This Is Why I’m No Longer Accepting People Asking Me “What Are You?”
I was in the fourth grade when my family and I moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in Queens, New York. Before then, I had lived my life mainly surrounded by Latinos, including Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, like myself.
Nine-year-old me had no idea how much this move would impact my identity, even into adulthood. I had no clue that from that point on I would constantly be approached with the same irritating question: “What are you?”
While I wasn’t the only non-white kid in my class, I was the only Latina, and that triggered a ton of curiosity from students who hadn’t otherwise been exposed to Latin culture before.
“What are you,” I remember a white boy in my class asking me. Confused, I responded with another question.
“What do you mean? I’m a girl,” I said.
“No, what are you? You’re not Indian, right,” he pressed.
“No, I’m Latina,” I responded. “I’m Dominican.”
(Image Credit: Johanna Ferreira)
Like a lot of students in the class, the boy had no idea that to be Dominican was even a thing.
“Is that the same as Mexican or Puerto Rican?” he asked.
These sorts of questions only continued into adulthood. Being a racially mixed “ethnically ambiguous-looking” Latina, I’ve been constantly confused for Brazilian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, Indian, Persian, Puerto Rican, bi-racial, multi-racial and I’ve even gotten specifically southern Italian – believe it or not.
But being confused for other ethnicities or a different race isn’t what offends me. I get it. In fact, I think there’s something beautiful about the fact that you can be from a totally different part of the world as someone else and still look somewhat alike. What offends me is the desperate need for people to know my heritage within minutes of meeting me. Why is this so important? It’s as if people need to know what specific kind of brown I am in order to relate or understand me.
But aside from that, what bothers me are the reactions I receive many times from people after learning that I’m Latina. If I don’t meet someone’s stereotypical idea of what a Latina should look like or behave, I’m often immediately met with statements like: “Oh, but you don’t talk like a Latina,” “You don’t have a Spanish accent” and “Yes, you have that ‘sexy’ Latina look.” Then there’s my personal favorite: “You’re not the typical Washington Heights Dominican” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.
(Image Credit: Johanna Ferreira)
I also detest being called “exotic” because it’s actually a lot more harmful than it is flattering. Let’s start off by dissecting its actual meaning. The dictionary definition of exotic is “of foreign origin or character; not native.” I was born here, so this doesn’t suit me. Another definition is “exotic foods” and “exotic plants,” to which I am neither. Exotic is also defined as “striking unusual or strange in effect or appearance.” If you go to Latin America — or any Latino neighborhood in this country — you’ll find plenty of women who look just like me, so this doesn’t ring true for me, either. And, finally, exotic is also listed as something “relating to, or involving strip teasing.” I’m not a stripper, so this one is off, too.
People really don’t realize the discriminating, condescending and racist undertones that come up when you ask a woman of color “What are you” or refer to her as “exotic.” The message that person is conveying to me is that I’m not as “normal” or even as “human” as they are. Now, how in the world is that a compliment?
To be clear, my experience with being asked “What are you” has not been exclusive to men. I have been asked this question multiple times by both men and women but more often than not, by white men and women specifically — though it certainly adds a deeper layer when asked by white men. In fact, the question comes up often, particularly on my dates with white men though, of course, there are exceptions and it has happened with men of different backgrounds.
Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the majority of the white men I’ve gone on dates with tend to exoticize me because I’m Latina. This is problematic because Black and brown women’s bodies have been fetishized for centuries, dating back to the beginning of colonialism. Black and brown women have been objectified, raped and dehumanized by European colonizers.
(Image Credit: Johanna Ferreira)
I didn’t even understand the depth of this until I became older and started reading up on Latin American history. It might sound extreme, but every time a white man fetishizes me for being Latina, I can’t help but think about what the Spanish conquistadors in Latin America put my Taino Indian and African ancestors through. I can’t help but think about the #metoo movement that sits heavy in my heart and how the term “exotic” many times encourages rape culture.
Every time I’m asked “What are you” and I don’t initially respond the way that person expected me to respond, a series of questions immediately follows. They consist of everything from “Where are you from,” “What’s your ethnicity,” “Where are your parents from,” “Where does your ‘exotic’ look come from” and so on and so forth. Once they discover I’m Latina, then additional annoying questions and comments follow, such as:
“Are you fluent in Spanish? Can you tell me something in Spanish? Do you only speak to your parents in Spanish? Can you dance salsa? Do you know how to make Dominican food? Can you make me rice and beans one day,” along with numerous mentions of me not meeting certain Latina or Dominican stereotypes.
Asking someone “What are you” upon meeting them isn’t an icebreaker. It’s rude. Deliberately or not, it feels as if someone is pointing out my “otherness.” It alienates me and makes me feel like they’re implying that I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here because I don’t look like them. I don’t look obviously white or obviously black. It also highlights our differences in power, especially in the case of white men.
There’s a privilege that comes with being a white man in the U.S. – and most of them are fully aware of it. So when they emphasize my “otherness” and equate my heritage or “ambiguous appearance” with desirability, it separates us and points to who is in power. I have experienced men texting me that famous Al Pacino meme that reads: “What do Latinas do Better? Everything.”
I’ve even witnessed white men jokingly telling me I wouldn’t have to wait long for a table at an upscale restaurant because, after all, I was with “a white man.” This might sound harmless to some, but on a larger scale, this creates a social and gender divide that’s quite harmful for women of color.
We live in the U.S., a country that still maintains a very racialized social system, a society that still very much operates in a way that grants economic, political, social and psychological rewards to the white community. Race still very much matters here because of our history and because of our current political climate. When we live in a society – basically a world – that still operates this way and we ask POC what they are – we are reminding them of where they stand or rank in this racialized planet.
If you don’t believe it, a 2011 study conducted by Stanford University psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt proved it. The study addresses the concept of racial residue, which is basically the result of living in a racialized society. It found that race tends to alter our perceptions of not just people but also objects and spaces. It found evidence that proved race not only influences how we see people, but it leaves behind a residue on the physical stimuli that we’re confronted with on a daily basis.
Like a lot of women of color, my immediate way of handling these kinds of questions for years was always to remain calm and collected about it. I never wanted the person to feel as uncomfortable as they made me, so I focused on responding in a way that put that person at ease. This was out of fear that if I reacted aggressively I would be perceived as the stereotypical loud, hot-tempered, overly passionate and overly emotional Latina.
(Image Credit: Marissa Pina)
But the constant exoticizing I’ve had to endure over the years has made my patience run dry.
I recently had a conversation about this with a fellow Latina friend who asked, “Is it so bad for people to express curiosity about our background?” That’s not the issue at all. It’s all about context. Why is this the first question you would want to ask someone upon meeting them? Do you feel a need to immediately define or place them? And if that’s the case, I’m sorry to break it to you, but my heritage does not define me. It’s just part of who I am.
There are also organic ways to express curiosity about one’s background or heritage without making them feel alienated or less American because of the way they look.
Racial division has always existed in this country, but the current discourse – especially post-Trump – has made it a bigger part of the national and political conversation. It has forced these issues to come to the forefront and has triggered an awakening in many of us to see that our society hasn’t actually made as much progress as we once believed. This is precisely why asking me a question that further alienates me in my own country is no longer acceptable for me.
I will no longer tolerate this question — today, tomorrow or ever.
Let us know how you deal with the question, “What are you,” in the comments below!
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