Thursday, September 07, 2006

What Are You?

Yes, I'm just catching up on my email... Eric Stoller blogged recently about his girlfriend being confronted with the "what are you" question, and queried as to why many Whites feel the need to put people of colour into identifiable little boxes. To me, it's just a by-product of the Other-izing of minorities. For many Whites, who are, by definition, never face the racial degradation of Otherizing (or even conscious membership to a racial community) see nothing wrong with being curious about a "different person"'s background or appearance. For some, there is a fascination with being visibly different, for others, it is a belief that racism exists only as racial slurs and sodomizing broomsticks, and cannot be found within an "innocent question" posed by a curious and nonetheless open-minded White liberal. The truth is that people of colour loathe the "what are you" question because it's a reminder of the inequality we face inherent to our racial background. "What are you" suggests that we are not them, we are not normal, we are different. Though the White querient may believe the question is not harmful, they never consider how the very non sequitor nature of the question not only reminds us of our "Other"-izing but showcases the mindset of Whites who feel entitled to the knowledge. I'm frequently asked by Whites "what I am" -- and these questions are usually followed by comments about Chinese culture that supposedly connect them to my background. I haven't quite figured out how to respond to these kinds of questions, but I certainly know that I'm tired of being a "what" in the first place.


Anonymous Loren said...

Girl, I hear you here...Whenever somebody asks me "what I am," it always tends to be followed up with something about Filipino food. For example, "Oh, I love lumpia" or "my friend had me try pancit." To which I reply with a half-smile, "That's nice."

Truth be told, I don't necessarily loathe when people ask because, most of the time, they're just being curious and I can understand that. BUT, it does annoy the shit out of me.

9/08/2006 12:54:00 AM  
Blogger Elayne said...

Interesting, Jenn. I've never thought of the "what are you" question in that way, but as a general expression of curiosity in a background totally different from one's own. But then I ask the question of white folks as well, regarding their ancestry. As someone of Ashkenazic Jewish background, I'm fascinated by, for instance, my husband's response that his family and ancestors have lived in the same part of England for like a thousand years or so. It's just so far out of the realm of my experience as a child of immigrants...

9/08/2006 07:47:00 AM  
Blogger Thin Black Duke said...

I certainly know that I'm tired of being a "what" in the first place.

Exactly. I'm sick sick sick of it. I like the Angry Black Women's response. From now on, when I get the question, I'm going to say that I'm White and watch the person try to figure that one out.

A side note: I just noticed that you went to Cornell. What a coincidink. I'm working on my PhD there now. I'm hopping to finish soon because I'm ready to get the hell outta here.

9/08/2006 01:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Lisa said...

Right on, Jenn!

I don't like questions about my nationality/ethnicity/race from random stangers because I never really understood why people asked them. In college I decided I'd answer with just "American" as I was born here, but that never satisfies people.

Also, if they had me in the White box and learn my father is Latino or occasionally in the opposite situation - they had me in the Latino box and learn my mother is White, do they change how they think about me?

9/08/2006 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous hapa peminist said...

Mixed people have it the WORST!!!!!

First of all, we are not a "What"....but also we deal with certain monoracial asshats who say "Well, you're not *insert monoracial background here* enough!!!"

Seriously, ignorant people should STFU. And Latin@s should stop calling ALL Asians "chinitos/as" or "chinos/as".

9/08/2006 06:37:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Loren, I totally sympathize. For me, it's bastardized Chinese food like dim sum (but not REAL dim sum like Chicken's feet, fake dim sum like the stuff super-Americanized for the American palate) or their latest trip to see the Great Wall. Like I care -- I'm from CANADA!!

Elayne, I understand what you're saying, and with all due respect, I wonder if perhaps the identity of a minority, because we are NOT the mainstream, makes the questions different depending on who you ask. For a White person, they are not faced with the "What are you" question, day in and day out. And I've noticed a tendency towards Whites embracing an ethnic identity of their familial past and likening it to racial categorization -- again, with all due respect, if your grandmother is one-third Irish and your great-grandfather was one-sixteenth Scandinavian, it's not considered the same, in America, as being monoracially or even biracially of colour. For us, it's evident the minute we walk into the room: we are different and the question treats us as such. For Whites, being able to identify an ethnic heritage is sort of like trying to distinguish themselves from the White masses, seeking out an identity that has meaning largely only for themselves rather than to the rest of the world. When asking a White person "What are you", it's more an exercise in trying to differentiate Whites from other Whites rather than assimilating people of colour with other people of colour -- with the same question you are separating the Whites out of "the box" and putting people of colour into "the box".

thin black duke -- lol! I'd love to try the "I'm White" approach, but I think people would just think I'm insane. I think usually I go with "I'm Canadian" unless they push, but most people will push with the euphemistic "Where are your parents from?" Yeah, I graduated from Cornell, but I'm doing my PhD at Univ. of Arizona. What are you studying? How long have you been in Ithaca? After a few years, it is DEFINITELY time to get out of there -- by the time I moved away, I was so sick of dreary dark cloudy skies I couldn't see straight!

Lisa -- Thanks for the response! I'm totally sure people would treat you differently, the "What are you" question, as far as I can tell, is never satisfactory in and of itself -- it's always the first step in a complete shift in the way people want to treat you. As soon as they figure out "what you are", they stop thinking of you as "Jenn" and start thinking of you as "Chinese Jenn".

Hapa peminist -- lol, I don't know who has it worse, I don't know if it's fair to compare people's situations, especially not for me since I'm not hapa. But I can only imagine how reluctant people are to embrace the concept of biraciality or multiraciality (is that a word?). There's no real understanding of being multiracial -- even when people find out you're mixed, from what I understand, there's still an inability to accept the mixing part, you're just both Black AND White (or whatever the case may be). And I'm definitely tired of people trying to revoke other people's racial identities -- the word "sellout" should be stricken from some people's vocabulary.

We're called "chinitos/as and chinos/as"? That's... bizarre.... we're not all Chinese...

9/08/2006 09:03:00 PM  
Blogger Thivai Abhor said...

I would like to extend an invitation to you to join in on a collective blogging section of our upcoming winter issue of Reconstruction

Here is the original call:

Theories/Practices of Blogging

Our intent in this section of the issue will be to collect a wide range of bloggers and link up to their statements in regards to why they blog (something many of us are asked) and any statement they have on the theories/practices of blogging.

If you already have a post on this you can feel free to use it, or, if you are interested, you can submit a new one.

We will link to each statement from the issue at our site, with the intent of creating a hyperlinked list of statements on blogging that can serve as an introduction to blogging (or an expansion of knowledge for those already blogging).

If you are interested please contact me at mdbento @

9/08/2006 09:17:00 PM  
Blogger little light said...

Hells yeah, Hapa, I'm with you there.

Thanks for this, Jenn, You hit it out of the park again. It's a lot like "where are you really from?" You couldn't possibly be from here, you're not regular people. How did you get here, huh?

9/09/2006 12:57:00 AM  
Blogger Filby said...

Re: Elayne: Well, it seems to me that context and motive make a difference... asking a friend about their ethnic background for the sake of good-natured conversation about genealogy is one thing, whereas asking a stranger just because you can't figure out "what" they are is quite another and just rude.

9/09/2006 02:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Mac said...

I do the what are you thing, but I do it in my head. I would never ask anyone outright what is their ethnic make-up.

9/09/2006 07:54:00 AM  
Blogger purrplegrrl said...

I would never ask someone I didn't know, and when I do ask, I would never say "What are you?"
"What's your background?" seems better, it doesn't make the person a "what" or reduce them to just their ethnic background.
Or am I just rationalizing?

9/09/2006 06:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally I think that kind of question is only appropriate if an accent is present. More of a "where are you from?" than a "what are you?"

9/10/2006 07:26:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

The "So where are you really from?"/ "What are you?" question is never appropriate. Period.

I don't care who asks, I don't care who is being asked. Whatever one's background, linguistic difficulties, accents, fashion accessories, facial hair, hats, whatever - no one should have to put up with such an imposing and offensive interrogation in the name of personal curiosity. Those questions are never worthwhile, or useful, or respectful. They promote another form of Otherizing that no citizen of a modern democratic republic should tolerate.

However, the easiest and most logical way to dissuade people from asking these questions is for people of color to simply never answer them in any way, under any circumstances. That's it.

Those who answer the question, even with a quick, snarky answer, only add validity to these unneeded interrogations. If asked, say nothing. An example:

Racist Questioner: "Hey, I was wondering. What are you?"

You: "Goodbye."

Real easy. No reason to waste your time, or give in to someone who doesn't see you as human anyway.

9/11/2006 03:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Adam said...

I understand somewhat where you're coming from James, but aren't you ever curious where someone grew up? How their experience or their community is different from yours?

I just can't think that being curious about someone's background is inherently racist thinking.

9/11/2006 09:46:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

"I just can't think that being curious about someone's background is inherently racist thinking." - Adam

Sorry, Adam. To act on that curiosity remains inherently racist. No exceptions.

Bottom line: no person of color (or anyone for that matter) should feel obligated to satisfy someone else's improper curiosity. To ask questions like "Where are you from?" and "What are you?" the interrogator implies the following:

Person X is not like me, therefore Person X's basic humanity is in question until I learn more information. Still, no matter what I learn, Person X is not like me, because I felt it necessary to ask, and therefore will always remain less human than I.

These questions are not benign, and citizens in modern multicultural democratic republics should know better than to ask such racist questions in the first place.

9/11/2006 11:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This past summer I was in Guatemala and never once did I walk down a street without being called China or Chinita.

But that didn't bother me as much as this conversation I had with another extranjero(from the states, like me, but White, unlike me).

Him: So where are you from?
Me: The states. That's why my English is the same as yours.
Him: Oh, no no! I mean where are you from!
Me: I've already answered that. I live in California.
Him: (seemingly frustrated because I'm "misunderstanding" him) No, I mean, like for example, my wife (points to his wife across the room for emphasis) is Japanese. I'm wondering which brand of Asian that you...
Me: Bought? Which Asian I decided to pick up at the mall?
Him: (flustered) Hehe..... No, I know what I mean...
Me: (tired of engaging but not smart enough to walk away) I'm Filipina.
Him: Oh I never would've guessed that!
Me: (my face is not particularly ambiguous, most people immediately can tell or accept that I'm filipina, so this conversation was getting weird enough for me that the masochistic part of me couldn't leave) What would you have guessed?
Him: Like Chinese or something.
Me: I've never heard that before.
Him: Well I guess I'm ignorant then.

I wish I said something clever about that but I just looked at him and finally walked away. In my head I thanked him for finally getting my point.

Anyway while reading this post, I was slightly surprised because I never associated the "what are you" question with White people. I feel like all of us have been trained to think in racialized terms, so many of us, including people of color, spend time trying to figure out where one person fits into the schemas we already have in our minds. I think that the question from White people is especially dangerous because there's no way of making it clear to White people that the experience is different when a white person asks me and a POC asks me. It's much like all forms of racism, White people's actions and thoughts are coupled with their privilege.

As kind of an afterthough, in my experience, the 'what are you' question has been most associated with exoticizing my "Asian-ness" (that specific, and for me most aggravating, form of Othering). It's the person saying, "What are you?" and then following it with the list of cheezy memorized words that mean "I love you" or "beautiful," like I enjoy being fetishized.

9/11/2006 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger little light said...

I'd been working on some patterns and pieces for a while, and finally got kickstarted to lay it all down and post the damn thing. I think you gave me another good shove, Jenn, so thanks.

I went some different places, but I think it's still germane, you know? Anyway, I'd love to know what you think about it, and I don't know if you drop by with any regularity.

9/12/2006 01:16:00 AM  
Anonymous Adam said...

James -

I'm just going to have to respectfully disagree with you on this topic.

How is asking where someone grew up, be it in the country that the two individuals are talking in or someonewhere else, assuming a stance that the askee is "less human"? I am not only interested in differences, but also in similarities of life experiences.

Maybe I'm having trouble accepting the idea since it would mean that I've been racist many more times than I'm comfortable with.

9/12/2006 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

Adam, I don't know if it would mean that you've promoted prejudice towards anyone. I do know that when people of color ask Jenn where she's from, it's usually because they are trying to place her ancestral background. They are not asking a benign question; rather, they have already racialized her and are searching for specifics - they have classified difference and are probing for information to justify their racist assumption.

At any rate, because they have already racialized her she is not human in their perspective the way they would consider themselves or someone of their race human. If they saw Jenn through a general humanity lens, they really wouldn't need to ask where her ancestors came from. It wouldn't matter, like eye color or hair length.

Further, no one ever asks me, a Black man, such a racist question. Why? Because in America my melanin preaches my Otherness to all, regardless who cares to listen, and people who'd ask such racist questions assume in their racism that they already know where I'm from anyway. They may assume I'm a gangbanger, a drug addict, or a gangster depending on my choice of jeans and t-shirt vs. three piece suit and the last Tupac Shakur film they've seen on TBS, but they won't ask where I'm from. Even if they believe I'm just out on parole. (Remember, in their minds, I'm just as likely to shank them as give them directions to the local mall.)

So I find all these questions repugnant. Intention is irrelevant: the question itself erects barriers between people, invades one person's privacy, and promotes arrogance and superiority as friendly banter. Adam, the question is as repugnant as it is racist.

9/12/2006 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Adam said...

James -

Wow, I have to digest your words for a while before I reply, though I'd rather do so outside the realm of comments on Jenn's blog.

As always, thank you for your thoughts.

9/12/2006 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Dei Wong said...

I have an idea where Jenn and James are coming from. I also believe that it is something that isn't going away anytime soon. One must remember that the USA is still 65%-70% Caucasian and just like anywhere else a person of the majority may want to ask these questions. It is just common for some people to question what is not like them. This is a trait every nation on this planet shares. Though America has a more accepting nature on the surface it is almost the same as anywhere else.

The only way for this to stop is if their is a decline in ignorant people. Thats a bit much to ask for or that people would just start
viewing other people as just people.

But to be honest if everyone took their skin off. If everyone looked the same. Someone would still find a reason to ask a similiar question.

9/12/2006 01:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Mac said...

I understand where they're coming from, but I don't think everyone's motives or intentions are as devious as its being made out to be.

9/12/2006 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

Mac, it doesn't matter what people's motives or intentions are in asking the foul "What are you? / "Where are you from?" questions. Intention is irrelevant. The problem remains the Otherizing of people of color, the resultant ostracism American non-whites suffer because their fellow citizens refuse to perceive them as fellow countrymen or fellow humans.

Dei Wong, I don't believe that those questions emerge from innate human curiosity. I think racism is learned. I agree though, that these questions will continue to pester American racial minorities well into the future. Unless we stop answering these useless questions en masse, unless we vocalize and express our distaste with the racism inherent in these questions the second they are asked, they will persist.

Some might find that cynical but I'm used to minorities willingly aiding their own degradation.

9/12/2006 02:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Kyla said...

In this part of California, if you're even vaguely brown, people don't bother asking what you are, they assume you're Mexican if they're white, or some sort of Latino if they aren't.

Being part Filipina, my skin at pasty winter white is about the same color as many white people's summer tans.

Whenever I work at the library, I almost always get at least one person per shift, usually more, who will come up to me and rattle off rapid Spanish. I don't mind that; once I explain that I only know broken high school Spanish, people slow down or we speak Spanglish. The only time it really throws me is when the occasional white person will greet or thank me in Spanish. Though it cracks my Latina co-worker up.

9/13/2006 01:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think the fact that in places like Los Angeles, hispanics aren't usually asked that question by whites really reinforce the notion that only certain kinds of race gets the question--the "safe" ethnicities. Asians are especially subject to this because we are considered benign. Also, whites exoticize/fetishize Asians more than they do, say, Guatemalans. It's a form of cultural imperialism--"Asianness" to many whites make for a nice accessory to their otherwise vanilla culture.

It's a different thing when other POC ask the question, although they may be coming from the same space of cultural ignorance. Just yesterday a latin parking attendant asked me where I was from, who didn't know that Hawaii is part of the US.

9/13/2006 11:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Jay said...

adam, I think James is right in this instance. "Where are you from" is a question that implicitly otherises the person you ask the question of. There's no avoiding this. If people volunteer the information, that's one thing, but a different thing entirely to demand it of them (which is what a lot of these arguments boil down to).

For the people who talk about assuming brown people = Latino in the southern U.S., it's the same for Asians in Canada, they assume you're Chinese if you look East Asian, even if you're not.

As far as the anonymous's comment, people think Hawaii is full of white people, because most of what they see from Hawaii is on TV.

9/13/2006 04:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "what are you" question is pretty intrusive and incredibly insulting, especially when the person follows it up with a "compliment," such as "Oh, your English is so good." They often have this look on their faces as if they expect us to be flattered by that ridiculous comment. Another irritating question is when they ask, "How long have you been here?" Why do they feel compelled to ask this question to somebody who just spoke to them in unaccented English?

9/16/2006 02:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This may also be considered "othering" but some white people may see foriegn students as often particularly enterprising and bright (more so than the run of American-born college students). There is that temptation to ask your foriegn-born student in the flat next door his/her field of study and original hometown/country. (and then sometime look up the town on a map). Some of us US-born are conscious of being a bit provincial and of being doltishly monolingual (school language classes don't mean much if you don't use it in real life).

So the stupid question may sometimes be flattering as well as annoying.

In the Midwest, I don't expect anyone to find average-looking Midwestern white me interesting enough to ask me questions.


9/16/2006 03:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and some of those foriegn students at risk of getting asked annoying questions are white Europeans indistinguishable in appearance from average US whites. You hear an accent, you wonder why they are in a backwater area in the US.


9/16/2006 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger little light said...

I'm sorry to say this, NancyP, but flattering intention has very little to do with it.

Your comment was telling; you spoke of foreign students. Neither Jenn nor I are foreigners to North America, but both of us have been automatically treated as though we were because we are not "indistinguishable from average US whites." This isn't about asking your neighbor in a school who you know factually is from abroad which abroad they're from or what they study.

To have been treated as an immigrant in my hometown; to have people be surprised or complimentary about my skill at English, my first language; to have a conversation about the automatic-foreigner treatment of Asian Americans turn to one that doesn't distinguish us from the foreign-born...well, I recognize the goodness of your intentions, along with those of many others, but it's astonishingly insulting.

In my hometown my father was always thought-well-of for adopting those sweet Guatemalan-or-Arab-or-whatever kids. People couldn't conceive of my being my own father's biological child because of my mixed-race appearance. My American-born-and-raised mother was often treated as "the help." My younger brother had kids shout racial slurs at him at school, insinuating that he should "go home," when he had never known another home.

We are not foreign students. I have no accent, except a slight North-Midwestern nasalness when I've had a drink or two. When someone assumes I couldn't be from where I'm from because how I look is an abnormality, I don't really care whether or not it makes them think I'm enterprising or hardworking or more interesting than they are. It's telling me I'm Other, and that I Don't Belong. How could that be a pleasant sensation, coming in subtly or blatantly, day after day after day?

9/16/2006 10:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wasn't talking about Jenn or Little Light. I was talking about people with obvious English as second language accents, and that includes Ukrainians, Russians, Bosnians, Italians, French, and other people generally considered "white" . Foriegn born students abound in the sciences and medical fields - the majority around here are of Chinese, Japanese, Pakistani, Indian origins.I notice a fair amount of grumbling among white US-born folk about accents of TAs etc - I don't see it as unreasonable to engage in small chat while waiting for an elevator, etc. Unnecessary in places where everyone is from somewhere else (NYC), perhaps welcome in cow country where people aren't used to putting out effort at understanding accents.

The correct question in my town for US-born Asians, Hispanics, etc (identified by lack of ESL accent) is "Where did you go to high school?". Potentially followed by "Do you know...(someone from that high school)". The assumption I make is that the second or more generation is 100% American pop culture oriented and differs primarily by having had to sit through some "don't forget our ancient culture" classes mandated by parents, when they would rather have been doing something else. I don't ask the "what ethnicity" question of non-accented people, frankly, because there's nothing novel about them, and they aren't newbies.


9/18/2006 06:33:00 PM  

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