Being Ethnically Ambiguous

I work with a person named Maya. She’s a Lebanese-American with black hair, light brown skin and a curve of the nose that could be Mestizo or Mediterranean. I have learned this look is called ethnically ambiguous.

Here’s a story.

Some of us in the newsroom were watching Maya on TV as she read a story about Cuba, which she pronounced COO-bah, not the American CYOO-bah.

“Did she just say COO-bah?” I wondered aloud. I later learned it was a slip of her tongue. But at the time another guy watching the TV told me what she said was OK because, “Maya is ethnically ambiguous.”

Translation: People watching just assumed she was a Latina who spoke fluent Spanish and therefore said Cuba the way the Cubans do.

At first I thought “ethnically ambiguous” was a funny thing to call someone. Then I told the story to Maya and she laughed, not because it was strange but because it was so familiar. Lots of people have called her that. In fact, her agent describes her that way to TV and video production clients as a selling point.

I finally began to get it. When you’re ethnically ambiguous you can appear on TV and lots of people — including people from different groups — can look at you and say, “She’s one of us.”

The Mexican Grandma in National City can turn on the TV and say, “Look! They’ve got a nice Mexican girl telling us the news.” People who come from India can assume she’s Indian, just like them, and people from the Middle East can think she’s one of them.

They’re only right in one of those scenarios but for the viewer believing is all that really matters. And when you come from an ethnic group that’s been disadvantaged or downtrodden, the satisfaction of seeing someone like you in a place of prominence is important.

It’s a strange aspect of this thing we call race. Race only exists in the eye of the viewer and viewers are easy to fool.

Another Lebanese-American, comedian Danny Thomas, was famous for seeming to be Jewish. People who enjoyed him on TV shows or in comedy clubs, Jews included, simply assumed Danny Thomas was a Jew. He looked like he was. He sounded like he was. His comic timing and storytelling were steeped in the tradition of Jewish comics like Groucho Marx and George Burns. And was there any harm in Jewish fans watching Danny Thomas and feeling the warmth of being with a kindred soul?

Our efforts to read people often fail because there are secrets inside us that make us ambiguous.  But the next time you see a pretty TV anchor and you want to think she’s a Latina, I’d say you’re close enough.


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