05/08/2014 03:23 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

4 Tips From an Ethnically Ambiguous Stranger

I'm used to people asking me where I'm from. Sometimes it's other brown people wanting to know if we share a heritage, and sometimes it's white people wanting to know...well, I'm not sure what.

When the question comes from another person of color who clearly just wants to know if we share a language and history, I respond without hesitation: "I'm from Iran." When it comes from a white person, however, I respond differently: "I'm from Ohio." Both are true, but because I can rarely discern a clear motive behind the latter's curiosity, I try to remind my inquisitor of what we presumably share in common--that is, our Americanness.

Still, there's nearly always a follow-up: "No, I mean originally?"

For the most part, I try to remain calm and just answer Iran. Not wanting to appear ashamed of my background--because I'm not: I'm proud of my Persian ancestry and will happily belt out the Iranian national anthem with the best of them--I avoid the impulse to say what I'm really thinking: "I'm just as American as you are, you idiot. And so what if I weren't?"

You see, these encounters are brief--in an elevator, waiting in line at the post office, ordering food at a restaurant. There's no real opportunity, let alone desire, to fully engage in meaningful dialogue.

With that in mind, I now share a more thorough response by way of the following tips, which I hope will serve as a sort of public service announcement for curious, well-meaning white folk.

  1. It's not cool to ask people where they're from when you plan on spending less than three minutes in their company. Just say hello, bless them if they sneeze, wish them a pleasant day, comment on the weather if you can't bear the silence, that's it.
  2. It's even less cool to ask people where they're originally from when their answers don't meet your expectations. We've already answered your question. Now leave us alone.
  3. Consider the source of your curiosity. Why do you need to know the ethnicity of that stranger in the elevator whom you have no intention of ever encountering again? Do you plan on treating her any differently based on this information? If so, it's time to check out your local Racists Anonymous support group. If not, it's time to quit asking strangers irrelevant questions.
  4. If you think people like me--that is, ethnically ambiguous individuals who don't appreciate such inquiries from strangers in the dominant race whom they never plan on seeing again--are being hypersensitive, then take a moment to step in our shoes.

Examine your question from our perspective. As you contemplate the assumptions underlying such an inquiry, recognize just how easily it could be interpreted as the following: "You don't look like me. You don't belong here. Please satisfy my curiosity either just for its own sake or perhaps because I plan to form an immediate opinion of you based on your answer." Now think about what it might feel like to confront this question daily and how hard it might become not to internalize its implications.

Certainly there will be those who still consider me hypersensitive here, and to them, I say this: You're wrong. And even if you weren't, why not just be hyper-compassionate?