What are you? A messy analysis

Caroline Foley

This is the dreaded question a number of people of color nearly expect when meeting a new person.  It’s perhaps just as annoying as the “Where are you from from?” question that I couldn’t escape while traveling in abroad (“I’m from America.” “And?” “I’m from Philadelphia, PA.” “Where were you born?” ~sighs heavily~ “China.” “AHA! I knew it.” “Congratulations!”).

“What are you?” can be roughly translated to “What ethnicity are you?” “What race are you?” but perhaps there is more meaning behind the inquisition, because if I answer “a human being,” I know that will not suffice.

I’ve been reflecting on this question a lot recently, and it had me wondering: Why is this such a common question? Why do people have the desire to ‘know’ or confirm my race or ethnicity? These questions are paralleled with my questions about complaints regarding transgender bathrooms. Why is genitalia anyone’s business? If a person chooses to dress a certain way, why are they often confronted with the question, “What are you?”

So far, I’ve concluded the question is a reflection of the social construction of race and gender (and a lot of other things) in our society. Let’s look at gender. Recently, one of my professors defined gender as a “spectrum of masculinity and femininity.” Depending on where you live, there are certain points on the spectrum the society deems socially acceptable. What it means to identify as “male” in Italy differs from what it means in South Korea –the largest market for male cosmetics. And it’s worth noting the expression of gender is two-way, because communication works this way. It’s not just how you individually act and perform your gender. It’s also how others perceive and treat you. Asking “what are you” to anyone asks “how should I treat you?” The question is loaded with culturally acceptable norms, such as “Should I hold the door for you or not? Should I call you Miss or Mister? Can I tell a woman joke in front of you or not?”

The same goes for race. “What are you?” means, “Do I treat you like a white person? Do I treat you like a black person? Do I treat you like an Asian person? Can I use this slur in front of you? Can I make these jokes in front of you? Can I first pump you?”

To briefly explain the social construction of race, consider this: before we separated people by the color of their skin, we separated people by religion. The Middle East was bursting with different types of religions, and everyone generally looked the same with dark skin. It wasn’t really until colonization began when we created racial institutions and started treating people differently based on the amount of melanin in their skin.

I truly don’t know how to answer, “What are you?/How should I treat you” because I want to be treated simply as a human being. As an Asian person, I’d prefer you don’t ask me how to cook rice (this really happens). Something about the question still irks me, and I still haven’t been able to articulate my confusion and disdain for the question, however the discomfort lingers.