"What are you?"
"Excuse me?" I would say, pretending I hadn't answered this question at least a thousand times over the last 25 years.
"What are you, like, where are you from?"
"From here." I have often said with a smile, knowing more pressing questions are coming about where I'm really from and what ethnic background/race I am.
At times it's exhausting. Other times I've amused myself by creating elaborate tales about my origins. I don't believe I owe anyone an explanation for "my look" and yet I've found myself having this conversation while I'm serving a coffee or folding clothes or checking someone out at a retail store.
I think there are various reasons people think it's okay to be so forward, and perhaps others may not realize how this question sounds to the one being asked. My mom used to say it’s because people want to know what makes up such a beautiful looking person. But moms are supposed to say that. And I am not conventionally beautiful being four inches shorter than the average woman, dark-skinned, overweight, and with kinky ethnic hair. I grew accustomed to the childhood taunts at age six that only intensified as I hit puberty and beyond.
I’ve often thought that because I am not easily identified with an ethnicity or culture by my appearances alone, there remains an uncertainty in how to stereotype me. I don't think all stereotypes are terrible but when they become the measure for how you determine one's intelligence or capability, it’s not okay.
I believe that every person has their own set of prejudices against other people groups-- whether personally acknowledged or not. But I don't think minority groups have the basis for being racist.
Hear me out.
The book of Exodus starts out by telling us that although the generation of Joseph and his brothers had passed, the Hebrews multiplied, grew exceedingly strong and filled the land. But then a king arose who didn't know Joseph. He planted fear into the hearts of his administration by fabricating scenarios about the possibilities of what could happen amongst the prolific foreigners. His anxiety about this population led him to produce legislation that proactively tried to diminish the Hebrews. The Egyptians had the backing of the most powerful ruler of their time to commit evil acts against the Hebrews. We see two major ways that injustices against the Hebrews took place: their jobs (more than they could do for not enough pay) and their children (midwives given orders to not let the boys live). This behavior was mandated and systematically carried out over an entire generation of Hebrews. The fathers of this generation were worked like slaves in dehumanizing conditions. The mothers had to face unthinkable questions: what to do if they birthed a baby boy, or what hope they could have for their daughters in a world where their only marriage options would be to the very people who killed their sons.
I'm not trying to be political, this is just the earliest story we are given of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. It's a horrible and heart-wrenching story. And it has only been repeated throughout history. For example, with European colonizers in South Africa, using the strength and labor of Indian and Chinese men to mine diamonds while simultaneously denying land rights to native Africans, then imposing apartheid. Or with the Spanish conquering the Americas by forcibly converting indigenous peoples then stealing their land, women, and children and relegating them to property status. It is my observation that people of color can't "practice" racism because they don't have any power on their side to reinforce their behavior. Racism is a sociological system. It is not merely negative interactions between races. It is sewn into the fabric of history, where, on every level, the powerful benefit from the dehumanization of people of color. This is one piece of what it means to have white privilege. Whites have the "privilege" to oppress.
I know it would never have been okay for me to ask the same question to the white woman I was serving in a restaurant, "What are you, ma'am?" I would have lost my job. But it's okay when the roles are reversed because knowing my ethnic background puts her at ease and she can adjust her stereotype of me to fit her expectations.
I've experienced my share of racist attitudes from bosses, co-workers and even face-to-face with a state legislator who repeatedly used the phrase "your people" to describe the ills of her district. I don't want to be responsible for the actions of every person who looks like me. Yet every day this happens to people of color in our country.
In Israel’s opening drama, God shows himself deeply concerned with the plight of those who suffer unjustly, and calls one of the greatest faith heroes of all time to work with him to change their situation. I hope and pray that remembering God’s role in the exodus will allow us all to see how irrational our fears are about people who look and speak different than us. Biased fears, or at least assumptions, fuel racist behaviors and actions--and even legalize them.
I hope our remembrance can shed light on the expectation for God's people to take no part in behavior that lends itself to fear-based biases. God's people must take up the cause of the weak, those who don't have the backing of the powerful, those whose history is birthed from slavery, displacement, and war.
After all, I should only have to answer that I am human.