Asking Someone About Their Ethnicity

Advice for Thinking Before You Speak 

By: Sagrario Torres

“What are you?”

I know he’s asking about my ethnicity by the way he’s fixated on my face, brows furrowed. My initial response is to just answer the question; I am used to being asked.


I was not prepared for him to continue with, “You Mexican, or Indian?”


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The line between racial microaggressions and genuine interest is a clear one, but a person’s attitude and intentions are not always so clear. To avoid uncomfortable circumstances, here are some things to keep in mind:


Mind the phrasing and context of your question.

I, for one, love talking about my hardworking, immigrant parents, and if you ask me about my culture, I will happily tell you everything I know. But how the question is asked will determine the direction of the rest of the conversation. Simply asking about ethnicity is fine, but knowing howand whento ask plays a crucial role. If the time and place are appropriate, go for it, but above all, reconsider whether your intentions are of genuine interest in getting to know someone, or nosy curiosity.


Don’t try to guess where someone is from. 

Not only is it rude, but it also leads to racial ignorance. The question “You Mexican, or Indian?” ignores other ethnicities by stereotypically generalizing all ethnicities in the same regional area. It’s for this reason that I’d rather be asked about my ethnicity than have people assume my identity and further misunderstand where I’m from.


I obviously can’t speak for everyone because each individual has a different comfort level. Regardless of intent, questions about race can be too personal or offensive for some, and their boundaries should be respected. 


In an increasingly polarizing world, discussions like these are essential for mutual respect and can be unbelievably beneficial so long as we remember to be conscious of our words and think before we speak.

Wake Mag