We recently had a house guest, someone whose looks are a bit exotic for this area of the country. I know this because more than once while he was here a friend or acquaintance asked him, “What are you?”
Yes, otherwise reasonably intelligent people think it’s perfectly okay to inquire about a person’s race. Further, they think it’s alright do so in an embarrassing manner. Seriously, “What are you?” Objectify much?
I have a good friend I’ve known for six or seven years whose ethnicity has always fascinated me, but not once have I asked her about it. It’s not important where her skin color and super kinky hair came from; what matters is that she is intelligent, funny, nice, unselfish, a good listener, outgoing, and beautiful inside and out. Why would I care about the genetics that gave her those distinctive physical traits? Why would anyone? Yet she has told me herself she gets the “So … what are you?” question quite a bit.
Okay, folks, lesson time: Unless it comes up naturally in conversation, it’s impolite to ask a person’s race, orientation, religion, or political affiliation. It’s just plain rude to ask anyone, at anytime, “What are you?”
And if you ask anyway and get a curt answer – and yes, this actually happened during my friend’s recent visit – don’t dig further. You may not have a racist bone in your body, but attempting to determine whether the person you just met is [whatever ethnicity you suspect] makes you sound an awful lot like one.
Who needs to know?