“What ARE you?” Human. Next question?

Kristin Booker would like everyone to stop asking her where her ancestors came from. It gets old when you get the same question every day:

“Where are you from?”

“Charleston, West Virginia.”

“No, I mean where are you FROM? What’s your racial background?”

“I’m black.”

[Insert pause/shock/dismay/disbelief.]

“No, I mean which one of your parents is white/Asian/other? Because you can’t be ALL black.”

This is where the compulsive pedant in me rears its head and says something about how probably a sizable majority of African-Americans have some proportion of European ancestry, so “you can’t be ALL black” is a brainless thing to say. There’s a difference between genetics and cultural identification, and when Booker answers with, “I’m black,” she’s making a cultural identification based on the fact that all of her parents and grandparents make the same identification. I could go on talking about the one-drop rule and what I like to call the “walking down the street test,” which is an important factor in race relations. (For example: when people see me walking down the street, they see a white person without ambiguity. This is simple enough for someone who looks like me, but a person of multiracial heritage could get a more varied reaction, which is where the annoying conversation comes in.)

Anyway. The comments are peppered with “What’s your problem?” reactions; apparently some people don’t like being told they shouldn’t interrogate strangers or near-strangers about their ethnic heritage. I will get the obvious part out of the way first: if the subject comes up, and the person you’re asking tells you her racial identification, you do not EVER contradict her answer. “But—” No. When the subject is HER family background, she knows much more than you do, unless you are a geneticist she hired to explore exactly that question, which you are not. If she tells you she’s black, that should be sufficient. If she says both her parents are black, you take her word for it.

Then there’s context. The exchange that Booker has summarized for us is clearly taking place with someone who doesn’t know her very well. It’s one thing if the subject comes up between people who are well-acquainted, who do not presume to contradict one another’s answers, and are just curious because genetics is an interesting topic among Americans. It’s easiest to have this conversation between people on a roughly equal level of privilege. I remember having the ethnic heritage conversation with a handful of my classmates in elementary school. It’s not difficult for a bunch of white kids to talk about which countries in Europe and which Native American tribes their ancestors came from. (Fun factoid for my readers in other countries: white Americans like to talk about having Native ancestors, but we generally know nothing or next to nothing about who our Native ancestors actually were. This may be different for parts of the country with larger Native populations, but here in the metropolitan mid-Atlantic, we are hilariously out of touch with the First Nations in our family trees. We are, culturally, just as white as we appear.) Nobody was unilaterally forced into the conversation, no one was subjected to more scrutiny than others, and we didn’t treat each other any differently after we found out who was more English, more Irish or more German. The people asking Kristin Booker “where are you FROM?” are not operating in that context.

More important than the interpersonal context is the cultural context. No matter how strongly you feel that your “Where are you from?” question is borne strictly of innocent curiosity, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate that curiosity from the structural racism in our society. When you approach a stranger or near-stranger and demand to know her ethnic background, you are effectively asking her how you should treat her going forward. Even if you’re the most accepting, genuinely curious person in the world, and you’re totally going to treat that near-stranger the same way no matter how she answers your totally-innocent question, she doesn’t know that. She has to live in a society which continues to be shaped by racism, and she’s going to view your question through the lens of her previous experiences, which have taught her that the category which you are allowed to apply to her is going to inform the way you behave towards her in the future. See here for some examples of where this can go. This interaction does not take place in a vacuum, so if the near-stranger of ambiguous appearance tells you she’s not interested in having that conversation, you drop the subject.

Because this is my blog and I’ll do what I want, and because I haven’t yet bored you all into a collective coma by complaining about my experiences as an American living in Eastern Europe, I’ll give you all a personal anecdote from my Peace Corps experience: I went into a little grocery store one day to grab some juice and a snack. This was just a few weeks before the end of my assignment, and I couldn’t have passed for Albanian if I’d tried. I’d been living in the country for over two years, and I was well aware of how foreigners were treated differently. So, this one afternoon I went into the little grocery store, and the lady behind the counter was one I hadn’t seen before. I picked out my juice and junk food, brought it to the counter for checkout, and what was the very first thing she said to me?

“Are you English or Italian?”

No “Hello,” no “How are you?” and no “That’ll be 250 lekë, please.” Nope, first thing she wants to know is whether I’m English or Italian.

I gave her a look that was supposed to tell her the question was impertinent, but which she took to mean I didn’t understand her language very well, so she repeated the question: “Are you English or Italian?”

If she’d greeted me that way near the beginning of my assignment, I might have cheerfully told her that I was American, but by that point I was not so cheerful, so I answered, “Neither one nor the other,” paid for my shit, and walked out. Fortunately there were other, better grocery stores nearer to my house, so for the short time remaining in my assignment, I didn’t have any reason to enter that store again.

The reason why her greeting was offensive was not simply because she thought she could narrow my ethnicity down to just two possibilities. (I had a lot of Albanians assume I was English, but rarely did anyone look at me and say “Italian.”) It was offensive because before she could even ring up my purchase, she wanted to know how I should be pigeonholed, and I knew from experience that the box in which they keep people who look like me is not a very comfortable place to live. (It would have been considerably more uncomfortable if I’d been East Asian, South Asian or black, but as a blue-eyed Whitey McWhiterson, it was bad enough.)

Even if your intentions are perfectly innocent, the question of “Where are you FROM?” is not an innocent one. If you are going to treat someone the same way no matter how she answers the question, then you should be able to get to know her without first knowing which countries are represented in her family tree. If she wants you to know where her ancestors came from, she will tell you on her own time.


8 thoughts on ““What ARE you?” Human. Next question?

  1. THANK YOU!! You’ve described my life. I actually started writing a response, but it’s so long I am posting it on my page.

  2. Reblogged this on Black Hippie Chick's Take On Books & The World and commented:
    After reading this post, I thought I’d share a few of my experiences with the author. However, once it became obvious I was writing a novel, I decided I should probably post it on my blog.
    THANK YOU!!!! Omg, you don’t know how many times I’ve been asked this question. I also get, oh is that a weave? Ummm, no! I’ve got freaking dreadlocks. I’ve always been in an odd position, I was the first black and/or African American to go to one of my schools. I got into a fight with a boy on my first day, luckily I kicked his ass, so nobody else tried to mess with me.
    Over the years, I’ve had people ask to feel my hair, where I bought my eyes from (I have light honey brown eyes), how come I don’t talk like a black person, and what did your parents think when you brought home a white guy. The above experiences occurred with members of my peer group, those who were both African American and/or black (believe it or not, there is a difference between the terms). You see, I was too white for the black people and too black for the white people. Of course, not everyone acted like a dumb ass, but there were more than I needed to know.
    I have ALWAYS been somewhat of a smart ass, so when the person asked me why I didn’t talk like a black person I said: OMG!! The doctors are right, I really am white. I just put on a fresh coat of black paint last night, has it worn off? To the black guy who ask where I bought my eyes, I replied: I went to Mother’s Womb, they feed you there and everything. I’ve given several answers to the what did my parents think about me dating a white guy question. I’ve said, as long as the man/woman treated me well, they didn’t care. I’ve said, they didn’t care. Just like they didn’t care when I dated the guy who immigrated from Taiwan, both of the African princes ( I know this sounds incredibly hoke, like some Nigerian email scam but it’s true), they guy who was Hispanic, or any of the white guys.
    The more offensive experiences, were all at the hands of educators. My first grade teacher called me a Nigger everyday, until my mom’s boss picked me up from school and realized that something was rotten in Denmark. One of my middle school teacher asked me in front of the class, what did I want to be called. He then went on to list a number of offensive examples, to which I responded that my name would be just fine. In college, I had several racist professors. One of them asked me to tell my Sociology class what it was like to go to the “black church”, and to grow up in a household of multiple single mothers. He was really pissed when I said I never went to the “black church”, and that my parents were still married, and I’d lived where all the rich white people wanted to live. A different Sociology prof asked us to raise our hand when he said the name of our racial group He asked all the Afro’s to raise their hands, and he was really pissed when my hand didn’t go up. He called my name and asked why I hadn’t raised my hand; I told him that an Afro was a hairstyle from the seventies, not my racial group.
    Just when I thought things couldn’t get more offensive, I went to meet with the department chair. He told me that I needed to act more subservient. I rather enjoyed the look of shock on his face when I said that was probably how slavery lasted so long. When I met with the woman in charge of dealing with discrimination for the university, she asked if the problem was occurring because I was having a difficult time understanding what he said, due to his accent. I laughed, then I told her that was NOT the problem, that I was getting an A in my Japanese class and it really was in a different language. I can look back at all of these experiences and laugh, but at the time they were very painful.
    Btw, when people ask me what I am…I tell them I’m Creole–French, African, Native American and Irish….smdh

  3. Pingback: “What ARE you?” Human. Next question? | Linguistic Paintings by Author Kimiko Lotus

      • I sometimes play dumb with this question, just to see how much people are willing to interrogate me. This is a conversation I had:

        “Where are you from?”
        “Where are you really from?”
        “Oh, California originally”
        “Where are your parents from?”
        “Both my parents are from New York”
        [exasperated] where are your people from?

        I remember this one because it was the only time I’d gotten four questions out of someone. Generally people who are well meaning but kind of clueless get the hint after the second non-answer, while the people with burning need to know switch to something like “what are you” or “what race are you” or something nakedly racist.

        “Where are you from” is almost always the first or second thing I hear when I meet someone new. Even when I pass for white, eventually I’m going to have to say my name, and while it’s the about the most stereotypical Arabic name there is in existence, the irony is that it’s a mess of foreign phonemes to most people and no one recognizes it when it’s pronounced properly.

        I am so tired of answering the question, and it’s not just that so many people seem to be unable to function without putting me in a racial category, I’m also tired of answering the more innocent version. The one where I get read as an immigrant and they want to know where I grew up, what languages I speak,etc. I grew up in more than one Arab country, and grew up hearing more than one Arabic dialect spoken in the house. Do I have to pick one? What do I do with the fact that like most 1.5th gen immigrants I’ve been living in the United States long enough to feel American, to some degree? Am I allowed to just say I’m American? That gets treated as much a non-answer as saying I’m from Virginia. It seems the universal experience of immigrants that we’re never allowed to feel like we belong. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to just say “Saudi” to this, because whatever part of me that feels American has been been stomped on until it was gone.

        I have never had any luck whatsoever explaining to people that this question is messed up. Their reactions are like the comments on that post. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to get it across to people that even if you mean the question innocently or you’re not even asking about ethnicity or race at all, you are very much, to borrow a term, schrodinger’s racist when you ask it because I don’t know you and it’s impossible to know what you mean by the question when it’s the first thing you say to me. Turns out people don’t appreciate it when you politely tell them the question is racially tinged and they could avoid it if they don’t want to seem rude.

        Your post is the best breakdown of the whole thing I’ve ever read. Seriously, thank you for this. I’m gonna be linking people to it for a long time I think.

        • Yeah, shocking enough, they don’t. But silly me must be an idealist because I’d thought saying “I’m not offended but heads up it’s kind of not a cool thing to do” wouldn’t get met with so much resistance, but there seems to be no way to say it without enflaming defensiveness.

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