Sometimes, it’s an aggressive shout, like a hostile interrogation of identity. Other times, it’s gentle and marveling, purred with a tilted head, as if part of an anthropological investigation. Always, it sucks.
As a biracial person who grew up in a midsized midwestern city, I am used to existing in spaces where I am the Only One. Often the sole non-white person in any given classroom, restaurant, or party, I first became accustomed to the stares, and later, to the questioning.
I have fielded this inquisition — “So what are you?” — several hundred times. It’s not as though the topic wasn’t already on my mind. I’ve been acutely aware of my own racial identity every single day of my life, as I imagine is the case for many minorities. I have most certainly felt the otherness that comes from feeling too white for some spaces, too black for others. People have felt free to comment on my otherness, too. “Oreo” was a nickname used so frequently in my youth that it became, in a warped way, a term of endearment.
It is in that context in which I’ve had to deal with strangers asking, “What are you?” It’s a strange social impulse, one that is not a compliment. It’s not, “You have pretty eyes.” It’s, “What color are your irises?” It’s like going up to a celebrity, not to tell them you loved them in that movie, but merely to ask whether they were in that movie and then be satisfied by having asked the question.
I did nothing to curate this particular mix of genes, so it doesn’t feel particularly flattering. Despite what you might assume, this question doesn’t seem to be about showing romantic or sexual interest: I’m asked it by all genders, ages, races and demographics.
It happens on the street, as it did several months ago, when a man paused his phone conversation to shout at me while I entered the library, “Excuse me! What race are you?”
It happens at parties, when older women bemoan their own coloring (“I wish I had your skin color! What are you?”).
It happens at work, by cautious staff members (“Just curious, I was wondering what race you were”).
It happens in bathrooms, by exuberant drunk girls (“I love your hair! What are you?!”). This one isn’t so bad because exuberant drunk girls in bathrooms make you feel good about yourself. But it’s everywhere.
Everyone’s thinking about and talking about race. I get it. For what it’s worth, I do believe much of the questioning is genuine curiosity. But to what end? If I answer the question (which I usually do, because I am a people-pleaser and would rather eat my own arm than face an ounce of confrontation), where do you foresee this question going? There is no segue into regular conversation after that. If the asker responds, “Oh! That’s what I thought,” then congratulations, you correctly guessed a stranger’s ethnic makeup.
Sometimes I’ll get, “Oh, I thought you were [another ethnic combo].” I myself have gotten (wrong) guesses of Indian, Italian, Native American, Brazilian, Spanish, Mexican and Egyptian. So sorry to disappoint; work on those stereotyping skills for the next ethnically ambiguous person you come across.
I know people are asked by a person of the same ethnicity, “Are you [so-and-so ethnicity]?” in a way that leads to organic conversation about their commonalities. I understand using this type of question as a way to spark a meaningful discussion about a particular cultural tradition or experience. It can still be an awkward exchange, but there are tactful ways to ask about someone’s nationality or background if you sincerely want to have that conversation. And when you get to know a person, that’s a different story.
What I’m talking about is the 98 percent of the time where that’s definitely not what’s going on. Instead, I have to deal with strangers who feel entitled to that single piece of information. There is no meaningful discussion to follow, no bonding over a shared cultural experience. Instead, it feels like a game the person has decided to play, a game that is very uncomfortable and not even a little bit fun for me.
I am not quick enough enough for a quippy retort, and not confident enough to shut it down firmly, particularly when a man has asked it in a one-on-one situation. So I am left with the burden of making the other person feel like it’s not a weird question, and usually I just answer it with some trailing version of, “Uh, my dad is black and my mom is white, so ...” And then it’s awkward, like I’m waiting for the person’s approval or rejection of my parental heritage.
To those who say, “But people just want to learn about their fellow humans! Lighten up!” I say: No, it’s creepy and invasive. If you’re curious, be curious about something I’ve clearly decided to share with the world, like the book I’m reading or the necklace I’m wearing or the ice cream flavor I chose.
This particular question and its variations ― “Are you mixed? What are you mixed with? What are your parents? Where are you from? No, but where are you from?” are truly inappropriate if you have no relationship to the person.
There are one billion legitimate ways to start a conversation that don’t involve exoticizing and othering a complete stranger. This one could so easily be cut out of everyday conversation. So, to give you an answer, what’s black and white and tired of fielding this question? Me.