I'm a light-skinned African-American, OK?

Why do strangers think it's permissible to grill me about my skin color?

Published October 28, 2005 9:45AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Here's my problem -- well, really two problems: I am constantly being asked about my ethnic background. Unfortunately, answering the question usually only leads to more questions.

Simply put, I am African-American. I happen to be very light-skinned. This is a common phenomenon in this country -- the European blood that is in me is the result of the union of slave owners and slaves generations ago, on both sides of my family. This creates a phenotypic "lottery," where for example my siblings came out brown and I came out extremely light, like my mother and grandmothers.

While I had to deal with a lot of teasing as a kid, as a young adult it rarely came up. However, I later met and married a wonderful man of South Asian descent. As a result my social circle now includes many more international people than before. When I attend cocktail parties or other events with a largely international crowd, inevitably every conversation goes something like this:

"So where are you from?"
"Houston, Texas."
"I mean, where are your parents from?"
"I mean, you look a little ethnic." (So that means I'm only American if I'm white?)
"Right, I'm African-American."
"Really? You don't look African-American at all! Is one of your parents white?" (So that means I wouldn't be African-American? What business is it of yours?)

At this point I normally have a very pissed-off look on my face. Over the years I've become increasingly frustrated and belligerent by what are very personal and ignorant questions. It also bothers me that a first-generation white person is assumed to be American, but despite the fact my family has been here for hundreds of years, I'm still from Africa somehow. My husband thinks that I'm overreacting and that people don't realize they are being offensive. But what about me?

I feel I have a right not to discuss it in the first place and not to dignify these questions with answers. Regrettably, the topic of the conversation usually segues into my "nationality" just as I'm getting to know someone and thinking they are pretty cool. Afterward, though, I want nothing to do with them. The funny thing is, this happens so often that both me and my husband can tell when someone is trying to find a way to ask me "what" I am. And I'm not even going to get into an instance where a McKinsey partner broke into stereotypical "sister-girl" slang with me after I quieted his curiosity. What should I have done, responded with my best 7-Eleven-owner Indian accent? He probably wouldn't have gotten the joke.

So am I overreacting? Am I wrong to get upset by this? Can you suggest a way to deal with this situation that will allow a potential friendship to develop, yet spare me the job of educating every person I meet in American history and biology?

Not a Caublinasian

Dear Not a Caublinasian,

If you had one or two stock phrases to handle this situation, would that help? I suspect it might. I know there are deep, complicated and highly emotional issues here, which I will briefly address in a minute. But for your immediate problem, it seems to me that you need some techniques for getting through the night.

What about simply saying, "Please, no more talk about me. Let's talk about you." It is permissible, I think, in almost any social situation, with some such phrase, to firmly if lightheartedly turn the talk away from yourself and onto someone else. You have to follow up with something specific, for although people love to talk about themselves, they usually need a place to start. So feel free to improvise, to say, for instance, "Let's not talk about me. Let's talk about where you got your shoes." Or ... "How about that son of yours in Iraq," or, "Where can I get a good burrito in your hometown of Albuquerque?"

There are a million variations. The point is to clearly convey that you want the focus of the conversation turned away from yourself and onto someone else -- or something else. It is relatively easy. But there are a few things not to say. Do not say, for instance, "I'm sorry, but I'm just not comfortable talking about my skin color." Admitting your discomfort increases the focus on you. In fact, it introduces a delicious topic for further torturous discussion: Your discomfort is suddenly quite interesting and well worth pursuing! So just say, "Let's not talk about me," and come up with another topic.

It may also be tempting to say something like, "Speaking of skin color: Where did you get that amazing alabaster complexion? Were both your parents so white?"

But you don't really want to be insulting in turn, do you? I suggest you simply shield yourself by deftly steering the conversation somewhere else. Be firm. If pressed on the issue, perhaps you could recommend a book that speaks for you in some way and say, "If you really want to know why I feel the way I do, read this book."

From the tone of your letter, I get the impression that just knowing people are going to ask the same boorish question over and over again might make every social opportunity a little fraught with worry. My hope is that once you have something you know you can say to handle such situations, you can relax and enjoy other people more.

Now to the elephant in the room: I continue to believe that there is deep racism in America, and that wherever Americans gather, even in broadly international gatherings, racism hovers in the room. I also believe that African-Americans have certain feelings and knowledge that the rest of us, no matter how hard we try, cannot fully understand in all their depth, complexity and power. Your strong feelings about your skin color and your heritage may surprise others. People may suggest you just "get over it." I don't suggest you get over it. I do suggest that we live in a tragic world where atrocities echo down through generations.

Still, you have to do something to get through the night.

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