MMXLII Viewpoint: What Are You?

Our guest correspondent Joel Wacks is back with another intriguing article as he takes time to reflect on his personal life. As a person of mixed race there is a common question he seems to always be asked, and for one reason or another…it doesn’t sit too well. Hit the jump and take a look at his opinion and see what many other people of mixed race have to deal with constantly. Take a walk in their shoes so you can think about how that question may come across for some people. And if you are of mixed race, this is probably a story you can relate to.

By Joel Wacks

A week or two ago I spent a weekend in New York, where I happened to chat, briefly, with a girl from Maryland. Or at least a girl who went to school in Maryland- it might be that she was from somewhere else originally. There were several minutes of generic pleasantries, and then she asked me, just as pleasantly as she’d asked my name and about my flight, what I was. Those were her exact words. “What are you?”
It was a question I found jarring and unpleasant. Which is unfair- it wasn’t unpleasantly, I’m sure, and I certainly had no excuse for being jarred. It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, by many people, for as long as I can remember. The truth is, though, that the more times I’m asked what I am, the more bothersome I find it. On the flight back to California, I had some time to think about why.

As an English major, I’ll start the discussion with a close reading, an analysis of the diction used in this three-word query. I’ll go ahead and say right now that it could usually be phrased more sensitively. I’ve heard stabs at this, actually- “What ethnicity are you?” “What nationality are you?” “Where are you from?” invariably followed by the clarifying but not necessarily enlightening “No, I mean originally?” For whatever reason though the most common formulation remains the simplest- “What are you?” (Of course the evidence for this is purely anecdotal, as much as I wish I had I haven’t actually kept track.)

It’s the “what” I think, that’s the sticking point. There’s some ugly implication, not entirely accidental I suspect, that you don’t fit into acceptable categories or genres, that you’re something completely different, unrecognizable, freakish. It’s telling that the snarky response most often suggested by my friends and family is “Human.” After all, who else is asked what they are besides the racially ambiguous? It’s what you ask the Terminator when his flesh scrapes away to reveal the robot beneath. It’s what you ask the newest Batman villain, right before he does you in. It’s what you ask Frankenstein’s monster, when you notice all those stitches. “What” is for monsters. When you’re talking to people, you usually say “who.” But of course, if you ask someone “Who are you?” they’d just tell you about themselves, and might forget to mention race at all.

Which brings me to the second issue I have with “What are you?” I never know how to answer. When I was younger, I would tell people that I was half Chinese and a quarter Jewish, falling prey to the racism of marked terms and assuming that the final fraction of unadulterated WASP DNA needed no explaination. At some point I figured out that the fractions didn’t add up, and switched to “Half Chinese and half white.” That formula lasted for years, before I began to worry that it sounded too much like a formula. “Half and half.” It made me feel like a cocktail, or a dairy product.

The objection was more than culinary. I didn’t like the idea that I was made of fractions, bits and parts of other things combined to make a less-than-unified whole. It didn’t describe my phenotype. My body isn’t split into Asian bits and white ones- my left side looks just the same as my right and my bottom half’s no different, racially, from my torso. And it didn’t describe me. I didn’t feel like half of an Asian person blended together with half of a Caucasian, I felt like one whole person, the way people with singular racial identities seemed to, and I wanted to find a way to articulate that. For a while I’d answer the question indirectly, saying “My mother’s Chinese and my father’s white.” That didn’t feel right either though. Not only did it somehow dodge the question, it did so by placing an emphasis on heritage and genetics that I was beginning to suspect was part of the problem.

At some point in high school I heard the word hapa and when I reached college I started using it. In my case it’s a derivation of the Hawaiian pejorative hapa haole, but semantics have shifted shifted such that “Hapa” is a perfectly acceptable explanation of what I am. I like it and I don’t. I like that it acknowledges us (how exciting, to say “us,” a word I’d never thought to have used before I could attach it to another word, as in “us hapas”) as distinct from the divided genotypes that went into our conceptions, as whole and singular persons worthy of a word instead of a formula. And I like the cool that seems to be attached to it. It feels as though hapas are coming into style, like local eating and using hashtags where they don’t belong. I’ve even met girls who say they prefer hapas, the way other girls say they prefer blacks (an entirely different kettle of fish, I suppose, but one for a different, equally lengthy post.)

At the same time there’s something troubling about the insistence on categorization, especially for a group of people who are not, by definition, easy to categorize. Categorization is another word for division, and when those categories are racial those divisions are sometimes shockingly arbitrary. My roommate is also of mixed racial descent- his father is African American and his mother, like my father, is Caucasian of Jewish descent. I share just as much ethnic ancestry with him as I do with any number of hapas, yet there’s no category that includes both of us.

Divisions like that are the price of categories, but again I’m being unfair. After all, category, and the belonging that comes with it, is exactly what I like about the answer “Hapa.” And I do like that answer, it’s a satisfying one, whatever troubling questions it may leave hanging in the air. So what is it about that question, “What are you?” that I find so bothersome- because it is bothersome. No matter how it’s worded, no matter how much I like my answer, there’s always that uncomfortable twinge. Maybe it is the insistence on category, the problematic belief that everybody has to fit into a box, no matter how ill the fit. Maybe it’s the never-needed reminder of how different I actually am, what little resemblance I bear to my friends, my family, to the people on TV. Maybe it just seems a little rude.

The truth is that all of those things are part of it. What I think is most important though, what bothers me more than anything else, is the fear that the person asking what I am won’t understand that the answer they’re looking for can only partially answer the question that they’ve asked. It’s a fear that anyone who’s different can understand. When I tell people what I am, I also tell them what I’m not, and sometimes that means telling them that I’m not the same as they are. Some people understand how little that needs to matter, and some people don’t. I’m proud of what I am, it’s part of the identity I’ve worked hard to discover and create, and it’s not something I want to cover up or hide. But in the end it’s only a part of that identity. What I am isn’t who I am, and as much as I don’t want to be defined by it I’ve learned that some people can’t help themselves, or won’t. Maybe it’s not the question “What are you?” that bothers me so much. It’s not knowing how much the answer will matter.

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