I just found this little tale of “Guess the ethnicity!” on Microaggressions:
While in a hotel restroom at a teacher conference, a middle aged lady came up to me and said “HI” in Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean, then asked, “Did I get any of those right? Are you one of those?”
When I responded that there are many other Asian countries out there with different languages, she proceeded to gush that “It’s so nice to see one of you people not working in a nail salon and speak good English.” I told her I spoke English well, and it’s a damn shame the future generation has to learn from people like her.
Teacher-lady knows how to say “Hi” in three different Asian languages, but doesn’t know well enough not to be an asshole to a random stranger in the ladies’ room.
Look, folks, just…don’t do that. You don’t need to guess a total stranger’s ethnicity. You don’t need to be clever whenever you see a person who might be from somewhere else. Heck, how do you know I’m not from somewhere else? If you haven’t heard me speak yet, how do you know I’m not German or Swedish? Some people of Asian ethnicity are native-born U.S. citizens, and of those, many don’t even speak any languages outside of English. But it’s only people of color who are assumed, sight unseen, to be newcomers to this country, and who are treated like rare exotic animals for having a solid command of the English language. No one (in this country) comes up to someone who looks like me and says “Hi” in three different Northern European languages, followed by the question of “Are you one of those?” White people can rest assured that our place in American society won’t be challenged.
I see there’s at least one reblogger on Tumblr who calls the original poster a “bitch” and insists that the teacher is “just trying to be friendly.”
How does anyone get the idea in her head that the way to be “friendly” to a total stranger whose path she crosses in the restroom is to spray a bunch of foreign languages at her and then demand to know if she’s “one of those”? How does anyone think this is welcome behavior? Based on her comments about “you people” and “working in a nail salon,” I assume teacher-lady isn’t well-acquainted with any Asian people, but if this is her idea of friendliness, she’s not going to make many new friends outside of her racial group.
Intent is not magic, and even if teacher-lady thought she was “just” being “friendly” to the random Asian woman in the restroom, that doesn’t mean her approach was acceptable. It doesn’t mean the original poster on Microaggressions is obligated to act like this doesn’t bother her. The message behind this type of communication is to tell the possibly-foreign person: “You are a stranger in this land. You don’t belong here. Don’t forget.” I’ve been on that side of the foreign/native line myself. During my Peace Corps assignment, the games of “Guess the Ethnicity!” and “HOLY SHIT I SEE A FOREIGNER” dominated my life basically every time I left the house. I know what it’s like to be treated as the “exotic” one, and let me tell you: it sucks so incredibly hard. It is obnoxious and exhausting as fuck. I, at least, had the advantage of actually being a foreigner, and knowing I was only there for 27 months before I would go home and be treated like a normal human again. This kind of attention in Western countries is regularly directed at people who’ve lived here all their lives, or close enough to it, and have no plans of moving anywhere else. The OP is not a “bitch” for trying to enforce her boundaries. She does not need to “take the stick out of her ass.” She’s not in the wrong.
If you must be friendly to a total stranger in the ladies’ room (and I don’t see what’s so difficult about peeing, washing your hands and getting out of the way), why not just say: “Hi. Are you here with the conference? Where/what do you teach? Oh, what a cute purse!”?