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Dealing With the Loaded “What Are You?” Question About Race

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at BU chapter.

I’m half Puerto Rican and half Ecuadorian. It’s a relatively unusual pairing, which leads to a fair amount of ambiguity for people trying to guess my race. I’ve gotten too many guesses to count, but some of the repetitive ones are Middle Eastern, Guatemalan, and El Salvadorian. Sometimes people actually guess correctly that I’m Puerto Rican, but they almost never get the Ecuadorian part right.

These guesses don’t bother me. In fact, it’s actually kind of interesting to see what other people recognize and what they fail to recognize. These guesses come from a place of curiosity that isn’t really harmful to anyone. However, it’s the other question that ticks me off. 

Anyone who’s even slightly racially ambiguous has gotten this question time and time again. Even if you’re not racially ambiguous, you’ve probably gotten asked the “What are you?” question. Not “what race or ethnicity are you?” No, just a plain, old, “What are you?” Usually, the person leads with some witty intro about how they had to ask. Maybe they’ve been wondering for a while, and the curiosity finally overwhelmed them. Either way, the uncontrollable urge to ask just made them do it. 

There are many things wrong with this phrasing, but I think the starkest one is how it disassociates the person being asked from a basic sense of humanity. This might sound dramatic, but the more you think about it, the more offensive it gets. Simply put, it feels alienating for the person who is asked. If you’re not the same race as the person asking (which is almost always the case), then you must be something wholly alien to them. It has an air of condescendence that is almost impossible to miss.

To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten asked the question with malicious intent, but that almost makes it worse. If it comes from a place of ignorance rather than malice, then fighting against it becomes so much harder.

Questioning someone about their ethnicity in such an abrupt way comes with many negative connotations and can truly hurt the person who is asked. If you’re one of those people who ask this question without thinking about it, I urge you to reconsider or at least be careful with the way you word it.

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Brianna is a sophomore at BU studying International Relations with a concentration in the Middle East and North Africa.
Writers of the Boston University chapter of Her Campus.