“What are you?” is the standard question asked to people who aren’t easily categorized into discernible ethnic groups. For the most part, the question stems from a pure sense of curiosity. It is human nature for us to place things into groups that make sense according to our world vision. But does the fact that it is 2017 make this a redundant question?
I recently read an article titled I am Indian American and it’s 2017 but I Still Get Asked ‘What Are You?’ Being mixed race myself, I have been asked this question plenty of times and I have my response perfectly practiced. However, while the article was well written, I felt the author reduced the issue to a matter of black and white – in its most literal form.
According to her, ethnic minorities in America tend to be a floating group. They went through the same hardships of immigration but fall in a class just above the hardships faced by black Americans. Our status as immigrants (or cultural/ethnic beings) tended to dissipate as new generations were introduced, removing us from the status of being immigrants but not yet completely American – or Americanized due to the color of their skin. This placed these new generations at a crossroad, awkwardly trying to find a balance between being a mix of their ethnic culture, being American, and deciding where they stood in relation to ‘blackness’. In the author’s opinion this meant; “…choosing blackness or whiteness. But for those of us who are neither, a mercenary sort of angling to be viewed as more like one or the other has been the norm for generations.”
It was this quote that left me questioning the same thing the author posed to herself – “What am I?” but with a new twist – “in relation to blackness?” Had I been answering this question wrong the whole time? Did my answer regarding identity have to relate to where I stood in terms of blackness or even whiteness?
The answer quite simply is no. In my opinion there is no right or wrong answer to this question. You are what you are, based on what you decide to be and as ethnic youth, the race card question does not have to be in relation to blackness if you do not want it to be. It is wrong to assume that we must chose ‘blackness or whiteness’ because other ethnic minorities do not fall under any other normative category.
Deciding who you are or what you are, is a life long journey of self-exploration and it is hardly static.
I will admit however, that there is a naivety on my part to assume the answer does not have to be as confrontational or as meta as it’s made out to be. Compared to the author who hails from the States where the race talk is more prevalent (and rightly so), in Canada race-relations are not as contentious* or as heavily embedded a dialogue. Not to say that there is no dialogue, there is, and with the current situation with our neighbors down south, there is a whole new narrative that is taking place on Canadian soil regarding race, identity and citizenship. The common denominator between these three factors being the question of belonging. The reason I feel that the author reduces the issue to blackness or whiteness, isn’t because of race identity as much as it has to do with belonging. Communities, cultures, groups, associations and even countries are founded on the sense of finding ones place, the sense that, “you belong here and you are part of what all this is.”’ And more times than not, belonging has a lot to do with your skin color.
The color of our skin is a paradoxical caveat to whether or not we belong to a particular group. You aren’t really black if your skin isn’t dark, you can’t be Arab if you look so white, are you really Indian if your skin tone is a caramel brown? It’s the notion that if you do not look like what the rest of them look like, then are you really who you claim to be? It is an unfortunate circumstance that our skin color plays a heavy role in where we fit in society, and it often impacts our experiences. The author herself cites a time when she was waiting for an interview in a hotel lobby and she was mistakenly thought to be applying for a cleaning position. For her these instances shaped her identity; “Such instances of racism have shaped my life as much as my upbringing and skin color. That’s why I feel a tenuous solidarity with African Americans and other people of color.”
Feeling solidarity with other minority groups is wonderful, and it tends to stem from our shared experiences of racism, prejudice, stigma and hardships. But solidarity should not be confused with needing to choose our belonging category as black or white. We should celebrate in the similarities we have, whether that be the negative experiences we’ve faced or that we both enjoy Kanye, Drake and Adele. Sharing similar likes or experiences doesn’t mean you must choose one group over another. Solidarity and empathy, the ability to get down on someone’s level and say “I understand” is a stronger marker of belonging than our skin color.
It is by no means my intention to dismiss the relevance of skin color and its role in race relations and identity. As I mentioned before, humans are categorical beings and identity markers (like skin color) form the inklings of our deep seated groupings. The color of your skin will impact you, plain and simple, whether it will be an internal or external imprint. However, the realization that skin color isn’t everything takes some time to reveal itself to you, and for me it took decades.
My wild curls were a marker of generations, the same hair my grandma and aunts shared.
I remember the first time I became aware of what being different really meant. I was in Grade 1 and I was in love with a boy named Joshua but he loved a girl named Hailey.
“I want to marry her because of her hair.”
Her hair was luscious, a cascading waterfall of a tawny brown. Mine was an unruly mess of tangled curls. I could easily change that. But her skin? A beautiful snow white. Mine was brown. I couldn’t change that. I remember staring at my palms – those were white. But as I examined my hands closely I saw where the whiteness transitioned into brown, this great big dividing line on my finger separating the top and the bottom. I hated it. I hated how stark a contrast the line on my finger was, showing me just how dark I am. I remember thinking it was ugly. I didn’t understand that my skin color was beautiful and that my wild curls were a marker of generations, the same hair my grandma and aunts shared. At that moment I wanted to be wanted, to belong in the heart of a six year old boy but instead I was facing an identity crisis because of the color of my hands.
Luckily I outgrew those thoughts.
So, in 2017 does the question ‘What are you?’ really matter? Yes. Yes it does matter. But how you answer it doesn’t matter. The reason being is that you will come across many types of people who will ask you this question. There will be those who ask out of pure curiosity, those who will belong to your ethnic group and be upset that you did not “identify” yourself correctly (according to their standards) and then there will be those who ask in order to start a meaningful dialogue about race, identity and the sense of belonging.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what your answer is because the question itself is just superficial. Deciding who you are or what you are, is a life long journey of self-exploration and it is hardly static. Your life experiences will inevitably shape the direction of your answer.
So the next time someone asks you “what are you?” you can easily respond with whatever your ethnic or national identity is. You can give them that perfectly crafted response you have been memorizing for years.
But in the end, in your heart of hearts, you know that you are more than just that.