Ask Racialicious: Am I Overreacting to Ignorant Assumptions?

by the Racialicious Team

Our first question comes from reader F:

Yesterday I went to a nail salon with my mother. I’m mixed-race, of mostly Indian descent, and while we there, quite a while after (and it was very quiet in there) an elderly Indian lady came in. There was one other (white) lady in there, and she witnessed everyone coming in at separate times, my mother and I talking, and having no contact at all with the older lady. At some point, I accidentally left my book on a chair and the nail salon person asked whose it was. Before anyone could say anything, the white woman piped up that it was ‘your daughter’s’ to the old Indian lady (meaning it was mine). Ok. This really annoyed me – because I knew that that woman saw brown people and just assumed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that we all belonged together or were related. If I and the older lady had been white, she never would’ve randomly assigned me to be her child, I think, because she would’ve been able to see more than colour and to identify more than that. She just grouped any brown people together automatically. I know it’s not a major thing, but to me it feels the same as when someone assumes I’m from India (I don’t assume all white people are from Norway, for example), or tells me I look like some Asian actress/friend/individual I look absolutely nothing like (I don’t remark to random white people that they remind me of Madonna), or can’t tell the difference between myself and other people they know who are also ‘brown’, despite huge differences in every other aspect of our being. So was this a kind of ignorant racism, or am I just overreacting? And even if it wasn’t, why is it still so deeply irritating, despite being so minor?

Andrea responds:

Dear F–

I don’t think you’re overacting to this at all. What the white woman did was flatten or erased all of your uniqueness and relationships–yours, your mom’s, and the elderly woman’s–solely based on what you all looked like to her. So, not only did she make assumptions about all three of you on race (“all brown-skinned folks must know/are related to each other), she made an assumption about all of you based on age, too. (“Elderly brown-skinned woman must have a grown daughter. I saw a grown brown-skinned woman walking in/getting nails done here. The other woman that came in with the grown woman couldn’t possibly be the mother. That grown woman, therefore, must be the elderly woman’s daughter.”) I suss that was the woman’s reasoning because she stated it when asked to whom the book belonged.

Now I didn’t say the woman’s logic made any sense or was based on any observable evidence, like your possibly referring to your mom as, well, “Mom” or “Mama” or “Mother” or whatever appellation you call her, in and overhearable conversation or in your and your mom not interacting with the elderly Indian woman. That white woman “knew,” and she was determined to tell everyone, by declaring that the book belonged to that elderly woman’s daughter–you, f–what she knew about you, your mom (who was erased in this situation, which also peeves me), and the other woman. The white woman’s “knowledge,” however well-meaning, was based on ignorance grounded in racism and ageism.

I’m also a bit worried that your friends are so dismissive of your feelings around this…

Fatemeh responds:

I feel for you, F. I had a friend ask me recently to teach her to Bollywood dance. wtf…?

Latoya responds:

F, I really like your question because it gets to the heart of the little day to day indignities of racism that function to wear people down. The reason you are second guessing yourself is because it is a very small thing – in the grand scheme of things, this woman’s small false assumptions don’t really have much of a bearing to your real life.

And yet…it bothers you doesn’t it?

All these little seemingly innocuous things become a lot more sinister when you cover a racist bias at the root, even when you know the person means no malice. So yes, what is happening to you is fucked up, even if it is on a small scale. However, advice in this vein is a little tricky, as it highly depends on the situation. As a person with a very prominent nose, I am often stopped in the street by strangers (generally white or black) who are pleased to tell me I look just like someone they know. Generally speaking, if the person stopping to address me is black, it is because I remind them of a family member. (One guy actually pulled out a picture.) If the person who addresses me is white, they normally compare me to some other black person with a large nose. (I’ve had two people look up pictures – online or in a yearbook – compare them, and then look crestfallen. “Well, not as much as I thought…”)

Every so often, I’ll ask directly “Oh, what about me reminds you of ____?” or “In what way do I look like (random celeb I do not look like – I got Queen Latifah once).”

And perhaps, if I was feeling like escalating a situation, and in your predicament at the nail salon I would have asked the women directly “Now, why did you assume that was my mother?” (Master the amused look of skepticism – one eyebrow raised, bemused looking smirk playing about the lips.)

But these interactions tend to pop up at random, when I’d rather be doing something else. So, most often, I (1) remind myself that I am not crazy because that was a racist assumption, (2) sigh and extract myself from the situation as possible and (3) go about my business.

It’s not the best solution, but it does tend to free up my time to fight on fronts where I feel like I can make an impact.

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So that’s our take. Readers, do you want to weigh in?