Onions and Unintentional Racism

The onion I wanted to throw at a clueless woman's head.
The onion I wanted to throw at a clueless woman’s head.

I know, it’s a strange title, but I wasn’t sure how else to sum up our visit to the grocery store today.

Carlos and I walked through the produce section as I checked my list.

“I need onions,” I said.

Carlos steered the cart and followed me to the onions.

“Whoa!” I said, when I came to the onions, because they were the biggest onions I’d ever seen.

“Those are huge,” Carlos said.

“Do you think they’re like, genetically modified onions or something?” I joked, picking one up.

“I don’t know. One onion is enough for a whole week.”

“Hey, quick, take a picture of it,” I said, holding it up.

Carlos obliged without question because he’s become accustomed to my odd photo requests over the years. Carlos snapped the photo and then that’s when everything went downhill.

A middle-aged blond woman standing nearby smiled at us. Her blond child sat in the cart and several more stood behind her.

“Where are you from?” the woman asked, turning her attention to Carlos, still smiling.

I glared at her while setting the onion down. Carlos shuffled uncomfortably as he put his cellphone back in his pocket.

“El Salvador,” he answered.

“You must not have onions that big there, huh?” the woman said in a voice that reminded me of a Kindergarten teacher speaking to one of her 5 year old students. She wasn’t trying to be insulting… She wasn’t trying to be.

“Um, no, not really,” Carlos said, shifting his eyes to make eye contact with me ever so briefly. Carlos and I didn’t need words, didn’t need to speak, to know we were thinking the same thing.

I bit my tongue, resisted the urge to ask the woman where she was from. I wanted to tell her that Carlos had lived in the United States for 15 years now, that he’s an American Citizen, not some onion-photographing foreign tourist. I wanted to lob one of the onions at her head but she was oblivious to her white privilege, her unintentional racism, how she had made Carlos feel “other” … She didn’t realize that if another white person had been taking a photo in the grocery store she would not have asked or even wondered where they are from.

“We just went to Thailand. We love anything international!” the woman exclaimed.

The awkwardness was unbearable.

I wondered in my head how she would have reacted if I blurted out something equally as random. “Tea and crumpets are amazing!” is what I wanted to say. I bit my tongue harder.

“That’s nice?” Carlos said, unsure, as was I, what she expected us to respond.

I looped my arm through Carlos’s, forced myself to smile at the woman and we walked away. I kept quiet because I still don’t know how to explain white privilege to other white people.

What would you have done? How would you have responded?


  1. We’ve had many experiences like this too. Definitely can relate. I try to explain to people as often as possible that what they’re asking is inappropriate, but sometimes it’s just easier to move along than address every single person. It happens too often.

    I know that people get defensive when you bring up the fact that white folks are the main perpetrators, but it’s true. It’s not strictly a white phenomenon to see everyone as a foreigner, but the majority is by far white. That perception needs to change. We really shouldn’t be connecting skin color and Americanism.

    That’s an issue that steps from media representation that I hope is slowly changing.

    Love the first clipped you shared. I could watch it 100 times. She is hilarious!! ;)

    • “We really shouldn’t be connecting skin color and Americanism.” < Exactly this. You hit the nail on the head.

      (And yes, the woman in that video is hilarious – Love it!)

  2. If I were Carlos, I would have said (to where are you from) “-city you live in-“. Maybe you’re too sensitive?

    • I am a sensitive person but in this case, I don’t believe I am being overly-sensitive. I’m not crying or full of rage over it – I was just annoyed that she asked the question.

      The United States is made up of all kinds of people. Singling someone out as being “not from here” because of the color of their skin or other physical characteristics isn’t appropriate. This has happened to my older son as well – and as you know, he was born here in the United States – he is American, just as much as his little (lighter skinned) brother, who has never been asked, “Where are you from?”

  3. Sometimes there’s an opportunity to enlighten a person. Sometimes there’s not. A person who might be very disposed to listen and understand won’t be so in every possible situation. If their back is up, they’ve shut down, and aren’t going to take anything you say in the way you mean it. In the produce section with a random stranger might not be the time or place. I sometimes think of a snappy yet nice way of saying something, but if I don’t, I’m going to let it go. Yes if there is a serious injustice going on I’m going to say what I need to say and I don’t care who’s offended. Sometimes I make a point of saying something that isn’t particularly graceful just because I feel my child needs to hear me say it to this person. But I can’t deal with every dumb comment. There are too many. You take the opportunities that come, and you try to create opportunities (I’m glad to see you blogging about it!)

    • Beth, I agree that it wasn’t the right place/time/situation to get into it with this lady but as you noted, I did feel I needed to blog about it so maybe someone else who has been unintentionally racist might read it and realize… Being confronted face-to-face is rarely productive but as a blog post I think it has a better chance of being taken into consideration.

  4. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to this. Most likely I would have asked where she’s from. Not sure what else though. I’m the kind of person that never has the right thing to say at the right moment when I want to defend myself. I close up like a clam….well, I used to. Becoming a Mother somehow gave me more courage to stand up for myself. Seven years ago I was “profiled” by an idiot at a gas station. Long story short, his comment was “what’s the matter, you no speak English!” He said this loud in front of other people. I never had felt that angry and humiliated before. All I could conjur up was to say “you’re an idiot.” Got in my car as soon as I was done and left.

    • Stephanie, I can be the same way – always thinking of better things I could have said hours later.

      At least your “You’re an idiot” response was accurate.

  5. well, it happens to me all the time. My kids being so “White looking” and me so “Latina looking” seems to be an invitation to unintentional racism. I’m used to frequent questions like: Are you he nanny? Did you adopt them? Is their father American? Sometimes I’m not sure if some people realize that not only Americans are white, and that not all Americans are White. Hard to believe you bit your tongue twice, Tracy haha

    • She didn’t seem lonely or unhappy – she seemed like a happy, well-adjusted person, but who knows. Maybe you’re right. Let’s say she was lonely and wanted to talk about her trip — That still doesn’t make it appropriate to ask a random person where they’re from based on the way they look. She could have said, “Wow, that’s a big onion – reminds me of the coconuts I saw in Thailand last week” – if her intention was to talk to someone about her trip.

  6. Well, that was super awkward! My response would have been “we are both from here, but we just haven’t seen onions that big, so we decided to take a picture”. While I definitely agree that the lady was unenlightened and insensitive, I must rant for a moment.
    **Rant** I am so tired of hearing the term “white privilege”. I don’t want others making assumptions about me based on the color of my skin anymore than they want it done to them. But at the same time I understand human curiosity. Should I be offended because some Mexican or Russian asked me where I am from? Should I be offended when people ask me if this is my real hair? People of all races ask all sorts of inappropriate questions. Some more offensive than others. This old saying goes for EVERYONE: don’t judge others until you have walked a mile in their shoes. Instead of pointing fingers, and making accusations, why can’t we all just get along and understand that things aren’t always what they seem? **Rant over**
    Meanwhile, back in the produce aisle…I’m not defending that lady. She is just one person so we all shouldn’t be judged based on her behavior. If I saw people taking pictures of vegetables, I would’ve kept walking. The race of the food photographers would have been irrelevant. All that being said, I wish we all lived in a world where none of us ever had to encounter ignorance and uncomfortable moments like that.

    • The whole topic of white privilege is controversial and complicated. I do understand where you’re coming from with your rant and I don’t disagree with some of the points you made. White people don’t have a monopoly on asking inappropriate questions – that’s for sure!

  7. I’m split here because I guess I can be the offender sometime. See, Canada is super diverse, like the US, but the town where I grew up in France was not. I think there was one Black student in the entire school… and hew as from the French Islands.

    So I often wonder what are people’s background and I occasionally ask, out of curiosity. Mind you, I don’t do it in a “man, what boat did you just come from!” way but I guess it can annoy people to a certain extend. I’m not like that woman now!

    On the other side, a few random strangers have hinted that Mark must have been adopted and it annoyed the shit out of me. I mean, can’t people think of a more obvious scenario, i.e. that he is the kid of a biracial couple??

    • I understand the split, Zhu. I will admit to having been the offender in the past which I why part of me is really sympathetic to the woman. I don’t hate her, I’m not angry with her, (although I was really annoyed in the moment.) … She said something inappropriate unintentionally and I have done it too.

      As a “white” person who is especially interested in travel, culture, food, music, etc., and just generally curious about all people – I know I must have asked a question here or there in the past which was taken the wrong way or which maybe I just shouldn’t have asked. In fact, I remember the last time it happened because I blogged about it:


      (Long story short – I asked a woman where she was from when she spoke to me because I detected a New York accent and I have family from NY. The woman, [who wasn’t “white”] took it the wrong way – she took it as a racial question and was offended until I explained.)

      As for people assuming your son isn’t your biological son – You would think people would be accustomed to seeing biracial children by now and not wonder such things … And even if a child is obviously not the biological child of someone, it’s still inappropriate to ask the “are they adopted” question. I think most people really don’t intend to offend others – they just don’t realize how it feels in the other person’s shoes.

  8. Tracey, I do understand your point and your sensitivity, but also I think we must as Hispanic looking people just deal with it without being too sensitive about it. I, sometimes tend to ask where a person is from, specially because of the accent. Even to other Hispanics, I do ask the question because I get so excited to see Latinos around. (There is no many around where I live). What if the lady was just being friendly? What if she finds foreigner more open minded and more interesting to talk than regular white Americans. What if, while traveling, the lady spent her days taking pictures of food? After all, not many people go around taking pictures of Onions.
    DO NOT LET IT BOTHER YOU. Now, about your kids, one of my girls looks like me, very Bolivian (beautiful) and the other is just like my Irish ascendant husband (beautiful also). One time when my husband was holding the Bolivian looking girl, somebody asked him if he was the actual father or the baby sitter. I just laughed, because at the end of the day if I over react to comments like that I am teaching my kids that they are different. A person value is not weighed in looks, but in attitudes and reactions. I think you did the right thing in biting your tongue, and lets keep working in making Hispanics as valuable as any human being in the world, not just in America.

    • Great thoughts, Cecy. I agree that getting too upset emotionally over these things is not beneficial in any way whatsoever.

      I have also asked people where they’re from when I hear an accent, because an accent is a sure sign that someone is from elsewhere if it isn’t the same regional accent spoken in the place that you are – but it’s different to ask someone because they LOOK different than what you expect a “local” person to look like. An American can look like anybody, know what I mean?

      Good point about keeping the children in mind when we react to these types of situations.

  9. Oh Tracy! I understand you being “annoyed”…. I would have taken it the same way. I know in the past (and who knows, maybe even now) I have asked a question that has been taken the wrong way. Being around patients who are of many different nationalities I often do wonder where they are from. I usually ask people by starting off with a compliment in hopes that they do not mistake my curiosity for being offensive. “Your accent is so beautiful! Where are you originally from?” It’s sad that this woman has had the opportunity to travel to another part of the world and is still insensitive to the makeup of The United States….

  10. I know exactly how you feel! What you say about white privilege is very annoying sometimes, sometimes it is out of ignorance and it’s even more upsetting because if they don’t know what they are talking about just don’t say anything at all. My husband is Caucasian, even he gets on my nerves sometimes with some of the comments he makes lol He, and like so many others, don’t seem to understand certain things and sometimes I feel like they feel superior because they are white Americans. I am salvadorian born and raised in the United States, I really don’t look Hispanic. Growing up even Hispanic kids in school discriminated against me because I didn’t look Hispanic. It would be nice when one day we can all just get along without looking at people’s color of their skin. I totally understand when people are curious about others culture or background but there are ways to approach it the right way.

  11. What a weird interaction–I guess everyone is different and I’d give the crazy lady the benefit of the doubt, but still.. jeez, I would have gone with “wow, big onion!”

    Tracy, I get what you’re saying about asking where someone is from, especially like the first video example. Where I live, (I think we’re in the same metro area), it’s very diverse and it seems like everyone is from somewhere else. It’s really funny, though, when I speak spanish, native speakers ALWAYS ask me “de donde eres?” When I ask it, either I get a proud-to be from country X, or a “um.. I’m as ‘murican as apple pie”. *shrug*

  12. This just happened to us too.

    A woman asked us our baby’s name and I said, “Carmen.” She said, “Is that Spanish on purpose?” Now that’s the weirdest question I’ve ever been asked! We hesitated and then said yes? questioning our own response. And she continues, “Well, I just looked at her, then looked at you (motioning to my husband) and figured.” Still a weird comment! Then she goes on after asking where my husband was from, to say she’s traveled to Central America. I think that was her whole point all along. But she had no clue how her comments were being taken. I’m not the kind to get too offended in general, but I was by this.

  13. I’ve been on the receiving end of curious people who ask at the check out line “where are you from” or decide to practice their Hindi phrases on me [I speak Urdu but they assume I speak Hindi], once I was asked how many snakes I owned since everyone knows that Indians loooove Cobras and as much as I KNOW these people don’t mean harm, it does make one feel a touch like a zoo animal, especially when it happens so frequently.

    There’s no fixing the situation, and so frequently its not intentional, however when one is aware, hopefully one can improve the way they approach those who look different from them.

    Thank you for pointing out this subtle moment that happens so often to so many and showing how uncomfortable it can make people feel. Unintentional or not, that’s the reality for so many of us.

  14. Many Hispanic people of course live here in Houston. My coworker’s son who swims competitively and is very tan (100% German, as in, his parents are Germans, from Germany), my good friend who is originally from India (speaks 5 languages, but um Spanish is not one of the languages of India) and my nephew’s girlfriend (her dad is white and her mom is Asian) have all had very negative personal comments from people who start talking to them in Spanish just because they are brown and then get very angry with them that they do not speak Spanish.
    This is not an isolated indident here or there. It is something that happens over and over and over again.
    To me it is strange because first of all, here is the Hispanic person, who has been on the wrong end of racial stereotyping in his life, making racial assumptions. Since when all Hispanic people are brown and all brown people are Hispanic? And secondly, someone who is struggling in broken English should of all people understand how embarrassing it can be to try using in a second language you’re just now learning as an adult. If somebody is in fact Hispanic and does not understand/speak Spanish it’s because their parents made that decision. What is the point of telling somebody they should “hab taking Espanish in da jaiscu” – maybe they did! millions of people take a second language (including, for example, English) in high school and can’t speak it.
    I totally get that somebody has been made to feel from “white” and “black” people that their Spanish was not valued, and maybe this is a reaction to that. I have been many times the person behind in line who told the American with the Unamerican attitude where they need to stick it, and I know it is a real problem.
    I’m not criticizing, I just fail to understand. One of those weird things in life that make no sense to me.

  15. Tracy, I respect you so I’ll be honest with you. I think you’re overreacting. From what I read, the lady meant no disrespect, she was just socially awkward. She even said she liked everything international, which was her way of saying that she doesn’t have any problems with people from other countries.

    It’s like white people cannot make a comment on anything that touches race. My point of view is: if you see somebody with a foreign appearance, speaking a different language, or maybe speaking with a slight accent, it’s perfectly fine stir up a conversation and ask where they are from.

    I do it all the time and I’ve had great conversations. I’ve also had some angry or weird looks from people, but if they want to be super sensitive, their problem.

    As long as you don’t give them the impression that you think that they’re not welcome or that they’re less intelligent, everything is fine. Respect is the key word here.

    • I don’t claim to have the definitive answer on any of this, I’d only like to suggest, respectfully, to you and anyone else who has disagreed with me here, that perhaps it isn’t for white people to decide whether such questions are offensive or not since we are not the ones faced with answering them.

      I ask you to consider the following scenario:

      White Person: (steps on the foot of a person of color)
      Person of Color: “Ouch. What are you doing?”
      White Person: (smiling in a friendly way) “Stepping on your foot!”
      Person of Color: “Can you please stop? That hurts.”
      White Person: “No it doesn’t!” (continues smiling in a friendly, sincere way.)
      Person of Color: “How can you tell me it doesn’t hurt?”
      White Person: “Because I’m not trying to hurt you. You’re just being too sensitive. I’m just being friendly. Isn’t this fun?”
      Person of Color: “No, it’s not fun for me.”

      In this (albeit strange/silly) scenario, it’s clear to even a child that the white person is being really inconsiderate, insensitive and totally clueless. Just because the white person thinks stepping on the person of color’s foot is fun and the white person’s intentions are friendly, in the end what matters here is that the person of color is having their foot stepped on and IT HURTS. Instead of apologizing and refraining from stepping on the feet of people of color, the white person keeps doing it without taking into account how the other person feels.

      You’re free to continue doing as you wish, of course, but I’ve been told by enough people of color that asking questions like “Where are you from?” are offensive that I second guess myself before ever asking anyone these types of questions. Whether we, as white people, think it SHOULD hurt/offend or not, there are people who say it does. Who are we to say it doesn’t?

      In your comment you say you think it’s okay to question someone “if you see somebody with a foreign appearance” — What is a “foreign appearance”? In the diverse country that is the United States, there is no such thing in my book as “foreign appearance.” An American can look like anybody, and a foreigner can look like anybody. This is one of the problems with racial profiling, for example. You stop an American of Mexican decent to see if they have “papers” because of the way he looks only to find out that he was born here, as were his parents and grandparents. Meanwhile, a fair-skinned Canadian who over-stayed their visa walks right passed you.

      A bit unfair, don’t you think?

      • But say you go to El Salvador, people will know immediately you’re not from there. And I expect that few curious people will ask you: “¿De dónde es usted?. I don’t know, did that happen the last time you were there? Would you consider that offensive? I can’t quite put my finger on the reason why it is to some people.

        My experience is quite the opposite by the way. When I ask people where they are from, and they name a foreign country, I always ask a few more questions, like: What languages do you people speak there? What language do you speak? From what part of the country are you exactly? How´s the weather there? Etc. My experience is that people like talking about their country, because it’s a topic that brings up good memories. And often they enjoy it that someone takes genuine interest in their background. I, on my part, find it fascinating to hear those things and I learn so much.

        Bottom line I’d say is that it all depends on how you approach things. I still believe that if people realize that you sincerely respect them, nothing can go wrong. But I also see the point you make and I enjoy reading your perspectives on things. I always do, that’s why I come here ;-)

      • When I went to El Salvador I wasn’t approached by strangers and asked where I was from at all — That isn’t to say Salvadorans are more mindful of not offending others though since one of my blogging friends has had quite a different experience in El Salvador. (See here: http://lavieoverseas.com/2013/01/04/spanish-friday-choque-cultural/ )

        If someone did ask me, I personally wouldn’t mind, but I suspect that if I moved to El Salvador and it happened on a regular basis, (as it happens to POC in the United States), I would start to become annoyed that I was constantly being labeled an “outsider” and bothered when I’m trying to go about my regular business.

        As for people who enjoy talking about where they’re from – Yes, there are plenty of people who love to talk about that, and if you ask someone “Where are you from?” and they truly are from another country, you may get a very friendly response as I’m sure you’ve experienced many times… The problem occurs when someone who is American, born and raised, is asked “Where are you from?” — And how can one tell the difference from just looking? (You can’t!)

    • It’s a person’s prerogative to ask “where are you from” or otherwise accost a person who looks different than them but it is quite often offensive and if a poll was done the vast majority of “foreign looking people” like me and my third generation brown American son will be offended. That’s reality. If you don’t care if we’re offended that’s your call but please don’t justify or pretend that it’s ok. That’s not your call to make.

    • Correct me if I am wrong Tracy but I would bet in El Salvador you saw there are Salvadorans with the same coloring as you, but yet people could guess you were American. I would imagine it being like when I am in Mexico. People know I’m a foreigner because of how I’m dressed and how I carry myself, not my color.
      In the US “fresh off the boat” people are pretty obvious too. Carlos had nothing to indicate “fresh off the boat” other than his color, and even at that only if you consider American as being only black or white.
      Oh, and assuming there probably aren’t any big onions in El Salvador, because in America everything is better and bigger.
      That’s why it’s offensive, Da.Dutch.Fella
      And I agree with Aisha. Offense is in the eye of the beholder. If you don’t care that someone’s offended, um no that’s not respect.

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