On Strangers Asking Me: What Are You?
Updated: Aug 12, 2018
This post was originally published on medium.com/@laurawp on March 4, 2016.
On the last day of Black History Month, my husband gave me a present. A sweatshirt that says BLACK BY POPULAR DEMAND on it. The sweatshirt is dope. This is unsurprising, because my husband is always helping me to become a little more cool. I posted an image of it on insta, and got 50 likes within a few hours. I tweeted it and people pinged back to ask where they could buy one themselves.
The sweatshirt is dope. But something about the punny phrase on the chest was a trigger for me. Not in a bad way exactly, but enough to make me reflect.
A few months ago I was traveling around Southern Africa with an Indian-American friend of mine. We flew from a conference in Johannesburg to the island nation of Mauritius to spend a few days visiting a colleague who lived in a small town in the center of the island. One day my friend went for a walk to the market in the town where our host lived. She returned animated.
“People keep staring at me,” she said. “And finally someone said, what are you?”
She paused for effect. I stared blankly at her.
“What are you?!” she repeated. “Can you believe it?”
“Oh…” I said, realizing that this was the part where I was supposed to react incredulously.
But instead I replied lamely: “I get asked that all the time.”
I am half black and half white. I have been told that I look this, and I have also been told that I look: Puerto Rican, Brazilian, Costa Rican, Egyptian, Indian, and probably 10 other things I’ve forgotten. I have been getting the “What are you?” question for about 20 years — that is, since I stopped going everywhere holding the hand of one of my parents and thus eliminated a giant visual clue to my racial identity.
If I’m honest, I’m not sure why complete strangers are so curious to categorize me. I don’t know how often total strangers talk to you about your race? But this is a completely regular occurrence for me. Some of the most common questioners: cab drivers, attendants in clothing boutiques…
Actually, now that I think about it, the common thread appears to be: people with whom you’re collocated for an extended but finite amount of time, and whom you will never see again.
I do not like the question, in part because it is often entirely irrelevant to the task at hand (going to the airport, buying jeans), but I am accustomed to it. I find it is usually uttered with good, or at least non-bad, intentions (“oh, because you look like my cousin” or “oh, because my friend has hair just like yours”).
But I don’t like it not because talking about race is gauche (though, in the US, it is) but because I have never liked the idea that I “am” my race/ethnicity. It seems reductive, and therefore off-putting. I “am” many things, but I’m pretty sure the answer the questioner sought is not “entrepreneur, New York native, amateur yogi, cheese-lover, crappy gardener…” In fact I’ve never once answered “half black, half white” to that question and had someone say “Oh! No, I meant what’s your sign” or literally anything else.
So when I saw that sweatshirt, I was a bit startled. I realized — that’s what’s been reinforced for me by strangers for my whole life. What am I? My skin tone and my racial heritage, first and foremost. I am BLACK BY POPULAR DEMAND.
So I guess now that I’ve worked through it, even more reason to wear the sweatshirt. It’s both punny and ironic, and those are two of my favorite things. Plus, now when a stranger asks for my race, I’ll just have to point to my shirt. And I’ll look cool doing it.
Turns out that was a pretty great gift.