When I was 16 years old, a woman thought it was appropriate dinner party conversation to ask me if I had “dirty blood.” She elaborated with, “Well, is there Italian or something other than English in you?” The answer is no. I check the “white” box.
I’m British. As far as my ancestry goes, it really is just British. There’s a family tree framed in our house that traces back to the 1600s. My olive skin is as simple as inheriting my Dad’s ability to tan easily. Over the years it has meant being addressed in Italian, Greek and Turkish when holidaying in the aforementioned countries.
I’ve always enjoyed being able to cross over cultural lines. The dinner party comment was the first time I had been made to feel uncomfortable with it. I think she would have been shocked to see my sister, who has milky white skin and sapphire blue eyes; unsurprisingly, this is what my Mum has brought to the gene pool.
I’ve found during my time in America, people are keen to tell you about their heritage. Being a proud American also means being proud of its “melting pot” culture. I like it, but I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand it – it’s just not as much an integral part of British culture to care. This does however, in my experience, come hand-in-hand with preexisting ideas about how people with different ancestries should look. Got red hair? I hear that makes you Irish.
I thought it would be an interesting theory to put to the test. I asked a handful of my friends to guess where they would assume my family were from, based purely on how I look.
“I can see Italian and maybe a little German in you,” said Anna Gray, with whom I lived in the dorms three years ago.
Anna said she often gets mistaken for being mixed-race, but identifies as white, her heritage including British, Ukranian and French. She’s also Jewish, but doesn’t maintain strong ties with her religion anymore. Interestingly, this was what people chose to joke about most when she was growing up. But, she puts this down to ignorance and immaturity and doesn’t let it bother her.
Tess Romine-Black is one of my current roommates. She told me she’d guess Italian then added, “But I’m a person that doesn’t necessarily like to guess because it happens to me a lot.”
Her father is African-American and her mother is white. She told me she often gets mistaken for being Indian, Latina and Samoan.
Tess was once handed a separate check when she and her Mum were out to dinner, because the server assumed they weren’t together.
“I’m white too,” she said. “And the fact that people don’t see my Mum as my Mum will always upset me.”
I managed to collect a number of nationalities over the course of my experiment. Some were in keeping with past experiences. “Dinner party lady” would be pleased to hear that Italian was a popular guess. But, so were Eastern European, French and German.
I’m a proud Briton and not looking like a typical “English rose” will never affect this. But, it is clear that this problem of making assumptions based on how people look, weighs more heavily on some.