"Can I touch it?" the stranger asked. "It's so long, it's so black, it's so wavy," the woman said, reaching for Nusrat Qadir's hair. Then the stranger asked, "Is it real?"
"No, I'm a blonde in disguise," replied Qadir, a second-generation American of East Indian descent, before she shook her head and walked away.
For Mary Ferguson, a Dublin native who directs development for the Sierra Club in Los Angeles, the distressing moment occurred when Ed Roybal, the Democratic congressman in her diverse northeast Los Angeles district, asked her to serve on a committee because it needed "Anglo" representation.
"It's kind of funny I was picked," Ferguson told the audience at a political dinner for Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Woo. "Because if you think I'm Anglo, I'm not. I'm Irish and I'm Catholic." And even though she knows the term is meant to apply to all English-speaking Caucasians, "I'm really insulted when I'm mistaken for an Anglo," she says, noting that she and many others think the English have oppressed the Irish for nearly 900 years.
Racism, or Just Ignorance
Welcome to a rude new world, where some faux pas are easily categorized as racist. But many other transgressions can be seen as breaches of intercultural etiquette, bred of ignorance or a sincere desire to learn about someone different but expressed in an inappropriate manner or context.
It's the offhand remark that cuts or injures--the request for a speaker with an "adorable" British accent "to say something in English"; the question to women of Indian descent about the tikka or kumkum, the red beauty mark, often made from a powder and worn on the forehead or scalp, "Does that dot wash off?"; the constant query to every Asian-American, "Are you Japanese, Chinese or what?"
A little common sense would go a long way in preventing needlessly hurt feelings and potentially incendiary social situations, experts say.
No one, says Elizabeth Post--granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, the late grand dame of etiquette--should think that ignorance is an excuse for bad manners.
"Making personal remarks to anybody, whether of a different background or not, is totally inappropriate. It's even more inappropriate when you are ignorant about the people you are talking to."
Yet it happens all the time--in offices, in schools, in the neighborhood park.
KCBS newswoman Tritia Toyota is still incensed over an interview in which a reporter asked for the name of her plastic surgeon.
"What do you mean?" she responded.
"Your eyes are so round," the reporter said, wrongly insisting Toyota must have had eyelid surgery because the reporter ignorantly believed that all Asian-Americans have narrow eyes.
Pamela James--an African-American woman who braids hair for a living and often wears hers in cornrows, a traditional African style of braiding the hair into neat rows--said she is tired of being asked by whites: "Do you wash your hair?"
"Of course I wash my hair," James snaps, adding, "I don't care how exotic a hairdo looks to someone else, you don't say something that essentially questions their personal hygiene." The curious and insensitive, she noted, compound the insult by "wanting to touch your hair, too. You just don't invade anybody's space like that."
When he was a freshman at the University of Nebraska, Art Alexander walked into the financial aid office for information.
"So, you're here to play football," the white counselor told Alexander, an African-American.
Alexander said no.
"And then she went down the line: baseball, basketball--you're a track man, then--until she finally stopped at water polo," says Alexander, assistant to a city commissioner in Portland, Ore. "I was a premed English major at the time, and it never dawned on her that I was not there as an athlete."
That was in 1971. But Alexander and other blacks say people still make similar assumptions, being dumbfounded when a black person, for instance, makes an intelligent comment in a professional meeting or in a classroom because they think blacks are present only because of affirmative action programs, not merit.
Or, they think blacks are supposed to be walking encyclopedias of their group's history and culture.
Some of the questions are from the theater of the absurd.
Says Alexander: "I heard from a black friend of mine about a white colleague who came up to her in the office and in all sincerity wanted to know if Aunt Jemimah was a historical figure?"
Linda Alipuria, a graduate student in psychology, noted, "A lady with no ax to grind was sitting in the park playing with her daughter." The woman, who was white, looked at Alipuria, who also is white. Then she looked at Alipuria's son. "What are you doing with that child?" the woman asked matter-of-factly. "He can't be your son. He's of color."
"He is my child," Alipuria told her evenly, "and the reason he looks like that is because his father is Indian."