Thought Catalog

Guess My Race

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I suck at games. I don’t have the attention span to memorize the rules of poker. I don’t have the agility to compete in any kind of physical sport without irony. And I sure as hell can’t get into any kind of video game that requires me to inhabit the body of an ax-wielding elf. In fact, the only games I have mastered are Uno, Pictionary, and Foosball: activities that require nothing but a steady hand and zippy flick of the wrist. People usually don’t engage me in competition.

It used to come as a surprise to me, then, when complete strangers would recruit me in a game I like to call “Guess Her Race!” This isn’t an activity for the athletically gifted, intellectually blessed or the strategically savvy. There are no props, points, or rules, but there must be at least two people playing and at least one of them has to have a racially ambiguous appearance.

I have small eyes and black hair. I’m also vertically challenged and incredibly near-sighted. These four features are apparently all that’s required of me to play “Guess Her Race!” I don’t need to run fast, drink a lot or have face cards to win. I just need to look different from the norm and all of a sudden, I’m playing.

It started when I was attending elementary school in a white bread suburb outside Chicago. Classmates would ask me all the time, “What are you?” Then they’d go through the laundry list of Asian races: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Filipino, Thai, etc.

This question always begets multiple answers.  Because although I identify ethnically as “Chinese American,” I would always just say “Chinese” because that’s what I knew they were looking for. In the end, I knew they would just sum it up to “Asian.” For years, classmates went around introducing me to others as their “Asian friend.” So it never really mattered how I responded to their guessing games; I would still end up categorized by someone else’s terms. In that sense, I’ve lost this game almost as many times as I’ve played it.

Perhaps I’m coming across as bitter, but I assure you I’m not. The racially homogenous suburb I grew up in wasn’t a hotbed for overtly racist activity — just passive ignorance. So despite hearing the occasionally unenlightened comment, I was rarely confronted with obvious prejudice. Today, when a friend or a stranger asks me upfront about my race, it doesn’t bother me. But if I pay attention to how they ask, I become more aware of how they perceive things and what’s important to them.

My idol Tina Fey has had similar experiences regarding the long scar on the left side of her cheek. She acquired it at an early age and has detailed society’s response to it in her memoir Bossypants:

“I’ve always been able to tell a lot about people by whether they ask me about my scar. Most people never ask, but if it comes up naturally somehow and I offer up the story, they are quite interested. … there’s [the] sort of person who thinks it makes them seem brave or sensitive or wonderfully direct to ask me about it right away … To these folks, let me be clear. I am not interested in acting out a TV movie with you where you befriend a girl with a scar. My whole life, people who ask about my scar within one week of knowing me have invariably turned out to be egomaniacs with average intelligence or less.”

Like Fey’s scar, my Asian features are out there for the world to see. My small eyes and black hair are some of the first things people notice about me and the way they act because of them reveals their true selves. Sometimes, people will treat my appearance as an invitation to start guessing my race. It’s like they think they’re on a game show requiring them to get the right answer in 30 seconds or less. Usually these people don’t mean any offense and are just genuinely inquisitive. But then there are the egomaniacs Fey refers to…

My freshman year of college, I found myself dancing with a guy at a party. In an act of misguided foreplay, he touched my face and asked me softly, “What are you?” Something about the way his fingers grazed my cheek hinted he wasn’t inquiring about my class year, major, hometown or any of the usual stats required for a one-night stand. He was playing the game. When I told him “what I was,” he grinned lasciviously and said, “I’ve never been with an Asian before.”

I didn’t know this guy very well. I do recall he was a history major and a member of the Jewish fraternity. He could be an upstanding man for all I know, a righteous dude. Though I don’t remember much about him, I do know one thing: he did not get with an Asian girl that night. To him and anyone else looking to put down a finger in the “Asian Hook Up” round of Never Have I Ever, let me be clear: I am not interested in acting out a TV movie where you befriend a girl who is Asian. Also not too keen on acting out a porno where you hook up with one. I know; I’m no fun.

When it comes to commenting on race in America, people don’t fall neatly into categories of harmless dodos or egomaniacs of average intelligence. From my time in a homogenous suburb to a fairly homogenous college campus, I’ve learned that there are many different responses. And now, unless you’re like the Alpha Epsilon Pi brother above, I don’t roll my eyes when someone plays “Guess My Race!” with me. I’ve since recognized the importance of society acknowledging my racial and ethnic identity and recent psychological studies agree.

A 2010 study on racial colorblindness published in Psychological Inquiry indicated that colorblindness doesn’t erase racial boundaries. Instead, it allows people who are unlikely to experience racial disadvantages to “ignore racism, justify the current social order, and feel more comfortable with their relatively privileged standing in society.” And, from my experience, colorblindness doesn’t help people of color come to terms with their own identity either. Politely ignoring race doesn’t make us any closer to a post-racial society; it suppresses our ability to see others and our communities as they truly are.

But when is it acceptable to ask about racial identity? In my experience, there’s a fine line between respect and offense. I have no problem discussing my race or ethnicity when the conversation occurs naturally and respectfully. But when someone asks about it to stroke their own ego or satisfy some sort of fetish? Count me out. I guess it’s just another game I don’t play. TC mark

image – Rebecca Wall
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  • http://twitter.com/Nadiaaa87 Nadia

    Yes, colorblindness is bullshit!! Thank you for writing this. I am quite racially anonymous as well. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=726295377 Mercedes Villanueva

    I’m a Filipino, Cuban, German, Russian, Israeli and Spanish mix. I used to have a friend who would ask people to guess my race. It was bloody annoying and made me feel like some kind of exotic fruit.

    • Cookie

      You sir, made my day with that fruit-comparison

  • waltzingout

    As a light-skinned Filipino-American I get this all the time too, often from complete strangers. I love when people ask where I’m from because I know they mean my ethnic background, I usually answer “Virginia” just to be deliberately obtuse. And you can definitely pick up on the ones who fetishize Asians, it’s creepy to deal with.

    • inf1nite

      I do the same thing. I think it’s so rude when people ask me where I’m from before anything else, like just because I look Asian I must be from somewhere in Asia (and somehow that’s more important than knowing my name or who I am). No, thank you very much, I was born and raised in the United States. It would be one thing if I had a foreign accent, but I don’t.

      I used to hostess at a Brazilian steakhouse and one night, upon informing a guest that we had already closed for the evening since we were having our employee holiday party that night, he actually said, in complete seriousness, “Oh yeah! Chinese New Year! I totally forgot!” I almost slapped him on the spot. Really? Do you know where you are? (To be fair, it actually was the lunar new year. But I’m pretty sure they don’t celebrate the lunar new year in Brazil.)

    • Anonymous

       Haha I do the same thing. I live in Denmark and when people ask me where I’m from, I reply “Copenhagen” :o)
      Always makes people confused.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002598124977 Traci Livinlovinlaughin Herbst

    This is probably not funny, but I just tell people I AM Asian because to me it is interesting to see if they inquire more information or leave it at that…when in fact I am German, Swedish and some Italian…I color my naturally blonde hair black and I have fair to olive skin depending on the season and green “slanty” eyes. My naturally dark eye brows help hide the fact I am indeed a true blonde and while this probably does not relate at all to this article…I’ve always found it interesting who argues and says “you are NOT Asian” and those who sit back and “let it be”.

  • Hachies

    Great article. As Cambodian/ Australian I can totally relate to your sentiments. There’s a difference between being genuine and respectful about wanting to learn about someone’s story, and being plain nosey- or asking “where are you from?” devoid of any context whatsoever. Thanks for writing this piece, it was great.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    A Vietnamese girl asked me if I was Cambodian and when she found out I am Korean she said: “You have really big eyes for a Korean.” I was dumbfounded. I’d never been given a compliment before.

    • http://www.facebook.com/anniehighleysmith Annie Highley-Smith

      Who is that sexy White girl in your pic? ASL.

  • Anonymous

    lol being Syrian myself, I have people guessing all sort of races for me, all the way from Turkish to Persian. Is it quite weird but I don’t let it get to me. 

  • Curtis Tori

    Love this article. I’m Japanese American and have a scar on my chin. All my feelings finally coherently written down rather than “I’ll smack the next person who asks what I am or what happened to my chin.”

  • inf1nite

    I especially enjoy the people who think they’re really good at the “guess my race” game. They’re like “oh, wait! I’m so good at this! I can totally tell what part of Asia you’re from!” I was once so offended by this guy who accosted me in a completely inappropriate situation that I actually responded “yeah, you definitely seem like the kind of person who likes to walk around being offensive and racist to anyone who isn’t white.” I would much rather have a complete stranger ask me what my ethnic background is than walk up to me and start guessing.

    Also, I think that this “guess my race” phenomenon is relegated to Asia and the Middle East — even if the person in question doesn’t have a foreign accent. You would never walk up to a black person and try to guess which African country they were from, UNLESS they had an obviously foreign accent. And even then you’d probably ask them before trying to guess.

    • Whitelightgenerator

      Not true. People have decided to guess if I was Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, etc (I’m not even hispanic).  Someone would have to be an ignorant idiot to ask an African American where in Africa they were from. African friends of mine are often asked where they are from if they have African last names, or like you mentioned, an accent. Lots of people don’t ask, they just guess or say things like “oh, theres a nigerian man in my office, are you from there?” Otherwise, you’d be asking for some really tense awkward silences if you just asked random black people.

  • Lily

    I’m literally cringing at this article. People are amazingly tactless and don’t even understand how their comments could be offensive or just rude. I grew up in New Zealand with British parents but because of my wavy black hair, dark green eyes and olive tinted skin people seem to think it’s cool to point out how my nose is slightly bent or how ‘classical’ my profile it. Aka I have a big nose and chin for a girl, and I ‘look like a Jew’. Or an Italian. Or a Spic (cringe!). Wouldn’t have a problem personally with any of these but the way people say it is astounding. Obviously not white enough, even though I drink 10 cups of tea a day and read The Guardian. Jeez. 

    • Darren

      oh no! Someone labeled my face as “classical!” Quick, butler, the Haagen-Dazs!

    • Jen

      spic? wow I thought we were past that.. 

  • Ariel

    Is it okay to ask someone ‘their background’?
    i’m quite visibly jewish (my hair, facial features etc) and i find putting it that way less problematic, both asking and being asked.

  • Shirley

    I volunteer at an old age home and have been asked the “What are you?” question more times than I can count there. For the folks at the home, my black hair and flatter bone structure is an anomaly. But aside from this, no one’s ever brought up the fact that I’m ethnically Chinese: not peers, not teachers, not strangers. Maybe it’s because I live in Toronto, a city that has become incredibly multicultural in the past few decades.

    I think this is a sign that the more diverse Western society becomes, the more race stops registering as the definition of a person. Multiculturalism rocks. And so does this article!

  • Mallory Lee

    I’m Hawaiian, Chinese and Dutch and I love the fact that my features cause people to question what I am. Why do people get so offended? I love that I look different than other people because it gives people something to talk about and often leads to interesting discussions about other people’s backgrounds. People are just curious and I’m thankful that I look different

    • allyoucantiff

      I think it comes down to how the person identifies with their race. I, for one, take it as a compliment that they find my look “different” enough for them to wonder. Perhaps the author is already on the defense on the issue of race and is overly sensitive, as if the game of “guess my race” forces her to identify with a part of her identity that she rather not identify with. I believe race is big part of anyone’s identify… it should be embraced instead of denied. 

      • Anonymous

        The same argument could be made for someone’s sexuality. Fact is, it’s no one else’s business to know AND it shouldn’t matter. (And, yes, I’ve been on the receiving end of the guessing game. Whether I mind or not usually depends on the intent of the person asking. I don’t really care for the most part.) 

  • Anonymous

    This article hits close to home.  Being an olive-skinned Caucasian, I have been asked, “What are you?” too many times to keep track throughout my lifetime.  It was more common when I was in elementary school – which makes sense, I guess – but even random people, such as two African American ladies at Cedar Point one time, come up to me and ask what I am.  The last time I was asked was just weeks ago.  Why does it matter?  People don’t realize that by asking me that question, it forces me to think that they perceive me as different. Most times I embrace it, but I always wonder if my life would have been dramatically different if I had grown up with lighter skin.

    • Derek

      “Are you a mix?” is question where I look them straight in the eye and reply, “Vodka and moonshine.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

      Are you a mix is better than being asked are you a mutt

  • Guest

    Funny, I was on vacation in Chicago and random strangers played the game too. It’s interesting. But if it’s to fulfill some kind of weird exotic fantasy of theirs, no thanks, just as you said,.

  • Whitelightgenerator

    Race and ethnicity are not the same thing. 

  • http://www.about.me/tanyasalyers Tanya Salyers

    I am half-Korean…I get asked my race at least once a week if not more.  

    Sometimes I mess with them, 
    “Where are you from?” 
    “New Jersey, you?”

    Either way, it gets old and tiresome.

    • guest

      I do that. all the time. :)

  • Anonymous

    One of my friends was at a party and the girl he was dancing with said he was “so ethnic!” and asked what he was (he’s northern Indian). He later asked Heems from Das Racist if he should “smash that” despite the race-stupidity and Heems said he should because the only way to stop racism is “one angry white dad at a time.”

  • Guest

    I’d like to play devil’s advocate and ask all the multiracial people who get offended at the “guess my race” game, what if someone is genuinely interested in your personal ethnic background? Not everyone who asks is being rude or even egotistically simpleminded, some of us just would like to get to know you better. One of my best friends is Nigerian, and We probably wouldnt have ever spoken to eachother had I not earnestly inquired about his background. There really is a thin line when broaching the subject, but some of us get lumped in with the insensitive side.

    • Hachies

      I think when broaching the subject, we are generally smart enough to gauge people’s intentions ie. why they want to know, and the context of the question. Of course if you have developed some sort of mutual understanding, sharing thoughts, stories etc, and it is a natural progression, then by all means– ask. I think the author (correct me if I’m wrong) is saying that in particular situations (and I have experienced this on numerous occasions) there is no progression, and they ask as if the difference between one another is the only thing they can talk about/ see/ notice. Essentially it feel like they are ‘othering’ you.

      I guess what I am trying to say is that identity is fluid, complex, deeply personal, and the person asking the question needs to have some understanding about you on other levels before something like “what are you?” can be asked…

  • Aelya

    It’s interesting to see how the race game has variations because if you, as a member of a certain race, has features that are atypical of that group of people, then even other members of that race treat you like a platform for public discussion about your looks. Regardless of whether people think you look better or worse (how awful, yet it happens) you sort of become the bulletin board for everyone’s opinions to be posted. Especially prevalent in countries with histories of being colonized, and where shadeism is prevalent. 

  • Daily TC Reader

    Back in high school, I had no problem telling people my family’s background. But the older I become, the more questions I get, and the more wrong guesses I receive. Now, whenever I am questioned, “Where are you from?” I simply answer, “here.” I no longer want to explain why I look the way I do . 

    Beautiful article. 

  • guest

    What about “What’s  your Chinese name?”,  “What does it mean?”

    • http://twitter.com/laurahtfraser Laura Fraser

      YES

    • http://ruthtam.com Ruth Tam

      “What’s my name in Chinese?” LOL

  • http://twitter.com/laurahtfraser Laura Fraser

    I’m bi-racial (Chinese/Scottish) and I actually quite like it when people actually take the time to guess. I think it means they’re acknowledging me as a whole as opposed to the WORST which is – like you said- when they just “sum it up to Asian”. I’m really proud to be a mix of both, and to me it’s interesting that for some, the Asian side is all people see. For others they only see white. As awful as it is to say, I prefer the latter because it means you pretty much get to escape, well, everything you mentioned.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13616321 Alia Ceniza Rasul

    Yup. Most people who try to guess my race within 5 minutes of meeting me are the same people who will have forgotten the next time we meet. Just today, when I told someone at work I was moving, he asks, “So, you’re moving back to Korea?” A) I’m moving to Toronto. B) I’ve never mentioned I was Korean…I’m not. C) Just 2 months ago, he asked me if my family was okay after earthquakes in the Philippines. Honestly, most times, I don’t mind too much but just by this question, I am obviously, to him, just “some kind of Asian.”

  • khoile

    Beautifully written. I have encountered very similar situations!

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