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“What are you?”
It’s a question I get all the time, one that makes me feel as if I’m definitively Other. It’s a question I’ve been getting since I was little, playing jump rope on the blacktop of my elementary school, the recess supervisor singling me out from the rest of the white kids on the playground. It’s hard to know who you are in and of itself, without having people asking what you are, as if you aren’t even worthy enough to be considered a person, but rather a thing, an unknown other, separate from the familiar.
Words are powerful. I think it can be easy to forget that with all the content we consume everyday. When the next big scandal or politically incorrect snafu happens on the internet, it’s usually forgotten within hours, as the next big thing comes along. But I want to remind everyone that words matter. They have meaning and should be chosen with intent. Carelessness today has the potential to be devastating.
As an individual continuously growing into their identity, I have come to regard myself as a multiracial, queer woman. I’m Black and Polish, with a little Native American thrown in from my great grandfather — although I am unaware what tribe I specifically derive from. I’m gay. And I’m a woman.
That being said, I consider all these labels markers of my identity — ones that coalesce into the person I am, as I cannot be one without the other. They are intertwined in their intersectionality. All of them have shaped the way I act, the way I present myself, the way I view myself, and the way others interact with me as well.
The question, “What are you?” has haunted me for much of my life. So, I decided to pick it apart and try to understand why that’s a question a stranger would feel compelled to ask me, without regard for how the phrasing might come across as dehumanizing and exclusionary. As a queer woman, the question immediately rescinds any notion of intersectionality, a concept that gives an awareness to the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual, according to the Oxford Dictionary.
Intersectionality is an important concept to perceive and understand, as no one person is just one thing. People are inherently complex and cannot be regarded as a single label, because it takes away from the depth and character that shapes them into the very person they are. Thus, getting asked that question of what you are comes across as labeling, an act that discriminately shapes the subject as other, removing them from the self and applying abridged stereotypes to a person.
Human beings are inherently complex creatures with unique personalities and it’s a part of our nature to want to identify with a group, as we are not solitary creatures in our behavior. However, the way that one identifies with a particular group or social categorizations is not, nor is it ever, limited to one single marker. We are not that simplistic, and it’s terribly damaging to dumb down a person to one label.
With that, I urge people to stop boxing others in — to stop making assumptions based on stereotypes and instead make an effort to recognize other humans as individuals, ones people can foster resilient connections with as we endure these chaotic, volatile time in our history. The question “What are you?” is harmful. It’s something I have gotten used to, as I’m sure other marginalized individuals have, whether it be because of their race, sexuality or gender presentation. But it’s not something I should be used to getting asked.
In the beginning, it really hurt, getting asked that question. Because I didn’t feel like a real person. I felt other. I felt like I was never going to belong. As I grew older, the question hurt less and frustrated me more, as I associated it with a level of fetishization people thrust upon me for being racially ambiguous and somewhat “exotic,” even though I’m literally from a suburb of Chicago. And I still struggle with that frustration today, though I know most people who ask that question don’t ask with ill-intent or maliciousness. Some might say that the interest in a person’s genetic and ethnic makeup is flattering, as it makes you special because of your difference from whatever is considered to be the norm. However, fetishization is not flattering. It’s ugly in its objectification created solely from the person who has an excessively irrational notion of what is exotic and therefore theirs to pry into and take from.
There are better ways to address someone who looks different from you, like asking their name for example before asking them what they are to satiate a curiosity. Asking questions is never bad — hello, I’m a journalist. That’s my whole thing. But, I do believe there needs to be a careful approach in how people regard others, especially if they’re unfamiliar with someone else’s culture, background or identity.
With this reading, I can only hope those that have asked this question before realize how the subjects of it feel when asked. Some of those in power are quick to brush off the concerns of minorities and label them as snowflakes who cannot take any criticism. However, I urge them to consider a time in which their humanity was ever put into question, to consider if they’ve ever been regarded as less than a human being, an object of someone else’s curiosity because they didn’t care enough to understand intersectionality.
See me for who I am — not what.
Nichole Shaw is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org