Stop asking me 'what' I am – it's dehumanising


People of colour don't owe anyone an autobiographical account of where they're "really" from

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Image by Maya Upmacis

By Maya Upmacis

Can I just ask, what are you? This was a real question I was confronted with, and it was not asked as a philosophical musing on questions of identity and the self. It is a question asked in response to, or even arguably in retaliation to, the olive-toned colour of my skin and noticeable lack of Eurocentric features.

But, because I believe that this question is asked without malice, I instinctively respond with a desperate need to be understood and to belong. So, I take a deep breath and mentally prepare to copy and paste the same script I use every time someone ponders my appearance: “Well, I was born in England but my mum moved from India when she was three but she's technically British. My Dad is from Latvia so he’s Eastern European white which makes me”...etcetera, etcetera. It’s not simple or satisfying enough to say “I was born here”.
What they don’t understand is that the use of ‘what’ is dehumanising. The question feels like their attempt to group my complex cultural identity into neat racial strata, as if I can’t belong in either. Resultantly, the familiar feeling of ‘otherness’ and alienation leaks into the group dynamic and spawns within myself. Suddenly, the question can be translated to “What is that?”. But, if critical thought was calculated for, they would know that I can equally identify with both in different ways.

It is a reductive question. It blurs the definitions of race, ethnicity, nationality and culture, all of which are attributed to unique experiences and are terms that have their own divisions in sociological academic literature. For example, I am mixed race. My ethnicity is White and Asian but my nationality is British. I grew up surrounded by Eastern European and English culture and I am more in touch with these areas of my social identity. There are elements of South Asian culture that are not as prevalent in my life, but it is this side which physically distinguishes me as an ‘other’ (which doesn’t necessarily need to be viewed negatively). Asking me to explain my identity in objectifying, holistic terms of ‘what’ creates obstacles in my building a ‘sense of belonging’. I must balance appeasing the expectations of both or more conflicting cultures I identify with whilst navigating my own identity in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality and culture, which, as established, are so often misconstrued by the Western majority. Asking what I am attempts to pluralize my social identity and diminishes my individual complexity.

There are many variations of the dreaded ‘What are you?’ question that so many mixed-race individuals and people of colour are bombarded with. When I went to the hairdresser in York for the first time, minutes after sitting down in the salon chair, the hairdresser instigated conversation by asking “So, where are you from originally?” Although more innocuously phrased, the fact it was her first segue into conversation – in combination with the term ‘originally’, which conjures notions of ‘foreignness’ – naturally took me a back.

During Freshers' Week, my twin sister, who is much darker in complexion than I am, was asked an oh so carefully constructed question: “What type of black are you?” She was rightfully astounded and didn’t attempt to break down the multitude of microaggressions compressed into a six-word question. Albeit, the copious amounts of alcohol she had to drink that night didn’t help, but mostly because it is an exhausting and repetitive procedure for her, and many alike, to educate the flaws in their ignorance and, quite frankly, not her responsibility. In reality, a white person does not typically approach another white individual with the question “What type of white are you?” So why is there a need to push for this information? It feels like an attempt to allocate who belongs where.

One high profile case of this occurred not so long ago. On 29 November, Ngozi Fulani, owner of a charity called Sistah Space, which aims to aid African and Caribbean domestic abuse victims, attended a royal reception at Buckingham Palace as part of the Global 16 Days campaign.

After the event, Fulani tweeted a transcript of her conversation with Lady Hussey (Lady of the Household) which entailed Lady Hussey repeatedly asking Fulani where she was “really” from despite Fulani asserting her British nationality. To me, this epitomises the ignorance present at an institutional level. Lady Hussey resigned as the Lady of the Household and apologised. In my opinion, this highlights an open mindedness to challenge unconscious biases; an attitude which should be encouraged.

I recognise there's an intrinsic human desire to want to learn a person’s background and to connect. So, how do I ask? I agree with Rakishitha Arni Ravishankar’s excellent article: 'What’s Wrong with Asking: 'Where are you from?'' that it depends on when and how you are asking. Ravishankar spoke to Harvard colleagues who have had similar experiences and underscored the importance of asking in an appropriate setting, such as whilst talking to a friend, as opposed to during formal settings like work. Secondly, how you ask is important. As established, asking in a pushy tone can come across as objectifying and crude but, oftentimes, people such as myself will tell you their background if asked correctly and sensitively. In Ravishankar’s interviews, Maria Ortega makes a good point:

“The tone, the facial expressions, and the follow-up questions — all of that tells me what this person really wants to know”/ “For instance, you wouldn’t just ask a colleague if they have kids,” she says. “But, in a conversation, if they mention or talk about their kids, then you can build a conversation from there.”

Now, when I am faced with the question: “What are you?” I remind myself that I do not owe anyone the autobiography of my identity, especially if it’s preceded by what feels like child-like prodding and being gawked at. But, if the question is worded correctly and in an appropriate conversational context, no, I do not mind you asking.