From the Herbivore: Aren’t you going to tell me?

My frustration with being identified by my ethnicity rather than individuality

National flags blowing // Image courtesy of Google Images Creative Commons License

National flags blowing // Image courtesy of Google Images Creative Commons License

Amber Milesi, Staff Writer

So? Aren’t you going to tell me…”

The phrase that set it all off. It started with one ruined fifth period Chemistry and led to the months of questioning. All because of one particular thing — a never ending interest in the color of my skin.

 The four students of my chemistry lab group honed in on me, the anticipation written on their faces, eyebrows piqued in curiosity, bodies angled forward, leaning in as if to listen to some big secret or school gossip. But I didn’t have breaking news to offer. There was no, ‘I had sex with so and so in the C building bathroom,’ ‘I broke my leg falling down the stairs,’ ‘our teacher is terrible and here’s why.’

All they had asked me was what I was.

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Infographic by Amber Milesi

And all I had responded with was that they didn’t need to know, and after a 10 minute conversation of asking and evading, temporarily interrupted with the passing by of our teacher to scowl at the minimal progress of our lab report, my race was still at the center of attention. They waited, as if this piece of knowledge was some sort of treat. What was so satisfying about the ethnicity of another? Why was it that they looked at me without really seeing me at all? And it was that scrutinizing narrowed look in their eyes, filled to the brim with assumptions, that pissed me off the most. 

It’s been years, and some might think I should be used to it by now — this constant questioning about my race. Some might say it’s harmless, others might not care. And for so many issues, that’s the approach I took as well, ignoring the issues others faced that I couldn’t relate to. It’s the go-to for society to avoid reality, after all. As long as it doesn’t involve me, why do I have to think about it? 

The first time I was asked this prying question, I got mixed reactions when I simply refused to answer. A new friend of mine had asked me, and I just wasn’t in the mood to get into the long follow-up conversation, so I said I didn’t want to tell her. She looked at me and asked why I was so ashamed of who I was. No prior knowledge, no need to hesitate, she knew why she didn’t get her answer. At least that’s what her matter-of-fact statement told me. Who I was? She barely even knew me, and yet, because I didn’t want to share information that I had deemed private, I automatically fit into her category of people so disgraced by their culture they didn’t dare say aloud. The presumptuous gaul of her assumption frustrated me.  

And frequently thereafter, the question resurfaced and was met with my constant refusal to answer. It made me wonder if our society is a desensitized generation of critics who judge the book by its cover even when we’ve been told so many times to drop that cliche.

But after that horrible day in my chemistry class, I sat down and thought for a moment. What is it that makes us so incessantly curious about the identity of others? And then I realized it. It’s that very barrier that keeps countries at war, society filled with prejudice, races divided —  it’s our almost compulsive desire to separate humanity by identity. Who you are equates to how I treat you. That and a fondness to place things in boxes, judging others based on what we see. And it seems that more often than not, it’s not to empathize, but rather to scrutinize.

Despite my own experiences, I too have taken on a judgemental mentality towards others. It’s become a habit that the moment I introduce someone or even talk about a passing stranger, I tend to clarify what their race is. 

 But what we forget is that in those archives of prejudice in our minds, we forget to see a whole human. A soul that feels and breathes and sees just as we do — surviving, failing, learning. And isn’t that what we all boil down to in the end?

And to break down centuries of built in prejudice, we need to focus on inclusion.”

— Amber Milesi

When we forget who we’re looking at and become blinded by what we think, we jump to conclusions, and sometimes, those conclusions manifest into actions. 

But there isn’t a need for all this judgemental bullsh*t. We need to stop priding ourselves for identifying a race and instead, try to learn about the abundance of characteristics and passions and personalities that make up the core of a person. 

The institutionalized, and sometimes systemic forms of racism in America today is hindering progress — whether that be in terms of jobs and fair wages, or education and access to support. 

Microaggressions like “what is your race?” or “where are you really from?” may appear insignificant, but they are microcosms of an overarching problem. And it’s time we held ourselves, and others, accountable for the implications of these phrases. It’s time we reminded ourselves that ethnicity and race are not our defining characteristics but rather just one of the many aspects that make us who we are. That’s how we work towards building a better future — one where each individual is defined by their uniqueness.