Distasteful compliments leave unsavory aftertaste

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Since I came to college, I have accepted the fact that I apparently don’t look like other Indian students. Some combination of my hair color, skin tone and facial features leave a lot of people surprised when I tell them that yes, both of my parents are Indian, and I don’t mean the Christopher Columbus kind. To this day, I am constantly met with reactions like, “There’s no way you’re Indian!” or, “Are you half white, Hispanic, etc.?” and of course lots of my favorite: “So … what ARE you?”

Upon learning that I am in fact Indian, most people like to gush about their basic love for henna, their obsession with Indian food or their oh-so-original desire to attend an Indian wedding. Sometimes, instead of the topic change to Indian culture, I’ll get any unfortunate derivative of the ultimate foot-in-mouth compliment: “Wow, you’re Indian? You’re like, really pretty for an Indian girl!”

I’m not really sure who started the idea that this was a compliment, but allow me to clear up any confusion: it’s not. What this sounds like to the receiver is that they’re beautiful only in the context of their ethnicity but are not beautiful enough to be compared to others. Believe it or not, women of each ethnicity do not compete against each other to be the “prettiest.” It is not a compliment to hear that I’m somehow above other Indians, or that the best I could ever do is be beautiful when compared only to other Indian girls.

It shocks me that people don’t understand my disgusted reaction when paid a “compliment” like this one. I’m sorry, but to hear that your generalization of Indians is that they’re usually not pretty, making me an exception, is insulting. There is no one race that holds the title of most beautiful. The past 10 Miss Universe winners have almost all come from different countries.

Of course, Indians are not the only ones paid backhanded compliments like this one. It’s common for my friends of other races and ethnicities – except my white friends. Maybe that’s the litmus test: before speaking, replace whatever quality you were planning on inserting with the word “white” and see how your compliment sounds.

“You’re really pretty for a white girl.” Sound weird? When deciding on how to compliment a nonwhite person on her physical beauty, just leave ethnicity out of it. Simple as that.

Along those same lines, my nonwhite friends and I get frustrated at the other common foot-in-mouth lines: “Wow, he asked you out? He must really have a thing for Indian girls,” or, “Normally I don’t go for Indian girls, but I really like you.”

The first comment is typically said by a friend of mine. I never know what the intention of the comment is, but all it sounds like to me is that my “exoticness” is the only thing that defines me, the only thing a guy sees when looking at me and the only reason he might have an interest in me. The second comment is typically said by a romantic interest (who immediately loses my interest after speaking). Nonwhite individuals are not to be lumped together into specific bins based on their race or ethnicity.

To all friends of nonwhite people: if someone asked your friend out, it’s not because they have a thing for his or her background, it’s because they like your friend. To all people romantically pursuing someone of a different race or ethnicity from them: before you say you don’t have a “thing” for that particular ethnicity, ask yourself what the heck that even means.

And of course, remember our handy-dandy trick: substitute the word “white” for your qualifier. “He asked you out? Must be because you’re white,” said no one ever.

While our backgrounds can affect our personalities and the values we hold, they don’t affect our physical beauty and therefore should not be factored into compliments or reasons for romantic success. Girls should just be “pretty” and guys should just be “handsome.” No need for qualifiers or comparisons.

Really think before you speak, people. It could be the difference between having a date tomorrow night and ending up with your foot in your mouth.

Nayna Shah is a junior majoring in biology.

Featured image courtesy Pixabay user geralt

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