08 July 2015

"No, but seriously, where are you REALLY from?"

It's not a picture of me, but it's from this campaign by Oxford students of color about racist microaggressions. Photo: Young person outdoors making incredulous face, holding whiteboard that says, "Then... why do you speak such good English?"

Have you ever wondered why non-white people seem to get so upset / offended / angry / annoyed / etc. when you ("you" here usually meaning white people [and yes, Not All White People TM do this], but not always) ask "Where are you from?" or "Where are you really from?" or "So what's your native tongue?" or in general, any question along these lines?

Have you ever been that person? (Maybe, maybe not.) Well, I've been the person it happens to. All. The. Time.

It's okay to want to know what someone's nationality or ethnicity is. It can also be totally okay to ask, sometimes. Curiosity is normal and especially if someone looks or sounds different from you, you might think you're just learning more about them or showing that you're interested in them if you ask about these things. But here's the catch -- for those of us always on the receiving end of these seemingly innocent queries, it's not so innocent or innocuous or random. It happens all the time.

I'm a Chinese American and I'm constantly being stopped on the street by total strangers demanding to know where I'm really from, or whether I speak Korean or Japanese or Chinese, or how long ago I came to the U.S.

Taken individually, these strangers probably don't intend to be malicious or rude or offensive -- or, god forbid, racist -- but taken collectively, the constant stream of messages that I must not belong, that I can't possibly be from the U.S., that I am a public object for other people to examine and interrogate, basically, that I'm something exotic and other-than-normal-human, are deeply rooted in racism. They don't have to be individually targeted or malicious or cruel or specifically intended; they just have to be based in a hidden set of ideas about whiteness being normal and default (and therefore invisible and unquestionable) and Black, Indigenous, Latin@, Mixed, and Asian people as "different [from the unnamed norm of whiteness]" and therefore public spectacle.

Lots of words. (Sorry, I'm working on that.)

What I'm trying to say is, yes, I get that you're probably not trying to be a meanypants bastard if you ask me where I'm really from or what my native language is. BUT, and this is an enormous BUT, that doesn't mean that it's okay. I get these questions all the time, and it's like wind and rain and shit slowly eroding a rock, except the rock is me and the wind and rain and shit are casual racism. (I say casual, not because it's flippant or irrelevant, but because these little things don't fit neatly into a conventional, mainstream understanding of what "racism" is.) Once or twice, maybe it hurts a little. Thousands of times a year, it constantly rubs raw.

So here are some handy Do's and Don'ts for not making a total ass out of yourself, but still being able to ask and learn about other people's cultural identities and communities. (Because yes, actually, learning about and appreciating cultures that aren't yours is a good and desirable thing. Just there are so many wrong ways that people go about thinking they're appreciating and learning, and really, aren't at all.)

Don't say, "So how many languages do you speak, including your native tongue?" when what you're really trying to ask is what the person's native tongue is -- and especially if the only reason you're asking this (and assuming their native tongue isn't English) is because they're not white. (Even if the reason you're asking is because you think or know the person has an accent, it's still rude out of context leading up to it.) Power dynamics also mean that this tends to happen way more to visibly non-white people (whether or not we have an accent) than to white and white-passing people who do have accents.

Do ask, "Do you happen to know languages besides English?" if you're having a getting-to-know-each-other kind of conversation, and you've been asking similar types of questions already (like, what cities have you lived in, do you have siblings, what kind of work do you do if any, etc.). This doesn't single out someone automatically as a person you're assuming isn't "really" from here, or rest on the presumption that the person must know a language other than English.

Don't open a conversation (especially with a total stranger) by asking what someone's nationality/heritage/ethnicity/race is. Especially if you didn't even say "hi" or "how are you" or "what's your name" first. You're probably neither doing demographic research nor taking the census nor booking us into jail. And when you do this, even if this is not how you meant it or thought about it in your head, it sounds like you think we're exotic fascinations, not people.

Do ask about someone's nationality/heritage/ethnicity/race after getting to know them, and after asking if it's okay to broach the topic. (Example: "Hey Saaliha, would it be okay to ask you about your ethnic background?") That gives the person an out ("Sorry, I don't feel comfortable talking about this right now") or an opportunity ("Sure, I don't mind"). This shows that you respect and care about the person you're talking to, and you don't just think of them as an exotic potentially foreign object that exists only to entertain your curiosity.

Don't say, "What are you?" when you want to find out what my ethnicity or nationality are. I'm a who, not a what.

Don't say, "So what's your real name?" if a non-white person introduces themself with a Western-sounding name. Whatever name someone has told you to call them, call them by that name. Period. That is their "real" name.

Do say, "Can you tell me how to pronounce/spell that?" if you're not sure how to pronounce or spell someone's name, especially if knowing how to pronounce or spell the name will help you remember it.

Don't say, "But where are you from?" or "No, but seriously, where are you REALLY from?" when you're trying to find out my ethnicity or nationality. Again, especially if the only reason you're asking this question is because I'm not white and you're assuming that because of that, I must definitely not be from here.

Do say, "Have you lived around here for awhile?" or "So where did you grow up?" or "Have you always lived in [city/town/state/region]?", especially if you're just getting to know someone or you're making small talk at a networking event or a random awkward social situation like waiting at a bus stop. These questions don't assume "otherness" of the person you're talking to, and they let the person share information about themself on their own terms. They're also questions that can apply to everyone, and not only to people already pegged out as "exotic" or "other."

Don't crash cultural events that seem geared mostly/only to people from a specific culture that you're not from, or try to host an event about a culture that you're not from. You may think this is appreciation; it's not. Especially if you're white, white people have always been able to demand space -- from setter colonialism to gentrification to micro-interactions -- and it's incredibly important for marginal cultures and communities to have spaces for ourselves. Also, if you're not from a specific cultural background, you don't get to claim ownership of our culture by running any kind of event supposedly about appreciating or celebrating us -- that's not appreciation or celebration; it's theft and misappropriation.

Do go to cultural events that are open to the general public (or that someone from that cultural community has specifically invited you to) to learn more about cultures that aren't your own. (Do wear culturally-specific clothes if invited. If you're not sure, ask first.) This shows that you appreciate the people from this culture AND that you respect boundaries and different types of spaces.

Don't assume that learning or knowing a language not from your own culture or ethnic background automatically gives you authority to talk about the culture of the people who speak that language, or makes you an expert, or means that you're "basically one of them." It doesn't.

Do learn languages that aren't your own or part of your own ethnic background. Do ask people you have a pre-existing relationship with (i.e. not a random stranger on the street) who speak the language you're learning if it's okay to practice with them. This is a major way to show that you appreciate other people's languages and cultures.

Don't walk up to a random non-white person and start suddenly talking to them in a language you assume they speak based on their appearance/actions. (Examples: Going up to a brown person wearing hijab and then speaking Arabic to them, or going up to a brown person mopping the floor and then speaking Spanish to them.) You have no idea what race or ethnicity the person actually is, and even if you did, that information still doesn't automatically match up with which languages a person speaks, and even if you did guess correctly, it's still a racist assumption.

Do speak to a non-white person in their own language if you can tell for sure that they actually speak that language, and especially if you're doing so because it could be helpful. (Examples: You try to ask someone for directions, and they reply in broken English with a lot of Swahili mixed in, so you switch to Swahili; or, you're calling someone for work and a person answers in Vietnamese, so you start speaking Vietnamese to them.)

Remember, in some contexts, many things can become okay to say that wouldn't be okay to say in others.

For example, if someone tells you that they were born and raised in a country where English isn't a main language, and especially if they say they're trying to practice English or they think they're not that good at it, complimenting them on their English is much more okay. On the other hand, if you see me and notice that I'm not white, and then decide out of the blue to compliment my English right after we started talking, that sends the message that you don't think I could possibly be from here or that I don't belong -- and while that could be true, since you don't know me, there's a power dynamic here that means this really only happens to people of color, not white people.

If a lot of this sounds like hypersensitive politically correct horseshit, let me be first up to tell you that a) it's not, b) you're fantastically missing the point, and c) I don't give a flying fuck about political correctness.

This is about basic human respect and decency. It's about treating me as a person, not an object. It's about not being a douchebag to strangers who did nothing to deserve random douchebaggery. It's about making the people around you feel like it's okay to be around you. Those people might even be folks you care about a helluva lot, so yes, this actually matters.

You have the power to be aware of how you deal with other people. Maybe try rethinking initial reactions of defensiveness or hostility or accusations, and consider that what seems harmless to you is actually very harmful to the other people involved. And yes, I mean harmful. Not "offensive." Harmful.

If you truly believe that all people should be respected or should be "equal" and that differences should be respected, now you have a lifetime of future opportunities to demonstrate it. Every person of color -- born here or not, native English speaker or not, called by a Western name or not -- constantly subjected to these minor degradations will appreciate the one person not doing it.

And that has been your public service announcement for the night.


(*Note: This is very U.S.-specific, but could possibly apply to some other Western or European contexts where English is the dominant language -- or with a substitution replacing English with the actual dominant language in said other context.

**Note: Also, suggestions on trying to rephrase things are not meant to imply that anyone who cannot, for whatever reason, consistently or significantly change their language is automatically a bad, evil, terrible person. There are a lot of reasons, including not being fluent in a language, being disabled, being uneducated, etc. that someone might not be able to change their wording part or all of the time. That being said, for those who can change their language I really mean it, language can be an incredibly important vehicle for expressing hidden ideas and attitudes and for changing them.

***Note: Some examples in here assume that the person doing them is sighted. These do apply to sighted people. This isn't to say that blind and low vision people can't do the same things, but also is specifically recognizing how many sighted people use visual cues to make assumptions about race, language, identity, etc.)


  1. I'm sure this article would be of benefit to many allistics who make these social errors, deliberately or otherwise. Whether or not they are likely to read it is another matter.

    As an Aspie, who just can't seem to get these social rules right, partly because of the exceptions, which mean the rules keep changing, this article simply reinforces the impression that people like me should not be attempting to interact with humans. I once held out hope that engaging with other cultures, as well as being an interesting learning experience while making new friends, might be safer socially because minor errors that might be taken to be "weird" or worse by members of my own culture might be written off as cultural difference by people from another.

    This was wrong, for the reasons outlined above and others - it's just too easy to get it wrong and say the wrong thing to the wrong person in the wrong context, and I wish I could apologise to all those I adversely affected. I don't know - maybe if I'd had this knowledge 20 years ago when I was at uni it might have helped, but I'm not convinced.

    While the above is undoubtedly good advice for allistics who are not making other social errors, my own experience suggests a simpler message: if you are autistic don't even try to engage with "real" humans. It will invariably be misinterpreted. Too often they will tell a polite social lie to your face while storing up grievances behind your back. Even if not you have no right to make their lives uncomfortable when trying to meet your own needs for social contact.

    1. I agree with anonymous that I felt immediately overwhelmed and depressed reading this because I will forget it and with the best of intents try for something similar and be completely inappropriate. I always hear I am accidentally rude or inappropriate trying to follow the rules- so now I stick to my own or follow my heart... This was helpful in many ways and I see your points but this did reinforce the belief that as a non social rules aspie- I can't make any new attempts at friendships with other people who may not go through life similar to me...which is basically no one...being in different minorities even though I look like a tradational "white" (I'm not) married with kids" majority...and I am anything but...sigh. I don't know.

    2. There's a difference between legitimately trying to be respectful, fucking up by accident and being willing to learn, and doing what you please and deciding that if your actions upset someone, it doesn't matter because you play by your own rules. I'm sure you've had experiences as an autistic person, both where someone was trying to be respectful and may or may not have been succeeding with their lack of knowledge, and where someone really should have known better if they had thought about it from your perspective just a little. If I might presume to speak for Lydia here, I think that's the aim to this post -- help people who are well-intentioned or who don't actively want to alienate, hurt or otherwise screw over Asian people and other people of color to avoid doing so by way of concrete suggestions, not to say "you must be perfect at this automatically or you're bad and should feel bad."

    3. Shain: I agree that "there's a difference between legitimately trying to be respectful, fucking up by accident and being willing to learn, and doing what you please and deciding that if your actions upset someone, it doesn't matter because you play by your own rules".

      That said, the problem emerges when most allistics can't tell the difference between an Aspie "fucking up by accident and being willing to learn" and an allistic (or indeed an Aspie) doing as s/he pleases. It makes the whole thing extremely tricky for those of us in the former category.

      Take Lydia's point about using the name you are given. Many people who migrate from one part of the world to another change their name to something that fits into the culture they move to. Personally, I find it offensive both that I should expect them to change what might be an important aspect of their identity to fit what they think are my expectations and that they should think I would be unwilling to learn how to pronounce and spell their name (especially when I want to learn about their culture and cuisine/s).* Equally, if that's what the other person wants to be known by, that's fine - but we have a problem if they feel they are being coerced into it by a perceived rejection of multiculturalism on my part.


      * One migrant to this country I know has changed her name completely to fit what she sees as local expectations. Another insists on regularly spelling hers out, in spite of the fact that it's phonetically simple.

      I have no objection to Lydia's objectives, or indeed execution, but it does reinforce my view that I simply shouldn't try. It goes back to what I said about not being able to tell the difference between well-meaning error and deliberate microaggression.

    4. what she said:) Lol. Anonymous once again expressed that feeling well...

      If we are speaking of "rules" the questions are raised; What rules? By whose authority should we follow rules? Why is it wrong to follow your own rules and what does that mean as a collective and individual in society to "follow the rules"? By what religion? By what sociological standpoint? Why do we expect strangers to know our hearts or respect our traditions? Is this the equivalent to expecting a kindergartener to be able to understand middle schoolers? How do we expect treatment in relationships that have no basis of precedence?
      For instance, Lydia's post is a great post that I would perhaps give to someone who I knew very well, who knew my intents and ASKED me what I felt was appropriate regarding race or ect. but as an Autistic myself- I have had MANY moments where well intentioned people said very hurtful things like "can't you just take a pill and get better" or much worse. In those circumstances I take a breath, take a step back, and realize that they are not meaning to be rude- those that ARE being sarcastic or rude- I firmly keep out of my life by boundaries...but strangers- I can't take insult to because they can't understand. If there is a possibility to explain I will- but its all contextual. It's all based on the relationship I have with the people, if I will see them again, or if it really is a teaching opportunity...if it's not- I let it go. If a close friend, however, made a similar comment after I had already educated them ( in friendship) on the topic- I would express my hurt and depending on how they react- re- evaluate our relationship. Relationships do need boundaries- but rules are subjective, contextual, and based on a myriad of factors. The moment rules come before relationships is the moment we become even more intolerant in teaching "tolerance" and rigidity and the belief that because I believe I am "right" those that do not see it that way are "wrong". It's the same coin- just a flip side. Because we DO need more basic respect and dignity and Lydia is SO RIGHT in that regard- and many of her points are necessary...but perhaps this starts with just our basic relationships and our close friends...and if everyone starts to give basic self awareness in themselves and then their friends it creates a ripple effect...
      No one deserves to be treated like an object, but sometimes reducing relationships to do's and Don't's the other becomes an object as well. There is a balance to be sought perhaps and maybe it is in the day to day living? The kind but firm moments. We can ask for how we want to be treated in context...and each person has the right to human dignity- but that can be expressed in many ways depending on all involved:) I actually feel this post was well written with the best of intents and I DID learn a few things, there is just simply always a flip side to consider- and isn't that what comments are for if it's respectful dialogue?:)
      I enjoyed this stretching of my ethics and mind:) thank you for the opportunity Lydia, Anonymous and Shain...I learned from each of you even if I disagreed in parts- it was stretching and worth it:)

    5. No one is enforcing any "rules" by threat of punishment (unless you count someone not wanting to interact with you because they find you abrasive or just can't handle one more microaggression). And this is not about "rules before relationships," as many of these things apply to complete strangers, who are in certain contexts even less entitled to any benefit of the doubt or leeway than acquaintances (though that can also be reversed -- e.g., knowing someone's triggers and violating them anyway in the context of a friendship). If your idea of individualism is more important to you than doing your best to make someone comfortable based on their expressed preferences, that is in the end up to you, but that's not without its meaning and implications, and, just like if someone decided not to follow another person's "rules" regarding sensory input that made them uncomfortable or allergies or personal space, the person whose buttons you're at this point at least recklessly pressing has good grounds to think you're being a dick.

    6. a few things...
      1) everyone fucks up, autistic or not, no matter how well intentioned. everyone is going to fuck up because social justice is hard and unlearning oppressive bullshit that we've all grown up surrounded with is hard and will require time and there's always more to change and improve on. the best thing to do is to accept that you're not perfect and will never be, and ask what you can do to do better.

      2) at least from how I see it, it's not about following specific rigid rules so much as about learning more and changing your mindset - changes in how you approach and interact with other people will likely follow. so if you recognize yourself doing some of the "don't"s, ask yourself why and do some additional reading, thinking, and talking about these issues. it's likely that these behaviors are effects of absorbed racism, and paying attention to and questioning these beliefs will change the behaviors.

      3) excusing racism as a result of autism really throws autistic POC under the bus, since they (unlike white autistics, including myself) don't have the option to not confront or deal with racist attitudes and beliefs.

      thank you, Lydia, for a very helpful and important post.

    7. Anonymous, if I can maybe make it all much simpler....

      Would you do or say anything, or start an interaction a certain way, with a person of color, that you wouldn't do or say to a white person?

      If so, why?

      What assumptions on your part underlie that?

      It's not about you being a horrible person who can't follow rules so you should just never interact with other people...it's that certain hugely pervasive cultural assumptions in the US teach certain things are okay to do or to say to people of color, that really are *really* aggravating over time.

      I get that long, dense lists of guidelines or rules can be overwhelming, but I think maybe this one boils down to something more manageable:

      If you routinely say or do things to people of color that you would never consider saying to a white person...why does someone not being white make it an okay thing to say or do?

      If the answer is "nothing, really," or an assumption that they aren't as American as a white person is presumed to be, or something else that feels in your gut like an excuse...then probably reconsider saying it.

    8. Honestly, I think most of this- breezing through the comments- was misunderstood- I don't think Annonymous was trying to hide behind racism or not trying to learn...i think she was expressing her vulnerability in areas and how she tries to follow the do's and still can get taken wrong- which I understand...and how if it WAS trying to put people into do's and don'ts all the time- it CAN get overwhelming. I see nothing concrete in her statements but more feelings...So I see her point...but as I said- Lydia also has MANY good points:) It is all in presentation and intent when we speak to people and by no means was I saying because of Autism that we can not learn about and treat people with respect. In fact, most Autistics I know are the most respectful people...because they know in a different way what being a minority is like and it is always an awesome opportunity to learn. The whole point of the article was not to be rude- which is interesting considering the language in many of the comments of people being rude back. The point of it all is respect. I felt most of the statements of Do's I already do in my life due to my grandfather's experiences of deep racism ( he is native) and what I have learned naturally in that regard, and a few things I can learn more of, but at times i WILL come across differently than what I meant ( as we all do) and I hope that there will also be grace for me and not immediately think I am engaging in white privilege ( which I have-EVERYONE has some sort of Privilege...and EVERYONE has some sort of minority in varied ways- obviously to lesser extents) and it is good to learn, be vulnerable and brave, and say sorry for when we come across rude even when we do not want to. Social justice is tricky and there is a fine line we all have to face...I don't think Annonymous was not wanting to change or face themselves but instead saying it's a minefield of complications and she was giving some. Also, Lydia was writing a Do's and Don'ts list which can come across strong ( which is fine) - it is going to involve discussion. Even being considerate of people- people are STILL going to not like some reactions ect. You can't be everyone's cup of tea...but that does not give an excuse to be a narcistic person who does not learn either...*balance* again:)

  2. I read your blog for about a year and I respect your work in disability field. However, I think you're prejudiced. Dear POC: white people are generally not your enemy and not the root of all evil. We're just people like everybody else. When I read some posts here or on FB, I feel like I should be ashamed of everything, because I'm white.

    1. You're absolutely right that white *people* aren't the enemy. But white supremacy as a system most certainly is an enemy, and how white supremacy works is by assigning greater value and rights to white people (the definition of which, of course, has shifted over time) at the expense of people of color. That's why I talk about racism as a structural problem -- it's not an individual problem, and most white people aren't evil horrible terrible people and don't intend to do anything specifically harmful toward people of color. BUT harm still happens all the time. What I ask is for white people not to feel ashamed of being white, but to question the systems that privilege whiteness, and to be more deliberate in how they navigate their communities. If you don't want to cause harm, then please listen to the voices of people of color when we talk about patterns that do cause harm regardless of the intent of those behind them.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Katja, Lydia's was an amazing and generous blog post. Describing Lydia as prejudiced is its own pernicious form of gaslighting. Lydia painstakingly wrote about the ways in which commonplace conversations RE: place, belonging, and language do real violence to people of color -- and, frankly, they didn't have to write this. I can't even begin to imagine the spoons it took to write this. What they wrote was a gift of their time, and they also detailed, quite laboriously, the ways in which white people can support PoC, especially those they care about.

      I'm not sure if you notice the irony of your comment. This was a post about how racism often takes form, both cumulatively and innocuously, via discursive violence. Responding to someone's real, embodied experience of prejudice with "you are prejudiced" is its own form of violence.

    4. It's not about feeling guilty for being white. If you did something, intentionally or unintentionally, that you know or have reason to think might've hurt someone on the basis of race, then you should possibly feel remorse. The important thing is to decide to do better, and the point of this post was to help enable people who mean well to do so if they don't know how.

    5. "Dear POC: white people are generally not your enemy and not the root of all evil."

      Where on earth, anywhere in the post, was that stated or implied, though?

      Asking white people who behave cluelessly to consider what they say before they say it regarding someone's ethnic background, particularly given that this is *well known* to be a sensitive topic in the US, is a very very far cry from calling white people "generally your enemy" or "the root of all evil."

      I mean, huh???

      Sure, I've known people of color who were generalistically prejudiced against white people, but saying "this is stuff that happens to us all the time, I know it may seem innocuous to you but it isn't to us" ....is just, not that.

    6. If you "feel like you should be ashamed of everything, because you're white," you've utterly missed the point. The problem isn't being white; it's what one does with one's whiteness. If this post is cause for defensiveness, perhaps your actions are what require scrutiny.

      Meanwhile, I'm still scratching my head and trying to figure out why, if Lydia is "prejudiced" and believes that white people are the "enemy and the root of all evil," they'd be good friends with me, one of the whitest individuals in our solar system.

    7. The girl who told me I was 'too white to be a person' was prejudiced. Lydia is not. At least, not from what I can tell from this post.

  3. As you have eloquently put forward, Lydia, racism is a structural problem, not an individual problem. However, defensiveness IS an individual problem. As a white person who has made (and continues to make mistakes) and of course never intends hurt, I figure that the best I can do is to remain open to hearing how my actions impact others. Sometimes the impact is unintended and embarrassing. It isn't easy to be called out on issues of privilege - especially when you know that's not what you meant. It is, however, crucial to stay curious and learn and not to let the desire to save face take over. This isn't the same as being ashamed of my *whiteness*. It's about acknowledging the "oops" moment, and not taking it personally when I'm called on it (and by not taking it personally I don't mean not owning it, I mean not letting it push me into a defensive place).

  4. It's too bad anyone feels shamed, but that's not Ly's responsibility. They've provided very good information in a very balanced way. They also provide education with the fair certainty that someone is going to come in with hurt fee fees as a result. Ok, so you're autistic. So am I. So is my daughter. It's not an excuse to perpetuate racism. I'm white. Ok, no, learning of ways that white people screw up is not shaming white people, at least until you start defending your right not to be called on such things, then you deserve some shame. Stop it already. It's shit like that that makes me ashamed of my skin color.

  5. Lydia's post is helpful and universal. It's simply offering advice on how to navigate the etiquette for these kinds of questions.

    Those who are objecting are very clearly wearing their privilege on their sleeves. Aspies indeed.

    Instead of bristling at the concept of your curiosity possibly hurting someone and thus instead condemning the arbitrary social rules we are expected to live by, maybe actually READ the post? The "Dos" in particular.

    It's okay to be interested in someone's history and want to get to know them personally or to just be interested in other global cultures in general. What's NOT okay is racial profiling.

    A post like this is a useful guide on how to show your interest without insulting another person.

    The idea here isn't to infringe upon anyone's freedom to learn and interact with the world, it's to teach the audience how to do those things while still being sensitive to others.

    The lesson is that it's wrong to form preconceived notions about people and wrong to make assumptions based on racist stereotypes. None of that means that it's wrong to politely ask an acquaintance a little bit about themselves. It's all about how you do it.

    The whole message here is literally; don't be a condescending bigot. I don't get how anyone could find that to be objectionable in any way.

    Even autistics who have been told that they're doing it wrong too many times should see both the difference and the parallel between forced eye contact or small talk and alienating someone for looking, acting or sounding different (whether actively or accidentally). Actually, nevermind "even" ~ especially ~ on average, you'd think white autistic people might understand the concept of "othering" better than white neurotypicals do.

  6. I really enjoyed this post and was surprised to see some of the responses to it. I am white and I do not feel attacked by this post. I feel educated by it and I recognize that educating me is a generous act. No one is required to teach me, but Ly took the time to do just that and I am grateful. I am Autistic and I do not feel attacked by this post. Yes, I have a hard time with social interactions. Yes, I have done some of the listed things before. But I am capable of learning and that is why I love this post: it gave me a chance to reinforce things I have learned before and learn new things.

    The do's and don't's in this post did not come across to me as objectifying people at all. As an Autistic, I appreciated them because they give me guidelines to keep in mind. No every situation won't be identical. But the bullet points help me mentally organize the information I was reading and help me to learn how to interact with others better. And that is a skill I try to work on every day, so I am grateful for the chance to learn these things.

    Saying things like "I might as well not try" or "I will just keep to my own kind" are racist statements. White people have privileges that include being able to ignore race if it scares us too much. White people have gotten so good at ignoring race that they often feel like they have no race....that is racist, because when a person feels that way it shows that they are both in a position of racial privilege and have chosen to use that privilege to insulate themselves instead of opening to the larger world.

    Yes, Autistic people have less privilege due to disability. But that is where intersectionality comes in. I have more privilege for being white, less for being Autistic. Ly has less privilege for being a Person of Color and less privilege for being Autistic. It is my responsibility to check my privilege and learn how to interact with Ly in ways that make them feel acknowledged, accepted, and respected.

    To get upset and say "I just won't talk to anyone" is an example of someone who has privilege and is upset that they are being asked to check that privilege and think of others. We Autistics can learn. Ly has chosen to help teach us in a clear and non-aggressive way. They have given us a gift and to reject that gift is to choose the comfort of the structural racism that privileges all of us white people.

    You might not feel racist saying, "I give up." You might feel like you are the victim here, because of your neurology. But I assure you, it *is* racist to cling to your privilege unnecessarily and defend your "right" to be hurtful to others on the basis of your neurology and you are not the victim when you use your neurology as an excuse to not have to work to learn new things that will make you a kinder person toward others.

  7. So like, I am a white autistic person, and I'm often very concrete, so I'm going to try and talk about this in a way that makes clear what the difference is between the average NT person trying to teach you how the "right" way to interact is, and a person of color (autistic or not) saying "Hey, this is how you have been treating me and people like me, and even if you thought it was chill, it's really not, and I would like you to stop treating us this way." In case the distinction between the two was not clear before.

    White people treating people of color in ways that are different, and invasive, and presumptuous, and belittling, and so forth, is *normal* in the U.S. and in many other countries. To be a white person, autistic or not, and ask people of color personal/presumptuous questions that we would never normally as other white people, is to act in a way that is socially very normal, and presumed to be polite/natural. When you say that you act this way because you are autistic, and asking to you act differently is to not respect your autisticness, that's really like ignoring the lives and experiences of autistic people of color like Lydia. Not all autistic people treat people of color the way that Lydia describes here, because not all autistic people are white. Treating people of color the way Lydia is describing is something white autistics do because we are white, and it is something white people are taught is acceptable to do; it is not something autistic people do because they are autistic, because it is not something autistic people do (as a group) *period.*

    A related thing that I know happens among autistic people, and that is a more concrete kind of interactional problem, has to do with personal space. I am a cis (aka not trans) female person, and I am autistic. Being female means that lots of men (autistic or not autistic) grow up assuming that it is acceptable for them to touch my body without asking my permission first (sometimes in any situation, sometimes in specific kinds of situations). Being autistic and otherwise disabled means that lots of doctors and other people in medical fields think it is normal for them to touch me without asking my permission first. If I tell someone "Please do not touch me without my permission," I am not being a mean, socially-typical person trying to punish you for not being normal; the entire reason I am asking you to treat me differently is because I know you have probably been taught that it's normal/polite to treat me in that invasive/not okay way just because I am female, or just because I am autistic/disabled.

    Asking people of color personal/presumptuous questions, and otherwise invading, or expecting, their basic privacy and right to respect and space, is something white people (autistic or NT) do because we are taught that people of color are "unusual" or "foreign." Because we have learned from other white people and from media that it is normal to immediately need to know where people of color are "from," and to figure out what "category" they belong it, or to see people of color as little opportunities for us to get information/"cultural experience" rather than seeing them as actual people with lives and a right to space/privacy.

    Also like, I'm sorry, I don't believe that anyone actually has reason to worry that they can't "meet people" or "make new friends" without "offending someone" just because Lydia and other people of color are telling you how to treat them with basic respect. Do yall go around and have to ask every white person you encounter/want to get to know about where they're "really from" or "what they are"? Seriously. Or are you just feeling upset because being a white person and being friends with people of color is so "hard" for...you...the white friend. Because that would be a super entitled/self-centered way to think about this. Just FYI.

  8. Another white autistic person here. Three things: 1) I am white and fairly intensely social/communication impaired, so I struggle with things. 2) This post is helpful to me because of how well it spells things out, thereby helping me prevent certain types of fuckup. 3) Items one and two are not the most important thing to say about this post; the most important thing to say about this post is simply "Thank you" because it is time for white people to listen instead of making everything in the world consist in how we feel about it.

  9. Further to all above comments, this blog hits the mark.

  10. I don't think this comments section is healthy for the writer or the commenters. It's a really damaging lack of boundaries that breeds contempt. The two initial comments were intended to give you some kind of feedback as a writer -- even if the commenters didn't know that consciously, that is what they are: feedback. Your piece is long and makes something which really should be simple into something complicated. It's not well organized for impact and there is no clear priority to anything you're saying in it. You really could have picked the most important five paragraphs in it and made a bigger impact on your reader without seeming like there was this landslide of etiquette nuance. Being thorough is only appreciated by a certain number of readers, and the number is not large - for the rest, it creates a confusion of priority and affects their attention span. Don't get me wrong - I agree with what you're saying - I just don't agree with the execution. What I really dislike is the way the writer has shielded herself from receiving simple feedback by deciding the commenters have wickedly devised some way to undermine POC. If someone says your piece is overwhelming and makes them want to give up, it's really not healthy to ascribe some kind of wicked subtext within that. I'm not saying the commenters aren't racist or ridiculous, but that it's really not cool to suffer unnecessarily in guessing their motives and dismissing useful feedback.

    Wouldn't it have been a million, billion times easier to just give people a simple rule from which they can either discern the subtext or not, depending on their ability? Like, for example, "Hey, if you meet someone from another country, wait until your third conversation with them to ask about their languages, home country, etc. Wait until you have asked them a whole bunch of other stuff about themselves"? Then the person will know you have an investment in getting to know them and won't feel like a curio object being inspected. Stop making people feel out of place is my cardinal rule with stuff like this - make people feel like they fit in effortlessly, so don't ask them about the list of things in your head that makes them stand out. It's rude to anyone.

    1. It might have been easier in the sense of writing it, but a lot of people (including a lot of, but obviously not all, autistic people) don't do subtext well... particularly on an issue that they can't readily draw from their own experience in order to figure out the best way to go. I'm pretty sure that if Lydia had gone the opposite route of giving broad-brush feedback, they'd be getting the opposite feedback -- "But how are we supposed to know if we're treating someone like that?" That's not to say that this is an exhaustive list for all people who experience casual racism, but it does give people some concrete suggestions that can be used to infer general patterns (which is something that I, for one, find useful).

    2. Dear Anonymous: It's clear from your comment that you're concerned with anything but writing instruction. In stating, and I quote, "I'm not saying the commenters aren't racist," you none-too-subtly imply that as long as racist commentary is delivered under the guise of "useful feedback," all's cool in the world.

      Well, all's not cool in the world. And all's not cool in your comment. In fact, your comment is a prime example of not only language policing, but complete and utter gaslighting. Speaking as an autistic and white writing professor, I find your comment utterly gross, insincere, and, frankly, mean-spirited. What you have written follows in a long tradition of belittling, berating, and controlling the discourse and actions of people of color. Making statements like "I agree with what you're saying - I just don't agree with the execution" is a common racist trope: e.g., "If only PoCs could make their arguments like a civilized, diplomatic [read: white] person would." I mean, that's the general force of your comment here.

      If you really cared about the execution of someone's BLOG POST, why not write them on the backchannel, and use all that gosh-darned diplomacy you supposedly pride, and say, "Hey, I really appreciated your post. I'd love to signal-boost this for XYZ audience. Might you be interested in condensing what you say to XYZ words? Etc." But, of course, you did nothing of the sort because I suspect you're more interested in silencing and controlling the discourse of PoC than you are with spreading around a message that you supposedly "agree" with.

      I would also like to focus on a repeated word choice in your comment: "health." For someone who's a supposedly avid reader of Lydia's blog, you don't seem to grasp the ableist and colonial resonances of suggesting that a disabled PoC is not only acting unhealthily, but somehow is also damaging the health of others. Quoting you again:

      "I don't think this comments section is healthy for the writer or the commenters. It's a really damaging lack of boundaries that breeds contempt."
      "If someone says your piece is overwhelming and makes them want to give up, it's really not healthy to ascribe some kind of wicked subtext within that."
      "it's really not cool to suffer unnecessarily in guessing their motives and dismissing useful feedback"

      Who are you to assess the supposed mental health of writers and readers based on a blog comment exchange? Your use of the word "breed" up above also strikes me as a (perhaps unconscious, but then again perhaps not unconscious) allusion to eugenics. God help us if autistic PoC breed unhealthy ideas with their unhealthy words and feelings. And "suffer unnecessarily"? That's one of the worst disability metaphors out there.

      Finally: What is needed from white allies isn't defensiveness or posturing or diplomacy or, FFS, "useful feedback" on writing style. What's needed is this: we need to stop talking, we need to listen, we need to humble ourselves, and we need to confront our own biases. And no part of that list involves diatribes about how PoC need to reign in their activism so that it's more palatable for white people. No. f-ing. part.

  11. Okay. So. A couple of things: I'm curious as to why you (Anon) feel like Lydia has tried to shield their-self from feedback or criticism, given that they have only replied once to a comment in this comments section, and all the other comments/responses have been from other people? I mean, I'm unsure why other people reading this post, reading some of the initial responses, and choosing to add their thoughts in support of what Lydia has written, constitutes Lydia personally shielding their-self from feedback.

    To me it looks more like Lydia has gotten a lot of feedback and multiple responses, and the majority of those responses (as well as the direction of discussion within the comments section) has been positive--people (myself included) have said that, as white autistics, we think Lydia's post is important, and something we need to listen to as white allies. I know that I and some other commenters have also expressed that we don't think that it is particularly constructive for other white autistic people to give feedback that amounts to, basically, "this post makes me feel bad about myself" or "these instructions can't work for people who are autistic like me." We responded to other commenters in those ways because (I can speak for most of us) we are also white autistic people, and we disagreed with the assertions being about "autistic people with social difficulties," like ourselves.

    In terms of your "execution" critique, I understand that concision and efficiency can be important parts of conveying a message, but the manner in which you critique Lydia's post give the impression that you are more interested in someone just telling you one easy thing that will solve all these issues. And that's like, pretty much the opposite of what I think Lydia was trying to do here. Not to mention that, like, if you think that just saying "Hey, if someone's from another country, wait until you know them to ask about their culture/language!" would be more effective, you've missed the entire focus of this post...which was assumptions white people make about people of color based on their race and/or ethnicity. Part of the reason that Lydia was giving multiple suggestions was because they needed to first address the fact that white people assume people of color are "foreign"/from another country simply based on their skin color/appearance, and that's pretty racist.

    Not to mention that, I'm sorry if I sound a bit testy here, but I really struggle to understand how it is that the *very* concrete, *very* clear pairs of "Don'ts" and "Dos" Lydia provides are somehow like...this super nuanced and overcomplicated set of social tricks. Like. I am someone that definitely struggles with verbal and motor impulsivity a ridiculous amount, but even I know that my impulsivity doesn't mean I get to ignore other people saying "Emma, please stop that, what you're saying and/or doing is hurtful/racist." Yes, it was a "list" so to speak. But the thoroughness of said list is intended to allow people to consult and learn from it over time, as they encounter/think through different situations they end up in.

  12. There are a few things happening here that really bother me. More than a few, actually, but I want to focus in on three right now:

    1. Anonymity. While I understand the risks involved in writing openly on the internet under one's legal name, complete anonymity can be distressing. I can't tell who is who: is there one anonymous person in this thread? Three? I have no sense of who is communicating. It can feel more aggressive, like someone is hiding who they are while picking others apart from relative safety. It comes across as the typed word equivalent of a sniper. If you feel strongly enough about your ideas to share them, put a name with it. It doesn't have to be your civil name -- just something to let me (and others) have a sense of who is talking. At minimum, I'd like to know if this is the same anonymous person from earlier or someone else.

    2. Tone policing. What is being done to Ly is an aggression called tone policing. What especially irritates me here us that people identified as Autistic are tone policing someone else. As Autistics, we are subjected to tone policing all the time. People refuse to listen to what we have to say because they don't like the way we said it. To see fellow Autistics turn around and tone police other people is dismaying. We all know what it's like when people do this to us. We should NOT be doing it to other people. That is just taking the bullying we live with every day and passing it on to someone else. Do not do that! When a person tone polices someone instead of listening to what they are saying, they are silencing that person in an aggressive and judgments way. White people do not have done special right to have racism taught to us in the language we choose. We have a responsibility to stay calm and hear what racism is about, in the language chosen by those who live with racism every day.

    As white people, a lot of racism is invisible to us. We need to remember that and listen, not tell people that they have to deliver the message in a way that makes us feel okay. By definition, hearing how we have benefitted from systemic racism will not feel okay. We will be shocked, we will feel guilt/sorrow/regret when we realize things that we have done, we will feel angry about a lot of things. We have a responsibility to not react out of those emotions and just listen. Because of the strong emotions that come with learning about racism that was invisible to us, if we insist on critiquing the way the message is delivered, insisting that we will not listen until the message comes in a way that makes us feel okay, we will silence the message forever because it will never feel okay. Because racism is not okay. So we have to stop tone policing, stop protesting and gas lighting, and just listen and learn.

    And that leads to the last point:

  13. 3. Playing the victim. It feels bad to hear about racism. It feels bad to hear about things we were doing, not realizing they were hurtful. It feels bad to look at our white skin and hear about things many/most white people do and feel ashamed or guilty or any number of other emotions.

    But that does not mean we are the victim. No matter how many emotions we have when we learn about the racism that has been invisible to us, we have to remember that it is much harder for those who live every single day with racism than it is for us, hearing about ways we can be less racist. We have the privilege of deciding to ignore race. We have the privilege to say clueless things like, "why does it have to be about race all the time?"

    People of Color don't have those privileges. There is no chance to just take a break from these issues. Everything *has* to be about race because they live with aggressions and microaggressions Every. Single. Day. They can't just walk away from it.

    Therefore, playing the victim is selfish. It is a way of saying, "my pain at learning I have done/said racist things is more important than your pain at being subjected to racism all the time." It is a way of saying, "my temporary feelings of shame are more important than your constant fear of aggression, discrimination, and death." It is very selfish to elevate our discomfort as white people being confronted with racist realities above the pain, anger, fear of People of Color being treated as objects, as criminals, as lesser, and so on.

    There are more things bothering me about this thread, but these three are the big ones that have me grinding my teeth.

  14. regardless of if you MEAN to be racist or if it's because you haven't "learned the rules", the impact and harm is still done. the question is, do we care if we inflict harm or are we making excuses? using our conditions to excuse harmful behavior is bigotry. it lacks intersectional analysis. it refuses to see the struggle for dis-ability rights within the larger social justice dialogue. and then we're upset when we're discounted?

    but let me break it down: don't ask someone you don't know, personal questions that are none of your business.

    don't ask someone you don't know, questions that "other" them, that separate them from you or indicate you recognize them for the way they are not like you.

    if you hurt someone, apologize. really apologize. not "i'm sorry if i offended you" because that makes it about them and how they feel. apologize for what YOU did. "i'm sorry for what i said and that it hurt you."

  15. I only ask 'where are you from?' if the person has a noticeable non-North American accent - and I've asked white people that question too. I'd never assume someone was 'foreign' just based on their appearance - especially since I'm well aware of my difficulty in distinguishing certain ethnic groups.


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