Ancestry.Com in the Real World: Why We Walk on Eggshells with Each Other About Race, Ethnicity, and Who We Are

by Olivia Pan

I have written previously that my family is not a politically correct group per se, and although we are certainly sophisticated in our dealings with the outside universe, we are true to ourselves, which brings me to this story.

 I belong to an invitational Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation. It’s basically a group that includes people from all kinds of backgrounds, races, sexual orientations, and life experiences, who are free to share stories that relate to empowerment and equality. Recently, one member shared a story about her bi-racial granddaughter who was asked about her ethnicity, and if she was a first or second generation immigrant. The grandmother expressed outrage over the incident, believing the inquiry to be extremely offensive and discriminatory. The post included a picture of her beautiful exotic looking granddaughter. The post blew up with many comments, most stating that asking about one’s ethnicity is inappropriate. My own mother jumped into the fray with some very fiery comments stating that there is nothing wrong with inquiring about another’s heritage or ethnicity. There were few people who vehemently agreed with my Mom and many more who disagreed with her.

My mother, and later on myself, have been answering questions about ethnicity for going on nineteen years now. She used to say that wheeling me around Boston was like being the sole entourage member to a celebrity baby. People besieged her with every imaginable question about my ethnic background, and no group was immune from asking: whites, Asians, and blacks.

Like my Mom, I’ve been approached by people who are curious as to what my ethnic makeup is. I’ve been asked everything from “What are you?” to “Where are you from?” While some of these questions could possibly have been phrased more appropriately, I understand the curiosity about ethnicity, especially mixed race ethnicity. I never took offense.

However, not everyone takes kindly to people inquiring as to what their racial/ethnic identity is or what generation American their family is. Some actually take great umbrage when being asked questions about their heritage, as if there is some type of insidious agenda behind it. Yes, some questions can come off ignorant (such as being asked where you’re from when you were born and raised in Massachusetts.) Even so, I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with being inquisitive as to what someone’s ethnicity is. Given that Ancestry.com and 23 & Me are hugely successful companies, clearly many of us are interested in this question. Why it is supposed to be so hush, hush then? “Frank dear, let’s send in DNA swabs so we can ascertain our family’s ancestry, but kids if anyone asks you about it, tell them it is highly inappropriate to inquire.” Huh? WTF or WTH? (I say heck as this is a Jesuit school).

We are a melting pot of people afraid to talk about race or ethnicity or country of origin with each other. This is not due to the current political climate. Just go online, and you’ll find several articles on this topic. Jezebel.com published an article entitled, “How to Ask Someone About their Ethnicity without Being an A**hole.” Huffington Post published a piece called, “Here’s How to Not Sound Like an Ignorant Fool When Asking about Someone’s Race.” Clearly, people are afraid of asking, or are unsure of how to do so without coming off sounding racially insensitive. Why? What are we so afraid of? If some Celtic looking kid was asked “Are you Irish or Scottish?”, there would be no harm, no foul. However, due to political correctness, we are afraid to ask people of other ethnic groups “What’s your ancestry?”, “Are you of mixed ethnicity?”, and “Was your family born here?” We should not only be curious but proud. We are a melting pot, a great experiment, a country of multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural people. Yet, we are afraid to talk about it, ask about it, and share our stories.

We are missing the laughter, the community, and the knowledge of who our neighbors, fellow students, and work colleagues are. We are missing what connects us. We are missing what brought us all here. Apparently Dr. Carson is truly missing what brought some of us here. That’s another story altogether but the upside is that it is making me think that I too can be a brain surgeon. I will discuss with my adviser soon.

I am exhausted from the walking on egg shells and the caution. It is physically and emotionally exhausting. I think we should discuss race and ethnicity and find commonality in our experiences and our families’ experiences.

I also think we should undress our politically correct armor and be vulnerable to the stereotypes that we all hold onto so tightly that are false and true. We need to simply lighten up so we can toughen up.

I want to hear your family’s story about who they are and how they got here, and who helped them or shunned them. I have my own family’s story to tell.

I miss the stories. We need them now more than ever.

photo courtesy Google Images

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