People Of Color Are Not Curiosities

My friend keeps trying to deflect the conversation. The bartender ignores the obvious hints. He calls me a yellow girl.

I know that arguing with entitled white men on Facebook never ends well, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been angrier in my life. He’s mansplaining multiple women of color by defending the right to ask us the “Where are you from?” micro-aggression. He says it isn’t a harmful question because white people are simply curious. He asks if the question has ever traumatized me. I see red.

I’m transported back to a clear, sunny afternoon in France. I’m 22, a recent French major graduate, flushed with the excitement of working abroad for seven months. A white male friend and I, wanting to hang out somewhere, still unfamiliar with the town, walk into the first bar we see. It’s dimly lit, reeking of cigarette smoke, and not an establishment I’d typically frequent.

The bartender’s a burly, half-balding man with yellow teeth and a long, unflattering salt-and-pepper goatee that juts out from his chin like a small broom. He’s perfectly civil to my white male friend, shaking his hand and then chatting with him in amiable French. I start to unclench my hand from my derelict blue moped keychain from Rome.

But then the bartender’s gaze falls on me. I tense, because as a woman of color who has experienced racial harassment in college, in grocery stores, in job interviews, I’ve seen that look a thousand times. He does not see me as a human being, but as an exotic accessory from another country.

Sure enough, instead of holding out his hand, he insists that I exchange la bise with him. Although I understand perfectly well what a cheek kiss is, he’s not an acquaintance, much less a friend. I refuse his request by playing stupid, a task made easier by his belief that I don’t understand France’s language or culture.

But he won’t leave my friend or me alone, stubbornly talking to us in half-broken English. And then he demands to know where I’m from. I reply truthfully, but “America” isn’t enough. He wants to know where I, my parents, and my grandparents were born. I’m a first-generation child, and proud of it, but for the first time in my life, I lie.

My friend keeps trying to deflect the conversation. The bartender ignores the obvious hints. He calls me a yellow girl.

I surrender the remainder of my pint of beer to my friend, who wordlessly chugs it. Then the two of us attempt to bolt out of the bar, but the bartender makes my friend sign a ten-dollar bill so that he can remember “the American boy.”

I think I’ll escape unscathed because the bartender already has his souvenir.

I’m wrong. He places himself between the door and me, between my freedom and my friend. He refuses to let me leave until I give him la bise. I’m 5’5” and will never weigh more than a hundred pounds, even soaking wet, and I’ve never regretted my decision to ignore the entire week of self-defense class in ninth grade more than I did right then and there in that shadowy bar. But when I was 14, I couldn’t have anticipated that I’d one day feel utterly helpless in a foreign country. I didn’t yet know that women have been murdered for saying no.

When I finally step outside, my friend apologizes profusely. Meanwhile, I repeatedly scrub my flannel sleeves across my cheeks. I can’t get rid of the scratchy feeling of unkempt beard brushing against my skin, robbing me of my agency. When my friend and I part ways, I get the urge to rub my cheeks against the nearest stone wall. I don’t because they’ll bleed, but I do scratch my fingernails across my cheeks so many times, they turn red.

After, no matter how many friends I’m with, I tense whenever I enter a bar. I’m angry at myself for thinking it, but I can’t help but wonder if one day, a question about my race will result in something worse than a forced cheek kiss. I can’t help but wonder if one day I will become a statistic.

Today, I’m 23, and I haven’t forgotten the feeling of phantom beard rasping across my cheeks. I didn’t think I could hate a question more than I already did. It was hard, but I slowly picked my shattered trust off the ground and pieced it back together because the men I trust have done so much for me.

Back on Facebook, I copy and paste my story into the comment thread. The entitled white man agrees that my experience is traumatic. And then he carries on arguing that white people have a right to satisfy their curiosity when it comes to race.

It takes two days, five women, and 215 comments to explain to him that a person of color’s background does not exist for a white person’s curiosity.

Sarena Tien is a queer Chinese-American feminist and Francophile. Her work has appeared in online publications such as Transitions Abroad, The Feminist Wire, Bustle, On She Goes, and Argot. When she’s not trying to become a polyglot, she can often be found fighting for social justice or folding far too many origami stars.

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