“What ARE you?” is a question I dread hearing. Being biracial is my not-so-secret secret. A part of me that I don’t tell everyone about, but one look and you can tell I am not white. I am the product of an American father who spent time in Brazil on a work assignment, where he met my mother. On the outside, I am brown-skinned, but on the inside I very much identify as white. I speak very little portuguese, I know pretty much nothing about soccer, and I dance like I have two left feet. I like to read and play video games, I watch football and drink beer, I have an office job and hate mondays, and I am attracted to white women. For all intents and purposes, I am white.
“Ok, but like, what ARE you?”
So why don’t I feel white? The question that has haunted me my whole life, including now, are those three words, “what ARE you?” Sometimes it is delivered in a curious tone, as if my racial identity is a fun fact about me. “What are you?” they ask, innocently, sometimes at the beginning of a friendship or relationship. Other times, they come at it much more aggressively, verifying that I am not a “Mexican trying to steal your job”, or a “Muslim trying to bomb your country.”
“I know you’re not Mexican, so what ARE you?”
I have been asked this question over and over my whole life and I still don’t know the answer to it. If I explain that I am half Brazilian, then people either want to dazzle me with their knowledge of Brazil (“they don’t speak Spanish there, right?”) or they want to challenge me on my appearance (“really? I always thought you were Asian,” which yes, is a real question I get from time to time). When it comes to my skin tone, it feels like a scarlet letter, a badge I wear on the outside to signify that I am different than everyone else, and that I should be treated differently as a result.
Now, a criticism I have gotten before when I voice these concerns to someone asking me my favorite question is that I am too sensitive, too easily triggered. You’re right, I am sensitive to the idea that I need to summarize my existence to you in just a handful of words. That the sum total of my existence, thoughts, ideas, needs and desires, all are reduced to the roll of the dice on what parents I was born from. If you are white in America, you are never questioned what your ethnicity is. You take your 23 and Me tests and subscribe to Ancestry.com to be able to claim something exciting about your family (“did you know I’m 1/8th Cherokee,” or some other neat-o fact about your family tree).
“I’m 1/8th Cherokee, 1/12th German, 1/18th Polish, 1/256th Scottish...What ARE you?”
My partner is biracial as well. She is the product of a half-Cuban, half-Native American man and a Caucasian woman. In many ways, she is browner than I am. She can sing and dance to salsa, speak great Spanish, and can cook all sorts of foreign foods. She, unlike me, is very white on the outside. She once told me this story about when she was a child, her father would have to carry around her birth certificate with him because no one would believe that such a dark-skinned man would have a white child. They just assumed he had taken her. It just goes to show that being biracial is never about ethnicity, it is entirely about skin-tone.
So, to the curious white person who innocently asks your biracial friend, “what ARE you?” I hope that you can understand why we don’t exactly LOVE that question. What AM I? I’m an American, I’m just a regular guy who happens to look brown, and I would appreciate if you did not treat me any differently. This country is founded on immigrants and is a melting pot at its core. Diversity shouldn’t be a fun fact, it should just be the norm in our society.