Avoid Posing Offensive Questions to Multiracial Families and People

Don't make assumptions about racially mixed families

What Are You?
What Are You?. Keoni Cabral/Flickr.com

Multiracial families are growing, thanks to mixed marriages soaring in the United States. The Pew Research Center has found that one in seven new marriages in the U.S. involve spouses from different racial groups. The rise in intermarriage means a boon in mixed-race families with members who have different skin tones, eye colors and hair textures from each other. To passersby, members of multiracial families don’t look like brother or sister or father and daughter.

Despite the changing face of America’s families, people too often assume that all families are mono-racial with members who have the same ethnic traits. The reality is that today many mothers and children don’t share the same surnames, let alone the same racial makeup. Because of intermarriage, adoption and blended families, U.S. households have become more diverse than ever.

But those unaware of this trend frequently make mixed-race families uncomfortable by asking inappropriate questions, voicing offensive assumptions or simply gawking when they encounter them. Bring this troubling pattern to an end by practicing racial sensitivity.

Are You the Nanny/Babysitter?

You know the adage about never assuming a woman is pregnant? Follow that same advice when encountering a woman with children who look markedly different from her. Even if you think that she couldn’t possibly be related to the little ones, never assume that the woman is hired help or that the children are adopted.

Far too many women with mixed-race children have complained about strangers mistaking them for the nanny or babysitter, especially women of color.

Rose Arce, a brown-skinned Hispanic with curly hair wrote an essay called “I’m Her Mom, Not the Nanny!” detailing how often strangers assume that she’s not her fair-skinned, straight-haired daughter’s parent.

Arce recalled the time a cab driver asked how much money she made as a babysitter. Arce quipped that she wished she got paid for caring for her little girl, but the taxi driver didn’t get the joke, asking why she’d work for free. When Arce said that she was the girl’s mother, the driver remarked, “You couldn’t be.” The remark brought Arce’s young daughter to tears.

The biracial children at the center of such exchanges feel as if they don’t belong, as if there’s something wrong with them or their family members. Some may also begin to internalize racist messages about their ethnic makeup. Arce said of her daughter, “She knows people think I look like her sitter because I’m Hispanic—or at least what they think Hispanic looks like. And she senses that being a sitter is a subservient job.”

Are You Together?

Some people have a hard time believing that people of different races can be married to or related to one another—either because they disapprove of intermarriage or have personally never interacted with a mixed couple or family. When they see two people from different ethnic groups standing side by side, even talking to one another, they assume the individuals must be strangers.

Jeffrey Norwood of Hattiesburg, Miss., who is black, told the New York Times that when he and his Asian-white wife go places together, people assume they’re not a couple.

“Even when they are locked arm in arm, someone might ask incredulously, ‘Are you together?’ Clerks at the supermarket want to ring up their groceries separately,” the Times noted.

This sort of behavior sends a subtle message of disapproval. Clearly two people who are actually touching know each other. The idea of intermarriage may make you uncomfortable or stir up feelings of racism, but it’s not okay to make the mixed couples you encounter feel uneasy because of your views on the matter. This goes double if the couple in question is patronizing your business and your job is to serve them, certainly not alienate them.

What Are You?

“What are you?” is arguably the most common question strangers ask mixed-race people. Sometimes this question is raised if a biracial or multiracial person has racially ambiguous physical features.

On occasion racism fuels this question. Other times, strangers make this inquiry when they see family members together who look racially different. Initially, the stranger may have thought the blonde, blue-eyed boy he bumped into at the grocery store was white, but seeing his black-haired, tan-colored father gives him pause. “What are you?” he asks the little boy as a result.

Of course, the answer to this question is none of the stranger’s business. It’s impolite to pry into someone’s racial background—whether that person is a stranger, classmate or coworker. Surely if the person in question is more than a passing acquaintance, you’ll learn soon enough what his background is when he discusses his family. But until that happens, it’s not your place to pry. This isn’t just a matter of political correctness; being asked to constantly racially identify oneself is emotionally taxing for multiracial people.

Blogger Jamie Figueroa estimates that she’s been asked about her racial identity about 2,000 times. But no matter how many times she’s asked the question, she’s unnerved by it.

“My tongue twists and I feel how separate I am from everyone else,” she writes.