What Are You?

Today’s guest post is by Jen Chau, founder of Swirl, a multi-ethnic, anti-racist organization that promotes cross-cultural dialogue.  “What are you?” is one of those questions like “Where are you from, I mean from from?” that people pose (sometimes ungracefully) when they are curious about someone’s racial/ethnic identity. What Are You? is also the title of an upcoming event (Monday, September 26th at 7pm), part of the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations series, hosted here at the Brooklyn Historical Society and co-sponsored by Loving Day.  BHS is learning more about Brooklyn’s overlapping, interweaving communities and we hope you’ll join the conversation here in the comments and at upcoming events.


Photo by Lindsay Brandon Hunter, Model Alex De Suze


“What are you?” is something I have heard a lot in my 34 years.

From strangers on the street, mostly men.  On the subway one evening by an on-duty policeman.  At a party, from someone who was too curious not to ask within minutes of meeting me.  From classmates.  From a palm reader at a conference who held my hand, looked into my eyes and told me that I was Native American.  From teachers.  At a neighborhood lounge, a friend of a friend looked into my face and told me that I was a blend of cultures: Spanish and Asian.  From other mixed people who want to relate.

Some of these experiences have been more outlandish than others. Depending on the delivery of the question, I have been angered, amused, frustrated, shocked, or happy to engage. Underneath it all, I know that what exists for the questioner is curiosity.  What matters to me is whether that curiosity ends at my physical appearance, or if you also want to understand more about my multi-ethnic upbringing; more about me as a person.

We need to stop solely relying on identifiers like race in order to learn about one another.  Sure, race probably plays a part in who we are, but it’s not everything. It’s not always the beginning of the story and it’s usually never the whole story.

You can read more by Jen Chau on talking about race here.


Sady Sullivan

About Sady Sullivan

Sady Sullivan is Director of Oral History at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
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0 Responses to What Are You?

  1. Jen Chau says:

    I agree Todd- it sounds like you are doing something right, Brenda. The fact that you show “interest” probably being a big part of it! And I don’t think Caucasian is boring – we have come to tell this story about whiteness being boring or signifying “a lack of culture” in this country, but I am sure that you have many stories about what it was like to grow up Irish and German, and I bet that those experiences influenced your values, identity, etc. It’s all relative… Irish “became” white, but wasn’t always white, right? I am sure you are familiar with: http://www.amazon.com/Irish-Became-White-Noel-Ignatiev/dp/0415918251

    We are all “stories,” as Glenn brought up, via Heidi Durrow!

  2. Todd says:

    I like that answer too, Glenn. I think this conversation can go as many ways as there are people asking and responding. To me the potential problem arises if a person feels objectified—as though their physical appearance is a mystery that, once solved, satisfactorily concludes the conversation.

    Brenda, I think this is one of those situations in which the asker’s intent, and the way they ask, may make a big difference. I like that Jen says, “Depending on the delivery of the question, I have been angered…or happy to engage.” It sounds to me like the people you’ve been asking about their backgrounds sound happy to engage, so you must be doing something right!

  3. I like Heidi Durrow’s answer to “What are you?” She says: “A story”

  4. Sady Sullivan Sady says:

    Hi Brenda, When did the Irish- and German-heritage folks in your family get together? Was it in Brooklyn?

  5. Nobody ever asks me what I am because I am a boring Caucasian; the few people who ever expressed interest in my (commonplace Irish/German) ethnic background flattered me with their attention, frankly. I grew up wishing to be fascinating and “exotic.” I have since heard from folks of other races (and mixes) that this is considered a demeaning stereotype. Oh, well. I’ve asked lots of people about their background–out of curiosity, yes, I prefer to call it “interest”–and they’ve often seemed proud and eager to share their heritage. Maybe I better keep my mouth shut from now on, or ask about the weather or their taste in reading…

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