“What are you?” my chemistry partner asked pointedly. “Like, where are your parents from?” I awkwardly clutched my graduated cylinder and blinked back at her from behind smudged lab goggles. Despite the hundreds of times I had been confronted by this question, I had yet to formulate a simple, satisfying answer. “My mom is from Los Angeles and my dad is from Oakland,” I finally replied, intentionally dodging the essence of her question. My mixed identity was a topic far too complicated and personal to delve into while calculating molarity.
All throughout my life, acquaintances have questioned me about my ethnicity. I sit precariously, with my Asian eyes and rambunctiously curly hair, at the crossroads of Japanese and white, making it hard to place me in a box based on my appearance. When I was younger, I had trouble understanding why questions like “What are you?” always made me internally recoil. As an adult, I’m realizing how these types of questions inherently come with othering, and often exoticizing, connotations.
The phrase “What are you?” has an automatically dehumanizing effect. Even though the question seems harmless, it’s hurtful to be so quickly reduced to a “what” without someone taking the time to get to know you as a “who.” Every time I am asked this, I feel a wall forming between my acquaintance and me, as it becomes clear that they see me as different, alien and confusing. Also, as any ethnically ambiguous person can tell you, the inquiry of “What are you?” is never the end of the questioner’s interrogation. Once your heritage is discovered, a wave of questions breaks loose: Why don’t you look more Asian? How did your parents meet? How come you don’t look like this other mixed girl I’ve met? I’ve wasted long stretches of class time fielding questions from curious classmates who want to analyze my features and lend me their opinions on why I actually seem to look more Latina or Southasian than Japanese. The barrage of unsolicited questions and comments usually makes me feel like an artifact being studied under a microscope and puts the onus on me to make my identity easily understandable for someone else. It also can feel like my personal family life is being rudely pried into when I’m just trying to go about my daily tasks.
I’ve also noticed that the question of “What are you?” can, unfortunately, connect to exoticizing, and almost fetishizing, mixed-race folks. As a half-Asian woman, I’ve sometimes had guys attempt to compliment me by asking my race and following up with comments along the lines of “Yeah, you look mixed, and I prefer mixed girls.” While I can see why on the surface this might seem like a good thing to hear, it actually gives off creepy vibes. I don’t want to be celebrated just for my proximity to whiteness, and I don’t feel comfortable with the negative implications towards non-biracial women. Compliment me on something else, so I know that you see me as an individual!
While I personally have had negative experiences associated with random inquiries about my race, it is important to recognize that there can still be a time and place for the question “What are you?”. It’s important to just keep in mind the context and the tone of your question. For example, it was uncomfortable when my chem classmate posed the question out of the blue; we didn’t know each other well, and she asked me in an accusatory manner, which made people turn and look at us. On the other hand, I’ve had great conversations about being half-Japanese with other classmates when the topic naturally arose and the environment was more supportive. Creating space for discussing what it means to be mixed-race and how biracial individuals, like myself, uniquely fit into our ethnic communities can be meaningful when handled tactfully and inclusively.