When I was growing up, the kids I went to grade school with would always ask each other “what nationality are you?” Since we were pretty much all Americans, what we really meant was “what ethnicity are you?” I guess we were going on the assumption I still have, that being an American is a citizenship, not an ethnicity, and we were curious about the various places our friends’ families had come from.
Maybe this was the genesis of my affinity for heritage and ancestry. Or maybe it just dovetailed nicely with an inborn need to classify my environment — the same way I always, always have to know what time it is.
I still wonder what ethnicity people are, unless it’s obvious. But I would never ask, because I’m afraid it would seen as a version of all the “things white people say to [insert non-white ethnicity here].”
And I also wonder about gender, when I see an androgynous person. I’d be even less likely to try to find out the gender of a person than I would their ethnicity. But I will spend an entire BART ride wondering about either or both of those things respecting fellow commuters.
The third thing I always wonder about is age. I like to orient myself as older or younger than whomever I’m talking with. I’m less likely to wonder about the age of someone I simply see, but I definitely want to know how old my friends, acquaintances, and coworkers are. It’s the thing that’s closest to my need to know what time it is.
I’m just curious; I just like to have information. I have had friends and lovers of various ethnicities and combinations thereof, and I’ve learned things about their ancestral cultures, so I would at least try not to ask stupid or offensive questions about ethnicity. And I’m not just curious about whether someone is, say, Korean or Japanese. I’m curious if someone is Dutch or German, Spanish or Italian, Chilean or Argentinian. I’m an equal-opportunity busybody, apparently.
I have no real need to know someone’s heritage, gender, or age, but my curiosity is simple and sincere.
And I know I sound like some cranky conservative kvetching, “These days you can’t ask a simple question without someone getting offended!” The thing is, I don’t want to offend anyone, and so I don’t ask any of these questions except when I know for certain it won’t be taken badly. Actually, I’d never ask a gender question, but age and ethnicity I will occasionally venture into.
Oh, and I’m English/Scottish/Danish, about to turn 47, and a cisgender woman. Just in case anyone wondered.