"What Are You?"
by Geo Sique
“Oh, I get it now.”
That’s what I was told by my boyfriend’s coworker when we walked by the front desk where he works. Confused, I didn’t know what to say, but I soon realized she wasn’t looking for a reply. She went on.
“I heard you were Mexican, but you looked Indian from far away. I couldn’t tell what you were, but I see it now.”
She then walked away, without waiting for a reply. I called out the only thing that came to mind, something like, “Yeah, I get that a lot,” and didn’t even receive a look back in reply.
I do get that a lot. It doesn’t happen every day, but it’s happened enough that it’s not surprising when it happens. However, it never gets less insulting.
In this case, I knew this coworker to have no filter. I had heard she was nice, hilarious, and often inappropriate. This didn’t make the bad taste in my mouth any more pleasant.
I have had plenty of people inspect me with the question, “what are you?” It’s a simple question; I know what they are asking. “What race are you?” is what they really mean, but this simple question has no simple answer.
A Loaded Question
Our society is obsessed with race, and it is no surprise with our oppressive, racist history. While I was taught in elementary school that discoverers and scientists found the new world, I learned in college that these historic figures were not heroes but colonizers. Their effects on modern society are largely prevalent, even if not everyone can recognize it.
Although slavery has been abolished for more than a couple centuries now and discrimination is technically illegal, racism runs rampant in our everyday lives. All the vestiges of the savage past result from those who conquered occupied territory and tried to conform the lives of already-built civilizations. They are vestiges of those who oppressed thousands for the power and control, they are phenomenons such as whitewashing, xenophobia, and people generally being afraid of the unfamiliar.
I know this particular conversation in the lobby was spoken with no malintent. I expect some people will read this story and think I am being dramatic, that I shouldn’t take things personally, that it was just a comment. However, I don’t believe that any phrase, whether asked as a question, muttered as a comment, or pointed out as a declaration is “harmless.”
Words are powerful beyond what we realize. The words we use can either accurately portray what we are thinking or, if they do not align with the values of the person speaking, reflect some idea of society. In this case, asking a stranger what race they are with no meaningful interaction signifies that race is what defines them as a person. Something many people of color experience constantly.
Talking About Culture
My family is from Mexico. I love talking about my culture. From the food we eat, to our traditions, to the most beautiful places I have visited in Mexico. I can talk with you for hours about tacos al pastor, my favorite tacos that I had for the first time in Guadalajara. I can tell you all the reasons why Puerto Vallarta is my favorite beach I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to a more than a few. I can tell you about the day trips my family has taken across the border since it is less than a 20-minute drive from my grandma’s house.
I love talking about my culture, but it should never be the first thing I am asked. My culture is a big part of who I am, but it is not the most important part. I get tired of being looked at like someone from a certain race and not as a person. When people ask me what race I am, they do not want to get to know my culture, they want to put me into a box.
Talking about culture is fun and interesting, but it is also vital for a functioning society. While you shouldn’t define people by their race, you shouldn’t ignore their culture either. This can lead to many problems. For example, in the medical world, embracing culture has been proven to lead to better care of patients. According to a report by Duquesne University, cultural competence can reduce medical errors, number of treatments necessary, and legal fees, while at the same time creating community inclusion, and increasing trust between patients and doctors, among other benefits.
Likewise, it is important to recognize cultural incompetence, such as racial discrimination in the workplace. Being aware and accepting of others’ cultures can make a huge difference in reducing discrimination and oppression and can help us have pleasant conversations about culture. Additionally, the report by Duquesne University also states that the United States is more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before, and that by the year 2055, there will be no racial or ethnic majority. Hopefully, this will lead to a more tolerant atmosphere in the country.
Finding an Answer
I know when I get asked this question, the answer the person is looking for is that I am Mexican, but that is not the phrase that immediately comes to my head. Instead, this question brings a 100 more questions to my mind.
Instead of replying with the answer they are looking for, I want to ask them what they mean by “what are you?” I am not a “what,” I am a “who.” I want to throw the question back at them and ask what they are. Perhaps if they experienced the absurdity of the question, they would no longer ask it. I want to answer aggressively and ask them exactly what they mean by the question, I want to ask them why they want to know. I want to calmly inform them that the question they have asked is rude, that it shouldn’t matter.
All these answers seem to work for me, but actually saying them is not so easy. If my answer is too aggressive, the other person can get defensive and not listen to what I say. My goal with my answer is to get the other person to think, this is not something that is easily done with a short reply.
I read a story about a woman who was constantly asked this question, but her experience was unique in that she didn’t know her answer. Her mother was adopted and she didn’t know her father, so she couldn’t even answer the question for herself. Even after a genealogical investigation, a large percentage of her own DNA showed up as unknown. In the end, she decided to answer the question with her name. Her answer became, “I am Simone.”
I like the simplicity of this answer. I am me, a whole made up of different parts. Sure, part of this whole is comprised by my culture, and while I treasure that part dearly, it is not my one defining characteristic. I hope that next time I am faced with this question, I can have a better answer. More than that, I hope next time I can have a meaningful conversation in which someone gets to know me and I get to know them.