The Safe Box

In America and many other parts of the world, for every race there is a box.  In most cases you either fit in a box or you are an ‘other‘. People feel a certain level of comfort when they can’t figure out which box you should be placed into.  One would think it would make them uncomfortable, but they often assume that if you don’t have a marked box, how can you be offended by being incorrectly categorized?

I know all about the challenges of finding a box to define my ethnic identity; I am an uncommon mixture of two ethnicities which makes room for a lot of gray areas. There is no clear boundary as to what some people feel they can potentially overstep.

Despite my Persian surname, I don’t have a ‘foreign’ accent.  Often white American people are shocked to hear me speak. They will often say things like “You are so well spoken!” with a tone that says they are duly impressed.  I am not Hispanic so I shouldn’t be offended when people make comments about immigration and how Hispanic people need to go back where they came from and allow American citizens to reclaim the jobs Hispanics have ‘stolen’.  However, I am offended: my mother is from Portugal.  She, too, is an immigrant.  The majority of my friends have been African-American, however, when I interact with non-black people, they seem to notice the shift in my voice — the change in the manner of my speech that indicates I AM offended when someone acts as though I should speak any other way than good standard American English based solely on my name or my appearance.

When my Portuguese mother speaks, she does so loudly, with an accent and lots of animated hand gestures.  When people imply that I speak well because my speech differs from hers, it is offensive to me.  To many with an indiscriminate eye, perhaps I look somewhat Hispanic.  When they have the audacity to make very generalized comments on terrorists from the Middle East, I am equally offended.  My father is from Iran.  Despite the fact that he is NOT Muslim, it does not excuse inappropriate remarks from coworkers or acquaintances that all Muslims are radical and responsible for the terrible events that took place on 9/11.

I have sat at the breakfast table with white families who make disparaging comments about blacks and think it’s okay to do so in my presence, because I am not black. Black, Hispanic and other non-white groups will make critical comments about white people.  Some people will make comments about every other ethnicity, including their own.  Racial jokes often make people laugh, even if they do so uncomfortably.  A lot of stand-up comedians cull their material from pointing out stereotypes.  Ethnic and race-based jokes among a diverse group of friends are often shared shamelessly.  That’s a reality.

I wonder if the ‘boxes‘ could speak for themselves would they spout all the ignorant assumptions and baseless opinions about one another?  I am speaking of the negative opinions that are deeply rooted, that go beyond a simple joke.  The hatred that is still buried but never shown, discussed or  admitted.  If people could start honest dialogue and get beyond assumptions based on race, ethnicity and above all appearances…perhaps I would no longer be subjected to hearing such egregious comments on a daily basis simply because, to them, I am safely between the boxes.