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Mistaken Ethnicity

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Gavin: You always have a problem where people don't really know what race you are, because of your face.
Gus: Yep. Yep.
Burnie: Not only do they not know what race he is, they do this odd thing where they will stop him in public and guess. Like people that don't know him. The best example I can think about was that was Gus was going to the bathroom and walking past the pool table, the guy playing pool stops, points at Gus' face and goes: "Hey, hey. Black and Korean." And Gus goes "Not even close."

A character is assumed by another to be of a particular ethnicity when they're in fact not. Common enough experience in Real Life for those whose features conform to a stereotype or who live and/or work in a particular area or profession. The character's reaction to the assumption can quickly give an insight into their attitudes.

Specifically not overlapping with Mistaken Nationality, as nationality is not, in the case of this trope, the issue, but rather the person's background. As such it has potential for Unfortunate Implications, as it can lean into racial stereotypes for someone to say "You look (insert ethnicity)" or "But you don't (insert negative ethnic stereotype)." There may also be Misaimed Stereotyping involved.

Usually (but not always) this involves white people being assumed to be Jewish, Hispanic, or Black. It's also very likely to happen to someone who's Ambiguously Brown. Other areas of overlap may include Interchangeable Asian Cultures, All Muslims Are Arab, Latino Is Brown, and All Jews Are Ashkenazi. It may also be applied to Fantastic Racism, setting up any number of metaphors.

Someone who mistakes another person's race may in turn be Mistaken for Racist, or worse may actually be racist and not care about being respectful to "those people". On the other hand, they may be an Innocent Bigot or too naive to know they're being insulting. It may be a Berserk Button for the recipient to be confused for an ethnic group they're historically at odds with.

Compare Plays Great Ethnics where an actor is able to convincingly play multiple ethnicities - some actors have never actually played their own one, always being cast as other ones. When characters (usually in anime) are designed with ambiguous ethnicity, that's Mukokuseki. Related to Phenotype Stereotype and Facial Profiling. See also Discriminate and Switch, Stereotype Reaction Gag, and You Know I'm Black, Right?

Also see Suddenly Ethnicity, when a character's heritage becomes significant without having been mentioned before, and I Am Not Weasel, where the problem is a mistaken species.


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    Comic Books 
  • An inversion from The Fantastic Four, when a villain overhears through a conversation between Ben Grimm and a man from his neighborhood that Ben is Jewish, he asks him about it. Ben confirms that he's Jewish, while angrily asking if that was a problem for the villain. The villain quickly denies this, stating, "It's just...You don't look Jewish." Marvel Comics addressed the Unfortunate Implications of this prior to the comic being published, saying they were aware of the issues with that phrase, but clarified that in Ben's case, the joke was that he didn't look Jewish... because, being a big, orange rock man, he didn't look like any ethnicity. At the time, the comic was well-received for finally making Ben's Jewish status canon.

    Fan Works 
  • Peeking Through the Fourth Wall: Subverted in "After Dark: 3", where the Villain Protagonist of the story (an evil version of Luan Loud) makes an antisemitic joke, and Lori (who's reading the story with four others) apologises to Benny. Benny is offended that Lori assumed he was Jewish, but it turns out that he is Jewish — he just doesn't like people assuming he is based on his appearance.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Bohemian Rhapsody: It is a Running Gag of sorts that Freddie Mercury is constantly mistaken for Pakistani, while he is a Zanzibar-born Parsi.
  • Europa Europa, which is Based on a True Story, is about a Jewish youth who's trying to avoid becoming a victim of The Holocaust. It has a tense scene where the protagonist Solomon, in front of his entire Hitler Youth class, has his head measured by a metal pseudoscience contraption used in Nazi Germany to try and find Jews amongst them. The results from these measurements declare him an Aryan.
  • Fun with Dick and Jane: In the 2005 version, when trying to find a new job, Dick hangs around with a bunch of illegal immigrants from Mexico. He ended up spending so much time with them he got tanned red, and when he tried to get a job, another guy socked him on the jaw, giving him a strange accent. This got the Department of Immigration to think he's also an illegal immigrant and ship him down to Mexico.
  • Inside Man: The bank robbers release a Sikh hostage, who from his coloring and turban is mistaken for an Arab by the police and bystanders outside, leading to a brief scare that the bank robbery might be connected to Islamic terrorism.
  • Monty Python's Life of Brian has a Roman soldier snapping at a man being crucified, calling him a Jew. The man protests that he's a Samaritan. This prompts protests from a Jewish couple, stating that under Roman law, they were entitled to be crucified in a strictly Jewish area. The Captain suggests that anyone not wishing to be crucified there raise their hands. Since they're all tied to their crosses, none of them are able to do so, and the Captain considers the issue resolved.

  • Subverted in The Adventures of Captain Wrongel by Andrey Nekrasov. After arriving in Hawaii, Captain Wrongel and Fuchs think that the administration of the beach they arrive on has mistaken them for Native Hawaiians, whom they don't resemble in the slightest. It turns out that it hasn't: it has mistaken them for white actors hired to pose as Native Hawaiians.
  • In Dave Barry Goes to Japan, Dave decides to learn some basic Japanese by going to a Japanese restaurant and asking the waiter. However, it turned out that the guy was a Cuban who didn't know Japanese.
  • A fantastic example: the Discworld novel Soul Music. On arriving in Ankh-Morpork and seeking a career as a musician, the bard Imp Y Celyn is accosted by the dwarf and the troll who will later become his bandmates and is invited to prove he's not Elvish. Imp is completely human; he just has a rather fey delicate turn of features that makes him look like an Elf, a species loathed and despised by Troll and Dwarf alike.
  • Dragaera: There are 17 Houses, named after various native critters (e.g. Dragon, Teckla, Issola), with most of the visual difference being preferred clothing/colors (Dragon wears Silver/Black, Jhereg wears Grey/Black, etc.) and hairstyles; sometimes there's a slight difference in the face (Sethra Lavode is officially a Dragon, but different characters think she looks like a Dzur; and Krager lives as a Jhereg, but still looks like the Dragon he was born as). In Yendi, Vlad confuses one character for an Athyra when she's actually a Yendi; indeed, she used that confusion several hundred years before to kickstart a political plot. And in a different book, a Tiassa is confused for a Dzur just because of the way she dressed; for some reason she preferred that style.

    Live-Action TV 
  • A Running Gag in Parks and Recreation is Leslie misidentifying Tom as being from Libya (he's actually an Indian-American born in South Carolina).
  • In one scene from Love, a woman fears she may have offended Gus after making a swastika joke. He responds by saying people always think he is Jewish. In another scene, someone discusses mistaking him for Jewish and he gestures to his large nose, implying that was why they may have misidentified him.
  • ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?: A burglar in a ski-mask breaks into the home of Cuban-American Peñas, leaving them tied up, while he steals their stuff. Fortunately the police catch the robber. When the family sees the unmasked robber's blonde hair and fair skin, they make some disparaging remarks about him being American. The robber retorts that he is "more Cuban than sugar".
  • Ramy: The titular character's season one fling Sarah, who is a Jewish American Princess, initially assumes Ramy is also Jewish because of his curly hair. He informs her that he's an Egyptian-American Muslim ("the other Middle Eastern thing").
  • On an episode of Seinfeld, Elaine dates a man she believes to be Black. As it turns out, he isn't and in fact, he believes she is Latina. Once they realize they're "just a couple of white people", they are both visibly disappointed. ("You wanna go to The Gap?") It is implied they break up almost immediately.
  • Superstore: Happens a few times to Sandra. Mateo makes an Asian alliance and includes Sandra, only for her to explain she's actually Hawaiian. Later, she recalls having to deal with some racists who couldn't tell what race she was so their insults were "all over the place".

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Jillian Hall mistook Jon Secada, who is Cuban, and Lillian Garcia, who is Puerto Rican, for Mexicans as she dismissed their duet for Garcia's album while in the company of Melina Perez, who is Mexican, unintentionally insulting Perez in the process.

    Video Games 
  • In the original Japanese version of Fate/Grand Order, a character confuses Emiya Alter, who is ethnically Japanese, for African American, and asks him if he's from Detroit. He is less than amused. The translation changed this line (instead having her call him "Edgemiya") to avoid offending the actual African American players, and Emiya Alter's skin tone was changed to match his regular self to downplay the Scary Black Man vibes of his original appearance, which was much darker.
  • One of the girls in the All-Stereotype Cast of Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude is Analisa, who speaks in a broad Italian-American accent and whose father is in The Mafia. Larry is so clueless that he initially mistakes her for Latina, then Amish.

  • Early in Dumbing of Age, Joyce didn't realise Billie was mixed race (white father, Asian mother) and says she "thought you were Mexican or something". She then digs herself deeper with "If — if you're insulted by that, doesn't that make you the racist?"

    Western Animation 
  • Archer:
    • The first episode had an ISIS employee named "Crenshaw" who was revealed to be a Russian mole. When he tells Archer his real name is "Kremenski", the latter asks if he's Jewish.
      Kremenski: My real name isn't "Crenshaw", it's "Kremenski!"
      Archer: [beat] Is that Jewish?
      Kremenski: It's Russian!
      Archer: [beat] Russian Jewish?
    • In an episode where the agency investigate a bomb threat onboard an airship, Archer assumes a Sikh businessman on board (or as he calls him "Beardsley McTurbanhead") to be an Islamic terrorist and potentially the bomber. Malory and the airship captain tell him he's a Sikh and a big investor in the airship company and would lose a lot of money if anything went wrong. Archer accuses his mother of "profiling" for assuming that the man must be in the clear simply because he isn't a Muslim.
    • Doctor Krieger once mistook a group of Yakuza as Chinese.
    • Farooq Ashkani, played by Pakistani actor Kumail Nanjiani, is mistaken as a "Black Mexican". At first it's subverted as he was misunderstanding an unfortunately timed phrase by Archer (Archer created a drink dubbed a "Black Mexican"), but then Pam plays it straight.
      Pam: Black Mexican?
      Ashkani: Oh, no thank you.
      Pam: "No thank you" what?
  • "Vaya Con Cornholio" of Beavis And Butthead has Beavis chug a ton of the new Volt Cola at Burger World, assume his alter-ego of Cornholio, and get spotted by a border control agent who mistakes him for an illegal migrant worker from his vaguely Spanish-accented incoherent gibberish. It ends with him being deported to Mexico, declaring the country belongs to his butthole, and wandering aimlessly off into the Mexican desert.
  • King of the Hill: When Kahn Souphanousinphone and his family move in, Hank assumes they're either Chinese or Japanese (they're from Laos originally). Dale tells Hank's father Cotton, a Pacific Theater vet, that Kahn is Japanese. Cotton is able to tell he's Laotian by sniffing him.
  • Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World: Hunter, Rick's ex-boyfriend, is absolutely obsessed with dating Asian men. He even affectionately still refers to Rick as "China Doll". Ironically, he can't seem to tell the difference between an Asian and a Latino (he thought Rick was Asian and seems to think the same of all Latinos).
  • South Park: In "The Last of the Meheecans", Butters dresses up like a Mexican for a border-themed Cowboys and Indians kind of game. He gets hit by a car, and due to him still playing the game, the couple thinks the white boy actually is Mexican and tries to "return" him to the real Mexican border.

    Real Life 
  • Ethel Merman vehemently denied that she was Jewish, which led to her being accused of anti-Semitism.
  • Charlie Chaplin was famously "accused" of being a Jew, and graciously responded, "I do not have that honour."
  • Miranda Cosgrove was mistaken by many websites and blogs for being East Asian, Latina, and Pacific Islander when she was in the prime of her fame with iCarly. Apparently so many people thought she was Asian, she decided to respond to her fans on Twitter to confirm that she was actually mainly of French, Irish, and English descent.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien's publisher received a letter in 1938 from a German translator who wanted to know whether Tolkien was "Aryan." Tolkien was extremely offended by the implicit racism of the question, and being a professor of linguistics was able to give them a properly erudite Take That! in his reply.note 
    "I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people."
  • Overlaped with Mistaken Nationality as well, because of the prevalence of the Latino Is Brown trope in the common western colective, people who might present as white, Black or even Asian constantly are assumed to have a different ethnic background. As Latin countries have a history of racial mixing, this often results in some people having a hard time believing non-brown people are Latinos. Also, because of that same mixture in genes, very often Latinos don't have an exact knowledge of what's supposed to be their heritage if their families don't talk too much about it, As an example  this results in many Latinos identifying themselves as such rather than any other specific ethnic group.