As a mixed-race person, I'm trying to imagine what being asked, "What are you?" would feel like if I was white. Maybe I wouldn't even know what it means. After all, I'm a "who", not a "what". But because I am mixed and have heard this question my entire life, I know that "What are you?" means "What race are you? I need more information so that I know how to categorize you." (There's also the classic "What are you mixed with?" which is a whole other problem in that it implies that one race is the default with which another one is mixed.)
"What are you?" looks past a person's personality and interests and, often, even where they're from. (After all, I'm from Virginia, but that is never the answer an inquirer is looking for.) And mixed race people — among others whose appearance is not immediately racially identifiable by an outsider — know this well. They've heard and answered (or ignored) the question all their lives.
I know the way I respond has changed since I was a kid. I've gotten more confident. I no longer constantly dread being asked, knowing I'll have to timidly say "half white and half black." Now I either feel comfortable just coming out and saying it if the person asking seems genuine or, if I don't like their attitude, challenging them. ("What do you mean, 'what am I?'")
Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, who is biracial herself and has studied the multiracial experience, says of this tactic, "It can be a very negative experience to have someone question your identity, and if that experience happens continuously across your life, you can imagine how easy it becomes to get tired in trying to explain your own identity to the world around you. So, by answering a question with a question, some multiracial people feel like this is a tool to get other people not as familiar with the mixed-race experience to think a little more deeply about the question they are asking in the first place."
Other people who identify as mixed-race have also changed the way they answer the question over the years — but not all in the same direction. The people below all shared how they responded to "What are you?" as children versus as adults, and while some were more open about their backgrounds as kids, only to reject the question more as adults, some say they believe people asking are mostly just curious and so now they are willing to provide a full answer.
"Usually these differences in identification are linked to how a person physically looks racially, their family structure and the racial make up of their neighborhood and/or schools, and the types of treatment that they receive from others on a daily basis," Gaither explains.
Here's what 13 people who identify as mixed-race had to say about their own experiences:
"As a child, I identified as biracial/mixed or spelled out my ethnic background (Italian mom/Egyptian-Sudanese father). These days, I identify simply as Arab or North African, and if pressed, I’ll go into specifics. I think the reason I’m less likely to say I’m mixed or biracial now is that I don’t relate to Italian-American culture at all. I won’t deny Italian (specifically Sicilian) heritage, but it’s not how I see myself (although I recognize people may see me as that because of my physical appearance)."
"I have been asked this question hundreds of times! I am half Caucasian and half Filipina, and look Latina. About once a week, someone on the street or in a store addresses me in Spanish. As a child, I would say, 'My father is American and my mom is from the Philippines.' Now, depending on my mood, I say I’m American or human. If they want to probe further, they can, but it’s my attempt to have them realize the absurdity of their question. I wrote a children’s book entitled, Mommy, Why’s Your Skin So Brown? because so many people assumed I was the nanny of my lighter-skinned children."
"I’ve been asked 'What are you?' for longer than I can remember throughout my life, and as a kid, it became a robotic, scripted response of 'My mom is from Singapore and my dad is white and from the U.S.' ... It was such a common question, I never took offense to it and I was aware at a young age that my mixed ethnic background was not a norm and needed to be explained.
I have found as an adult, I still get asked 'What are you?' very frequently, but people try to be more sensitive about it and ask where I am from. When I answer that I am from New Jersey, they’ll then typically ask, "No, where are your parents from?” and then I launch right back into my [scripted response] that cuts to the chase ... In general, I’ve come to accept that my racial ambiguity prompts people to ask 'what I am' and I do not mind answering because I am proud of my mixed ethnicity."
"As a kid, I would respond to the question 'What are you?' by explaining that my mom is white and my dad is Asian off the bat. When answering the question as an adult, I usually respond with, 'Do you mean to ask what my ethnicity is?' and then, if they say yes, I say, 'Guess!' I get this question so often I like to hear what they were thinking about it first before telling them."
"I am half Burmese and half caucasian — my mother is originally from Myanmar, and my dad from New York. My look is kind of ambiguous — people often assume I’m Hispanic, Filipino, or even Hawaiian. I’ve gotten the 'What are you?' question my entire life, and as a kid found that saying I was half Burmese was perplexing to some because they weren’t familiar with the country of Myanmar. I’d simply answer “half Asian, half white.” I didn’t necessarily want to be 'different' when I was a kid, so I’d sweep that part of myself under the rug and answer with as little detail as possible.
As a 24-year-old now, I embrace these qualities ... I’m more willing to take the time to explain, because I figure why not educate people — 'I’m half Burmese; my mom is from Myanmar, also known as Burma. It’s a country in Southeast Asia, right next to Thailand.' I couple that with lighthearted humor about how my dad is a Jew from Long Island, playfully alluding to the contrast and unlikely match. It’s an interesting background, and I’m proud of it."
"Growing up I’d constantly get asked 'What are you?' and to be honest, I’d always have people try and guess. I found it to be an odd question, I never heard my single-race friends asking each other what they were, so I wanted to have some fun with it. People would guess black/white, but if I made them get more specific nobody would ever guess Irish and Jamaican ... Now that I’m older, I tend to just respond with 'Irish and Jamaican.' I still get funny reactions when I tell people, they think it’s a 'cool' mix. People tend to joke around now and say it’s the best of both worlds (*cough, alcohol and marijuana, cough*). It’s funny!"
"I'm Dominican, which means my heritage is extremely mixed raced. People tend have a hard time figuring out my ethnicity. When I was a kid, I never really understood the question. As a teenager, I would reply 'I’m New Jersyian', just throw people off. I used to think, 'Why should that matter?'
What I’ve learned over the years is that some people ask that question to better understand their connection to you. It’s amazing how often different people tend to see themselves in me. I’ve had Egyptians come up to me, asking for directions, because they think I can speak Arabic. And I've had similar experiences with people from all over the world — from Brazil to Italy and Portugal. Some people call my complexion brown, others call it olive. I'd like to think that in this context, the question 'what are you?' is more about how we’re connected. They’re really asking, 'What are you? Are you like me?' So, when I hear the question 'What are you?' today, I'd gladly share identifiers based on the person's interest."
"I'm Filipina, Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish, and I get the "What are you?" question frequently. When I was a kid, I would usually just immediately respond with the above — listing out my family's various backgrounds. It wasn't something I thought about and I always knew, even at a young age, what people meant. I feel like kids are always a bit more blunt and it usually comes from a 'they don't know better, but mean well' place ... As an adult, I try to reframe the question a lot as a subtle correction. So, if someone asks me 'what I am,' I'll say, 'Do you mean what ethnicity I am?' I also always ask the question back and try and point out the double standard if someone says, "Oh, I'm just European" — why was it important to ask me if you feel like it doesn't matter for you? I try not to get annoyed but it's hard especially when I've just met the person or it's a stranger and it's one of the first questions they ask."
"When I was a child, I used to list every race I was. I was so proud of my heritages because each race I came from had many things I truly admired about them. As an adult, I sometimes list them. The one thing I always say is that I'm a mutt and proud of it."
"I grew up in Central American as a white Hispanic. As a child I would be teased and they would call me a gringa. I never really fit in then, but I was pretty sure I would fit in once I got to the U.S. for college. In college I was an off-looking white person. People would do double takes when I explained that I 'look' white, sounded 'American', but was from Central America. Some cruel individuals would call me a beaner ... or a spick, despite the fact that those particular slurs don't apply to me. As a kid I would answer the question with, 'I'm Honduran, like you. But my grandmother is American'. As an adult I answer the question with 'I'm hispanic, but half (or a quarter) American ... I have had to refine the answer to this question over 30 years, down to a short and sweet elevator pitch that captures all of my qualities and heritages."
"The topic of my race(s) is something I’m always happy to share… once someone has gotten to know me. It can be as simple as mentioning my background in a casual conversation. However, when someone asks upon meeting me, I find it to be extremely rude. When I was a child, I felt awkward because I didn’t know if the person asking was genuinely curious or wanted to make fun of me. As an adult these days, I tend to take it in stride. Instead of taking it as an insult, I like to mess around with the person. I continue to do this until the he/she realizes that what they are asking is pretty silly and ignorant."
"Whenever someone asks me what my ethnic background is these days, I just say French-Chinese. Not everyone's got the time to hear my story about how my father is French-American and my mother Chinese-Indonesian. That I was born and raised in Singapore, went to school in Australia, and now live in the Philippines. I used to explain the story in its entirety whenever someone asked me as a kid. (My parents made sure I knew about my cultural background). But people always ended up having more questions after the explanation than they did to begin with. So, you could imagine why I quickly grew tired of getting asked. I kinda like the idea of calling myself a citizen of the world, but that's such a douchey thing to say..."
"As a kid, I didn't understand why they were asking as I didn't realize that I was any different than anyone else. I always said that I was black. As an adult, when people would ask me that question (which they still do), I ask them why are they asking? I get answers like, 'You don't have typical black features. Your hair is different. You have legs like an Asian, etc.' ... My response to most is that I'm African American and that we don't all look alike. I identify as African American because I was raised in an African American community and went to an African American school in Chicago. Although I know that I'm both black and white, I identify with the black culture because I was raised by a strong black father who valued his black American family and culture whereas my mom didn't associate or get involved as much with her caucasian heritage."
Obviously, the responses here are as varied as the respondents' racial and ethnic backgrounds, but across the board there seems to be an understanding of why people are curious, even if they should either bite their tongues or have a different approach.
"Ambiguity is something that is very difficult for people to deal with since we are accustomed to wanting to categorize people easily and neatly into one social category or the other," Gaither explains. "We are naturally curious social beings, but the intentions behind the 'What are you?' question can be difficult to determine, which can lead to this same question being a negative experience for people whose identities are continuously questioned."
If you're a mixed-race person yourself, it's probably interesting to hear how other people respond and why, since sometimes the experience can feel isolating, especially when you're a kid. And if you're someone who has ever asked "What are you?" to someone else, it's time to ask yourself why you asked, how you would feel in the other person's shoes, and consider making a change.