It’s the last days of Black History Month, when non-Black people are encouraged, with varying degrees of success, to engage with and show curiosity toward Black people and our stories. And this engagement is a good thing. Still, it comes with complexities any mixed Black person will recognize — meaning, any Black person with a parent (or perhaps grandparent) who isn’t Black.
I’m talking about the question: What are you? Meaning, what are you racially. We’re not the only mixed people who get questioned about our identities and where we come from. But, in my experience, mixed-Black folks get this question in a particular way. It comes at us with a particular emotional tone — entitlement and bewilderment swirled together. It comes from strangers. It comes often. It comes in public; you would think such an intimate and, frankly, odd question would be reserved for private moments but no, we hear this question at conference tables and happy hours and birthday parties, and because we have been conditioned by the same forces as the person asking, we feel obliged to smile and answer.
Human beings are curious animals and we live in a society preoccupied with race. So I get why someone might look at me, and the relative racial ambiguity of my light skin but broad nose, kinky hair but green eyes, and think, I wonder…
But the actual point of asking what are you — especially in an early interaction — is not to know me better in some holistic, thoughtful sense. It’s not to invite true intimacy or even to truly see me. Rather, even if this isn’t conscious, the point of the question is to figure out where to put me and how to relate to me. It’s to enable a quick judgment that will steer the questioner’s behavior. If I’m white? Then oh, ok, this is how I file you, this is how I relate to you. If I’m Black? Then ah, got it — in that case, this is how I file you. From whatever answer we give flows some particular current, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and in a culture awash in racism and racial bias, these currents have consequences. As scholar Michael Johnson, Jr., has written, “we are so heavily invested in examining the details of what people look like that we conveniently forget how that information is inevitably used to decide how we feel and what we think about others.”