How I Tackle that Annoying "What Are You?" Question (Without Violence)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

If you're bi/multiracial, or look "ethnically ambiguous", you've gotten the "What Are You?" question at least a dozen times.  When I was younger and lived in a neighbourhood where there weren't a lot of other biracial kids, I got asked this question so often I had a pre-set answer that went something like:

"Well I'm 100% Guyanese (pause for shocked gasp from kids who didn't understand how I could possibly be Guyanese), but my mom is Indian (nod for emphasis while kids look at my braided hair with confusion), and my dad is Black (pause for the "How is he Guyanese then?" question).  Guyana actually has six different races you know ... (sigh and give up as kids get too confused and run off)".

As I got older I started carrying photos of my parents in my school agenda for visual aid, since my peers just had no idea how I could possibly be mixed.  Now, my response to this question varies from the one word answer "Guyanese", to long winded explanations that incorporated a discussion of the colonization of South America just to make people uncomfortable.

The "What Are You?" question has been referred to as an act of violence against mixed-race people by Canadian scholar and professor Jinthana Haritaworn (check her out here).  In a way, I guess it is.  I mean, why is it necessary for me to not only explain who I am and where I'm from, but then also justify my racial background to those who do not understand interracial mixing.  What's worse for me is that as a person who presents as solely Black, the "What Are You?" question comes with an added ignorant side comment of "Oh ... I thought you were Jamacian", or worse yet, "I thought you were just a light-skin".

As annoying as this question gets, it is the perfect chance to resist.  Like I said, I try to answer the "What  Are You?" question through a discussion of colonization, which not only names the violent process that the world would rather forget ever happened, but also allows me to explain how a mixed-race girl actually can come from Guyana.  When I'm already angry/annoyed/just want to punch someone in the face, the "What Are You?" question can feel like a violent attack on my self-representation, especially when the follow up questions continue to challenge my multiraciality.  However in critically reflecting on these questions, one thing is important to remember: curiosity is a part of life.  It's normal for people to want to know about who you are and where you come from, especially when you look different than everyone else they know.  If you approach the "What Are You?" question as an opportunity to educate someone who simply does not know or understand, it's a lot easier to share your story without getting angry or feeling attacked.

Once, someone asked me where I was from in what seemed to be a genuine interest in my Major Research Paper, which is on the subject of mixed-race females and social media.  However, once I answered, the conversation turned to a complete exoticization of my identity, which I abruptly shut down once the person started asking me to share stories of my "struggles as a mixed-race female".  While this example is extreme (I hope), this leads me to my last point.

If someone opens up the door to ask you about your background, you have every right to decline to answer.  You do not owe a single soul an explanation for your existence.  You are allowed to remain ambiguous if you should so choose.  And should someone take the conversation in a direction you are not comfortable with, you continue to have the right to shut that conversation down.  You are not the spokesperson for all mixed-race people: you can only speak for yourself.  And if someones "What Are You?" turns into a "Tell Me About Your People", run from that conversation and don't look back.

I have so much more to say about this topic, but for the sake of time this will be it for now.  If you have any questions or comments about this topic, don't hesitate to leave them in the comment section below.  I am more than willing to provide support or feedback if you should need any.

Take Care!

Jenell

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