You may not be aware of this term- neither was I until fairly recently- but when I first heard it and learned what it meant, I realized in a light bulb moment, that it describes me perfectly!
Growing up I had lived and worked in the family business and didn't have much interactions with people who were not locals. When the business finally closed down I took a job working the floor at a retail store and quickly became aware of one glaring, absurd, somewhat amusing fact: No one could tell what race I am.
Growing up in South Texas with black hair and a tan that I had always been under the impression made such a thing obvious, this was, to me, a bit bizarre.
I've had people just walk up to me speaking Spanish plenty of times, but having random people, clearly international tourists, walk up to me speaking Tagalog, Portuguese, Arabic and Hindi on a regular basis was - weird.
If people weren't walking up to me speaking the language, they were asking me if I was Indian or Arab or Indonesian or Filipino, and by they, I don't just mean international tourists, I mean Americans!
The first few times I found these incidences odd, but as it kept happening I just found it laughable. I'm third generation American- Mexican American- but still American.
I began to wonder if I should learn some phrases in these languages to pass myself off as (fill in the blank nationality) just for the fun of it. :P
One incident has always stood out to me because I found it so particularity funny:
I was restocking a shelf when a lady walked by and did a double take at me. I wondered what her deal was and when I looked in her direction and asked if she needed any help, she blurted in a crisp British accent, "Are you Native American?"
I remember it occurring to me as I processed what she'd just asked me, just how I must look to her, a British woman: That day I happened to be wearing a turquoise necklace, silver hoop earrings, a tan t-shirt and to top it off I had my hair in pigtails, I guess I just completed the look for her.
I was about to (politely) set her straight but looking at the eagerness on her face, I just didn't have the heart. She looked so excited.
I told her in very short form that yes, my grandparents were Native American. It's half true since my grandparents were from Mexico where everyone was a Mexican Indian/ Spanish mix. We talked for awhile and she left the store beaming.
I found the whole thing hysterical and still erupt in giggles when I remember the interaction.
For the most part being racially ambiguous can be fun. Growing up I had a friend whose whole family was racially ambiguous. Her brothers had a lot of fun using it to mess with people at parties where there was a minimum of people who knew them.
They would say to one person that they were Native American from the Navajo Nation, then to someone else that they were Filipino, to someone else that they were Native Hawaiian, and keep going like that with everyone they talked to, then wait and see how long or even if anyone compared notes and then burst out laughing when people would- O- So- Politely- ask for clarification.
I've never had the heart to mess with people on this level but I have to admit, it does sound fun :>
If there's one aspect about being racially ambiguous that is NOT fun, incessantly annoying and always rude, if not insulting, its the question, "What are you?"
'"What am I?"' I think. Really?
Do I look like a different species, or perhaps a clone?
My mother says she had the same question asked of her back in the day to which she would respond, "Human," and then go back to what she was doing.
I remember her telling me that if someone presses you for more information beyond that, if they need to know SO desperately where your ancestors came from before they form any other opinion of you, they are not people worth knowing.
I've met folks since who are as racially ambiguous as me and they tell me of similar experiences, of people pressing them for what exactly they are. Yeesh.
I can honestly say, aside from the rudeness of the initial question, I've never had anyone press me beyond that.
When I use my mothers response, they see how the question sounds and usually apologize, then we get to have a nice conversation.
Of the handful of times this has ever happened to me, I come to find that the person is not from my local area and frequently, from out of state. After the first time this happened, I realized- I'm likely the first racially ambiguous person they've ever met. More than once in these eye opening conversations, I get the distinct impression that I'm the first Hispanic person they've ever met.
Growing up in racially diverse South Texas, that's a strange concept to me. More on that in another post.
Over the years, I've come to enjoy my racial ambiguity. Its a bit like having a really weird superpower that I get to use as a springboard in conversations to talk about everything from familial relationships, to politics, to Jesus, (the latter being my most favorite ;), and since I'm a "minority", I can't be shut down or dismissed as quickly as others would be when I talk about my favorite person.
Hey, they're the ones who brought it up ;>
So I end with this: speaking from my own experience- next time you see someone racially ambiguous, introduce yourself, ask what their name is, where they're from. In short, strike up a conversation that will provide you a way to just get to know them a little and will allow you to get the information you want honestly.
Who knows, depending on the situation, you may even gain a new friend out of it. :D
P.S. If you're curious what I look like, check out my pic at the bottom of the main page.
P.P.S.- I will write an article on the topic of choice for the first person who can guess what the logo I'm wearing stands for. ;)