I would call it the “Where are you from?” game, as this is the question that plagues me, but as a mixed race person I do indeed play this game, with equal parts resignation and reluctant enjoyment. Want to know my family’s ethnic background? You’re going to have to earn it, and the more obnoxiously you ask that question the harder I will make you work for it.
However, the asker usually has such a lack of self-awareness and respect for me and my identity that he/she gets frustrated and irritated with me for daring not to answer a question to which I am awarded legal protection not to answer! “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” is the most common refrain, but even once I swallow my pride and tell them what they want to know I am frequently treated with exoticism, condescension or, worst, disbelief.
EXOTICISM: “Ah, yes, I can see it now! India is such a beautiful country, isn’t it? My son went backpacking there and told me such wonderful stories. Let me tell you some…”
CONDESCENSION: “Why are you learning Japanese? You should learn Bengali. Have you ever heard of this celebrated Bengali writer? How about this one?”
DISBELIEF: “Hmm. Those Spanish eyes tell a different story…”
The common thread in each of these responses is that these people are telling me what my identity should be. I have had to endure numerous lengthy rhapsodies about a country I have no interest in, and lectures about the greatness of a culture I will never be a part of. I have gone to the trouble of telling people, in detail, what my family’s background is only for them to tell me that I must be mistaken. Here’s a hint: if I go to the trouble of explaining to you, in detail, my family’s ethnic background and you dismiss that, I will be fuming. And you will deserve it.
A note on people asking “Where are you from?” because they can’t place your accent: I’ve experienced this type of “Where are you from?” too, and the results involve nowhere near as many “Sure, that’s what you think, but this is how your identity SHOULD be! Let me tell you at length how wrong you are about your own identity!” responses. In my opinion, if you are a native English speaker being mistaken for American/Australian/Welsh/whatever, then these are not equivalent situations. (The situation is obviously different for, say, Eastern Europeans making a life for themselves in the UK, but they don’t need me to speak for them.)
I have had friends – white, middle class friends – tell me that I overreact to this question. I can explain myself and provide examples and anecdotes until I’m hoarse (this is a REGULAR EVENT, I was mostly recently asked ONE WEEK AGO) but I still just end up close to tears with a friend who is being entirely obtuse at best and self-righteous and patronising at worst.
It is a privilege to be able to choose your own identity and have other people respect that identity. This is applicable not just to people of ambiguous race but to people of ambiguous gender, sexuality, people in relationships that do not conform to heteronormative monogamy. To have that identity questioned, dismissed, distorted into something it is not is offensive. I wish I could convey that to my middle class, white friends who seriously need to check their privilege, but I’m not teaching Mixed Race 101 to people who think they’re overqualified for the class, because the only thing worse than being told that attacks on your identity don’t matter is being told that your concerns about attacks on your identity don’t matter, by people who care about you.