“What are you?”

 

Glenn & his family (© All Rights Reserved.)

 

“What are you?”

So many of us have had to deal with this question; sometimes cloaked as “Where are you from?”  Both questions can feel like a micro agression. However, their motive may simply be selfish curiosity, but often it’s a dubious attempt to categorize us into a “race” or ethnicity box.

The way I answer depends on the intention I perceive from the interrogator. The best universal answer is; “I’ll tell you — if you first tell me what you are / where you’re from.”

 

If you feel the interrogator has dubious intent, have a little fun and create a teaching moment. Here’s an interesting example:

Q. Where are you from?
A1. <city of residence>
Q. No, I mean originally.
A. <city of birth>
Q. No, I mean where are your parents from?
A. Oh, Do you mean “What’s my ethnic heritage?”

OR

Q. What are you?
A. How do you mean?
Q. What “race” are you?
A. I’m from the human race. Do you mean “What’s my ethnic heritage?”

 

These interrogating questions have always frustrated me and caught me off guard. It’s rare that I respond in a friendly and helpful way. It’s something I hope to do better on in the future though.

If you’d like to learn more about what we are, I’ve written a post called “What Makes Us Who We Are” with more details on my blog, Community Village.

 

Comments

  1. Vanessa of De Su Mam says

    Oh Glenn, I have battled with this my entire life. Now I'm a parent to a bicultural/mixed child (okay seriously, what word do I use anyway?!) and I am still trying to find a voice at which to enter the conversation. I have decided that I better figure this out before society tries to tell my kid otherwise. Although I don't take offense to questions of my heritage, I think these ideas for creating a "teaching moment" are really fun!

  2. Anonymous says

    Great post, Glenn!  I get that question a lot. (I'm a "gringa" living in Mexico.)  And not just about me.  I get asked about my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. :P

  3. says

    I especially love your "human race" response! It is one that my husband uses on every official form for our children–at school, at the doctor's office, everywhere. He also checks every box listed when a forms ask for ethnicity information. I don't think he's as upbeat as you when the recipients of the forms ask him for clarification, though :)  I will suggest your "teachable moments" strategy to him and hope that he "catches more flies with honey" from now on…LOL.

  4. says

    You don't know how many times have I played scenario's out in my head of how to respond when people ask about my daughter.  I need witty responses to make it more awkward on their part and not mine!  

  5. says

    Hello Glenn,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I haven't had the need to ask myself racial/ethnic-related questions until I got to the U.S., in 2004. I lived in the West U.S. since then and, for the past year I've been living in FL. I've noticed that these types of questions are more common here; in the other side of the country people just assumed I was from Mexico because I spoke Spanish (by the way, I'm from Uruguay). The other main difference I've noticed upon relocating to this side of the country is that in FL, officially, no difference is made between race and ethnic group, while in the West you can be a "white Hispanic/Latino"; here you are either/or. I supposed this shows you the evolution and influence of our culture in the two parts of the country.

    Since 2004, I've had so many negative experiences in terms of heritage that, to tell you the truth, I used to deny the fact that Uruguayans (although there are not as many of us as others Latin Americans!) are also part of the Hispanic/Latino community in the U.S. I now understand it, and I recently came to terms with this fact, which was encouraged by my active participation in online communities (such as this one).

  6. says

    I used to have patience with this question. No more. Now I ask for clarification on-the-spot: "What do you mean?" I know what they mean, I just want them to think about "exactly" what they're asking. I've asked this question of people I hear speaking Spanish, usually because I pick-up on an accent I don't recognize, but I will always preface it with something about the language, otherwise, the question feels and sounds insulting.