You are what you look like: On the limits of selecting race and identity


So, I know this guy…. (and this post is not one of those posts…ha ha…)

And he’s nice and all.  There’s just this thing about him.  He does not look white.  He definitely looks like he’s of some other ethnicity and his facial features and skintone are not the only reason I say this.  His name is clearly makes him an American of non-European origin.

This guy’s ethnic identity was something of an enigma to me.  But I was only super curious because it  became clear that it  something he was trying to hide….ha ha…

I don’t walk around with Sierra Leone banners sticking out my bags, but if it comes up in conversation, or if I am asked point-blank (like I am every time by Ethiopian can drivers in DC, seriously like 95% if my driver is Ethiopian he will say this: “You are from Africa, right?”… ha ha… I don’t mind it, I just find it funny).

I also understand if someone does not identify with a particular ethnicity or race because it’s not how they were raised.  So Barack Obama not sporting the Kenyan flags makes sense, he wasn’t raised with a Kenyan consciousness.  Similarly, friends/acquaintances who were adopted or mixed race or whatever, are totally understandable.

However, what is not understandable is someone nearly or actually taking offense when people assume they are of the race/ethnicity that they look like.  And this is my issue with this guy.  Can someone who was say, born in Korea but adopted by White American parents be mad when people assume they are Korean?

Could you imagine the POTUS being all confused as to why they call him the first black president?… ha ha….

I would say no.  Although they have every right to be annoyed at being expected to have extensive knowledge on Korea (It’s annoying to have people trying to question your ethnic background— and project what their knowledge or lack thereof of that ethnicity might entail) I don’t understand when people are confused as to why the mix-up happened in the first place. Let’s call a spade a spade.


People ask me a lot if I am from Nigeria.  I hate it. I absolutely hate. (Not because I have anything against Nigerians btw) But I get why it happens. I look West African (as the Ethiopian cab driver points out to me every day), know a few things about Nigerian society, particularly Yoruba.  So, guessing Nigerian is more like an educated guess.  Now, I don’t expect everyone to think and feel like me.  But I just wanted to express what how I feel.

Hmm I don’t like playing this game… just tell me so that the Elephant can be safely escorted out of the room…ha ha…

Now back to this guy.  Only under extreme questioning will he admit to having a grandparent from another country (hence the brown hue and non mainstream American last name).  He doesn’t know that I know, I could tell that he was uncomfortable with talking about his background, so I avoided the subject too).

But he insists that he is White, and doesn’t understand why most people assume he is not.  So this man leaves me miffed.  I can understand him identifying as white, he has the right to be whatever race he feels most comfortable with.  But why doesn’t he realize that it’s kind of strange to be miffed at others for thinking you are not.   If he said, “yeah my grandparent was from country X but I don’t really know much about that country X.  I’m just white” I would totally get it.

So is everyone else…

But that’s not what he says.  At the end of the day to each his own… I guess….

So yes, it’s another angle on the race, ethnicity and identity discussion (going on in my head mostly ha ha).  Am I wrong for feeling so strongly about this man’s position?

After all race and ethnicity are only a  big deal if you let them be big deals… but you can only self-select identities to a certain extent, right?

So he may not owe me any explanations… but I can still ponder his choices.


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