An open letter to biracial people who are tired of being asked, what are you?
There comes a point in our lives when we realize we’re “different.” And depending upon where you are, the “difference” can come up in many ways. For me, I was 6 years old. My mom decided that she would enroll me in the Boys & Girls Club summer program. This Boys & Girls Club was in the middle of a low-income area and housed many black kids, like me, whose parents were single and worked during the week. The big day came, and she dropped me off. Little did either of us know, my racial identity would never feel so one-dimensional again.
What are you?
Upon my arrival, I just stood there. I’m an only child, so seeing an excess of kids free to run, scream, and exist was overwhelming. I found the wire fence holding me up as I surveyed the kids in their tribes. And then it happened. A little ray of sunshine walked up to me and asked: “What are you?”
I didn’t initially understand, so she repeated the question, referencing my skin. I then said, “Oh, I’m biracial; my mom’s black and dad’s white.” She looked me up and down and said, “Nah, you’re black; come on.” In that moment, my quest to understand my racial identity launched, and I haven’t looked back since.
In short, I recognize race to be a social construct often understood through a person’s lens. I was born and reared in the South. That matters, because my parents deciding to date, wed, and have a child meant a lot of chaos came with it. As a result, I got to experience the turbulence of their union. I learned early on that though I recognized my dad’s side of the family in my racial makeup, that really didn’t matter. Racial presentation took precedence; I was black, and everyone around me knew it, even if I didn’t.
Illusion of Inclusion
I once heard a white man ask, “Why do biracial people tend to take the side of the’minority’ mix versus the white mix (where applicable)?” I laughed, because, for many of us, we don’t have that option. My racial presentation enters the room before I open my mouth, and as a result, I’ve learned to navigate accordingly.
In no capacity will I experience the privilege of being white, addressed as white, or see myself as white. Me assuming my half-whiteness will afford me inclusion or acceptance is unrealistic. It’s an illusion I can’t afford. Race isn’t a neat concept that captures each of our experience. Yet, through all its murkiness, it’s led me to a community and culture that I embrace fully.
I am Who I Am
For the record, when you ask someone who appears racially ambiguous “what they are,” accept their answer. When asked, I say black. Then there’s usually a follow-up of, “But, no, like, what are you mixed with?” This further presses the issue, leading to what feels like an interrogation and an awkward moment.
Sure, my racial makeup matters, but the way it manifests in a conversation matters, too. It’s important to be mindful of color complexes, fetishization, and boundaries. That little phrase carries a lot of baggage for a lot of us who have been asked by people who follow up with inflammatory statements.
I say all of this to say, yes, I am biracial and identify as black, and that’s completely valid. I once heard a biracial person say that our culture is confusion. In some ways, I get it. We have so many internal questions and meet so many questions externally that our racial makeup feels loaded and complicated.
Those complications aren’t going to be unpacked overnight. Being mixed with the oppressed and oppressors’ blood is a loaded experience that comes with various battles. But, when you’re curious about the person who just walked in the room at work, a conference, or on date and want to ask, “What are you?” don’t. Ask a better question. Dig deep. Or simply wait until they bring it up themselves. They’ll thank you for it.
In closing, we’re in an amazing space where we allow people to express themselves in a way that feels authentic to them. Biracial people must be afforded the same freedom of identity. My racial makeup doesn’t have to make sense to you. Heck, for a good portion of my life, it didn’t make sense to me. But what I do expect is to be treated with respect, to not be minimized because of how you want me to present or identify, and to be free to expect you to not ask that age-old, insensitive question: What are you?