Dear Readers: Every year, I step away from the Ask Amy column for two weeks in order to work on other writing projects.
Today’s “Best Of” column from 2010 deals with racial issues.
I’ll be back with fresh Q and A next week.
Dear Amy: I am a 16-year-old girl and have a part-time job as a babysitter. Every day is an adventure. Their life is much different from mine, and I’ve enjoyed learning about them.
Recently, I have become aware of their stereotypes about Hispanics. Coming from a Hispanic family (although my skin is white), I get offended by this.
Recently, while walking home, a van with Hispanic men passed by. One of the boys made a comment about how these men had “probably just robbed a house.”
I was shocked and didn’t know what to say. Is it my place to say anything? Should I talk to their mom? — Confused
Dear Confused: You should correct the kids when you are with them, because you are in charge. This includes comments they may make about old people, overweight people, or offensive race-based remarks like the one you witnessed.
It’s OK to say, “Hey guys, it’s not nice, and it’s not fair to make assumptions about people. You seem to think all Hispanic people are bad or scary, but you’re wrong. I don’t want to hear you talk like that again about people you don’t even know.”
If you want to let them know why you take this personally, your ethnicity could provide a handy “teachable moment,” but ethnic stereotypes are offensive, no matter the ethnicity. If this is an ongoing issue, then yes, speak with their folks.
Dear Amy: I am always curious about people’s cultural and racial background.
My 24-year-old daughter is mixed-race (black and Korean). I went to Seoul when she was 2 years old to bring her home from the orphanage.
As a result of knowing her racial makeup, I’ve sorted out what various Asians look like and can distinguish differences between people from China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
I am outgoing, and when I hear an accent or see someone I think is a combo like my daughter, I usually ask. People are always curious about my daughter and I’m curious about other people, too.
Am I being rude if I express curiosity about a person’s racial background? Some people like the interest. Others seem to resent it. A man in the supermarket yesterday was annoyed. He was from Sudan.
Should I keep my mouth shut? It seems politically correct to stay quiet. — J
Dear J: You should feel free to express your abundant curiosity, but you should also accept a stranger’s right not to discuss his race or ethnicity with you.
Charging up to a person and saying, “Hi, just curious. Are you a combo?” is obnoxious. Referring to your daughter’s racial identity this way is off-putting. So is saying, “I bet I can guess your race! No, really. I’m very good at this!”
Some people aren’t going to care about your motivations for intruding upon them. This has nothing to do with being politically correct. This has to do with you engaging strangers in a personal conversation they might not feel like having.
Dear Amy: “J” wrote that she loves to ask strangers about their race.
Should we feel free to indulge our curiosity by asking strangers about their gender? What about their sexual orientation? Age? Marital status? Religion? Why not if they’re pregnant, or HIV positive?
One way to test whether satisfying one’s curiosity is rude is to consider what would happen if the tables were turned. Imagine a white person’s indignant response if a non-white stranger asked his or her race.
Your advice to the always-curious J should have been, “Mind your own business.”
And the polite response when strangers ask about your race?
“Human.” — Barbara
Dear Barbara: Perfect. Thank you.
Dear Amy: I’ve been following your discussion about when it’s appropriate to ask about a stranger’s racial identity.
I was a census worker this summer. Among the questions we were required to ask (besides “married,” “age,” “children,” etc.) was “race.”
The question became one of the ones we all hated to ask, as many people were offended. We became used to people who answered “human” when asked about their race, but my favorite answer was from an older gentleman who, when asked: “Race?” responded, “Not so much anymore.” — Colorado Girl
Dear Colorado: The perfect answer to a loaded question.