by Sharon H Chang
A couple months ago I got cornered big time by a stranger and their "What are you?" mind-meld. The unsolicited probing went on for a while. Honestly something I'm used to. But this time was crazy multidimensional and unique in a way I don't know I've ever experienced. It involved not only me, but my child, and then HER mixed children by comparison. This stranger just couldn't resist wanting to know my and my son's specific mixes, explained her husband was "American," then wondered out loud if her son would one day look like my son and if her daughter would one day look like me. I was declared white-looking while my son was judged Asian-looking. A picture of her own children was then shown proudly with seeming expectation for praise (which I uncomfortably indulged). There was also some lecturing/instruction on how I should feel about my particular Asian heritage (which she shares) and why I should be able to afford visiting my paternal homeland (which I actually can't). Finally, because she felt this exchange had laid the groundwork for connectivity, she asked to exchange info and wanted to set up a play date.
First let's be clear. I don't doubt the well-meaning and friendly intention of this stranger. I understand that my son and I were visually assessed as having something in common with her which could potentially be the beginning of shared interest. I understand this stranger probably felt her comments were sincere, genuine, even complimentary, and that we would receive them as kind, welcoming and affirming. But here is an important racial truth -- there's a big difference between intention versus impact in inter-race relations. Much of what was said in this exchange was actually incredibly egocentric, driven centrally by one person's self-interested compulsion (I-need-to-know-I-have-to-know) and seemingly little to no consideration for how my son and I might feel like zoo animals.
I continue to be impressed by how firmly others seem to believe mixed race people in particular should be subjected to this microscopic investigating and then, not mind it at all. I mean it goes without saying it's unlikely this woman would have stopped me in the same way if she'd judged me visibly "monoracial" right? As now the mother of a mixed child, I also continue to be impressed how this line of questioning so effortlessly expands to not only include me, but my kid too, and us in comparison to each other (e.g. "He looks more Asian than you do"). My son is only 5 years old and I've already started talking to him about how to resist racial probing because it's happened more times than I can count.
My son is only 5 years old and I've already started talking to him about how to resist racial probing because it's happened more times than I can count.
"What are you?" This is the question; the perennial dissecting, disemboweling question that mixed race people know so well and are constantly poked, jabbed and pigeon-holed with. There's been lots of writing on it: blog posts, scholarly articles, even entire books published on it. Seriously, it's a big deal. To be fair, some mixed folk don't mind at all and think it's a great opportunity to share heritage, open minds, have illuminating conversations. I respect that lens on things. I really do. Actually there are times in my life when I've felt that way too.
But many other mixed folk, including myself today, find the same question intrusive, invasive and insensitive. And that deserves respect too.
After over three decades living life as a visibly identifiable multiracial person in and out of the U.S., this is where I'm at. I think it's entirely inappropriate to inquire about a person's racial mix unless you (a) know them first, (b) have established trust, and (c) have gotten clear signals from the person themself that they're interested to discuss their heritage. Why would you ever start a conversation with someone you've never met by scrutinizing their racial appearance with a fine-tooth comb? Ever. To me, that seems intensely rude. It's objectifying, makes the person feel you're seeing their race before anything else, and carries with it a long, insidious history of race-measuring that has been used to marginalize mixed people of color for hundreds of years. I'm going to be blunt here. A person's ancestry is personal information that's not really your business and may even contain painful memories, family hurt and historical trauma (e.g. much racial mixing is tied to military conquest and colonialism that can involve forcible coercion and rape).
Begging the point, there is a larger systemic narrative at play here. Racial remarks, even if intended as friendly, are racially charged and dangerous when generated uninformed, without awareness and delivered uncritically. For instance, consider this woman being smitten with the idea that her children might one day look like me and my son. As if all mixed race Asians look the same just by sheer virtue of being mixed? Consider that a lot of people take issue with the very idea of "Asian" itself because it lumps together, encourages colorblindness of the category's many different Asian ethnic groups, which then allows the abject oppressions of certain groups to be ignored. If I met a Chinese stranger's baby, would I wonder out loud if some day the baby might grow up to look like my Filipina friend's adult daughter?
Moral of the story people, let's save the mixed-crossed-race-examination. Actually let's not save it. Let's just not do it at all. It's diminishing, marginalizing and well, kind of racist. If a mixed-identifying person wants to tell you about their heritage, they will, and in their own time. Or if you develop a compassionate, loving relationship/friendship with them - you'll likely have an intuition when it might be okay to ask and how to ask respectfully. I know you might feel uncomfortable not knowing, but it's really not about you.