“What Are You?”
The question might carry a waft of curiosity or animosity. It’s an amalgamation of categorizing someone in a certain standard or reactions drawn from the striking appearance that someone evokes. It’s both innocent and truculent. It burrows its purpose underground but sneaks in as a dig into one’s family history and background, either feigning disinterest in the upbringing or engaging in a tirade demanding one’s origin. The catastrophe that the question posits remains a mystery to be solved.
Biracial or multi-racial people owe their identity to a composite of ethnic backgrounds and races. Their parents might have either produced the genesis of mixed race or descended from an assortment of ethnicities themselves. While they consider their offspring to be neither “Black” nor “white”, society fails to share the same view as it continues to distinguish mixed-race identity as something unusual or different.
America’s racial classification finds itself in a surprising spectrum, going back to the one-drop rule. This coined classification meant that a person with a single ancestor of Black ancestry was immediately considered Black by default. This “rule” has been applied to only Americans who are Black or mixed with Black or African ancestry. It is worth mentioning that this rule was concocted by white men to solely gatekeep whiteness.
America’s gatekeeping of white identity was created through the “hypodescent rule”, which F. James Davis, the author of Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition defines it as “racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group.” Centuries of this societal conditioning have led to biracial and multi-racial people often aligning themselves with their non-white racial makeup. If you visually read as Black, then you were deemed Black. If you felt disconnected from your Chinese heritage and had more Eurocentric features, then you were labeled “white”.
White people who classify mixed-race or multi-racial people as only Black, “non-white”, or “other” demonstrate high levels of anti-egalitarianism. These “elitists” or racists firmly believe that they have been robbed of their dominant position in the social construct of white supremacy and Eurocentric hierarchy. If a mixed-race person defies the status quo or naturally bests a white person, then these particular men and women engage in vulgar behavior to put said mixed-race high achievers in their place as “they” never deserved such an advancement in the first place. Sound familiar?
When it comes to biracial and multi-racial identity, there are layers of narratives that may shake one’s attitude about the outer self. On one side, mixed people face discrimination which hinders their self-growth as society continues to compartmentalize their identity into a single box. Then you have those who are mixed and are comfy in the skin that they are in despite constant presumptions. In these cases, there are many Gen Z who choose to defy these antiquated notions.
“Sophie”, seventeen, isn’t able to identify herself. Her first-hand experience with how the world treats her at first glance has caused Sophie enough doubt on whether she holds the upper hand in labeling herself anything. “The question that I mostly receive is ‘what are you?’ which is common. I think a lot of multi-racial people get this question frequently so I’m no different from them. What I think sets my experience apart from theirs is when people point out that I’m adopted, or my mother isn’t my biological parent. Unfortunately, these have become a more common reaction rather than the previous question,” she says.
Then there’s Kiara Walli, sixteen, who embraces her multi-racial identity. Despite her confidence, Kiara knows exactly how instructive people can get when it comes to her identity. “I think people ask more about how my cultural background came to be rather than what it is. They are more curious about the roots rather than what they see. I am three-quarters Indian and a quarter Mexican, but I do not look like any of those races, so it piques the interest of those who ask me. The second question in line would be learning the ‘type’ of Indian or Mexican that I am. This narrowed-down question maybe looks into whether or not I practice the culture I belong in.”
Another young woman, Claire Swift, provokes surprise the first time strangers see her. She is half Korean and white, but she acknowledges that her features lean more towards her Asian side. “When I was in elementary school, a girl in my class met my dad, who is white, for the first time. Upon seeing him, she assumed that I was adopted. I was taken aback by it, not because I was offended, but because no one had asked me this before. I remember brushing it off, laughing, then explaining my background.”
The set of prepared explanations biracial people have in their pockets signals the frequency of questions thrown at them about their ethnic backgrounds. While the sliver of curiosity may appear harmless, it has spurred a journey that many mixed or multi-racial people found themselves embarking on in search of who they are.
Since Claire was young, she had already been accustomed to her Korean background and has always relied on the strength of this identity to inform her life. Her Korean grandparents, who would look after her while her parents worked, became her gateway to Korean culture. Piece by piece, she picked up on Korean foods, traditions, and lifestyles. Claire admits that she still has yet to harness full fluency in the Korean language. She has recently learned that her father’s roots stem from German and English profiles.
The acceptance of one’s identity may be driven by first-hand experience in diving deep into one’s own curiosity about their background, the persistence of questions hurled their way, or a right-off-the-bat discovery once their racial identity has been unraveled. Whatever the scenario, biracial and mixed-race people brace themselves for a saga of hoping to enlighten others about race and identity.
“I wish people would understand that I do not fall into a single category,” says Sophie. She is often identified as either white or Japanese, but never both. It has also become a dagger stabbed in her heart to hear close relatives and even strangers identify her as “not really Asian.” Disparaging phrases like that only invalidate the years of work people like Sophie have put into feeling whole in their skin. The measure of one’s true identity does not solely focus on the appearance one possesses. Who are we to question the identity biracial and multi-racial people want to belong in? Some may believe it is outside the westernized construct of race, but it is also beyond the boundaries of respect to imposing what we think of them as the truth.
“My racial identity is nobody’s business, but my own and the people I choose to share it with. Nobody owns a right to my identity, but myself,” Sophie adds. She observes the transition in the underlying implication of questions thrown at her by people she just met. When she is asked “do you find conflict in your identities?” it puts her off to realize how acquaintances think they are entitled enough to question her viewpoints about who she is.
What backs up such entitlement hinges back to how easily societies have generalized the qualities of others. “This creates misconceptions about that group and can cause racism,” says Kiara. “I wish people would understand that culture has different customs and practices which make us different. Such differences do not give others the tools to treat us differently. That is how inequalities foster in societies, and it never brings harmony. What we should start looking at is how we can appreciate the ethnicity we are a part of and those that are around us.”
Fighting off the misconceptions about race and identity requires strength to rebel against those who have grounded their bias over people who are biracial or mixed-race. Presumptions and other forms of verbal abuse have indeed played a significant role in the increasing mental wellness problems that biracial teenagers and younger adults face. These young people are met with unique prejudice and discrimination that may formulate into depression, imposter syndrome, and social anxiety.
Sophie recalls an experience with racial discrimination. “Once, a girl in my class told me, ‘Thank God, you are only half disgusting’ upon realizing I was half-Japanese. Then, I frequently participated in debates and often read critical racial arguments about my identity, and once an opponent told me ‘I don’t see you as a human anymore,’ due to my background,” she reveals. As she bore with the complicated emotions driven by external threats to her identity, Sophie, throughout her childhood, believed she was ugly and less than human since she was half-Japanese and not “fully” American. “I remember wishing for blonde hair and blue eyes as I would blow the seeds off a dandelion,” she admits.
While the struggles multi-racial people face against the attitudes of the majority seem to stomp on their confidence to secure their identities, such oppositions have given them the fortitude to stand their ground to defy biases. “Since I do not look like my ethnicity, it has caused some conflicts that I needed to conquer. Then again, it has allowed me to speak out when I see transgressions against my fellow Muslims, Indians, or mixed-race communities,” says Kiara.
The muddled question “What are you?” continues to traverse the foundation of biracial identity. It demands an answer that seems impossible to provide. It digs for a “truth” that is already obvious. The complexity behind this very question is weighed down by the longstanding tensions surrounding western society’s relationship with race that has influenced our own polarizing and ignorant opinions.
Back in 2015, the Pew Research Center assembled ten mixed-race Americans to discuss their lived experiences and to share their thoughts on those three daunting words. “What are you?” says Grace, born with a Hispanic and white background, a participant in the video project. “It is often phrased like this, which is ridiculous. It’s not easy to answer that when someone asks such a general question, but we all know that when someone asks, ‘what are you?’, they want to know a racial background.”
A tinge of unknowingness will always incite a bit of curiosity, but there is a paper-thin line between inoffensive interest and scrutiny. There is no justification for how biracial and multi-racial people are made to feel inadequate. While some mixed-race people seem to crumble under the pressure of choosing just one part of themselves, there lies a new generation of young people who do not see themselves as just white or Black or “Asian” or “Latino” but as a shared collective of their identities.
If onlookers cannot seem to stop nudging biracial people about their diversity by asking “what are you?”, then perhaps it is time they start asking themselves the same question.