It’s a question seemingly every mixed-race person and person of color has been asked before: “What are you?” (Or more innocuously, “Where are you from?”)
Ph.D. student Ayumi Matsuda-Rivero hears the question so often, she has become relatively deft at knowing how to respond.
If it’s someone who is also mixed, she figures it’s an attempt to build a connection and she’ll answer. But if it’s a white person, she’s more wary. (For the record, Matsuda-Rivero is Venezuelan Japanese, and more generally Latinx Asian.)
“If someone asks me ‘What are you?’ I’m less forgiving than if I get the ‘Where are you from?’ question,” the student at University of California San Diego said. “If someone asks me ‘What are you?’ I respond with ‘I’m a person,’ because ‘what’ implies an object rather than a person, and too often mixed people are seen as ‘exotic’ collectibles.”
If someone asks, “Where you from?” Matsuda-Rivero will say the state of Virginia because that’s where she has spent most of her life.
“This can frustrate some folks, but I reserve the right to share or not share my ethnic background,” she said.
Matsuda-Rivero doesn’t mind the question as long as it’s asked with tact or flows from an already-established conversation; if someone asks if she speaks Spanish, a follow-up question about her ethnicity would be natural.
But too often, the question is asked with hardly any tact at all. Case in point: Late last month, when Lady Susan Hussey, a senior aide to the British royal family and a close friend of the late Queen Elizabeth II, resigned after making “unacceptable and deeply regrettable comments” to Black charity founder Ngozi Fulani.
As Fulani recounted in a Twitter thread, at a Buckingham Palace event to raise awareness about violence against women, Hussey persistently asked her where she was “really” from, even though the charity founder had already explained she was born and lived in the U.K.
People of color could relate. Kim Noonan, the host of the podcast “Multiracial Whiteboy,” said he would be a little irked if someone phrased the question that way. (Noonan is a mixed transracial adoptee who was adopted from Vietnam by a white American family as an infant.)
“She had no desire to learn where the woman was from. It was obvious she was truly needling her. If I get that kind attitude from anyone, and I know they’re not up for a thoughtful conversation, I am done,” he said. “I won’t give time and energy to that.”
Generally, though, Noonan knows he looks ethnically ambiguous and doesn’t mind the question. (Growing up in a predominately white suburb of Escondido, California, he’s certainly used to it.)
“When I am asked, ‘What are you?’ I read the person’s intention,” he said. “If I see that they are genuinely curious, why not discuss my story with them? Not all of it, but enough to give whomever an idea of how complicated it was growing up as a mixed-race kid in a white family and community.”
Generally, Noonan thinks “the question alone isn’t worth throwing a tantrum over if a person has good intentions to learn and understand.”
That said, he has figured out a handy way to put the focus back on the asker.
“I’ll ask them, ‘How about you share where you’re from first?’” he said. “That way, it puts the heaviness of the question into perspective.”
Identifying the ‘other’
The reality is, many Americans find race and ethnicity confusing topics, so our conversations about the concepts are often inartful.
Both “race” and “ethnicity” are used interchangeably and sloppily, but they’re not the same thing.
“The concept of ‘ethnicity’ contrasts with that of ‘race’ in that it is concerned with group cultural identity or expression whereas ‘race’ focuses on physical and biogenetic traits,” Merriam-Webster writes in the dictionary’s usage notes on the words.
With ethnicity, a person’s culture, geography, heritage and language are all pulled in, whereas race is more about how others perceive you. (That’s why it’s common these days to hear sociologists and other experts describe human races as a social construct.)
The confusion is understandable. The problem is, often it feels like someone is trying to point out the otherness of someone else. Then there’s the frequent persistence in their line of questioning: Some won’t let up until the person of color offers up some “non-U.S.” origin story.
“White people would never persist in these types of questions with other white people, so why do they ask people of color?” said William Ming Liu, a professor of counseling psychology and department chair at the University of Maryland. (His research interests are in social class and classism, men and masculinity, and white supremacy and privilege.)
“Many white people have [the model] of a white racial person in mind in general, so when someone varies from that, they’re already primed, cognitively, to see the nonwhite person as a foreigner or non-American,” Liu told HuffPost.
People of color are considered “outsiders, interlopers, foreigners to that specific space,” the professor said.
Given how loaded the question is, Liu isn’t sure if there’s a nonclumsy way to ask it.
“The broader question for white people asking this is, why? What is the need to know? To identify the person of color as the ‘other’ in this space?” he said.
‘Could you help me better understand why you’re asking?’
As a white-passing, mixed-race Black man, author Steve Majors has had his fair share of experiences fielding questions like this.
“I find that those who question me are trying to determine whether I belong to their tribe, but the truth is my identity is far more complex than any one thing and I find that the question itself is flawed,” said Majors, the author of the book “High Yella,” a memoir about growing up white-passing in an impoverished Black family.
With a question like that, Majors wonders: Is the person asking about his race or ethnicity? Are they inquiring about his place of birth, current hometown or country of origin?
He’s found the best way to respond is to simply say, “I could answer that several ways. Could you help me better understand why you’re asking?”
“If the person were to say they’re just curious, I would reply, ‘I appreciate that, but I find people’s motives for asking that question differ so I hope you’ll understand why I don’t feel comfortable answering that right now,’” Majors said.
What if kids ask the question?
Kids are innately curious about the world around them, so they’re especially prone to ask the “What are you?” question. (Usually pretty indelicately, too.)
For kids who want to ask these questions of their peers, the goal for parents should be to teach them to convey respect and genuine interest, said Jennifer Noble, a clinical psychologist and parent coach.
“Most mixed-race or POC kids can feel when someone is genuinely and respectfully wanting to know about their background,” Noble said. “Teaching a kid to ask permission in a respectful way is a great place to start.”
Noble offered a few examples of how to respectfully ask the question and allow the responder to decline to answer:
- “Is it OK if I ask where you’re from?”
- “May I know what country or ethnicity your name is from?”
- “May I ask what your racial/ethnic background is?”
On the other side of the coin, if you want to prepare your child for how to deal with questions of this variety, start with a discussion explaining why people ask about it in the first place, Noble said.
“Helping a child understand that people have expectations about how people should look and that these expectations are usually very limited and based on oversimplified ideas of race and phenotype is important,” she told HuffPost. “Discussions about racism and even how melanin works are not too advanced!”
As for how to respond to the “What are you?” query, children and parents should work together on a response that feels good to them in advance.
“They can simply list their racial and ethnic background ― ‘I’m Japanese, Korean and White,’ for instance ― since that’s the most honest, authentic answer,” she said.
For the “Where are you from?” question, again, simple answers are best.
“‘I am from Oregon and I’m American, but my ethnicity is Mexican’ would allow the child to answer where they are from honestly, but also correct the asker by adding their race/ethnicity,” Noble said.
Kids can also use humor and snark as a way to protect against any questioning from peers that feels intrusive or invalidating.
“Mixed-race kids can answer ‘I’m amazing’ if someone asks ‘What are you?’ or they can practice returning the same question to the asker,” Noble said.
And of course, kids, like adults, should feel empowered to decide not to answer these questions.
“Helping a child realize that they can refuse to answer, especially if the asker has hostile intentions, is definitely helpful,” she said.