Just Because I Don’t Look White Doesn’t Mean You Can Ask Me “What” I Am

Alexandra Bellink
Alexandra Bellink

My father is white and my mother is not – not that it’s any of your business.

As a moderately attractive (modest, too), single 30 year old woman, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thrown “What ARE you?” by a similarly-aged male at a social gathering or pub on a Friday night. What AM I? What do you want me to be? The only thing your question is telling me is that you might be a little bit racist.

Given my background, I’ll admit that I could be perceived as “unusual-looking” or “exotic” to many. I have olive, yet somehow oddly fair skin, dark hair and asian-esque eyes, a wide nose, and full lips. You might argue that I should just take the question as a compliment, answer them, and let the conversation carry on.. but after it’s happened enough and always in the same way, I have to wonder what the real question being asked is.

My theory is that what someone throwing the “what ARE you?” line at me is really saying is “I need to put you into a category to feel comfortable.”

They might think they’re just trying to be friendly and open a dialogue, but it never seems to occur to them to consider how that question might make me feel. I remember the first time I realized I was different, and therefore possibly, maybe, inferior because of that difference. I grew up in a small, mostly white town. I was in grade 2 or 3 and a group of older girls ran up to me in the school yard and demanded to know, “Are you black or Chinese?” and then proceeded to argue about it amongst themselves when I didn’t know the answer. Before that day, it had never even occurred to me to wonder about such things. It’s one of the earliest negative experiences in my life that I can remember in detail.

My older brother and I look nothing alike. I got all the darker genes; with my olive skin and Asian-esque eyes, and a “black” nose. He looks, for the most part, white. People have asked us on multiple occasions if we have the same parents.  People refuse to believe him when he says he’s part Chinese, or Portuguese or black.

Perhaps, the person you really should question is yourself. Why do you find my mixed ethnicity fascinating? Why do you need to know?

Unfortunately, I’ve had multiple experiences where the person is interested in my ethnic background only and they aren’t interested in anything else. Sometimes, I feel like a space on a mixed-race persons Jeopardy game – “I’ll take racially ambiguous 20-something woman” for 300, Alex.”

The thing is, I don’t identify with one thing over another. What am I? I’m me.

This skin, this body, this hair, this nose… it’s all I’ve ever known and all I’ve ever known it as is ME.  Why does one facial feature have to come from here and another from there? I understand that in many cases, the “exotic” remarks and questions are meant to be compliments, and really, it’s wonderful that someone new is interested in me and wants to understand me (assuming they actually want to know more than just what I AM). But, perhaps, think of a better way to frame  your question than “what ARE you”, and don’t lead the conversation with that. There’s more to me than how I look and where I may or may not be from. TC mark

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