In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, two different people asked me if I celebrated Thanksgiving.
Today, a store clerk was remarkably persisent on the where-are-you-really-from front. Was I from Indonesia? Where was I from? No, where were my ancestors from? Oh, they have a store clerk from Korea now. His name is such-and-such. [*] He's a student at the university—am I a student too? ("No, I'm a lawyer.")
[*] Because, of course, by virtue of us both being born in Korea, I was supposed to know him or to care.
Three data points make up a sweeping conclusion: the holidays seem to bring out people's unexamined defaults about race. I think it's because people feel obligated to make more small talk, which tends to be very mindless.
So, if you're not setting out to make the other person in the conversation want to pull their hair out, some suggestions:
- Avoid any assumptions about people's holiday practices. My current plan for small talk is, "so, how are you spending your Thursday / Tuesday / week?" I think this leaves open a range of answers, including "I'm having a quiet day in / going to the movies / volunteering," with the optional addition "because I'm British / a Jehovah's Witness / whatever, I don't celebrate Thanksgiving / Christmas / whatever."
- If you're white, think about the circumstances under which you'd ask another white person their ancestry. Then don't ask your non-white friends or acquaintances about their ancestry under other circumstances. This seems likely to rule out inadvertently-offensive scenarios.
(Background reading, if you don't understand why the above conversations drove me crazy: IBARW: Don't ask me my nationality, plus clarification in comments.)