Dear white people,
I know you’re usually well-intentioned. I know you’re trying to broaden your cultural horizons by exposing yourselves to people from all walks of life. That’s great! Exposure to different ideas is an excellent way of tearing down misguided preconceptions and becoming more open-minded. (Why do you think I’m dating a white guy? I’ve learned so much!) So I get that when you ask me questions, you’re probably doing it out of a desire to learn and become more educated and aware about the world around you. Kudos! I wish more white people would do the same.
That said, there are a few things you need to understand about me. Firstly, I’m not a walking, talking, nicely-tanned substitute for Google. Secondly, you need to think a little before you speak. I’m pretty understanding, but I’m not that understanding. Here are ten things I really don’t want to hear you say to me – no matter how good your intentions are.
1. “Your looks are so exotic!”/”Your people are so beautiful!”
Um, excuse me? “Exotic”? I know you think this is a compliment, but I’m a human being, not a zoo exhibit. I was born and raised here in Australia. I’ve been back to Pakistan once, and I was two years old and barely remember anything. I’m about as exotic as the imported Greek feta cheese I buy at the supermarket – of foreign extraction, perhaps, but otherwise pretty ordinary (if incredibly delicious). And even if I was a foreign immigrant – which both my parents are – I still wouldn’t be exotic. I’d just be from somewhere else. Calling a non-white person “exotic” isn’t the compliment you think it is – it’s just a reminder that you see us as unusual and foreign.
And all this “your people” stuff? Which people would those be, exactly? Most people who say this to me mean Indians. I’m not even Indian. I’m Pakistani and Afghani on my dad’s side, and Turkish on my mum’s side – and yes, there is a difference. This is kind of like asking a Welshman which part of England he’s from. (Note – I did this with a supervising doctor once. He did not take it well.) And besides, “my people” are just as diverse in appearance, behaviour and custom as your people are. We’re not a monolith. There are plenty of brown South Asian folks with whom I have things in common, and there are plenty who would consider me just as “exotic” as you do.
2. “Where are you from? No, I mean, where are you really from?”
Short answer: Australia.
Long answer: Australia. I was born in Canberra.
Do you ask every white person you know exactly which part of Europe their ancestors came from? Probably not, because you consider them just plain ol’ white, just like you. So what makes you think it’s any of your business which part of the world my ancestors lived in? Maybe this is just you trying to strike up conversation, but when I answer your first question with “I was born here”, and you follow up with “yeah, but where are you really from?”, my answer is going to be, “from somewhere where I was taught not to ask pushy, invasive questions. Where are you really from?”
I’m proud of my ethnic heritage, but I was born and raised Australian. Any details I choose to share about my background are optional extras. They’re things about me that you’re not necessarily entitled to know. So when I politely rebuff you the first time, don’t push it. I’ll tell you if I want to, not before.
3. “So, like, do you have an arranged marriage?”
So, like, did you learn everything you know about brown people from fragments of an old Bollywood movie you saw on SBS one time?
This is an offensive question for a bunch of reasons. Firstly, it makes assumptions about my assumed culture, and secondly, it implicitly judges said culture based on those assumptions. For the record, no, I do not “have an arranged marriage”. Neither did my parents – they met here in Australia, dated and got married in the regular (i.e. Western) way. I’m currently in a relationship with a guy I met all on my own, no parental nudging involved.
A lot of people ask me this because I’m Muslim, which is doubly offensive because it plays into stereotypes about Islam as a religion that are rooted in half-knowledge about some of the cultures of people who practice Islam. Now, I’m not saying I have anything against arranged marriages – I’ve known plenty of people in them who’ve found love and long-lasting happiness. But you know what they say about people who assume, right?
4. “So does your dad wear a turban?”
No, because he’s not a Sikh – and even then, not all Sikh men these days wear turbans. You’re aware that brown people, even South Asian brown people, aren’t one giant cultural and religious monolith, aren’t you?
Turbans are, generally speaking, associated with the Sikh religion, which is, generally speaking, followed by quite a few people in Punjab province in both India and Pakistan (though this is not a hard and fast rule – there are non-Punjab Sikhs and non-Sikh Punjabs). My family aren’t Sikhs, though I grew up with Sikh friends (many of whom did not wear turbans except on formal occasions, just for the record, because we live in the tropics and those things are heavy). This would be like asking a Hindu woman why she’s not wearing a hijab. Don’t assume a religion or set of cultural practices based on my skin colour, please. You will almost always be wrong.
Honorary mentions go to all the people who’ve acted confused when they’ve seen me eat beef (that’s a Hindu thing, not a Muslim thing), all the people who don’t understand why I don’t eat bacon (that actually is a Muslim thing), and everyone who’s ever asked me about bindis.
5. “Why don’t you wear your traditional dress more often?”/”So do you own any saris?”
The last time I owned a shalwar kameez was when I was about thirteen. It was maroon with cream embroidery, a combination that is absolutely killer with my skin tone. I haven’t owned or worn one since because, as it turns out, we brown folks often dress for comfort and utility, just like white folks do, and a heavy knee-length tunic and wide pants are not the most practical garments for someone who lives in Oh My God When Will The Humidity Stop, I’m Melting, Queensland.
And no, I don’t own any saris, those being items of clothing more commonly worn by Indian and Sri Lankan women than by Pakistanis or Afghanis. (Or Turks. Why does everyone constantly forget that I’m half-Turkish?) I actually do know some Indian and Sri Lankan women who choose to wear saris when they go about their daily business, but that’s a personal choice on their parts. We’re not obliged to remain in costume just so you can easily identify us, you know. It just so happens that I’m more comfortable in miniskirts than I ever was in heavy shalwar kameez. That’s not to say I wouldn’t wear one again if an appropriate occasion were to arise, just that I don’t feel obliged to wear one every day in order to prove my South Asian-ness. My cultural background is quite a lot more than just a costume, you know.
6. “You’re Pakistani? I met this Pakistani guy in [town I’ve never visited], maybe you know him!”
Wow, you’re white? I met a white guy at LAX once! Maybe you’re cousins?
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka combined easily have a population of almost a billion, possibly a little more. No, I do not know every single one of these people. I barely even know a fraction of them, and most of the ones I do know are blood relatives of mine. I am no more likely to know the random Pakistani dude you met at a conference than you are to know the white guy who checked my bags in Dallas one time.
Now, if you were to ask my dad, on the other hand, he’d probably know exactly who you were talking about. He’s connected, man. You don’t even know.
7. “You’re the first [Muslim/Pakistani/Turkish] person I’ve ever met!”/Introducing me as “your Muslim friend”
That’s great! You are not even close to the first person who has ever said that to me!
Again, I am not some kind of novelty. I’m a human being. Am I the first one of those you’ve ever met? If not, you probably shouldn’t be getting so excited about this. Despite my skin colour and facial features, you and I actually have a huge amount of DNA in common. We’re not that different, so please stop treating me like something out of one of those alien encounter movies. Brown girl phone home? Yeah…not so much.
And while we’re on this, if you feel the need to introduce me as “your Muslim friend” (or “your Pakistani friend”, or “your Turkish friend”), I am going to start introducing you as “my white friend who is incredibly boggled by the idea that non-white people exist”. Sure, it’s a little unwieldy, but maybe if I keep doing it, you’ll get the point eventually. I’m just your friend, m’kay? You know, like all your other friends. (Or are you one of those people who introduces folks as “your gay friend”, too? If so, you have so, so many problems that I do not even have time to start fixing.)
8. “Can you teach me your language?”
Well, I would be happy to, but it seems to me like you already know how to speak English, seeing as you and I are using it to converse right now.
My parents both speak different first languages, so growing up, we all spoke English at home because it was the only language my parents had in common. It’s the only language I speak fluently (though I can teach you how to say a few phrases in Turkish and how to count to five in Urdu). And even if I did have a different first language, why would you feel entitled to free private lessons from me? I happen to teach English (the language I do speak) for money. Why would I teach you for free?
I get it – speaking other languages makes you feel enlightened and cosmopolitan and worldly. But if you want to learn, do it the way everyone else does – either travel overseas or take a class. I’m not your private tutor.
9. “Can you make me [insert food here]?”
Yes, because a little-known secret about us foreigners is that we’re actually born with the instinctive knowledge of how to cook the perfect biriyani.
Seriously, now? I mean, I grew up eating curry pretty much every day for twenty years. Then, when I left home, I never ate it again, because it’s pretty much the equivalent of the old steak and three veg to me. What seems like exotic, exciting food to you was just “dinner” when I was a kid. Not only did I not put much effort into learning how to make it (because I wasn’t all that interested in eating it), but even if I did…you’re aware that there are restaurants that specialise in the cuisine of different countries, right? You can literally go right in and ask for all the curry you want! The people who work at said restaurants are paid to make you feel like you’ve got a little bit of [insert country here] at your doorstep. I’m not.
Other things I get asked for a lot: Turkish delight (no, I do not know how to make this), dolmades (I’m pretty sure even my mother doesn’t know how to make this), some Indian sweet that you don’t know the name of that you tried at a multicultural fest one time and really liked. I make a great baklava, though, and if I like you a lot, I might make it for you some time – without you even having to ask first!
10. “Your culture is so fascinating, teach me more!”
I’m putting this one last because it’s pretty much the first nine all summed up in one sentence.
Look, it’s awesome that you want to learn more about other people. But to me, this isn’t “fascinating” – it’s just my life. I grew up in a mixed race household in a white country exposed to all kinds of cultural influences, both ancestral and otherwise. It’s not exotic or exciting or foreign to me. It’s just a part of who I am.
If you want to learn more about my culture, or the cultures of your other non-white friends, engage us respectfully. Ask specific questions about things you’ve observed (“so, I noticed that you call all your mum’s friends Aunty and Uncle – what’s with that?”) and I might answer you if I feel like it. What I won’t do is answer blanket questions based on mangled pop culture references to “my people”. What I also won’t do is educate you on whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, solely on your terms.
I’m just a regular person. This is my life, not a National Geographic documentary giving you a glimpse into the mystical people of some far-off land you’ll never get to visit. Please stop treating me like a museum exhibit. If you want to learn, ask respectfully – and don’t be surprised if my answer is “I can’t really explain that, it’s too complicated” or “that’s not really something I’m comfortable talking about”. It’s cool that you want to learn, but you don’t actually have an inherent right to that knowledge. This is someone else’s life and history you’re talking about. What we choose to share is entirely up to us, and we’ll be more likely to share if we don’t feel like we’re being asked to entertain you or help you feel more sophisticated. That Eat, Pray, Love garbage just won’t fly, you know?
Respectful cultural exchange is an excellent way of learning more about the world, being exposed to new ideas and finding things you love in places you might never have thought to look. I would love to learn more about you, and would be happy to teach you more about me. But let’s do it the right way, m’kay? That way, we can come away from the experience enriched by our new knowledge and nobody ends up feeling like someone else’s neat party trick.
Now – who’s up for white people food?