The Colors of Ethiopians: Where Are You From?

(Courtesy photo)

Tadias Magazine

By Tigist Schmidt

Updated: Wednesday, February 4, 2009

New York (TADIAS) – “Where are you from?” I am so over it. I am tired of explaining myself over and over again. But what am I supposed to do? Ignore the question? Let them assume?

And once I tell them where I’m from I get responses like: “Oh, really?” “Interesting.” “That’s different. I would have never guessed.” And the list goes on. Now, what can I say to that?

No, not really how the heck am I interesting when you don’t even know me…different from who?”

Killis, Killis, Killis!” That’s what cheeky children would yell in the rural areas of Ethiopia, pointing their finger at me with great laughter. All I do is smile, too shy to respond in my broken Amharic. When I am introduced to other Ethiopians, the majority are uncertain whether they should speak to me in English or in Amharic. I introduce myself as Tigist and it confuses them more.

“Oh, are you Ethiopian?” they ask with a surprise look. Often it is assumed that I am of a different race and people sometimes talk to me in languages I don’t understand.

Once in London a five year old Ethiopian boy, Yohannes, asked me in his posh British accent:

“Tigist, are you black or are you white?”

“I am grey”, I answered.

I am Ethiopian and German. I was born in the United States. I grew up in Nigeria, Argentina and Germany. When I was sixteen I moved to the United States and later on to the United Kingdom. At the moment I am back in the United States, unsure of where I am going next. But no matter where I go, I always get the same question:

Where are you from?
Where did your parents meet?
Where are they living now?
What languages do you speak?
Where did you grow up?

Basically, I have to give them my life story before I can even ask them a question. Usually it’s just out of genuine curiosity, and in those instances I’m willing to share my story. Sometimes it’s even fun to let them guess where I’m from. Depending on where I am at that very moment, I get the most bizarre answers. I have heard everything but Asian as a guess.

No one has ever reckoned I would be Ethiopian and German. Sometimes I just agree to whatever they say and see how far I can take it. Other times, they are just shocked and look at me saying, “But you look like…” As if I don’t know what I look like.

There is seriously nothing that can shock me anymore. I’ve heard it all before, and take it with humor. I try to use my ambiguity to my advantage. I constantly walk in and out of cultures, capable of fooling, perhaps anyone, at least for a while. It’s not always funny though. There are times when I get real ignorant questions such as:

“Has Ethiopia been colonized by Germans?” or even “Is Ethiopia in Africa?”

Most of my friends refer to me as “My Ethiopian-German friend.”

Once people get to know me, however, they get over the fact that I am Ethiopian and German. But still, they find it really amusing when I have to explain myself to others.

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44 Responses to “The Colors of Ethiopians: Where Are You From?”

  1. 1 Tiffany May 3rd, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    We have this similarity in common (and SFSU). I am Nigerian, Indian, and German. I am constantly asked similar questions and I too, depending on their curiosity, take it as far as I can at having them guess, and question who/what I am. It is fun!

  2. 2 Sarah Baltazar May 3rd, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    I appreciate Tadias for publishing the article written by Tigist Schmitt and connecting to the overall importance of ethnic communities recognizing the fact that mixed multiracial peoples have place. Given the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of our nations, it is more important than ever that we fully understand the range of diversity that exists among all of us. A very respectful Morocan-Russian Woman out of NYC.

  3. 3 Gabriela May 3rd, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Tigist – Thanks for sharing your story. As a bi-racial female myself (African-American/French-Canadian), I have heard the gamut of questions about where I am from and what my background is. Hearing your story has been comforting and, in some ways, therapeutic – thank you for sharing.

  4. 4 Joseph May 3rd, 2007 at 6:05 pm


    This is to say you are pretty hot. Nice pictures.

    Stay in touch

  5. 5 sharon May 3rd, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    hi tigist

    so nice to hear from you, and read your thoughts…
    so grateful for joseph bringing it back down to the essentials… ;-)
    ‘where are you from?’
    i have a hell of a time answering that question – and it always depends on who is asking how i answer it.

    my standard reply is: i was born and raised in london, my parents are from ghana. thank the lord i haven’t had to deal with african slave comments – don’t quite know how i would ansa that.
    and tho i know it happens – no one has yet said ‘you are quite pretty…for a black
    girl’ – (tho on reflection i’m not sure if that’s positive or negative)

    i wrote a play – which definitely needs reworking & revision – but deals with some of these ‘everyday racism’ experiences.

    have a look at my blog sometime
    and keep strong, stay beautiful, remain talented

    peace & kisses

  6. 6 Brook May 3rd, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    You are a beautiful person. People will always have an opinion, whethere it be good or bad. You are a unique individual with many stories to share of your heritage. I am fascinated with the history of your culture. Being different is what makes you stand out in a crowd. An opportune time to make changes in our world and the way people perceive it.

    Take care Tigist.

  7. 7 Carielle May 3rd, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    Oh wow, the woman writes a pretty compelling story and the compliment is about her looks? Come on brother! LOL.

  8. 8 Alexander May 4th, 2007 at 5:10 am

    You are like Senator OBAMA!!!

  9. 9 Fanny May 5th, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Hey Tigist,

    Liked reading your story. People have a hard time believing that I am Swedish…

  10. 10 Mimi May 10th, 2007 at 10:23 am

    Hey guys i have read your story, the point is i don’t think those questions are common.

    peace with u


  11. 11 Jeremias Werner May 17th, 2007 at 9:46 pm

    hi tigist,

    it was really nice to read your lines. it’s kinda familiar to me; specially in germany! don’t ask me how often i got asked these questions when i grew up in Munich.

    jeremias werner

    nice pics

  12. 12 Travis May 18th, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Hey Tigist!

    Long time no talk sista… : ) I appreciated the article…


  13. 13 Fa Aug 14th, 2007 at 10:55 am

    Your article was forwarded to me by a friend. I am French/Ethiopian too and could be just about anything in between. Also lived in several countries. I speak/read Amharic and it looks like Ethiopians are always very glad to hear that! lol.

    Let me tell you that it is an opportunity to educate people whenever the question of identity comes up. I love that opportunity to discuss these things! It is my priviledge to be part of an intelligent dialogue!

    You’re a beautiful girl! take care!

  14. 14 Helen Aug 23rd, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    Hi Tigist!

    I Liked reading your story and you sure do look ethiopian too me =)I’m Eritrean and im CONSTANTLY asked similar questions.People just can’t belive im 100% african cause im light… haha crazyness..they always say, you must be half arab,italian ect especially “foffos” even habesha’s so am feeling you ;)I think it dosent matter if you black,brown or light african-we should all be accepted as africans =)

    One love

  15. 15 nnenna Aug 28th, 2007 at 5:41 am

    Hi Tigist. well….I love your story. I’m a Nigerian who grew up in Sudan half my life. I remember then anytime my family and I went out to a park or the zoo we used to get these funny stares and I used to wonder why. But I found out that we had a different color and most especially thick used to also get that question “Where are you from?” even here in Nigeria some think I am mixed…I dont understand why…maybe because of my accent or the fact that I can speak colloquial Arabic… cos I do look The point I’m trying to make is that I have friends like you…mixed…both parents either mixed themselves or from different countries and it facinates me. I love your courage to stand out…that’s what makes you unique. Continue to be proud of ur racial mixture…To me, it’s interesting when people ask that question “where are you from?” It makes me feel UNIQUE…that’s what you are girl.masallama!

  16. 16 Giorgis Sep 4th, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    nnenna is bogus!

  17. 17 Rina Alawi Sep 18th, 2007 at 10:11 am

    hi i am full ethiopian both my parernt are full ethiopian and my brother but i am the only one in my family always questioned about my racial background when i got into high school people though i was biracial of black/white and in college it was more multiracial mixed of flippino and spanish and arab and chinesse
    apperently i could pass for mixed asian or arab or spanish nobody says i am ethiopian even when my ethiopian friends introduces me to other ethiopian i am still looked at as if i am forigen which use to angner me but now i just laugh and see what i can pass for
    my own family in ethiopia consider me white which to me is werid now it is funny
    so i understand her delima

  18. 18 Begna Sep 18th, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Hey Tigist, you are a good writer. Very well written and communicated piece. Always quality from Tadias!

  19. 19 Guest - Minnesota Sep 21st, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Wow!! It is nice to know that I am not the only one to go through this!! Instead of taking it personally I just laugh it off.

  20. 20 kidane Jan 5th, 2008 at 10:29 am

    Selam, Tigist!

    You should do what i do when ETs ask me dump questions. Just give them the look that says “i don’t play” and they usually take a step back :-)

  21. 21 Salsassin Mar 27th, 2008 at 7:52 am

    Well writtien and interesting read. I am still curious what Ethiopian ethnicity her mother is from.

  22. 22 Tina Fisseha Mar 27th, 2008 at 11:09 am

    This is a personal story of a beautiful and brilliant Ethiopian girl with diverse international background. Who cares about her mother’s ethnicity? She is an Ethiopian and above all, a wonderful human being.

  23. 23 Bibi Jun 10th, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    You are global Ethiopia!!

  24. 24 keynikki Aug 10th, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Intresting story

  25. 25 Azmera Aug 18th, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    Hey Tigist!…I just want to let you know that you’re a gorgeous young woman.


  26. 26 Banchi Nov 1st, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    Hi Tigist,

    I truly enjoyed your story. You are a well rounded very smart person. Thanks for sharing your story!

  27. 27 Lakew Jan 23rd, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you for sharing yene konjo.!

    Salsassin: Why is her Ethiopian ethnicity important to you?

  28. 28 M Feb 4th, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    I like your piece. It asks and answers the questions and feelings that some of us encounter on daily basis. I am Ethiopian, full Ethiopian that is both from my mothers and fathers side. But, We (my family and I) have fair skin (light skin). what amazes me is that it does not matter if you are mix or full blooded, if your skin color is a little different than those that are around you, you’ll be singled out. I remember going to Awasa and being called “Ferenj, Ferenj……” or kids following me and saying “You, you, you….” repeatedly as if i would not understand them if they speak to me in Amharic. I turn around and say to them “Be amharigna anagrugne lela quanqua aygebagnem.” They would be amazed and confused that I spoke Amharic, but they won’t believe their ears, so they keep on following me saying “you, you, you…” anyway, Ethiopians are people with different shades of black, and we should all be proud of that.

  29. 29 Yoni Feb 21st, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    You are German, Ethiopian, American and a citizen of the world.

  30. 30 Mi Mar 28th, 2009 at 12:37 am

    Hi Tigist,

    You have a very common Ethiopian complexion. Many Ethiopians have that color. I live in the U.S. and everywhere people ask me if I am Spanish, Indian but no body believe i;m from ethio .

  31. 31 teach Apr 6th, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Of course as Habeshas, people try to guess our ethnicity and ask Questions that seem silly but it is an oppurtunity to teach people something new.

  32. 32 Genet Apr 23rd, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Wow Tigist, you have described exactly how I have always felt.

    I am very glad I found this post!

  33. 33 CB Jul 9th, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    t’s like reading my life story here haha.
    I am half ethiopian ad half czech and I experience the exact same thing!
    The questions, the guesses everything haha.
    I always get nods from middle eastern people and spanish individuals.

  34. 34 Abiy Sep 7th, 2009 at 4:34 am

    Hi TG
    ENKUTATASH / happy Ethiopian new year/ you are beautful Ethiopian

    thank u for sharing ur life story

    Abiy from India

  35. 35 Keffey Dec 19th, 2009 at 9:56 am


    This caught my eye, especially the bit about Yohannes.

    Lots of love,


  36. 36 babble Feb 10th, 2010 at 4:42 am

    Ethiopians seem a bit obsessed with skin color. They seem to read everything of a person from the colour of his/her skin perspective.

  37. 37 Meron Feb 11th, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Tigi, your story is very captivating. You are a trooper. I love the way you promote Ethiopian culture globally by just being who you are. A naturally gifted beauty!!! Love you!

  38. 38 Dani Mar 3rd, 2010 at 12:32 pm


    You have no idea how much this has touched me. I no longer feel alone.

  39. 39 Naomi Mar 8th, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    I know HOW U FEEL! I have gone through being annoyed of people asking me where I’m from. Others time I feel unique and I sometimes like people guessing–in a way.

  40. 40 Mario Apr 21st, 2010 at 10:55 am


  41. 41 Hiwot May 12th, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    Hi Tigest I am full Ethiopian I get asked these questions all the time.

  42. 42 Jah May 31st, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    tigist u are very beautiful!!

  43. 43 Senait May 27th, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    I’m full Eritrean and I get asked where I’m from all the time! ): It’s kinda irritating because I’m proud of where I’m from and kinda want to look like it but at the end of the day you know what you are, right?

    But you def look part Ethiopian, I could tell by your first picture! And that second one really seals the deal, haha :))

  44. 44 Jorda Jul 19th, 2012 at 10:57 am

    I’m 100% Ethiopian but no one believe me that! I face the same problem as you
    Here where I live they spoke to me Indian language and I say wtf I’m not Indian I’m Ethiopian

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