But Where are You from?

The first time someone mistook my ethnicity was the day I was born. It’s my mom’s favorite story. I left the womb with skin whiter than milk in a country that consists of tanned people. The doctors thought I had a white father, but my parents knew I was theirs. This, unfortunately, would not be the last time someone mistook my ethnicity.

Growing up, a recurring question strangers would ask me is: “What are you?” My naive, seven-year-old self who barely understood English at the time would look at them puzzled, thinking, “I’m a human of course!” It didn’t take me long to realize what this question was actually asking.

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I’m white yet I’m not white. I’m white to others because I have pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. But I’m not white, because my biological parents are both 100% Filipino, and my birthplace is the Philippines. I’m not white because I have a wide, flat nose and a round, Asian face. I’m not white, but many people assume I am.

I have albinism, which is a condition that means I lack pigmentation in my hair, skin, and eyes. If you wanted to know what my sister looked like if she was white, just look at me. I have all the typical Filipino features, but my body just decided not to fully complete the “look” of a Filipino by not giving me melanin. This confuses people. When I was 18, I worked as a cashier at a movie theater. It was my first customer service job, and every time I worked, I would always get reminded of how ethnically ambiguous I appeared. People would constantly try to guess my ethnicity. It got to a point where I just gave up explaining that I was Filipino with albinism and instead just agreed with whatever people guessed. Though I am 100% Filipino, with completely Filipino parents and grandparents, the middle-aged woman who bought tickets from me to see The Emoji Movie over a year ago confirmed that I was Russian.

The ethnic guessing-game isn’t limited to my experiences, however. Anyone who appears ethnically ambiguous or isn’t white-passing constantly get asked their ethnicity. It’s not people’s fault that they’re curious. Laura Vares, an anthropologist and professor at Emerson College, says, “Everything we do is built around visual categories, and they’re so tied into identity that I think not being able to put a person in a category messes with the idea of how we organize ourselves.”

Vares is Mexican-American, but she has been mistaken for Hawaiian, Native American, and even Filipino. Whenever someone asks about her ethnicity, she asks them what they think her ethnicity is. Though it may make them uncomfortable, Vares wants to further the conversation as long as they are coming from a sincere place. “I see it as an opportunity to say, ‘Isn’t it funny how we have to try and figure out where someone is from or what their heritage might be in order for us to figure out whether we can identify with them or not?’” said Vares.

Mistaking someone for another race in America is not usually associated with harmful intentions. However, that may not be the case in other countries. Isabelle Hung, a sophomore Communications and Public Relations major, is originally from Taiwan, but she has always gotten recognized as Filipino. In Eastern Asia, people with lighter skin are seen as the general standard of beauty and reap more privileges than those with darker skin, who are seen as lower class. When Hung gets mistaken for Filipino, the colorist undertones are evident. “I had classmates who just didn’t assume I looked the same as them. I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing, but those first impressions and stereotypes really frustrated me, because you’re putting labels on a person based on their skin color,” Hung said. While it may simply be a nuisance for ethnically ambiguous Americans to be mistaken for another ethnicity, in other countries, it comes with underlying prejudice.

Everyone is guilty of assuming someone’s ethnicity. I myself have a habit of assuming where a person is from. It’s a strange factor of human nature, especially living in such a diverse country. Cultural identity is a powerful tool. It lets a person know that they have somewhere they belong and that they have a whole community they can relate to. But it can be difficult when someone questions it. It’s hard to embrace your ethnicity when people don’t think you look the part.

Illustrations by Lily Hartenstein