How to deal with people questioning your race

If I had a penny for every time someone told me I “don’t look” Mexican, I’d be rich. But I’d rather it never happen again instead.

Maxine McCrann
Advocate > Ally
Originally Published: 

If I had a penny for every time someone told me I don’t look Mexican, I would melt them all down and make a beautiful copper sign that says, “Please stop talking.” In other words, people tell me that shit all the time.

But I’m as Mexican as they come: My father is Mexican, I was born in Mexico City, and I speak fluent Spanish. But if you see me IRL, you might start to understand all the doubt: I mostly “look” Asian, a fact that was drilled into my head ad nauseam by everyone around me growing up.

My mom is Chinese, and I absolutely love being Asian as well. What really bothers me, though, is that looking Asian somehow completely cancels out my Mexican ethnic identity for a lot of people. Being denied my Latinx heritage really fucked with my mind growing up, because the only thing that stood in the way of other Mexicans embracing me as “one of them” was the way I looked. Eventually, I got tired of being questioned and decided to distance myself from Hispanic culture, telling people I was Asian American for simplicity’s sake. It made me feel inauthentic, but I was also tired of being constantly questioned.

Americans often conflate ethnicity with race, a fact that leaves anyone whose identities do not fit within neat boxes on the peripheries of society. So here’s a quick masterclass: Race is what makes up our unique physical traits, while ethnicity is cultural expression and identification, per National Geographic. That means there’s an entire world out there filled with Asian Latinos, Black Asians, and White Africans. On top of that, there are mixed race people who don’t identify as any one race — which, by the way, is becoming increasingly common. As humans, we love to put each other into neat and easy-to-understand boxes, which can severely limit how we get to express our identities.

There is little advice out there on how to navigate a world in which your race and ethnicity do not stereotypically align. Because there are still people out there who can’t seem to honor people’s identities without projecting their beliefs about how others “should” look, I spoke to some experts about what to do if you feel like your identities are constantly being questioned.

You don’t owe anyone an explanation about where you are from

You know something is seriously wrong when so many people feel uncomfortable and limited by the labels we’re forced to choose from when identifying ourselves. Anyone who has gone to school in the U.S. knows the experience of having to check a box to best describe their race — and for many of us, there is no box that reflects who we are besides “Other.”

Arrin Hamilton, a 27-year-old who works in HR, is of Black, white, and Syrian descent. He tells me he used to work at an upscale restaurant in Pennsylvania and that white diners would ask him where he was from multiple times during his shifts. “I felt like they thought they were entitled to an explanation of my racial background because they couldn’t easily pinpoint my race based on my appearance alone and categorize me accordingly,” he tells me. For racially ambiguous people, exoticization and fetishization are common experiences. It’s almost like, for some people, guessing our identities is a game that can also turn weirdly sexual.

Ian Kumamoto

I can totally relate to the deeply uncomfortable experience of scrambling to define oneself only to make other people more comfortable. Hamilton mostly identifies as Black, and for a similar reason, I long identified solely as Asian American — not because it’s the most accurate label for me (the most accurate would be Asian-Latino), but because I wanted to be palatable and understood by others. To an extent, this is a very human impulse. “When someone is not affirmed in their racial and ethnic identity, they lose a sense of connection to who they are,” Omar Ruiz, a Massachusetts-based family therapist, tells me. “Belonging is not just a desire but a requirement for survival. When these aspects are challenged, a person can get lost in the sea of emotions because they have no solid ground to step on.”

This longing to have a community may lead us to simplify our identities. I never had a community of other Chinese-Mexicans to affirm me in who I was, in the same way that Hamilton didn’t have a community of Black, white, and Syrian people to rely on. One of the best first steps we can take, then, is to stop feeling like we owe people the right to categorize us.

When people question your ethnicity, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with you

I used to take it extremely personally when people told me that I didn’t look Mexican. How could I not? It almost felt like they were trying to tell me what I was allowed and not allowed to be.

Now, I wholeheartedly understand that their inability to see me as Mexican has nothing to do with me and everything to do with stereotypes and other people’s limited understanding of race.

I see the effects of this particularly on many of my Afro-Latino friends. Because many Latin American cultures are obsessed with whiteness, we gladly grant Latinidad to those who are lighter skinned and have more European features. Latin America has exported this image to the rest of the world — so in the U.S., when people think of a Latino, it’s easy to conjure someone who looks like Bad Bunny or J Balvin. “As I got older and understood the anti-Black sentiments that not only run deep in America but also in Latin America, questions about where I was from bothered me because it's a reflection of how Latinos reject Blackness,” Michelle Santana, a Brooklyn-based artist, tells me. “Due to my Blackness, I'm being denied my culture.”

At the end of the day, the rejection that Santana faced growing up comes from an ugly place. By attempting to distance their racial identity from Blackness, Latinx folks are shutting out Afro-Latinos from our cultural fabric. Santana looks Latina because she is Latina; whether other people feel uncomfortable about that shouldn’t be her problem.

“Questions about my ethnicity and race used to rile me up, but I try to discern the person's intention and separate it from their delivery. But I won't not educate someone and put them in their place if need be,” Dan Q Dao, a New York-based writer and founder of communications agency District One, tells me. Dao is Vietnamese-American with some Pakistani heritage and, like me, doesn’t feel great when others categorize him broadly as Asian-American. “I'm proud of what makes me specifically Vietnamese-American. What is there not to be proud of?”

Celebrate the beauty of not fitting into a box

When people question fundamental parts about me, I often go into fight-or-flight mode. None of us wants to be perceived as dishonest or inauthentic, so we fight for some coherent idea of ourselves. When your ethnicity — in my case, my Mexicanness — is constantly challenged, it creates a lot of anxiety. That anxiety is heightened when people like former president Donald Trump spew hatred against Mexicans. For a while during Trump’s presidency I felt stuck between wanting to stand up for Mexicans while also feeling like I wasn’t “Mexican enough” to do that. Our tendency to deny each other our culture is detrimental to all of us, because it makes our communities more fragmented.

As people living in a country that purports to celebrate all people, it’s about time we recognize that the way we label people limits the possibilities of who we can be. As we continue to grapple with our country’s ugly past, we should also recognize how conflating ethnicity with race is a function of white supremacy. It keeps each of us in separate, tidy boxes like some sort of racist Noah’s Ark. Race and ethnicity are so much messier and more multifaceted than we were taught to believe; once we recognize this, we’ll be able to take our conversations about race to another level. In the meantime, please, for the love of everything that is sacred, stop telling people that they don’t look Mexican.