By Elan Gardner
First impressions are important. It only takes seven seconds for a first impression to take place. During this time, your mind is racing, nerves are rising, and palms are sweating, especially when entering a new place. You’re thinking “am I going to fit in?” These impressions happen so quickly and are mostly influenced on judging a physical appearance.
These judgments are even more severe for racially ambiguous people. In the short time it takes to look over someone’s physical features judgements have been made and half an identity can be ignored.
Racial ambiguity is not being able to tell someone’s race by looking at them.
For Aboudie Abouzid, in his first year of University he experienced a type of judgement he had never encountered before. He doesn’t look stereotypically Egyptian, says Abouzid. And because of his pale complexion others don’t see him as Egyptian, even though he was born in Egypt.
He sees his ethnicity in his hair and eyes, the fifth-year medical student at Western University says. The contrast between a stereotypical Egyptian and his appearance leaves him as someone who is racially ambiguous.
The first day he entered his residence, people on his floor thought he was white a man. But his ethnicity was called into question when he told people his name was Aboudie. This was new to him since he came from a diverse school and neighbourhood, he says.
He never had to explain his Egyptian ethnicity before.
His roommate replied with “What, I thought you were a Mark or Steve,” says Abouzid.
“I never really thought of my race before. First time it happened I was like ‘wow people actually think I’m white’,” says Abouzid. As an easy-going guy, Abouzid wasn’t offended. He was only surprised because he never thought that people could confuse him with being white.
Fast forward four years, Abouzid now knows when he walks into a classroom half the class will see him as a Mark and the other half won’t. But he says regardless it doesn’t cross his mind. He knows he’s Egyptian and other people haven’t caused him to question his own Identity, he says.
“The colour of your skin is just an umbrella,” says Abouzid
Abouzid is able to move on from the questioning of his ethnicity. But the questioning of someone’s ethnicity is a form of a microaggression––which is a form of racism.
“Questions or comments that come from good intentions but end up hurting the other person in some way or making them feel less than or othered is a form of racism,” says Professor Warren Steele, who studies race from Western University.
The type of questioning and comments Steele is referring to are: “oh you don’t look (blank) or “what are you?” and even “you have an exotic look.”
The issue with these types of questions is that it makes race real, says Steele, even though there is no significance difference between people.
Being called ‘exotic’ can make racially ambiguous people feel like animals. They aren’t peacocks, they are human. It can be difficult to call out someone for referring to you as exotic because it is coming from a good place. I know this from firsthand experience. These people aren’t coming from a malicious place; instead what they are saying is a compliment in their eyes.
One way to not turn the compliment into a hostile conversation is to simply point out what they said is offensive. In these cases, it is important to say the comment was racist not the person.
“People need to own that mistake and understand that it doesn’t mean you are bad,” says Steele.
What people don’t seem to recognize is that if they really did want to know more about you then that information would come up over the course of the relationship and it doesn’t need to be the second or third question, he says.
Another issue with bringing attention to someone’s race is positioning them as the ‘other.’
“This doesn’t just make you bitter or mad, but it also makes you ashamed and that in order to survive you need to become as much as you can like them. At that point there is a need to become white,” says Steele.
Being seen as white is more common in people who are racially ambiguous, since they can sometimes pass as white. But in order to pass, one must give up everything. That is the price, says Steele.
The moment a culture is revealed you stop being white and are treated differently. But at the same time if you identify as black then the other part of yourself is completely ignored.
Chelsi Germain, a recent MIT graduate knows the feeling of being othered. She is not considered black or white enough and often finds herself in an in-between place, she says.
“I’m mixed with a lot, but I just keep it simple and say I’m Jamaican and Portuguese. It’s the majority of what I’m mixed with,” says Germain.
“I remember being younger and not having a group of people that were mixed like me at school. I often found myself gravitating towards kids that were of color. Right off the bat, I knew I wasn’t a “white” kid. It was visibly obvious I was mixed with something, so I felt most comfortable being around those that were visibly colored as well,” says Germain.
In elementary and high school Germain made friends with children of colour. She had a variety of ethnicities in her friend group: Indian, Pakistani, African, and Arab. She believes her friend group impacted how people saw her. So, some people may ignore the fact she actually has white within her mix.
“Often times when I tell people that I’m black and white, they always attack my black side for some reason. You know, the typical ‘do you like chicken and watermelon’ comments. But, I guess that’s just the immature side of some high schoolers,” says Germain.
Despite some ignorant responses, she doesn’t mind telling people her ethnicity. In fact, she finds it a little fun when people come up with diverse guesses, like Spanish and Egyptian, she says. But when people make fun of her being black, she questions their intentions.
“Oh, were you waiting to make fun of what I am?” She thinks
Similarly to Abouzid, Germain tries not to let other’s curiosity get to her but she does say the ignorant comments are too much at times.
The issue with trying to categorize racially ambiguous people is limiting their identity into one box.
“We can’t be so black and white with our thinking,” says Steele.