What It's Like Being Mistaken for the Wrong Ethnicity

If you know me, please bother to learn my name and my ethnicity.
Young mixed-race woman taking selfie and Pakistani drag queen Asifa Lahore in costume
Marissa Thomas and Asifa Lahore. Photos: courtesy of subjects

“Are you Chinese or Japanese or Korean?” one of the fill-in guys at my part-time job in London said, examining my facial features (*cough* eyes). It was our first conversation. “I am a Tibetan,” I said from behind gritted teeth. “What’s that?” he asked. All I could bother saying was: “Just another Asian.”


But I’m not just an Asian, I’m a Tibetan. My grandfather came from Kham, one of the three regions of Tibet. I have a Tibetan name and so does my entire family. Tibet also happens to be more than 2,000 miles away from countries like Japan and Korea.

This doesn’t just happen in the UK. Just take, for instance, my graduation day in India. I was draped in a yellow-gold coloured chupa, an ankle-length robe worn by women in my culture. As I stood in the queue, nervous to go on stage in front of hundreds of people, a faculty member glanced at my chupa and introduced me as “a SAF scholar”. 

I went blank. This woman had known me for seven months. She was also responsible for students under the South Asian Foundation (SAF) scholarship, which is mostly offered to students from India’s neighbouring countries, Bhutan and Nepal – which I am not. I’m a Tibetan living in India, like many other Tibetans in exile. 

From my late teens to early 20s, I have careened between learning to establish my identity, to not bothering about it so much, to almost being beaten up for correcting my name, to again settling for any ethnicity I was perceived to be. All I ever asked was simple: “If you know me, please bother to learn my name and my ethnicity.” 

Yes, it’s shitty and common and has probably happened to most of people of colour. But the microaggressions in every new workspace, class and even friendship group have a habit of eating you up on the inside. I decided to speak to other POCs to find out if such cases of “mistaken ethnicity” are common and how they feel about it. 

Young South Asian man holding cup of coffee

Photo: courtesy of Shaurya Singh Thapa

‘Some Brits bunch up all brown people from my subcontinent’

“It's still amusing that some Brits bunch up all brown people from my subcontinent (Indians/Bangladeshis/Pakistanis) as one category. The first time I noticed this was on the tube when I was unintentionally blocking a white man's way and he ended up grunting out, ‘Step aside, Paki’. 

“More recently, in December, I was at a pub with my college mates when a group of old white geezers entered. One of them was smiling pretty warmly towards me and so, I smiled back only to hear him say, "We have the Mayor of London in the house today". So, a mid-20-something with a buzzcut looks like a salt-and-peppery-haired 53-year-old Mr. Sadiq Khan just because both of them are brown?” - Shaurya Singh Thapa, 24, Harrow on Hill

Young mixed-race woman taking selfie

Photo: Courtesy of Marissa Thomas

‘She assumed I couldn't be my mother’s daughter because I am so light’

“I've been mistaken for the wrong ethnicity multiple times. I am black Caribbean and white British. My mom being from Barbados and my dad from Wales. It started when I was a child and a lady from my school mistook my mother for being my childminder rather than my mother. She assumed I couldn't be my mother’s daughter because I am so light.

“It made me realise that I look very different to my mother. I've had other times when I was called Asian racial slurs even though I am not Asian. People think I don't look my mix when I don't have my afro hair out. I think it has made me very conscious and insecure of my colour and ethnicity.” - Marissa Thomas, 20, Tower Hamlets

Pakistani drag queen Asifa Lahore in costume

Photo: Courtesy of Asifa Lahore

‘I wonder if people feel that some ethnicities are cooler than South Asians’

“Due to my curly thick black hair, I get mistaken for all sorts of brown ethnicities - Mexican, Hispanic, Mediterranean, North African, Moroccan, Egyptian. It happens very frequently on dating apps or when I’m out and about. People are surprised to find out about my South Asian heritage. 

“I’m very proud of being British Pakistani. It’s very interesting that when people think of brown people, they don’t think of South Asians. I wonder if people feel that some ethnicities are cooler than South Asians. That label of brown encompasses so many ethnicities from all over the world – but when you think brown, South Asian is thought of as down on the list. 

“I am an out and proud Brown Queen. From my proudly South Asian-inspired attire to the way it impacts my act, I would say shame on those who misidentify my heritage. I’m very defined in my look as Britain’s First Out Muslim Drag Queen. I don’t think being misidentified impacts my act. There is way more to me as an artist than just my ethnicity.” - Asifa Lahore, 40, South London

Young Chinese woman in white hoodie

Photo: Courtesy of Anan Chen

‘He thought my outfit was fashionable and so he assumed that I must be a Korean’

“I had only been mistaken once as a Korean and once as a Japanese. The first incident was in 2019 during my international exchange here in London. A guy from my university approached me in Korean. He thought my outfit was fashionable and so he assumed that I must be a Korean. I felt offended because he had the prejudice that Chinese people would not wear fashionable clothes.

“Only recently, in Central London, my friends and I were approached by some white men. They greeted us ‘konnichiwa’ in Japanese. We just ignored them, and then they changed into Chinese ‘hello’ [ni hao]. I was surprised and couldn’t believe what was going on in front of me. They were pulling off a ‘trial and error’ show on my identity.” - Anan Chen, 27, Old Street

Young mixed race man with curly hair in town square

Photo: Courtesy of Josh Osman

‘When someone mistakes me for a *new* ethnicity, I just laugh it off’

“I’m aware that, being mixed, people don’t always clock me as either of the ethnicities I identify with. I’m most commonly mistaken for being South American. Being light skinned too, I’d thought that people perceived me as ‘white-passing’ for years, before I very quickly learned that that wasn’t true when I went to university. 

“Sometimes I find it a little irritating, since I’m proud to be both Turkish Cypriot and Mauritian and I feel like coming from both of those backgrounds is a big part of who I am, but other times, especially when someone mistakes me for a *new* ethnicity, I just laugh it off.” - Josh Osman, 21, Barnet