“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
I watch as you slowly make your way toward me, casually looking around. You avoid eye contact, as though I don’t already know that you want to ask me the same dumb questions as everyone else. I try to make it less awkward. Just to clarify, I’m not trying to ease your discomfort, just my own.
We stand in the beating sun. There’s worn-out, yellowish grass with slight patches of vibrant green every few steps. We’re encircled by a cement track, and around us people are either sitting socializing, shielding their faces from the sun, or sprinting and getting their workout for the day.
You’re tall, like everyone compared to me. We finally make eye contact and a gawky smile emerges. I smile in return out of courtesy. I know just as well as you do that our first impressions can’t be affected by this encounter, so we try our best to “play it cool.”
Your face is different, but every encounter like this is the same. Although you tower over me, I can still spot your apprehension; I prepare myself for the discomfort.
Finally you pop the question, starting with, “This might be a little weird, and please don’t take offense or anything, but …” Unfortunately it is weird, I do take offense. You shouldn’t need me to tell you that if you think a question will hurt my feelings, you probably shouldn’t ask it.
“So, you’re really fast. Is it because you’re black? Oh! And is that kid over there your brother? ’Cause he looks just like you!”
I’m not shocked to be asked questions like this. Believe it or not, I get stupid questions all the time. They all begin with the same approach, awkwardness, and stereotypes. Some of the time, it’s not even a question, just a dumb remark about something they saw on Twitter that they miraculously connected to me. Trust me, part of my ethnicity isn’t living under a rock. I have a phone, and I use it pretty frequently; I know almost every stereotype out there.
I also know every stereotype attached to being African American and Asian. I don’t find them offensive, and sometimes I even find them funny, but I often wonder if I should. Should I be participating in the ridicule of my own ethnicity? Shouldn’t I have more pride in my race? Then I think, if I had been raised by a family of my own skin color, would I have more pride? Would it have affected how I respond to the countless questions I’ve received?
I try to collect my thoughts. I can’t pretend I didn’t notice you glance at me and whisper to your friend before you decided to come over. I know you thought that the hand you held up to shield your mouth could substitute for a wall to block assumptions, but it couldn’t. I saw this coming – I always do, but it feels like it takes me hours to come up with a civilized response.
See, I don’t take offense at these sorts of comments or questions. I don’t feel my heart drop the way it does when I hear bad news or know of the inevitable. It’s just, I don’t know if I should be allowing people to think it’s okay to say something offensive because I didn’t draw a line between what they could and couldn’t say.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my KFC and fried rice just as much as the next blasian (black and Asian – it’s what my friends call me), but what do I say when someone makes a joke about my “gang being shot up” or asks if I’ve “robbed any banks recently”? Should I laugh it off or make a scene?
Sometimes I just don’t know whether or not I do justice to my race or even to myself. The constant questions tear through my thoughts and keep me awake at night, as a nightmare would.
“Are you okay?”
“Oh … yeah. I’m fine.”
I catch myself cringing as I wipe the whirlwind of thoughts from my mind. We’re still standing there, and I pause to put a cluster of words into a sentence.
“Well, I’m athletic, so I’d hope I’m fast. No, that guy isn’t my brother. He’s black, I know, but we’re not all related. And yes, your questions are weird and a little offensive, so don’t expect the next black person you ask to have the strength to overcome the pain they feel in the few seconds after you ask, to handle it the same way.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.