I originally shared this post on October 13, 2008. I updated it for today.
On Friday in the body image seminar that I have the joy of “facilitating” ( I guess I should say teaching but it really is a journey for all of us and so facilitating seems more authentic to the experience), the theme we examined was how race, class, culture, class, and religion impact body image. It was, as you might imagine, infinitely interesting, but a couple of the conversations we landed on that I wanted to share here involve the idea of ‘the exotic other’ and the notion of a box of understanding.
Perhaps it is human nature to want to put things into boxes of understanding, as in, “if I know X about you, then I can assume Y to be true for you” and so we decipher people by these categories rather than patiently and generously giving them room for their wholeness.
One of my students mentioned how disappointed someone was when she answered his question, “What are you?” with “Black.”
“Oh,” he had told her. “I thought you might have Phillipino in you.” Suddenly, he was treating her like she was a lot less interesting.
In Hijas Americanas, I wrote about a friend in college who told me that I would be ‘so exotic looking’ if I just had different eye color. I wasn’t exotic enough to be interesting. Just different enough to not be interesting.
As the class talked through these things, we couldn’t help but address what we should say in these situations (especially when we suspect the person might just be trying to be rude, racist, classist, or otherwise mean or insensitive) to help the person realize that he or she is trying to use a narrow box of understanding rather than allowing you the grace to be and define yourself. My suggestion? Always answer the person’s question– Are you mixed? Where are you from? What are your parents? What are you? – with a question: “Why do you ask?”
‘Why do you ask’ gives the questioner an opportunity to rethink his or her approach, consider why it is he/she needs or wants to know, reminds he or she that you are a real person who might possibly be hurt or offended by the question, and/or reintroduces him/her to the parameters of polite conversation. It also gives you the chance to gauge the sincerity in the question and decide how you wish to answer it based on that information.
Looking back at this post and this strategy I suggested to my students and on this blog almost three years ago, I’m struck by how while the precipitating conversation (to introducing this tool) was about issues of identity and body image, this question is one of the tools in my repertoire when confronted by people who intrusively ask about my conspicuous family. Just an interesting personal observation.
Now, your turn. What strategies/phrases do you use when others pose questions about who you are and how you are that cross over the line of appropriateness?