Ask Bea: Advice on Racial Etiquette

Posted on May 31, 2011 by


Ask Bea is an advice column on matters of racial etiquette and cultural politesse. Readers are invited to submit the questions of their hearts’ burning desire to the discerning, matter-of-fact counsel of Bea Radley. Email

Dear Bea,

In public, I often endure questions from strangers about my ethnicity. ‘Where are you from?’ And when I respond, I even get, ‘No, but where are your parents from?’ I’ve even had people—usually men—take the time to explain the facts of history to me, as though they somehow know more about my background than I do. I find these questions incredibly rude. What’s the most appropriate response? Do I have to say anything at all? I identify as a black American and could leave it at that.


Annoyed in Arizona

Dear Annoyed,

Questions about a stranger’s race are indeed inappropriate. If the information isn’t volunteered, then it’s best solicited as getting-to-know-you conversation, in situations where at least some brief prior acquaintance has been established—on a date, for example, or in a social setting with someone you’ve taken a class with. Also, one’s ethnicity, like the spelling and pronunciation of
one’s name, is one of those areas where one’s own word has the final authority. What you say you are is what goes, so it’s no wonder you feel so indignant at having to defend your identity. Now sit down, cool off for a minute, pour yourself a stiff drink, and release some of that built-up stress. Next time a stranger who wasn’t taught better asks, state your preferred ethnic term curtly, and firmly, moving on to the next subject. This should suffice; if they press the matter, tell them in clear, frank terms that the question is rude. Tell them Bea said so.

Dear Bea,

I’ve invited my Muslim neighbors to Sunday dinner. I’m making traditional Southern collard greens. Is it ok to serve them the vegetables in a dish made with pork?


The Other White Meat

Dear Other,

The best way to get your answer would be to ask your neighbors themselves, and I’m sure they would appreciate your consideration in asking if you do feel comfortable enough. Though pork is expressly forbidden in the Koran, people practice their religions at varying degrees of observance. There are indeed secular Muslims who would not object to eating your greens, picking
around the meat—but the offense you are courting by serving swine to a Muslim who doesn’t feel this way is so very grave that you should not dare risk it. Err on the safe side if you cannot ask. Smoked turkey meat is a delicious alternative to flavoring greens with pork.

Dear Bea,

I am fascinated with black hair. It’s so exotic! Every time I see a woman
with a lush Afro or thick dreadlocks, I just want to touch. Can I?



Dear Lascivious,

I’m tempted to respond to your query with just one word: no. But it’s worth expounding on in brief: do not touch another human being without her explicit permission. And if you’ve only just met said human being, don’t even ask for it. It’s a white American folkloric superstition that to touch the hair of a “pickaninny” brings good luck. While you may or may not have been aware of
the deep historical nerves you touch when you reach for that stranger’s tresses, be advised that the ‘fro has not forgotten.

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