I would like to show you this piece by Andromeda Turre: ‘”What are you?” Is Not an Icebreaker’
The ridiculous shit that’s followed her around all her life as a mixed-race person (I just learned a new word: Blendiva!) is now especially thick in the air in her online dating life. And it’s still not cool. Look at this!
I have gotten this question all my life. At school. At the park. At parties. On the subway, a woman once tapped me on the shoulder and had me take out my headphones, interrupting my favorite Mariah Carey song, to ask me, “What are you?” She wasn’t ready for the answer she got that day, because it was just a whole lot of side eye.
“What are you?”
“I’m…going to put my headphones back in, pretend you didn’t just say that, and I will bite your hand off if you touch me again!”
For me, my identity has caused a lot of arguments and pain in my life. So I might not want to answer “What are you?” because I might be apprehensive as to how you, a total stranger, are going to judge me and possibly react to the choice of identity that took me years to accept and understand.
She’s gotten all the layers of horribleness from her peers due to their inability to fit her into their boxes. The white kids objectified her, Latinas marginalized her, and blacks took exception to her identifying as something else.
And then I have to explain why I “talk white.” And that my hair is real. And that my mom was not my babysitter, but in fact my mom. And that my dad did not adopt me. And it all becomes so tedious and exhausting I almost want to walk around covered in blue paint because it might actually be easier. Everyone loves Blue Man Group. No?
That shit is exhausting as fuck. It attaches a ton of complication to the demand to know, very first thing, “what” she is. It’s not a good way to put someone at ease when you’re possibly interested in getting a date with her. Folks, don’t do that.
There’s another interesting point she brings up, early in her article: this shit doesn’t happen to white people, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Most white Americans are not descended from people of only one country! Most of us are a hybrid of several different European ethnicities. Some have some Central Asian ancestors. Most white Southerners have a little African-American ancestry, too! We don’t have to deal with people asking us, before we’ve even exchanged “Hello” and “What’s your name?” whether we’re English/German/Italian/Irish/French/Swedish/Czech/Polish/Spanish/Greek, and in what combinations and percentages. No, that kind of categorization is only imposed on people who appear to be descended from at least two continents. It’s overwhelmingly on people whose complexions are much darker than mine.
(I had to deal with plenty of people demanding to know whether I was English/German/Swedish/Dutch/whatevs during my Peace Corps assignment, so I’ve gotten enough of that kind of attention to know it’s obnoxious as fuck, but here in the USA we palefaces are just…white. No explanation needed.)
Here’s the thing: it’s not wrong to have this curiosity about someone as you get to know her. Ms. Turre isn’t saying you can’t ever know her racial make-up. It’s okay to ask this sort of question later. Maybe, get acquainted with someone, give her a chance to get comfortable with you, and wait for the issue of heritage to come up in the conversation? Even then, there are much better ways to phrase the question than “What are you?” What is the pronoun we give to an object. Ask about heritage, ask about racial background, ask about ethnicity. We’re supposed to be adults around here, folks. Let’s use our words.
But, seriously, do not pull that shit on the totally unknown person you’ve spotted on the subway. Mind your damn business.