What Are You?

The Most Awkward Mixed Race Question

If you’re mixed, or even simply have unique ethnic features, then you’ve more than likely encountered the following scenario:

You’re standing around, minding your own business. Probably waiting on a Starbucks employee to misspell your name on your coffee order, or directing the Uber driver via text to where you’re actually standing.

A stranger walks up to you and gives you a confused look for an uncomfortable amount of time. You’re expecting them to tell you that you have bird poop on your face, you spat on their child, or they’re actually Nigerian royalty with a check in your name to hand over.

When they decide to finally speak, they only utter 3 words, “What Are You?” 

It’s an awkward moment being asked this question. It can make you feel angry, pressured, and also confused. How can you answer a question that is ultimately asking you to define your own humanity?

I’ve been asked this question many times, by people of all ages and ethnicities. At first I would just answer that my mom is black and my dad is white. For some this was enough, and other people wanted to take it a step further and then ask what I consider myself as which makes an interaction with a random stranger even weirder.

After being asked hundreds of times, I finally decided to develop a strategy to deal with this question. It’s allowed me to navigate the awkwardness, assess the person asking, and empower myself. And also to find a way to teach someone to see the humanity, and not the racial categories that we’ve been conditioned to live within.

Step 1 – Inquire

My first response after being asked what I am, is to respond with a question of my own:

“Why do you want to know?”

This question is always done with a smile. Because this is not a threat or an accusation; it’s an evaluation of their intent.

Are they asking because they’re curious? Are they asking because they want to put me into a box that makes them comfortable? Or are they just taking bets with their friends and I’m some sort of spectacle?

Asking why takes the pressure off of you feeling the need to answer in a specific way and puts it on the asker. It forces them to reveal their character and also consider the nature of the question they just asked.

Depending on how this question is answered, I move on to step 2.

Now that we’ve shared an awkward moment, it’s time to break the ice a little. I make my mixed heritage a bit of a game and invite them to guess. They get 3 tries to figure out my different heritages – African American, Native American and Latvian.

Step 2 – Invite

It’s a bit ridiculous. But again, so is asking, “What Are You?” Making it a game allows us to share a ridiculous moment and recognize a ridiculous concept – that ethnicity has to fit into a simple category.

For the record – no ever guesses accurately. And usually by this point we’re both laughing at the situation we’ve just found ourselves in. We can then move on to the last part.

Step 3 – Inform

Here is the part where I reveal my ethnicity. And how I reveal it is important:

I don’t simply list the categories. I tell them who I am and where I came from. I tell them that my mom is an African American woman from the west side of Chicago, and her great grandmother was from the Blackfoot Tribe. She married my father who was a refugee from Latvia during the Soviet invasion. They met at a burglar alarm company that was owned by the father of his best friend, who had emigrated from Mexico around the same time.

I reveal my heritage, not the racial categories we’re forced to throw ourselves into. I tell them the story of who I am. Not the one they were expecting to hear. And by the end, we’re standing on equal ground.

Implementing The Strategy

This process may seem intimidating or even aggressive. It’s important to remember our intent. We want to reveal who we are as people – not as a series of boxes to check. Not as a way to diminish our humanity to an falsely understood caricature of ethnicity.  We want to understand where someone is coming from. But more importantly, where we are coming from. And to correct behavior in a kind manner. To make it better for the next person whose looks don’t fit in with the stereotypes we’ve all been brainwashed with.

Our answers aren’t for the benefit of someone else. They reveal our point of view. If someone isn’t willing to accept this, you have the right to move on. Your feelings of self-worth and identity aren’t for anyone else to approve. You accept how you see yourself – a person whose ancestors originated from different parts of the world. Your identity doesn’t have to change simply to satisfy the prejudice of someone else. 

And if we each get just one person to see that. Then change can indeed start to happen.

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