“What are you?” people sometimes ask. It seems to come from a place of perplexity. There appears to be frustration because when someone’s ethnicity isn’t identifiable, the ability to categorize is suspended.
When people ask with malicious intent, they don’t know exactly how to mistreat those of us who appear more racially ambiguous. Their slurs appear feigned as if they’re practicing being insulting and hurtful. There’s a fake barrier that feels almost protective because they seem silly in their attacks. It’s poetic justice, their buffoonery.
But oh man, when people know exactly how they want to direct their behavior, they’re heinous and ugly. It’s premeditated, exact and ironically sincere. And that’s the purpose the question serves for them. They’re asking, What are you so that I can hate you with a special type of ignorance.
The are is sometimes drawn out and accompanied by a sneer. It’s an inability to judge. Maybe they wish they could call me the N word, or maybe confidently accuse me of being an illegal “alien,” or Muslim, although, if not so ignorant, they’d know that the latter isn’t even an ethnicity.
Yes, it’s happened to me before, on multiple occasions and in various forms. Sometimes it’s blatant, most times covert. On business trips, my white colleague and I were consistently pulled out of the airport security line to be frisked and have the contents of our luggage overturned. “This only happens when I’m with you,” she’d marvel, and we’d shake our heads.
Most often though the high-pitched, “What are you” with furrowed brows and head cocked to one side is asked by well-meaning people who are simply curious. And when I tell them, they usually respond with an, “Oh! I love Indian food” or “Have you seen Lion?” and we dive into intriguing conversations about what we are, far beyond our race. And that’s beautiful because it comes from our ability to wonder and connect.
So what am I? What are any of us? Well, we’re people and being human intrinsically means we’re knitted in many fascinating, complex ways based on how we’re created and the lives we’ve lived. So go ahead, I see the crease in your brows. Ask me what I am.