Dear Prudence: I’m a mixed-race person who wants to ask after people’s ethnicities.

Help! I Look White. Does That Make It Rude for Me to Ask People Their Ethnicities?

Help! I Look White. Does That Make It Rude for Me to Ask People Their Ethnicities?

Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 7 2015 3:02 PM

A Lighter Shade of Pale

Prudie advises a woman who worries that looking white makes it rude of her to ask people’s ethnicities.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Maridav/Thinkstock.

Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone! Remember: It’s not too late to take to the sea and avoid everyone on earth until Jan. 2. Let’s chat!

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Q. I Look White: I am half Filipina but look white to many people. I have family in the Philippines, visit often, and feel very close to my heritage. When I recognize a Filipino accent, I often say “Are you from the Philippines?” My grandparents and aunts and uncles who were born and raised there but also look white all do the same. However, I see a lot of articles now about how rude it is to ask someone “what they are.” I have been on the other side of this quite a bit myself and so never thought anything of it until recently. But now I worry that because I look white, this question comes off as offensive (especially the times I get it wrong, though rare). I love bonding with people over shared traditions and culture; it makes me feel closer to my family that I miss! Can I still ask this question even though I look totally white? Is there a better way to ask?

A: There’s a world of difference between saying “I’m from the Philippines—are you too?” and collaring a stranger demanding to know their ethnic background out of idle curiosity. I don’t think you need to stop altogether, but be thoughtful about how and when you bring the subject up. A hurried barista or stranger walking past you on the street might not love bonding over shared traditions the same way you do. “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but my family is from the Philippines, and I was wondering if you were too?” is reasonably polite. Some people will be delighted to talk about the Philippines with you; others might find your question intrusive. If the response is an excited “Yes!” go ahead and have a friendly chat. If you’re mistaken or they seem uninterested in continuing the conversation, back off.

Q. When Adults Flip Out Online: I know the Internet has changed how we interact with the world and other people living in it. But recently I discovered the social media presence of the mother of one of my daughter’s friends. I knew this woman was intense, but online, she descends into frothing rants against Rumpelstiltskin of Once Upon a Time. She calls people names and attacks perfect strangers over a television character! I don’t know how to keep a straight face the next time I see her, much less whether this is the kind of person I want my kid around. Should I dismiss this as “everyone acts different online” or what?

A: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” “Yell at strangers about Rumplestiltskin’s motivations on the Internet, I guess.” It’s a strange hobby, but everybody’s got their something. Feel free to limit your daughter’s time with this woman, although I doubt she’s in the habit of arguing about television characters with children, but otherwise file it away as a reminder that life is a rich tapestry and there are innumerable ways to waste time.

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Q. Father/Daughter Falling Out: Four years ago my daughter asked me to move from a small town I loved to a city I didn’t care for while she started her family. Two years ago at Christmas, shortly after I had a stroke, she told me only family (her husband and children) were allowed on Christmas. I am told I became extremely upset. My doctor told me I experienced global traumatic amnesia. Even after speaking with my closest friends, I recall almost nothing. For the next year things were normal—we saw each other several times a week. Last Christmas she again told me to stay away on the 25th. I think she doesn’t believe I don’t remember. She hasn’t spoken to me in a year; she has a baby I’ve never met. She told a friend of mine, “You have no idea what my father has done to me.” I don’t have any idea what I did! She has refused several attempts to talk. Her mother is no help. I really want to leave the city, but some friends tell me it would be a huge mistake. Evidently, she has been furious about something for at least two years. What can I do?

A: You don’t know what your daughter is angry about, but it’s serious enough that she doesn’t want you to meet your grandchild. It’s unclear to me whether she thinks what happened two years ago was bad enough to end your relationship or if it was the final straw.

You say your wife is no help—is there anyone else in your family who is willing and able to talk to you about what you might have done? It’s possible that your daughter is being irrational and has unreasonably shut you out of your life; it’s also possible that she sees your relationship very differently than you do and has good reasons to cut you off. You can’t force her into telling you why she won’t talk to you. You can send her a low-pressure note letting her know that you love and miss her and are available to talk and possibly apologize if she wants to. She may respond, she may not. But if the only reason you’re staying in this city is out of some sense of obligation to a relationship you no longer have, I think you should feel free to move back home.

Q. Re: Are You From the Philippines?: We Jews are always on the lookout for fellow members of the tribe. Without reliable visual cues, we resort to something “bageling”—dropping broad cues about our own background to get the other person to do so, too: a recent visit to Bubbe’s, a love of good lox, an exaggerated oy, a reference to summer camp or shul. Maybe there are parallels in the Filipina/o universe you could use?

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A: That is one of the most charming things I have ever heard. It gives the other person an opportunity to grab at a shared reference, rather than making an outright request of them. I like it!

Q. Racist Relatives—Am I the Only Sane Woman?: The holidays are approaching, and that unfortunately means spending lots of time with my family. I despise them, though, and they say the most horrible, racist, bigoted things imaginable, and I never feel comfortable speaking up, but I don’t know if I can stand it any longer. I fear I’m finally going to snap and lash out physically if things trend that way this year. (By the way, I have been diagnosed with and am being treated for a mental disorder, but very few in my family know that—those who do don’t believe it’s a real problem!) I don’t want to wind up throwing heavy glass place settings at my relatives’ heads. Help please?

A: Don’t go! Just don’t go. There are no prizes for grimly enduring dinner with people you despise just because it’s Christmas. You don’t otherwise have a good relationship with them, so just don’t go. Make a polite, anodyne excuse and bail out. If your options are “committing a violent crime at the dinner table” and “slightly upsetting your relatives because you fake sick/a work emergency,” go with the latter.

Q. Roommate Dilemma: I’m a college freshman who’s looking at housing options for my sophomore year. Two good friends have offered to room with me. One of them, Peter, would probably be the better choice. We’re in the same friend group and we have similar interests—and we have similar preferences regarding the room (staying up late, not using drugs, etc.). The other one, Tom, is an awesome guy, but I don’t know if we’re as complementary in our habits. He also doesn’t really get along with my other close friends, so I would feel awkward inviting people over. Peter thus seems like the obvious choice, but Tom approached me about this first—so I would feel pretty guilty about not rooming with him—at the time I was pretty enthusiastic about the idea even though I didn’t say I would. Should I pick Peter over Tom, or should I stick with the friend who I discussed it with first? 

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A: There is no unwritten rule that you have to live with whatever person asks you first. Pick Peter.

Q. My Son the Republican: My 24-year-old son is an only child, and I raised him on my own. I am a progressive political activist and strongly pro-choice, but he has been moving steadily right for four years. Our last conversation was about how he is anti-choice and he is actively campaigning for a Republican candidate. He says terrible things about poor people. The thing is, he got his political ardor and also his substantial education from me, and now we can hardly talk to each other. I see him rarely, so I try to simply swallow my tongue, but I am appalled by my own child and worried about him. His callousness and that of his candidate are incomprehensible to me. How did he move so far from his upbringing? How do I have a relationship with him? How do I get through Christmas?

A: No one can predict how a child will turn out! They will almost always find a way to rebel if they want to rebel, and you’ve got to figure out how to deal with your Alex P. Keaton for the rest of your life, no matter how he votes. Disagreeing politically is something you can do respectfully, I think; speaking cruelly about the poor is a thoughtless and unkind habit, and I think it’s more than fair for you to challenge him when he does so.

It’s a bit out of order, but here are my best answers for your three questions: He moved so far from his upbringing because he is his own person, and there is no guarantee that your children will share your values, no matter how good a job you do raising them. His political views are not a referendum on your quality as a mother. You get through Christmas by saying that you love him and you want to hear about how his life is going while keeping the political talk to a minimum. You have a relationship by listening to him with an open a mind as you can muster, calling him out when he says something that goes beyond controversial and becomes insulting or callous, and knowing when to call an end to a political debate and talking about something else.

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Q. Re: I Look White: I look totally ethnically ambiguous and get asked about my background often. When people guess, they are almost always wrong. I think it’s worth pointing out that if people can’t tell you’re Filipina, there’s a good chance you’ll be wrong too. These conversations are the best when they happen organically.

A: Also an excellent point!

Q. Co-Worker Question: I work in small office (less than 10 people). This week, the co-worker I’m closest with has been sporting a black eye, and today I noticed she also has a fat lip—I don’t if it’s new or I just noticed it. Should I ask what happened? Just remind her that I am here for support? Keep my mouth shut?

A: Someone with a better understanding of workplace law can feel free to chime in here if I’m way off base, but I think that if you’re friends with her, it’s a good idea to say something. You don’t have to interrogate her, just privately point out that you’ve noticed she’s been injured lately and you want to make sure she’s okay. Keep your expectations low—there’s any number of possible explanations, and she may very well not want to involve you—and let her know you’re available to listen, if she ever wants to talk.

Q. Re: Father/Daughter Falling Out: Get your doctor or a post-stroke medical professional of some sort involved. There’s something going on that you’re unable to remember or grasp, and she may think you did it deliberately. An independent third party with medical knowledge may help here.

A: Good advice.