People of color - do you ever guess at others' ethnicity?

Just wondering if this is something people of color do. For example, if you are of Japanese descent and interact with someone else who is also East Asian, do you try to guess whether they are Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc? Of if you are East Asian and encounter a person of South Asian ethnicity, do you wonder if they are Indian, Middle Eastern, etc.? In what sorts of situations would you consider such things?

I’m just curious about other peoples’ mindsets. I occasionally hear white people criticized for wondering about other peoples’ ethnicities, and just wondered if people of color underwent similar mental exercises?

Say what?

I criticize white people for asking my kid born in the USA where she’s from, no I mean really from? That’s not the same thing as wondering about whether she is Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or Korean.

Or random idiots walking up to her and saying “ni hao, konnechiwa, annyeonghaseyo, xin chao” and expecting her to be amused, even appreciative.

I do guess a lot of the time, yes. There are certain facial features that are Korean, for instance, but even then it’s often guesswork.

With many Filipinos and Indonesians, it’s hard to tell the difference until they start talking.

I did manage to guess one time that a taxi driver was from Ghana, to his delight, but it wasn’t because of his appearance, it was because of his name badge, “Asamoah,” which made me think of the famous Ghanaian soccer player Asamoah Gyan.

Are you asking about ethnicity (what people are) or nationality (where they hold citizenship) or heritage (what their ancestors were)? There’s some overlap, of course, but heritage isn’t a guarantee of ethnicity, and diaspora ethnicity makes things even more complicated: large and historic ethnic communities do not always march in lockstep with the mother country, so you can be and identify as something but still be very different from the people still in the country of origin.

Thanks for the responses.

I apologize that I am not good at distinguishing between those terms. I’m not sure I appreciate the distinction between ethnicity and heritage. And I wonder how precisely most people distinguish between those terms when wondering/asking the clunky question, “What are you?” At times, I might ask that of a fellow white US citizen, wondering if their ancestors were German or English. Or, if someone has the appearance of someone who is East Asian, I might wonder if their ancestors were Japanese, Chinese, Korean… As a general matter, I don’t care. I just sorta wonder such things the same way I might wonder from someone’s appearance whether they are athletic, maybe some guesses as to their profession, or something.

Somewhat recently, we had a friend and his wife over. She was born in America, but of Chinese ethnicity - and apparently very involved in Asian-Pacific Islander organizations. We were a tad surprised at how readily she distinguished among (and seemed to “rate”) people of the various East Asian ethnicities/nationality.

In a TV show recently, 2 “mixed race” characters complained of people asking them “what they were.” I wondered how much of that sort of complaint was aimed at white people, or whether - as I assume - it is somewhat natural for many people of all colors and ethnicities to make some assumptions and to categorize people based on their outward appearance.

As far as I am aware, I am not trying to push any political or social agenda in asking these questions. Just seeking to dispel my personal ignorance.

I’m East Asian, and if I encounter another one, sometimes it seems obvious (though that can still be a mistake), sometimes not. The Chinese/Japanese/Korean breakdown is probably easier for someone with cultural familiarity of those faces than someone not, but those first impressions aren’t always reliable. Same with other ethnic groupings, whether white or brown or red or whatever – as in, given X years of exposure to Y, Z, and Y-SubTypeA ethnic groupings, you get better at telling them apart.

I find it easier, for example, to tell apart ethnic Indians and Middle Easterners because I met enough during childhood and adolescence. I didn’t really meet Black people until well into adulthood, and it took some time to be able to differentiate American Blacks of long-term mixed descent vs a recent immigrant from Ghana or Kenya, and I’m still no good at it. I also struggle to tell apart French from Italian, at least until they start talking. Or someone from the Pacific Northwest vs the South, for that matter.

For the most part though, it seems to me that most people in my generation (mid-30s) just don’t really care. We all just speak English to each other, with various accents of various degrees and maybe we wonder for a split second but never really ask about it or care. It’s been a long, long time since I was asked “Where are you really from?”, both in general and especially by anyone under, say, 60.

There’s so much mixing in every which direction that ethnicities are more like recipes – a cup of this, a dash of that – it doesn’t really make sense to assume any sort of simple grouping anymore. And it’s also just not very interesting. Especially in a place like the USA where people come from all over to basically chase the same thing, learning that Parent A came here for money and Parent B came here for money from some other part of the world… okay, and? You learn way more interesting things about a person by knowing where they’ve worked and lived recently rather than their long-term heritage. I’m not saying that to be politically correct, just to point out that for many people, ancestral heritage and ethnic background are a much smaller part of their identities now vs in the olden days. Diversity in heritage & tradition has largely given way to diversity in contemporary interests, at least in my personal bubbles. I meet more people who are re-learning the ways of their ancestors as a casual pastime than actual tradition… essentially the cultural equivalent of “Christmas and Easter”. There was a lot of purposeful cultural erasure from the East Asian generation before me who immigrated for money, and they often prioritized assimilation over tradition.

And maybe that’s part of why this seems very different when I talk to my parents or aunts/uncles. Ethnicity and heritage are huge for them and always the first thing they ask about someone new (like a friend or girlfriend), and in their minds that is still the overriding definition of a person’s identity – whether they’ve met that person or not. Of that generation, maybe they didn’t really spend time with people who weren’t East Asian until well into adulthood, so any ethnic differences stood out to them a lot more than individuality personality and recent backgrounds. They will always remember a person’s specific nationality (which to them is equivalent to ethnicity and race and heritage) even if they forget everything else about a person. They have a really hard time with the idea that someone may look like X, have Y citizenship, but have parents of Z descent, and will usually try to boil that down to “So are you really X or Y?”

When I meet or talk to Europeans who’ve been here for a while (i.e., the various shades of “white”), I get the feeling that for many in my generation, their heritage is also something of a distant familial memory, something they celebrate on certain holidays but otherwise don’t really know. And to the extent that they care to know about it at all, it’s often from a more detached, academic perspective (“…back in the day, my people did… I wonder what that was like…” vs “my grandma always told us to do this this way, so that’s how I do it”). And once in a while I’ll meet a South African white person who has a very different outlook on class and economics, coming from a much more recent history of apartheid than most Americans. Or a white person who was born and raised in an East Asian country and experienced a mix of fascination and xenophobia (not necessarily because they’re white, but because they’re not X – a lot of East Asian societies can be very insular and what Americans would call “racist” towards outsiders even though it’s really more about the other-ness than ethnicity, because they don’t have the same white/black historical dynamics, for example).

The people that most identify with a recent culture – again, in my personal experience only – are people from Central and South America. Of my friends from, say, Mexico or Cuba or Columbia, they will talk at length about their cultures and traditions (and I feel lucky to have participated in some of their rituals and especially cuisines!). I don’t think I’ve ever heard them using generics like “Hispanic” or “Latinx” unless they’re criticizing public policy or something, i.e., discussing the identifiers that other cultural groups throw at them from the perspective of that other cultural group (WASPs, especially… which as a term is is becoming more and more of a dated). Often one parent or the other will be from a different heritage/nationality, but they will either choose one and embrace it as their own culture, or sometimes split the difference between the parents. But it’s one of the real examples of diversity that I see in my generation; as a broad observation it seems to me they’ve maintained more cultural heterogeneity than the East Asians. But that could a mistaken observation given my relative unfamiliarity with that vs my own history.

There is one broad grouping of people I do often wonder about: Native Americans. Both because they can sometimes look somewhat East Asian but not quite, and also because I have a personal interest in their histories and cultures. But I don’t meet one very often, and when I do, I’m often afraid to ask because so many of the memories are still so recent and painful and still-ongoing. As far as I can tell, they tend to treat me as though I were white – as in “generic outsider”, not “oppressor” – and don’t really get into any cultural details. I wish they did, but I also don’t really know how to navigate that… is “which tribe are you from?” their version of “where are you REALLY from?” Wish I had a better way of navigating that and getting to know people.

Anyway, sorry for the long anecdata.

No apologies. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Some of what you post seems contrary to what I periodically perceive as (mostly) younger people seemingly stressing their differences. Both in terms of ethnicity, but also gender/sexual orientation. Someone stressing that their perspective “as a person of color” needs more attention, or a need to more accurately represent history as more than the white experience. But maybe that is not entirely accurately presented in the news and entertainment.

I agree it is hard to generalize, so I welcome individual opinions/experiences. Here I sit on March 17, wearing my only green shirt in honor of my purported 1/8 Irishness! :smiley:

Not this POC - I either know, or don’t care. I don’t care to guess.

Was it Pachinko? There’s a similar line in there.


I wouldn’t ask that question in that form at all. It sounds as if you’re asking them whether they’re a table, or a lemur, or something.

And usually I wouldn’t ask it in other forms, unless it had some particular relevance to the situation. Plus which, if you ask somebody in, say, the USA where they’re from because they look East Asian, or something of that sort, and they answer you “Town Next Door” – do not keep asking.

Nah. Ginny and Georgia.

True dat! In my experience, sometimes people have an “obvious” face that is correct a majority of the time? But that is usually for East Asians in East Asia so there are other clues such as dress, make up, personal space, etc. It is really hard to try differentiate ethnicity for an 2nd or 3rd generation Asian American as they project American clues.

Heck, even among Han Chinese, there are differences. I lived in Shanghai for 12 years, and there is a stereotypical Shanghai face. Actress Joan Chen is a good example.

FWIW, I am white sharecropper heritage that lived in East Asia for 20+ years, and not a POC as referred to by the OP.

One time a group of Asian businessmen visited our office. One of my Chinese co-workers thought they were probably Korean but she was sure they were definitely not Chinese. At least, she was sure up until the point they started speaking Mandarin to each other.

My wife was born and raised in PRC. One of my favorite amusements over the past 25 odd years has been the confidence with which she will guess [incorrectly] the national origin of East Asians or Asian Americans. From New York to LA, from London to Athens, from Jeju to Manila. Unchastened by failure.

I think it’s OK to wonder to yourself, but it can be rude to come out and just ask. Ask their name. If you can’t tell from that then just drop it.

A few times I’ve been out with my wife and talking to some guys here in Japan and they’ll say “Japanese girls are the best right? (wink)”. My wife isn’t Japanese but she doesn’t want me to broadcast that publicly because Japanese is the only language and culture that she knows.

So, if I agree with this chucklehead and say yes, then I have dissed my wife, my sisters, my mother, my friends. I can’t do that. I wouldn’t know anyway as I’ve never dated a Japanese woman let alone all the Japanese women, which might be necessary in order to form such an opinion.

If I had the blood of a salesman I could just make some equivocal quip like “If you haven’t dated an Eskimo then you just don’t know”, but I don’t have it in me to make that up on the spot or to be so trite about people’s mistaken assumptions.

Do you mean guess by speculating in your mind or by saying to them “hey are you…”?

I assume you mean asking them “Are you …”. That’s not cool. You’re white so it doesn’t mean shit to you if someone asked the same thing. But Maybe they don’t want to divulge their racial heritage for reasons that you couldn’t possibly be aware of, but they also don’t want to lie to you.

You just put them in a difficult position.

Next time, before you ask someone their ethnicity or heritage, ask yourself why is it important that
you need to know. If it’s important then you will be able to explain to them why you are asking that question and they will be satisfied.

There’s also the situation of walking up to a person and trying to start a conversation in a particular language. For instance, my Chinese wife has had people try to talk to her in Korean and Vietnamese.

I am 100% OK with that. They want to make a connection or get some local information etc. They are most probably not asking about your ethnicity, but if they are it is only as a precursor to the former desires I mentioned. It’s not a “you are other” assumption, it is a “you are us” assumption.

I was once eating dinner in New York City at a Japanese restaurant with a man from Japan, and he spoke to the waiter in Japanese. Turns out the waiter was Chinese and didn’t understand a word of Japanese.

As to the difference between ethnicity and heritage, I think that would be genetic vs cultural. Raised by in the UK in a Samoan exclave by Samoan immigrants, that would be heritage and ethnicity both. Adopted from Samoa by white westerners? That would be ethnicity without heritage.

As for me, I’d probably only venture to ask if someone had a thick foreign accent. Then I’d probably say “where is your accent from?” Otherwise, just going on skin tone or epicanthic fold? None of my goddamn business.