Racial assumptions erode heritage

Sometimes it happens when I meet someone who only speaks Spanish and assumes the same of me. Other times it happens on the soccer field after a joyous outcry of “Golazo!”

No matter what the scenario is, I’ve come to terms with the fact that at some point after meeting me, people will ask me if I’m Mexican.

Photo Illustration by Eva Rodriguez and Photos by Qing Huang

Photo Illustration by Eva Rodriguez and Photos by Qing Huang

For a claim that is often based solely on appearance, I’ve dealt with this misguided presumption of my identity far too often in my life.

Instead of making assumptions about a person’s race and where they come from, it’s time to show a little respect. It’s time to just ask, “Where are you from?”

I am a Hapa, a Hawaiian label meaning half-white and half-Asian. My mother is a fairly dark-skinned, fully Filipino woman, while my dad is a white man. I was born with a complexion somewhere in between, which lent itself nicely to most people’s perception of a Mexican man.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being associated with Mexico or the people from there. I have many Mexican friends, including my childhood best friend. One of my favorite soccer players of all time is “El Tri” striker Javier Hernandez, more commonly known as “Chicharito,” and if it were socially acceptable I would eat tacos for three meals a day.

What is a problem is the audacity of people to be so sure that my features match up with their perception of who I am racially. I can’t tell you the number of times someone has called me Mexican without a second thought, or asked me, “You mean you aren’t?” with a tone of absolute astonishment.

And I know this tendency to preconceive someone’s background stretches far beyond Filipinos looking Latino. In a city with such a strong Asian history and population, Asians are miscast as one ethnicity all the time. There is the incredibly racist, yet commonly known idea that “they all look alike,” and I’ve also heard, “If you’re not sure, always assume Chinese,” multiple times in my life.

Am I just overreacting to a simple mistake? Why does it matter that someone thinks something about me with no malicious intent, but rather naiveté?

It matters. Few things are more important more than your roots. Knowing where you came from tells a story about your ancestors and the history of your people that led to where you are today. It tells you who you are.

There are real benefits to having a sense of ancestry. According to an 2010 Emory University study, kids who know stories about their family and relatives before them show “higher levels of emotional well-being.”

That’s not to say any one nationality is better than the rest, but everyone is different in their own way. This uniqueness breeds diversity and individuality, which makes you a more interesting person.

When people look at another person and categorize them, they strip them of their identity, if only for a moment. And maybe, like in my case, that person has been incorrectly labeled hundreds of times. From my experience I can say that after the first hundred, it starts to get really annoying.

The point is we all come from somewhere, and that’s something to feel proud of. As they say, “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

So my advice to anyone out there is not to make assumptions about the people you meet. Instead, simply ask “where are you from?”  You just might learn something.

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