Sadly, I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked, “what are you?” I am sure you already know what is implied in those three words; but, for the sake of certainty, I can assure you that this question does not stem from curiosity about my career, my personality strengths, or some deeper philosophical question about my humanness. No, as I learned from a young age, “what are you?” not-so-subtly asks “what is your race?”
I may fall victim to questions regarding my racial and ethnic background more than, say, a monoracial person, given my multiracial background and subsequent ambiguously brown hue. But, no matter the target of such inquiry, you can ask “what are you” and most, I assume, know that you mean race. In fact, in one of my lectures to my Sexual Diversity class last semester, I presented the question and asked my class what they suspected the question implies – they all said race. What I find most troubling about “what are you?” is the clear suggestion that one’s race is totalizing as a status; what you are is your race. There is no potential of mistaking the true inquiry as one regarding gender, humanness, career, veteran status, religion, views on abortion, political party affiliation, etc. While you embody other identities, statuses, affiliations, and interests, your core self is nothing beyond your race.
Within interactions that include the posing of the question “what are you?”, I find troubling the comfort individuals, even perfect strangers, have in asking a rather personal and usually irrelevant question. The last time someone asked me “what are you?” were the first, unprompted words a stranger at a local bar said to me. I gave him a hard time, answering with “what am I? What does that even mean?” or “Human.” — one of my two usual responses. I recall a time in my freshman year of college when a person behind me in line, again unprompted, asked the question. In my younger years, I would laugh at the ridiculousness of the question, but would still answer genuinely. It strikes me as odd that individuals feel entitled to personal knowledge about my ancestry and racial and ethnic background, for some, to the extent of becoming upset when I question their question – “you know what I mean.”
What about gender? Race strikes me as an adjective to describe a person compared to gender as a noun. In common conversation, it seems as though it is the norm to gender every individual whom we refer to. “3 women did this,” “today, a guy asked me,” “ladies and gentleman.” It almost sounds odd to say “I went over and asked the person in the blue shirt,” or “a few individuals in my stats class.” The way we gender people conflates gender categories with humanness – rarely do we refer to individuals or persons without making reference to their gender. An example in the title and first sentence of the article, “Long Beach Man Extradited to L.I. on Murder Charge“:
What is striking is the way the relevance of gender goes unquestioned, while other social identities and statuses remain irrelevant (and might be questioned if mentioned). That is, we don’t talk about the Christian student that sits next to us on the bus every morning, or the golfer who we asked for directions to the highway. I acknowledge, of course, that individuals are often described by their minority statuses/identities – those markers that sometimes become one’s master, or totalizing descriptors (a Black woman who… a homeless man… the deaf guy who…). But, it seems that gender is mentioned so frequently that it operates as a natural descriptor for ALL people. In fact, your gender is just as much your identification as is “human,” if not more.