What Are You?


June 5, 2008 by multiracialsky

I have heard this question in my life more times than I care to, and I know that for my children–one in particular–this line of questioning has just begun. I have a pocketful of pre-formed answers, responses designed to catch the questioner off guard, to get them to examine their own assumptions, and to (sometimes) get out of answering the question all together. The problem for me–and for many others, I suspect–is that when an adult singles out one of my children and asks me, “What are they?” I know what the questioner means.

I am better–and more practised–at fielding and deflecting such questions from White parents/adults. When the questioner is an adult of color, I slip a little. When the questioner is another parent of color, I’ve already let my guard down a bit. With a Black parent of color standing alongside their young daughter, I have to admit–I am not expecting this question. I am also not going to call out this person I’ve just met, possibly embarrass them or make them look dumb, in front of their child.

When I was introduced to this particular questioner by a mutual acquaintance (that made all three of us adults of color at this event standing together) I was holding Teri. I was grateful I had brushed out, re-parted, and re-styled her hair that morning. The one thing this person said to me about Teri was that I have to ‘get her used to sitting for long periods of time because of her hair texture’ (don’t I already know it). This was not said in a complimentary way about Teri’s beautiful hair, even though this parent’s child has a similar hair texture. Then Jaja arrived, practically wordless, clinging to my legs (as she always does around strangers). My new acquaintance practically glowed in her presence. Thankfully, Jaja quickly skipped off to play near Dad with Gretel and a friend–and that’s when the questions began.

First, the adoption questions. I offered only, “We have two domestic open adoptions. We know and see our children’s birthparents. We were there on the days they were born.” (Yes, I know, to those of you who know our full stories this is a slight exaggeration–Teri was four days old when we met her–but I was going for the short version at this point. I was beginning to see where these questions were going.)

My answers to the adoption questions (which included some version of the ‘where are they from?’ question) did not give the information that was really being sought. Which brought on, “What is she?” There was no mistaking which ‘she’ we were talking about; Teri (still on my hip) hadn’t been offered a second glance. Still, I played a little dumb (I do after all have three daughters). I refocused on my children as a group. “All my kids are multiracial,” I answered. “So am I.” I was just about to start in on the ‘We have Black, White, and Cherokee heritage in our family . . .’ when I was stopped.

“What is she?” the questioner repeated, pointing across the grass at Jaja.

I sighed. I knew what this person was asking. They were not asking if my child is human. They were not asking about her gender. They were not asking about her ‘nationality’ (As usual, that one had been covered with the, “Where is she from?”) I caved. “She’s biracial. She’s Black and White.” I said.

“She doesn’t look it,” this Black parent responded.

Do you know any biracial kids? I wanted to ask, but I kept my mouth closed.

With their daughter standing right next to them, this parent went on. “She [Jaja] is so beautiful. She looks like a little doll.” I had pretty much tuned out at this point. I excused myself (with four young children, there’s always an excuse) and walked away. I was disappointed. I had been excited to meet another parent of color in my community.

There are a couple things I want to point out here: (1) I never would have even let this line of questioning begin had any of my three older kids been within 15 feet, (2) Teri and Jaja have almost the same skin tone, also very similar to the skin tone of the questioner’s daughter, and (3) All four of my kids are physically striking–they get complimented on it all the time–in completely different ways (bragging mom here, sorry).

The questions and comments about Jaja–which, unfortunately are not going to stop any time soon–are because few people can racially place her. (Although in cities with large Black and White populations–Philly, St. Louis, D.C., for example–Black/African American moms seem to know that Jaja is multiracial, that she has Black ancestors. The same thing can’t be said for White moms in the same cities. We got the most inane comment ever from a White mom in Philly, who said Jaja looked ‘island-y’. My husband reported this comment back to me. “I wanted to ask, ‘which island?'” he said to me. Perhaps racial segregation–including isolated parents of color in my current community–is a big piece of the story.)

My oldest daughter has medium brown skin. Her smooth dark brown hair gently curls. Her facial features are a complete blend of her birthparents’ faces; she looks so much like both of them. This racially-defining question, and all its accompanying baggage, is something she will likely have to deal with her entire life. Unlike her three younger siblings, she is not easily racially stereotyped/categorized by a combination of visual factors, primarily skin tone and hair texture. Rico, Gretel, and Teri will have a similar experience to mine (in this one way): they will have the option to ‘out’ themselves as multiracial, when and if they choose to. But they are unlikely to be questioned or challenged about their racial ancestry based on their physical appearances.

The comments that really get me are the ones after people ask an inappropriate question about my own or my child’s racial heritage, surprise or weasel me into answering their question, and then say I’m wrong or lying. I want to be able to answer these questions about my family’s racial heritage without feeling that I am violating some sacred trust, without feeling as though I am talking about my sex life or my spiritual beliefs or my children’s birthmarks–with a virtual stranger. I want to normalize the multiracial experience, for multiracial families and multiracial individuals. I want people–this person–to know that multiracial people come in all colors and shapes and forms. That we don’t all look alike (anymore than two people of similar racial heritage look alike). And that saying “You don’t look like what you are,” is one of the most dismissive, condescending things someone could say to a multiracial person.


17 thoughts on “What Are You?

  1. c says:

    i hate that question.
    i hate what it implies.
    i hate that i am considered, like a breed of horse.

    i hate the word exotic.

    i think it is a rude question.

    My husband and i are both multiracial. Between us we have Black, Mexican, Native American, Brasilian (which is a mix in itself- African, Portuguese, Indian) and White. We’ve two daughters- both biological. My older daughter has a lighter tone to her skin and very tight, curly hair. She looks like her dad’s family. Our younger daughter has wavy hair and is very light. She looks almost completely Latina. People- adults- strangers and acquaintances- ask me why she is so light. Right in front of my daughter! And they’ll go on and on about how pretty she is, totally ignoring my older daughter who also is beautiful.

    i become so angry because i do not want my daughters to buy into this light-skinned privilege such people practice. i think it is rude and prejudiced. Why, why, why are people so rude?

    Why do they want to know so bad? That’s what i’d like to know.

  2. zebracouple says:

    Wow. There’s a lot here. I will come back. Thanks for sharing your experiences, stories, and life.


  3. Melissa says:

    I hate that question, too. And, I never know what quite to say. 😦

  4. julia says:

    As C said… the question really is “WHY” do people really want to know?

    It may be my ignorance talking but sometimes I think they ask the question out of pure laziness.

    They see something that is different from their norm, they don’t stop for a minute to consider anyone’s feelings but their own, so out of sheer stupidity they ask. It fills up their otherwise boring and dull existence.

  5. Khaia says:

    I’d like to offer a different perspective…I think it is wonderful when people of my race (black) and other races ask what I am mixed with. I remember being in the emergency room after a car accident a few years ago. I was pretty incoherent and the nurse was filling in my forms to the best of her ability…but I distinctly remember her asking me if I was African American or American Indian. I also recall a caucasion girl that I worked with making the comment that she had never seen a black girl with hair like mine…she said it was (and I quote) “whimsical”…I never get offended when folks speculate and/or outright question my ethnicity because I am quite aware that my tan/cafe au lait skin, long dark hair and dark eyes fall outside of (and within) categories of many different minorities. One thing is for sure, I don’t look caucasion…but I, members of my family and some of my closest friends look like we could have anything ranging from african, indian, spanish, asian, arab, italian, irish etc…blood coursing through our veins and that is okay with me…because as long as I look like I could belong to any of the myriad diverse ethnicities of our Earth…then that is okay with me. And being exotic…or having a look about me that makes folks curious is something that I embrace. You should too…Mixed people are (in my opinion) the most beautiful people on this planet. Have a lovely day, Cher:)

  6. Kohana says:

    Thanks for writing about this. We get questions all of the time and I am constantly making quick decisions about people’s intentions and interest. Sometimes I flat out won’t share, sometimes I give a brief answer, and sometimes I’ll have a discussion. Navigating these conversations within earshot of our children is difficult because you never know when they’ll turn in a direction you don’t want them to hear. It’s only recently that my son has started identify himself as brown and I wonder if it is related to the constant comments we’ve had since moving about his brown skin in contrast to his fair sister.

    I just appreciate hearing other families talk about their experiences and how they wade through them. Thanks!

  7. foreverloyal says:

    You know, I sometimes see kids with theirk parents and wonder. But I never, EVER ask. It just seems rude. Why do I need to know, after all? Especially someone I just met?

    I don’t care for people looking at my kids and asking me about the race of my husband, so I don’t do it to others.

  8. Shelby says:

    I’m mono-racial (or multi-generational mixed black…whichever term suits you) and I get the “what are you” questions a lot. I also get told that I look exotic a lot too. I used to be flattered whenever people told me I looked mixed (and therefore pretty) but now I realize it’s just another way of objectifying/othering someone. It also works to degrade other Black women that look more typically “African” by implying “you can’t be (as) beautiful if you are 100% Black”

  9. Sabrina says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. We get the ‘Oh, he’s so cute…what is he?”…alot. Depending on who it is, and/or what mood I’m in, I’ll simply laugh and say ‘a boy’. hehe! I do appreciate your blog. I’ve recently found it and am so happy that I did. We are a mulitracial family and I love finding good articles about how other handles ‘situations’. Thanks!

  10. Em says:

    Hi, I was wondering, what DO you say when someone asks you that? I am often asked “what is he” and “is he yours” about my (biological) son.. When the question is phrased exactly like that–“what is he”, it really bothers me! He is a 2 year old boy, thats what he IS! Of course I know that isn’t what they are getting at when they ask. Anyway so what is something you guys have said in response to those kinds of questions? I don’t want to say anything rude of course, but I would like to subtly call them out, if possible!! :o) Any suggestions are appreciated!

  11. Dahlie says:

    “she’s so cute. wow, look at her eyes. are they blue? is her father white? miss, is her father white?”

    i wanted to say, “yeah i heard you but i’m not in the mood to objectify my child”.

    i think next time i’ll try that on though. hate for her to listen to people talk about her like she is a fancy rug.

  12. Grace says:

    im half chilean and half american and i DO love to know everyones heritage.. i just came to live to the united states after living all my 18 years of life in a country where you hardly ever see anyones else than mestizos, and getting to know all this different races that you can get to know in the united states has been fascinating for me. its something so new for me that i want to identify every single race, thats why i ask, though i just realized not so long ago that people may not like this… i just think people should NOT take it as something rude, because at least when i ask i do not do it with any bad intention, but to recognize and get to know more of this fascinating world
    again im biracial too, and i dont feel bothered if people are interested in my origin, of course if they do it just for curiosity and not with weird looks!.. so please at least dont give ME wrong, and feel orgullosisimo of sharing what of the world is on you : )

  13. Olivia says:

    I’m mixed as is my daughter. I get questioned all of the time because she is extremely fair skinned with light brown hair, and I have brown skin with black hair. We live in Arizona and most people think that she is Hispanic. But I don’t get offended by the questions. I know that she looks “exotic”. She’s also an attractive young girl, and I expect that people will wonder. Why not. I often remark if I see a caucasian child with firey red hair. Or a bald toe-head child…I don’t want my daughter to be ashamed and to shun the questions. As long as she is not being mocked or ridiculed, I say celebrate who you are.

  14. Olivia says:

    By the way…when I see other bi-racial families, I ask questions to learn their mix. I find it quite interesting and enjoy hearing about the various “collaborations” of cultures within a family.

  15. Sabrina says:

    Well my family is a mix of Afro-Jamacian, East-Indian, European & Han Chinese. My mother, maternal grandfather (Black, White & Indian), and I look more East-Indian, though all of us have different hair and complexions. My father looks more of Dravidian-East Indian, and so do my paternal grandmother. My sister and some memebers of my parental grandfather’s family look Black/white mixture. My great-granddad and my maternal grandmother’s family look more East-Asian. And some members of my family have darker-skin with more African features.
    Bascially what I am saying is that people cannot judge who we are by what we look like. A found that the “lighter-toned” memebrs of family get asked “What Are You? Are You ‘Spnish’?Where Is Your Family From?”. I dislike that most people have an ignorant assumtion that ALL “light-skin” persons are mixed, but all “dark-skinned” persons are “pure”. Which is politically and genetically incorrect. (Most East-Indians,Southeast, Native Americans, and Australian Aborigne are brown anywaays). Then people have ignorance towards Jmaicans. Some think ALL of us are “pure” black. (Lol)


  16. rosesmama says:

    I’ve sometimes just said, “She’s a really nice little girl.” I am mostly caucasian, with olive skin that,given time, tans almost walnut brown, and straight auburn hair, and have had this question my whole life. In hindsight, I realise that folks wanted to know why I had dark skin and “white” hair. It wasn’t until I started getting the question about my multiracial child that I was offended. I’m thinking I *will* start asking back, “Why do you want to know?” or “what are you?” to see if people notice how inappropriate a question it is.

  17. Isha says:

    I recently came across probably the best explanations for the “what are you” questions I have ever read.

    The following is from http://allywork.solidaritydesign.net/2006/what-are-you/

    Not too long ago, Eric Stoller wrote a post about doing some shoe shopping with his partner, Wendy. In the middle of talking about cushion versus support, the salespersyn turns to Wendy and asks the loaded, “what are you?” Eric asked me awhile ago to add my two cents to the discussion, and, of course, i’m a little slow in doing so. Thankfully, however, there are plenty of other folks out there who jumped on it and have really done a great job.

    Jenn at Reapproriate talks about how this question is a by-product of Othering:

    The truth is that people of colour loathe the “what are you” question because it’s a reminder of the inequality we face inherent to our racial background. “What are you” suggests that we are not them, we are not normal, we are different. Though the White querient may believe the question is not harmful, they never consider how the very non sequitor nature of the question not only reminds us of our “Other”-izing but showcases the mindset of Whites who feel entitled to the knowledge.

    Kevin at Slant Truth responds with a blunt, “I’m a f*&$ing human being, that’s what I am.” Kevin’s answer quickly cuts to an undertone of the question: you aren’t a normal humyn, so what are you? Kevin points out that the question is used as a way to preface prejudice. Or as Kevin more eloquently put it:

    You see, I’m a light-skinned black dude with high cheekbones, and while my hair is nappy as can be, I still ocassionally get the “what are you” question–meaning: you don’t look 100% Black 1 and so I can’t adequately judge you based on your race. I must know your racial background so that I can base your opinions (and other things like your shoe size 2 ) on everything you say adequately.

    And last but not least, Mamita Mala responds with “as american as maiz y yuca.”

    It’s the most dreaded question. “What are you?” It comes packaged with boxes to check, spaces to mark with an x, lines to fill in. Sometimes you are allowed to choose only one box, one label. Sometimes you get to be other.

    I agree with what has been said. I believe the question to be a way to categorize and Other. I don’t believe its usually a conscious act on behalf of the questioner. Our actions and reactions are so thoroughly defined by prejudice that we feel the need to categorize people so that we may attach the proper prejudices and stereotypes upon them. But there is also more to the question, as the people i’ve listed have mentioned. The question is a way to remind those questioned that they aren’t “normal”.

    As matt comments at Slant Truth:

    i don’t think it would ever occur to me to ask a person something like that. “where does that name come from?” or, “how do you spell that?” those are questions i would ask. but “what are you?”?! seriously, get real and ask a question that matters, already.

    Both Mala and Matt remind us that the question is huge in that it attempts to simplify and marginalize the individual. What are you is one of those questions that isn’t easily answered. That is, if the question wasn’t so racialized. How would the salespersyn have responded if Wendy answered, “oh, i’m a grad students. Why do you ask?” Would he become flustered that his racially coded language wasn’t properly decoded? Would there be a tinge of disappointment that people of color are more complex than their racial categorization? Or perhaps he’d actually recognize that not everyone fits in a tiny little box.

    I can’t count how many times i’ve heard a White persyn ask a persyn of color the question, “what are you?” And like Eric, i’ve often been stunned by the question. That’s why i’m glad its been brought up, because this is one of those subtle things that people do over and over again without questioning it (and also something that White people seem to rarely or effectively point out).

    Fighting racism doesn’t mean we have to properly respond to every single act. But i do believe that a very important part of the process is to further our (White people’s) consciousness about the many ways that our actions and words are racialized, so that we can stop these behavior patterns (and help others to stop them as well).

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