I wrote this elsewhere but am posting it here for two reasons. Firstly, I want to link you to this article written by Chally stating that white people don’t have a monopoly on genetic variation and I want to talk about it. (Actually, I’m just going to grab this opportunity to link a few essentials Chally has written lately: read this one, and this one, and this one.) And secondly, last week a (white) woman informed me that she was wondering why some Latina women have such white (“I mean really, really pure white,” she emphasized) skin even when they were “mixed” and disclosed that she had decided to conduct research on the matter through which she had “discovered that there is a biological ingredient in a specific chili pepper pertinent to their diet that results in whiter skin—”
“Do you also wonder why white people have such light skin?” I interrupted rudely, forcing what I had attempted as a polite smile.
She looked startled and laughed nervously.
Enter Chally’s article. White people do not have a monopoly on genetic variation. As Chally writes, they’re depicted as blonde, green-eyed, tall, petite, brunette, stocky, brown-eyed, Roman-nosed, slim, tanned, raven-haired, violet-eyed, snub-nosed, pale, blue-eyed, red-headed… But everyone else? One generic look each. And if “other” races deviate from their assigned appearance, their features are measured on a scale of whiteness. I’ve occasionally been told I have a white woman’s mouth and chin, and it always disturbed me. These are my features, and if I identified with a race they would be the features of my race. White people also happen to have them. That doesn’t make them white. It’s not a deviation from my race.
What’s worse is that someone is denied that background if xie falls outside the idea of what a person of that race should look like. (As mentioned in Chally’s article—yes, there are red-haired, blue-eyed Kashmiri people! And yes, they are still Asian.) But that’s how you get the stereotype that all people of one ethnicity look the same and are interchangeable and easily confused with one another. The vast, expansive differences are simply not acknowledged. People train themselves not to see the differences, are taught to expect everyone to look the same, and so they comfortably never see the differences. They don’t have to recognize or confront them or leave the comfort of their prejudice.
And that’s exactly why they deny you are the ethnicity you insist you are when you disclose it to them if you don’t look like their idea of that ethnicity. (“No way! You must be mixed!”) And that’s why they get so uncomfortable when they can’t figure out what ethnicity you are when you don’t disclose it. They need a label so that they can sum up your expected characteristics in all other areas. They are used to categorizing people together like that and erasing individuality and personal identity by assigning essential physical racial attributes and reducing you to them. If you’re not white, and they can’t figure out “what” you are, they suddenly don’t know how to behave.
I’ve had people desperately guessing at my ethnicity when viewing photos of me. “Arab? Brazilian? Moroccan? Indian? Mexican?” and even trying white ethnicities, “Spanish? Greek? Italian?” even though I clearly don’t look white, because white people are given the most variety in attributes. “You still have their skintone!” (No. I have mine.) Most people are convinced I must be mixed. (I’m not.)
So! Please don’t be an asshat, thank you.