Once, in the eighth grade, a classmate called me a "Dirty Jew." I have friends now who still get the same vitriol about banal things like their hair or the fact that they listen to Taylor Swift, and we're not even in middle school anymore. One of my best friends was bullied to the point of ruin when kids called her a "Paki" after 9/11. If it's uncomfortable for someone like me to be the minority in a place or situation, I can't imagine what it's like to identify (self or otherwise) as a racial minority. It must really suck sometimes.
I get asked a lot about my "heritage." I hate that word, the concept, and everything that tags along with it. In a lot of situations -- social, professional, or other -- I find it completely out of context and irrelevant. Sure, if you're talking about your grandmothers' cooking, it might be a salient thing to ask, but the majority of the time, it just makes you sound ignorant, especially if you push for an answer when the subject seems uncomfortable. Then you're just rude.
When asked, I usually respond with the truth, which is that I'm Canadian. This isn't a deflection, a lie, or a half-truth. I am Canadian. Both of my parents were born and raised here. Even if they weren't, I would still be Canadian. I live here and I was born here. But this answer isn't enough for a lot of people who squint at me, as if to glean a better look at my aquiline nose and deep set eyes. "No," they'll say, "what are you really?" with a tone that implies that I'm hiding something. I can't even tell you how many times this has happened.
A few weeks ago, I was working as a bartender for a private function at which my primary responsibilities were to liquor up the guests and be as polite as possible. An older guy came up to me, WASPy looking, and hovered by my bar until I acknowledged him. I said hi and smiled. He was quiet for a few seconds, pulling at the gray hairs on his chin.
"Where are you from?" He asked me. No one had said anything other than drink orders to me that night, so the question caught me off guard. I answered that I was born and raised in Toronto. He shook his head, seemingly frustrated by my inability to answer his question on the first try.
"No, where are you really from?"
Now I knew what I was dealing with: the narrowing eyes, the verging-on-predatory lean-in, the lowered tone. Once again, but this time with a smile, I told him Toronto. He threw his hands up and let out a groan.
"Where are your parents from?"
"Toronto and Montreal." I told him.
At this point his blood had started to boil, but he took a minute to compose himself, taking a short half lap around the bar before coming back to me. I was trapped, corkscrew in hand, and was unable to escape the situation.
"You know, there's something different about you," he said, almost whimsically. "I just can't place you."
I did everything in my power to not respond with "then don't," but chose to plaster a mortified smile on my face and make save-me eye contact with the patrons behind him. There was something uncomfortably predatory about his pursuit: like if he could classify me, then he could go about selecting a way with which to engage me. I was reduced to a type, a thing, an object. It's not a fun place to be. He wouldn't leave me alone -- or let me perform my job -- until I gave him an answer he deemed acceptable. I told him much of my distant family was from Eastern Europe and one of his eyebrows shot up.
"What parts?" He persisted, a small grin seeping onto his face.
"Serbia, Poland and Russia. I don't know the rest." I spluttered, shocked that it'd gone this far.
"Ah," he muttered. "Are you a Jew?"
I didn't know how to respond, so I said I was half, from my mom's side. I felt my face getting hot.
"Ha! I knew it! You look like a Jew," he said before turning on his heel. His last comment was nowhere near as angry as his first, and he seemed pleased with himself that he was able to solve the mystery. I felt as defiled as he felt proud. Like a specimen in a museum, he'd come up to me and smacked a label on me before he could continue on with his life. He spent the rest of the night hobnobbing with other guests, coming back frequently to refill his wine glass.
This phenomenon isn't just limited to encounters with men. Women do it too, but there's something distinctly sexual weaving its way through my experiences with men. It happens a lot. I work in a bar, and maybe some guys think it's a good ice breaker, because it's universal: everyone came from somewhere. And sometimes it is that innocent. Sometimes someone is just curious, and that's all, but that is such a small percentage of the time. Most of the time, the questions are relentless and tinged with latent threat, leaving me and many people I know with an unsettled feeling, or worse.
This is a subject on which many people -- men, women, white, black -- have written about, and I guess on some level, I'm just throwing my voice into the chattering mess of opinions. But if we have enough voices on our side, maybe this kind of thing can come to an end. Just remember: sometimes it's okay to ask someone where they're from. It can be innocent. But most of the time it isn't, and when the person bristles at your innocent query, don't get defensive: it's just they've faced 100 intolerant people for every one decent person who have asked them that very question.
So next time you want to break the ice with someone, compliment their style, their choice of book on the subway, their drink at Starbucks, but don't stick your foreign finger in their "heritage" if they've made it clear it's not to be touched. It's a perfect time for resolutions, so if you can reach back in your memory and touch an interaction like this, vow to keep that kind of thing in the past.
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