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This morning I had class at 7:45 am, which is brutal since A) I live way off campus which means that I have to get up more than 15 minutes before I need to be there, and B) I left campus last night around 10 pm. Also, I had not had any coffee (devastating, in my case), so as a result, during the break I ran over to the nearest cafe to grab some. While I was in line, a (white) person that I had never before seen in my life, walked up to me and asked me if I was Chinese. My immediate reaction was "uhmm, what?", while I tried to process this stranger in front of me, asking this randomly intrusive question without having had any coffee in my system. The kid held up a Chinese language workbook. "I need help with my homework, and I was wondering if you speak Chinese." he explained. I (politely, mind you, though it took a lot of restraint) told him no, I'm not Chinese and don't speak it.
I tried to process the situation over my cup of coffee, during the last remnants of my break. Why did this guy assume that I was Chinese? Why did he think it would be okay to intrude into my life, on this assumption, and ask if I could do his homework for him? Basically, why did he think that I was there for his benefit, void of my own interests, privacy, and schedules? In one word, and to simplify the situation down immensely, it was because of race. As a person of color (POC), I can testify to the numerous instances in which a white person has put their interests before mine, assuming that they will naturally come first. It's not always a conscious thing, and it's not always malicious. But it happens, everyday and all day. In this case, it was particularly blatant, because the person was asking me specifically about my race.
This brings us to a very specific category underneath the white-people-putting-their-interests-first umbrella: white people assuming that it's okay to inquire about (or hint at, or flat-out assume) a POC's racial background. One of the most common, and clumsy, ways this is done is with the "So where are you from?" question. Innocent enough, on the surface. But when asked to a POC, it often means more like, "I can't place you and that makes me uncomfortable." Even if the underlying motive is pure curiosity and nothing else (which it usually isn't), the asker still assumes that this is information that the askee is willing to share or talk about with them at that time and place. Having been asked this question many times and talked to other POC who have had similar experiences, the question evokes a feeling of not belonging, or even of being forced to choose sides (for those who are mixed race or racially ambiguous). The hesitation in sharing one's racial identity isn't so much about stubbornly refusing to disclose personal information (although for many, this is among their valid reasoning), and more about wanting to avoid stereotyping and categorization. My racial identity is something that I've struggled with for a while now. I've changed my articulation of it and my attitudes towards it, and in some regards, come to a fuller understanding of what it means to me. But it's still a very complicated and somewhat raw issue for me, and not one that I'm usually interested in delving into with people who I'm not close to (much less not acquainted with at all) for fear of where the conversation will go.
The other aspect that his comment hit on was the fact that people generally have a difficult time discerning physical differences between people who are not of their own culture. Hence, you have white people thinking that "all Asians look alike", or even more grievous instances like the 1980's Charles Stuart incident, in which a white man (Stuart), blamed the murder of his wife on an unknown black assailant. The police investigated and arrested a black suspect, who supposedly fit the description, only to find out that Stuart himself had killed his wife and made up the story to cover his tracks.
And yes, people of all races and color assume things about everyone. But I think that when white people do it to POC, it's all the more damaging because it reinforces the white supremacist histories and continuing racism within our society. It is also generally more damaging because of the institutional racial privilege (benefits that people receive due to their race, on a systematic, nation-wide scale) that exists in our society, causing the assumptions of white people about POC to have a much more detrimental impact than vice versa. The moral of the story is that all assumptions are bad, but not necessarily equally so. It takes a nuanced understanding of race (and other social categories such as gender, nationality, ability, sexual orientation, etc.) to be able to read and interpret these situations thoroughly, and to keep from overstepping other people's boundaries.