"What are you?" "Tired of answering that question."
December 31, 2008 9:40 PM   Subscribe

The Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage (pdf) is a great document covering some basic issues of self definition many take for granted, including the right to not be pressured to choose an identity for the comfort of others. Of course, it's not like this is new, though it seems little headway is being made despite growing numbers of multi-ethnic people in the media spotlight. (Previously)
posted by yeloson (32 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for this. I could really have used it as a teenager, when I was constantly being accosted people who wanted to know how I got "that tan". "Goodness me, how did you get so brown? Have you been on holiday?" Ethnicity may be a social fiction but looking ethnically ambiguous means your identity is always on the table, regardless of whether you actually feel like discussing it.

Anyone want to share their favourite snarky answers to the dreaded "What are you?"
posted by [ixia] at 10:00 PM on December 31, 2008


Huh, I'm "mixed heritage" and I haven't found it complicated at all. I don't understand why people get complexes about their "identity" I mean, what does your genetic heritage have to do with your "identity"? We ought to be moving towards a society where race or ethnicity is ignored.

Looking at the document though, it seems like it was written for people who have to deal with other people constantly badgering them about their "identity", in other words, if others are concerned about racial identity, it would get pretty annoying.
posted by delmoi at 10:06 PM on December 31, 2008


Also I can't believe I just outed myself as a total loser by posting almost at midnight on newyears (in my timezone). Damnit. Well, I'm totally posting this from my android phone at a totally killer party. I sware. killer party.

Anyway, happy newyear everyone. Hopefully this one will be better then 2008!
posted by delmoi at 10:08 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Anyone want to share their favourite snarky answers to the dreaded "What are you?"

My friend, who is "ethnically ambiguous" in a mostly-white area, is sometimes confronted with the "What are you?" kind of questions. She shrugs them off by saying in a deadpan voice, "My mother was visited by an amorous travelling salesman."
posted by amyms at 10:21 PM on December 31, 2008


delmoi said: Also I can't believe I just outed myself as a total loser by posting almost at midnight on newyears (in my timezone).

Me too, delmoi (Central Time Zone here). I don't think I'm a "total loser" though. I stayed home and did the countdown with my son, who is now happily playing online games with his friends while I'm happily browsing MetaFilter.
posted by amyms at 10:23 PM on December 31, 2008


Sure, some people get unnecessarily absorbed in understanding the precise nature of their own ethnic and cultural identity. But mostly the pressure comes from others - from people who are troubled by their own inability to put you in an ethnic box. I don't struggle with my identity at all, I'd just rather not discuss it, in detail, when I'm trying to by a bus ticket or something.
posted by [ixia] at 10:23 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


...buy. Not by. And I have no excuse, we're well into the new year in my time zone :)
posted by [ixia] at 10:25 PM on December 31, 2008


Fucking-A. As a tween I was harangued with comments like "half-breed" for a few years, until high school when the girls thought half-Asian half-white guys were, like, hot. So a big hearty fuck you to the purebred dorks who thought their racial purity was all that and a bag of salt and vinegar.
posted by illiad at 10:26 PM on December 31, 2008


Anyone want to share their favourite snarky answers to the dreaded "What are you?"
"Frustrated by identity politics."
posted by Abiezer at 11:56 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


We ought to be moving towards a society where race or ethnicity is ignored.

Care to explain why? I agree that racism and ethnic chauvinism is essentially irrational, but it provides a useful retarding force against globalisation and cultural homogenization. As such I'm hesitant to condemn it outright.

Even though in theory genetics and culture can be considered separately, in practise they usually go together. I believe that the diversity of cultures and national/ethnic identities in the world is a positive thing, so why not support anything that preserves their separateness and uniqueness?
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 2:39 AM on January 1, 2009


"ignored" probably was not the best word. More like "not considered an intrinsic part of a person"
posted by delmoi at 3:22 AM on January 1, 2009


"ignored" probably was not the best word. More like "not considered an intrinsic part of a person"

Yeah, especially since just having the passport/heritage/address of one country doesn't necessarily mean someone accurately depicts the average lifestyle of that ethnicity.
posted by divabat at 4:09 AM on January 1, 2009


My best snarky answer is to give an exhaustive recount of my family's oral history, plus the results of participating in the Genographics project. It takes between 15 and 45 minutes.
posted by dirty lies at 4:49 AM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Snarky answers, huh? When people would ask me what my mixed race children were (not kidding, "what are they?") I would answer-- um, they're children. When people would ask me, of my misbehaving toddlers, whether they "were mine" I would answer that no, I had a business renting out obnoxious children and would they like to rent these?
posted by nax at 6:18 AM on January 1, 2009 [9 favorites]


I've found that inquiries into ethnic/cultural/religious/racial heritage certainly aren't limited to people who are first/second generation mixed race, but also to folks who look hard to identify. A boring ol' European mutt with a dash of Native American and rumored African, people pin wonderful additional ingredients to me - am I part Asian? am I a Latina? Jewish? A Thai-Rican Jew? (seriously!) I usually mutter something about my really, really non-exotic heritage, followed by "...you know, American." (Aren't we all mixed, really?)
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 6:46 AM on January 1, 2009


A friend of mine is half-white, half East Asian. Every now and then she gets asked a question like "where are you from?". Her answer: "I'm an Eskimo princess."

This has lead to some great conversations at the pub.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 7:41 AM on January 1, 2009


As a tween I was harangued with comments like "half-breed" for a few years

The popular term in these parts was 'half-caste', which I always found peculiarly anachronistic. When did you last hear anybody enquiring about what caste somebody was?

'Oh, I'm like, half brahmin and half vaishya '.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:27 AM on January 1, 2009


Like Sadie, I'm an American mutt. In Texas, it's assumed by Anglos that I'm Hispanic, the Hispanics assume I'm Persian, the Persians assume I'm Syrian, the Syrian think I might be Jewish and so on and so on.

My response, were someone to flat out say "What are you?" would be "Heavily armed." What the fuck sort of person asks that kind of question? How rude is that? I mean, seriously, I think I would be so taken aback by the sheer rudeness that I'm not sure what I would say, but I'm sure it would be snarky.
posted by dejah420 at 8:30 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also I can't believe I just outed myself as a total loser by posting almost at midnight on newyears (in my timezone). Damnit. Well, I'm totally posting this from my android phone at a totally killer party. I sware. killer party.

Artist's rendering of delmoi's party. ;)
posted by homunculus at 11:43 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


The ironic thing is that the vast majority of white people, in North America at least, are just that: "White." As in, that's about as ethnically specific as we get.

When pressed, I tend to identify myself as "mostly Scottish," but that's really only because my name is mostly Scottish; my genes are at best half-Scottish, and even then it's just accumulation from each of my mutt grandparents' Scottish bits. I'm really just your typical pan-European Yankanadian.

I think nowadays most people west of the Atlantic understand the concept of a "mutt" heritage better than they understand anything resembling racial purity, and I think a lot of the What are you?-type questions that still persist more often arise out of genuine curiosity and interest than as part of some devious plot to peg racial identities on people.

I find it a bit troubling that the linked sites focus on "multi-racial" people. Because, like, everything they talk about applies to Robert De Niro just as much as Tiger Woods or The Rock. Doesn't it just alienate them further?
posted by Sys Rq at 12:00 PM on January 1, 2009


I dunno about you guys, but I was watching the Moral Orel marathon last night. Never had seen the last season before now. It was totally worth it, seeing all the episodes back-to-back like that. And for those like me who don't drink, it's sometimes a drag to go out and deal with a lot of drunk people ... this was much more fun.

I'm fascinated by heritage and culture but not really race. Some people identify with their history and some don't. Mostly Norwegian, myself, with other mixed northern European. But the idea of race is pretty lopsided and not at all scientific, although it sure does play into identity politics. If I ask, it's usually because someone is clearly not originally from around here, as in 1st gen. immigrants, so I'm curious how they got here and where they came from and what they think. Identity politics is pretty tedious, though.
posted by krinklyfig at 12:15 PM on January 1, 2009


I find it a bit troubling that the linked sites focus on "multi-racial" people. Because, like, everything they talk about applies to Robert De Niro just as much as Tiger Woods or The Rock.

...no, it really doesn't.
posted by sondrialiac at 12:44 PM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


I was accosted once by a black woman who was positive that I, as white person, wouldn't be able to raise my China-born daughter properly--I wouldn't know about her culture, her issues, etc. I am actually pretty sympathetic to that issue but after the woman ranted for a while, I simply said to her, "but her father is Chinese!" which I presume to be true but had the effect of shutting her up.
posted by etaoin at 12:57 PM on January 1, 2009


And I have no idea why I italicized that entry.
posted by etaoin at 12:59 PM on January 1, 2009


You know, that's really pretty great. I did my best to duck my "weird" background in my childhood, but I came to better grips with it in my twenties, and here I am in my thirties, a fair approximation of the Integrated Man, thanks in large part to figuring out a number of those "rules" for myself. They may be fairly obvious in retrospect, but if they help some kid get though the difficult bits earlier than I did, then so much the better.
posted by Amanojaku at 1:36 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


People ask me "what I am" no less than once a day, every single day.

There are two kinds of people who ask that question of me:
1) Other visible minorities.
2) White people.

Here is what I've noticed:

1) Other minorities are asking me what I am because they hope I am like them. They like the look of me and would love to feel a common bond with me, a stranger, hoping to make our city a little warmer. For instance, a cab driver might notice a little streak of South Asian in my features and when he asks what I am, he is hoping that my answer will corroborate his guess, so he can say "Me too! I knew you were! Which of your parents is Pakistani, what city is she from, my family is from there too!" I think his ideal scenario would be that we're long-lost cousins or something. And because I know he is asking only because he hopes to make a better friend of me, and hoping to discover how similar we are, I always smile and answer and have a pleasant conversation. That impulse- to reach out with a question and hope to draw us closer together with the answer- always warms my heart.

2) White people who ask what I am, on the other hand, did not look at me and assume that we are alike. They think I am an interesting-looking alien, and were I to say, "Oh, I am half [the exact same white nationality as you] and my family is from [the exact same white small town as yours], they would brush this off and still only be interested in my other half. The half that is different. The half that gave me this "interesting" look! I am well aware that they ask what I am because they are trying to make me different from them, and I resent it. They are trying to take away my suburban childhood of Fruit-Roll-Ups and He-Man and Night Court reruns, and place it in some exotic land full of spices and mangoes, and that annoys the shit out of me. So I make life difficult for them. I say I am from North America. And of course that answer doesn't satisfy them, so they keep asking me more pointed questions. I always hope that somewhere along the way they'll notice how lame they're being. But they never do.

So those people who look right past my flat, nasal, North American accent and my impeccable, obviously North American English to ask me "Where are you from?" and then "But were you born here?" and then "And where is your family from?"...?
Without exception, I immediately write those people off as boring.

Seriously, it's the dumbest, lamest conversation opener possible. It's as dumb as asking a pierced person, "Did that hurt?" It's as dumb as asking a tall person, "How tall are you? Wow, that's tall. Do you play basketball?" It's as dumb as asking "What does your name mean?" It's as dumb as asking someone with an accent if they're "from Australia?" It's as dumb as asking Tina Fey how she got that scar. People get questions about their most obvious trait a thousand times a day, and it's dumb dumb dumb! Give us a break and ask something open-ended that might actually lead to an interesting conversation.

"What are you?" I'm annoyed. It's dumb. It's lame. It's pedestrian. It indicates to me that the person asking lacks irony and doesn't want to find commonality with me, they want to "other" me, and since I am not "other", I can already predict that I am not going to find them interesting to talk to. The conversation is always the same, it is always boring, I don't care about the dumb compliments it ends in ("What a great mix!") and I hate watching those people start thinking of me as that interesting person who is "half-this and half-that", isn't that such an interesting mix! Interesting for them, maybe. I'd much rather talk about Night Court reruns.

So if you've ever looked at someone and wanted to ask them where they're from? DON'T. It's LAME.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:12 PM on January 1, 2009 [11 favorites]


Sys Rq: a lot of the What are you?-type questions that still persist more often arise out of genuine curiosity and interest than as part of some devious plot to peg racial identities on people

IME and that of mixed-race friends (I'm not mixed-race, but many strangers think I am), interlocutors combine "genuine curiosity and interest" and desire to "peg racial identities on people" rather frequently.

delmoi: We ought to be moving towards a society where race or ethnicity is ignored.

Problem with that is the many people whose well-meaning efforts to be "colourblind" goes along with 1. inability to recognize ongoing racism or Othering (unless it's of the screamingly obvious Big Flaming Cross or racial slur variety), whether expressed at systemic or personal levels, without qualifying it as "that's an exception", and 2. insistence on denying (in the face of being told multiple times by those who find themselves required to explain, with tedious regularity, the Otherness that people perceive in them) that such ongoing racism/Othering exists.

I know one well-meaning white conservative of the "I don't judge by creed, colour, religion, nationality" type who has asked me twice "What's wrong with being colourblind?" It shouldn't have surprised me when it came out that he thought Palin's use of "terrorists" in "pal'ing around with terrorists" meant strictly Ayers and Ayers's gf Bernardine Dohrn. The thought never came close to crossing his mind that "terrorists" in that context could have been meant to, or would have the effect of, jumbling together Ayers, bombs, Muslims, furriners, xenophobia, and fear of black men. His intent in ignoring ethnicity or race is understandable but that ginormous blind spot of his and people like him, that's a big problem in itself.

Looking at the document though, it seems like it was written for people who have to deal with other people constantly badgering them about their "identity", in other words, if others are concerned about racial identity, it would get pretty annoying.

Exactly.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:30 PM on January 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think a lot of the What are you?-type questions that still persist more often arise out of genuine curiosity and interest than as part of some devious plot to peg racial identities on people.

This is what I gathered when I got this question when I lived in Hawaii. People there seemed genuinely just interested in a friendly way, since there is so much mixing of races there. I did not take it as rude, and I didn't see anyone else take it as rude, either. For the record, I am a Euro-mutt (English German Scottish Dutch) but something about me looks slightly exotic to some people so I have gotten this question infrequently throughout my life.

For whatever it is worth, Big Government Databases are often very old and don't have a way to specify mixed-race people. I suppose they just pick one race they can discern (or the first race someone writes down) and put that in the database, or of course the catch-all "OTHER". I work with the Texas driver's license database, and we have a grand total of three characters to describe race, and I have never seen anyone labeled "OTH". I notice that Hispanic people are listed as "WHI", which surprised me at first, and I have no idea what went into that decision which was probably made many many decades ago. I am not sure but I imagine these designations are at least partly to aid police officers in identifying offenders when they start from someone's name alone, then proceed to get info from the driver's license database.
posted by marble at 2:30 PM on January 1, 2009


Wow. I'm a little bit shocked by all the people who resent being asked "what are you?" And terrified. Cause I ask that question all the time. I don't put it that way, but I will ask someone I've spent a little time with "so, what is your heritage?" And I do it not because I am trying to "make them different", but because I think ethnicities are interesting, they tell a story, about people.

I would love it if people had a motivation to ask me about my heritage...
posted by slickvaguely at 10:09 PM on January 1, 2009


slickvaguely: Please, don't. Anyone who looks ethnically ambiguous has probably heard that question enough times to be bored by it, if not outright offended. Asking "what are you?" of strangers implies that you have some sort of right to know their pedigree, which you clearly don't.

If you are white, please remember that for those who are not, racial/ethnic identity has historical and contemporary consequences which are different from yours. You may well be asking a person "what they are" out of innocent curiosity. Chances are, people have asked the very same question of them, their parents or grandparents with considerably more sinister intentions. Sorry, but you are not asking these questions in a social vacuum. If you're not white - well, as pseudostrabismus mentioned, your questions may carry less baggage.

If you honestly want to know about a person's background -- as they choose to define it -- try asking "So, have you always lived in [current location]? You might get a story about an upbringing much like your own, from someone who's not the same colour as you. And that may be exactly what you need to hear.
posted by [ixia] at 11:35 PM on January 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


In my experience, the interesting thing is that this question can and does come from complete strangers- who haven't even asked you your name, or the time of day first. That the most pressing need for them is to put some racial identification on you -before- interacting with you as a normal human being says something about their priorities, conscious or not. And the fact that since we're strangers on the street and unlikely to meet ever again, why should my ethnicity ever been an issue for these people to ask?

Imagine constantly being asked your mother's maiden name by strangers out of the blue. It's equally annoying and rude.
posted by yeloson at 8:39 AM on January 2, 2009 [5 favorites]


Nice links, btw. The Gary B. Nash quote from the third link does a good job of encapsulating "one-drop rule" rationales:

Raising the social status of those who labored at the bottom of society and who were defined as abysmally inferior was a matter of serious concern. It was resolved by insuring that the mulatto would not occupy a position midway between white and black. Any black blood classified a person as black; and to be black was to be a slave.... By prohibiting racial intermarriage, winking at interracial sex, and defining all mixed offspring as black, white society found the ideal answer to its labor needs, its extracurricular and inadmissible sexual desires, its compulsion to maintain its culture purebred, and the problem of maintaining, at least in theory, absolute social control.

More on the one-drop rule and US racial categories (via languagehat).
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:48 PM on January 2, 2009


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