’t paste in the comment, but you can click through to see it if you like. Again, I’m not trying to single out this particular commenter–and got the impression that the comments were, indeed, coming from an honest difference in experiences and expectations, from Poland. But it also included common enough themes that I thought it might be worth a post.

The original post:

Stock Answers to Racist Questions

This may be funnier if you were raised to be way too polite sometimes [ETA: And the people asking this stuff obviously were not!], but I’d be rolling in the floor if I weren’t already lying down.

Because white tears taste like freedom and delicious soy sauce.

Darn, they let the secret out.


It was intended as humor, and I can understand the frustration if you keep getting to hear the same questions which are not coming from real curiosity and respect for the other person. (From what I’ve seen, it’s usually pretty easy to tell the difference.) When somebody is asking things but does not seem nearly as interested in listening to a genuine, polite answer as in finding someone to tell them their own ignorance and rude behavior is OK, that can get frustrating.

It boils down to respect. And it can get hard to continue being polite dealing with someone who is not showing you, or people like you, much respect. No matter who they are. (And, again, it’s usually not that hard to tell the difference.) That particular list is of questions that very commonly get asked in the US, with very little genuine attempt to understand respectful answers–and usually as a lead-in to a whole disrespectful conversation. My own more usual unspoken mental response: “What gives you the right to expect answers to nosy questions from total strangers–then try to argue with them if they don’t give you the answers you want/expect?” (Too often racist assumptions, yes.)

I’ve personally heard pretty much everything in this video, repeatedly (except for people hoping you can get them drugs–WTF?!):

Shame it’s not subtitled, especially originally intended to include for someone whose first language is not English, but I am not up to doing a transcript. But, there is also Weird Sh*t People Say to Indians on Facebook–which I ran across trying to find a transcript for that video–which covers some other common crap. And I actually had to do a post a while back about the repeated “Can I touch your hair?”, included in the video.

(BTW, my real answer to the original post’s “Why are you native peoples so light?”, from my own Eastern US perspective, would be closer to: “Because my ancestors were mostly not racists–including the Scots and Irish and West Africans who married or were adopted into matrilineal societies that were already very open to that–and a lot of their own men had been killed. (10:1 sex ratio in some places, at times; not so extreme where I am from, but survivors banding together to form new political units, adoption of anybody decent-acting who wanted to join you, and intermarriage were still matters of survival as peoples. Also things that get used against people now.) And we are talking about culture rather than slave-days ‘blood quantum‘. And it just makes no sense, outside colonial racism, to expect a whole continent full of people to look exactly the same, in the first place.”)

But, there are a lot of bad learned assumptions built into that kind of question which I am usually totally willing to politely correct if people actually want to listen and learn better. Unless that is the third or fourth person that day or even week who has asked me something like that, without even listening; time just to walk away, or try to change the subject if you can’t just end the conversation. There may be no obligation to educate, but I usually try if people behave respectfully.

Imagine that you are part of a small minority group in your own land of origin. And total strangers keep demanding answers to things like: “But aren’t all the Poles dead or vanished into thin air?”, “What kind of Eastern European are you anyway, with how much ‘blood’? And do you have special racial registration pedigree papers from the (German/Russian/etc.) government to prove it?”, “Do you live in a yurt? Well, then, you can’t really be Polish.”, “But you don’t look Polish [as shown by Hollywood]! You can’t possibly be Polish. Besides, all the real Poles were wiped out a long time ago.”, “Are you part Polish? You look so exotic!” (bonus points if they then grope you or make totally inappropriate sexual comments), “Why do you people get so pissy when somebody calls you [word that can translate as ‘cunt’]?”, or even “What are you?!”–and keep acting surprised that you have things like the ability to read and an internet connection, in spite of obviously being rich from both casino profits and special welfare benefits that don’t even exist, because Polish. And the (majority ethnic, non-Polish, living in Poland) people who ask these questions are obviously not interested in correcting their ignorance. And some of them are in positions of power over you, like teachers or bosses.

While you might try to stay polite dealing with them, and just answer their questions on a surface level, “You have a lot of nerve, you ignorant jerk”–at best–would probably be what you were thinking after a while. Not the best analogy ever, but hopefully it gives some idea of what it might be like when too many people refuse to treat you with the same respect you are showing them–which hopefully includes just not asking strangers nosy questions about their racial/ethnic background, much less trying to argue with what they tell you.

Living in the UK, I have not run into the same kinds of repetitive questions like people were working off the exact same script they learned in school (and, yeah, see the reference above to teachers); not that there’s no racism, but people have been taught different things, without the same lasting political reasons to believe that a whole continent’s worth of people are safely dead and out of the way. (I do suspect things would be different if there were many indigenous Americans living here in London, like South Asians, West Indians, and Africans.) And without the same history of slavery, ethnic cleansing, and later legal inequality and eugenics on British soil as in the former Empire.

And I suspect that part of the difference here is that the history and dynamics are so different between the US and Poland.

I mean, my husband is an ethnic Swede who grew up in the suburbs of Stockholm, and with the immigration history there other than from Nordic countries or also around the Baltic, he has said that he never saw an African person on the street until he was seven or eight years old–and not many then. Given that kind of experience, people could and would have some honest questions (if not always well thought out, and some based on stereotypes from films, etc.) that, say, people in New York or even London would not. Asking things respectfully out of honest curiosity and a willingness to learn is one thing; running up to random strangers and quizzing them out of a sense of not true unfamiliarity but entitlement is quite another. And not paying attention or getting angry when they don’t want to talk about something–or if their answer doesn’t match the ideas you already had–is also another thing.

I only ask about equal treating. If something is penalized for me, it should be penalized for all.

That is exactly what I am looking for, too: equal treatment. I actually wish this didn’t matter at all in dealing with other people, but some disrespectful ones won’t leave others in peace and keep making it matter.

I just haven’t heard the same disrespectful stuff coming from anyone but an unfortunate minority of Euro-Americans, ever. (I keep overhearing different bigoted, xenophobic things coming from a minority of White British people–mostly toward immigrants or people assumed to be immigrants even if they were born here, definitely including Polish, other Eastern European, and still sometimes Irish people after how many centuries–but not directed at me.) I do understand why sometimes people who keep getting to hear this kind of stuff lose their tempers when somebody else starts in–or they are expecting to hear the same insulting things–but there is just not the power behind it. Doesn’t mean it’s nice, but it’s not the same. And expecting people to be nice and patient all the time, based on a group membership, is also not right.

Also, like myself and so many other members of minority ethnic groups in former colonies, that blogger is also in a position where actually looking down on or hating people of European descent would also mean looking down on themselves; it’s the attitudes some people show, not their actual racial/ethnic background, that is the problem. There is a pretty big difference there. One good, thinky post about this: There’s White and Then There’s Whiteness.

And it’s not really paranoid to start unfortunately half-expecting to have unpleasant interactions with members of certain groups, if that keeps happening and coming only from members of said group. For example, even though it sounded bigoted to me at the time, I can understand better where my mother was coming from when she was very concerned that my now-husband might not treat me with the respect I deserved (based partly on some experiences living in Germany), until she got to know him and how he treats other people. (Especially with 75% of intimate partner violence and almost 90% of sexual assaults coming from members of other racial/ethnic groups.) Attitudes and behavior are what count. And you don’t know what somebody else has been dealing with, especially if you don’t share that experience.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. thek permalink
    February 26, 2012 9:28 pm

    IMHO this is connected with different history. For many years America was isolated from other countries. Last serious conflict within USA borders was Pearl Harbour. Earlier… American Civil War? Of course american troops were involved in many conflicts all over the world, but that wasn’t changing thinking. There is many sarcastic graphics, images describing what americans think about the world. Some of them are really cruel, because describe that american people in fact don’t know nothing about countries they even border with USA. This is connected with education system in USA. American people aren’t encouraged to discover other nations history or regular life. So they don’t know about them a lot. And everything we don’t know is rather scary or can be used to create hatred.

    Look at media… They show for example black people as a murderers, thieves. But how many in fact are that kind? How many opposite to that stereotype black people you know? Probably much more. The same is with nations. But stereotypes connected with nations are different and depends from history of whole nation. So for example Italians in USA will be seen differently than in Great Britan.That’s normal. I’m from Poland and will be seen also differently. Maybe you will know something about Poles like: Kosciuszko, Pulaski, Copernicus, Walesa, but not very much more, probably. For me it’s not important… We both are products of different education systems and this is for me obvious.

    What is strange for me? How so multicultural nation can be so close-minded? Something new often create aggression first and after some time – curiousity… When it’s already too late. Stereotypes many times show image of a nation that may be false from many decades. Creating bonds or contacts based on them is like sitting on a bomb. You never know when it explode. Tolerance is a must. But first we should know what a real tolerance is and where it ends. Regular Americans many times don’t understand this. For example your gun laws… For americans they are obvious. For europeans – unnatural. In Europe you must have licence for having a gun. And getting it isn’ easy.

    When we connect stereotypes, gun laws and education system that treat countries outside USA as a “there live dragons”, we as a product will get racism. Look at my country – Poland From one side we have Germany, from other Russia and countries which to 1991 were USSR. And how often you hear that someone from Poland kill someone from Germany or Russia as a revenge for second world war? And look to informations about it. About 6 millions polish people died from german and soviet hands. There wasn’t family in Poland without at least one person dead because of this war. Before war Poland have 34 millions citizens.

    I know history of my country. Bright and dark sides. Because of that I’m humble and know what real tolerance is and pride or honor means. In that context I was writing on your G+ account. For many people some phrases are only words. For them being political correct is natural, but they don’t see this behaviour isn’t fair. Modern democracy should protect minorities but not for all costs. Minorities always should remember, that their rights are only equal to the rights of majority and laws are guardians of that equality. Political correctness is overused many times, to put pressure on someone, to get some unjustified privilege. That kind of situations are often but shouldn’t be. It is not equality or tolerance. It is fear. But it’s irrational. Because of that if american company have to choose between black (yellow, indian/whatever) or white person, choose black, regardless of knowledge or skills this people have. Skills, knowledge – that should be important. In USA this is only one factor. Many times not very important.

    • urocyon permalink*
      February 27, 2012 1:31 am

      I’ll have to give this some thought, but will try to get back to it later.

      What is strange for me? How so multicultural nation can be so close-minded?

      I wonder that a lot, too.

    • Bracula permalink
      March 3, 2012 4:56 am

      How can so multicultural a nation be so close-minded?
      Because the US was founded on racism and genocide. That’s all that’s needed.

      • urocyon permalink*
        March 4, 2012 12:51 am

        There is that, unfortunately. I still keep getting surprised at some of the evidence. 😐

        ETA: Then there is the question of what passes for “multiculturalism”.

  2. February 26, 2012 11:25 pm

    “…And total strangers keep demanding answers to things like: “But aren’t all the Poles dead or vanished into thin air?”, “What kind of Eastern European are you anyway, with how much ‘blood’? And do you have special racial registration pedigree papers from the (German/Russian/etc.) government to prove it?”, “Do you live in a yurt? Well, then, you can’t really be Polish.”, “But you don’t look Polish [as shown by Hollywood]! You can’t possibly be Polish. Besides, all the real Poles were wiped out a long time ago.”, “Are you part Polish? You look so exotic!” ”

    As a white Brit, the group of people I hear such things about – and so imagine they get the comments directed at them – are gypsies. Our treatment of gypsies and Irish travellers is appalling, but it struck me as uncanny how I’ve heard almost these exact same things said to and about gypsies. I’ve heard it asserted that that all true Romani gypsies were wiped out by the Nazis, so gypsies living on the road today are just “drop-outs”, that true gypsies have to live in hand-painted horse-drawn caravans and definitely not static housing of any kind, that gypsies have to be dark but not too dark and so on.

    And weirdly, these assertions are used to justify massive prejudice (I don’t think I’ve heard quite such vile, sweeping and often unchallenged racism in the UK towards any other ethic group as I have towards gypsies), because when challenged, the response is “It’s not racism, because they’re not *real* gypsies.”

    • urocyon permalink*
      February 27, 2012 1:54 am

      Interesting. I hadn’t heard that one. But, then, I’ve mostly seen hostility directed toward Irish Travellers (we’re not that far from Dale Farm, as these things go), and am wondering if that isn’t partly coming from the idea that there aren’t any “true” Romani to mention. 😦

      I was definitely impressed, far from positively, the first time I talked to a Traveller–and he acted surprised not to be getting snotty treatment. Not the only time that’s happened, either.

      It reminded me a little too much of my mom’s trying to start conversations with (maybe undocumented) recent Central American immigrants on a couple of occasions back home, and the automatic levels of suspicion and fear which were understandable with a couple of moments’ thought. Generally non-threatening middle-aged woman trying to use her rather rusty Spanish, who was not at all interested in hassling them or shopping them to immigration–in one case, she was offering someone a coupon/voucher she didn’t need for an item he was holding in the supermarket–but they had no way of knowing that. Shame, in both cases, that people can reasonably anticipate shabby treatment as a default.

    • Bracula permalink
      March 3, 2012 4:56 am

      G*psy is a racist slur. Don’t use it, ever.

      • Bracula permalink
        March 3, 2012 5:01 am

        Also, white British people say these things too. My personal favorite was “So you’re like an American kind of Paki, right?”

      • urocyon permalink*
        March 4, 2012 12:55 am

        To the nested comment: I am actually surprised I haven’t personally gotten any of the crap here, so far. Though that particular example is, erm, special. (“Why yes, exactly like that.”) 0_o

    • urocyon permalink*
      March 4, 2012 2:04 am

      Coincidentally, one that I just ran across on tumblr, from Bristol:

      (Racister by knautia on Flickr.)

  3. Bracula permalink
    March 3, 2012 5:04 am

    This post is far calmer than mine, though I completely lulz at the Google + guy. That is some prime white nonsense.

  4. urocyon permalink*
    March 4, 2012 12:57 am

    Benefit of the doubt only goes so far, yep.

    Not-so-calm is also good sometimes. (See also, “raised to be way too polite”.)

  5. March 14, 2012 4:59 pm

    I’ve been asked if I could get people drugs. Repeatedly. As it was explained to me, “Indians can get peyote ‘for religious purposes’ and then just bring it to lots of white drug users.” I’ll assume you know how many ways that statement is fucked up.

    What amazed me was the number of white drug users who could even spot that I was part Indian. It made me think they must actively look for certain body types in search of drugs. Because to most people I just look white, and generally consider myself white. (Some people also think I look light skinned Mexican. Or not so light skinned if I’ve been in the sun, I tan really dark. Some people ask if I’m “part Asian” too. Although the weirdest question is “Do you have a little Indian in you?” I always think up snarky, overly literal answers to that one. And I did get held at the border once in Mexico and separated from my mother and told I wasn’t hers. But I’m still white, I have just enough other ancestry to run into trouble sometimes but not enough for it to be anywhere near all the time.

    It makes me wish people understood how fluid things like that are — I have close family members who are practically never considered white, and others who are always considered white. Being indoors all the time now, I’m closer to the always, but at certain times in my life I was much closer to the middle than I am now. (And “What are you?” was a common question. That one invites snark as well.) These days white feels like the most respectful option, as I can’t in any good conscience call myself a PoC. But I wish there was some kind of less binary way to think about it for all the people who are almost but not quite in one direction or the other. Without taking away the seriousness of what PoC face and how different that is from what white people or most people in the in-between zone face. Of course in a world where a lot of white people do the “my great-great-great grandmother was 1/64 Cherokee so I’m a PoC when it’s convenient to me” thing, it’d be hard to have an honest and nuanced discussion of that kind of thing. But still. The in between zone is real and different from that.

    But anyway even though I got asked it a lot, the drugs question never failed to make me completely confused as to how to respond. I generally just didn’t answer, but “fuck you” would have been nice.

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