Why asking 'what are you' can often be offensive
My French accent has always been source of questions in Miami. Despite my 11 years of residency in the so called “melting pot” city, I have never spent one day in Miami without answering the “where are you from’ question. It became my daily routine but as the years passed by I also realized that another question has been thrown at me even before I started talking.
‘What are you?’, or ‘what is your ethnic background?’ has become the new rite of passage for any social event I am attending. At the beginning, I was amused by the question as I felt empowered by a mission to educate people on mixed offspring, but the usual reaction I get when I explain that my father is French “from France, and not Haiti”, and that “my mother is black from Guadeloupe, a French island in the Caribbean” is what started to really aggravate me.
Mixed children are born with no real same combination of genes and features. I have three sisters and we all display different skin tones, body type and facial features. United Colors of Benetton could have hired us for their international billboards ads. I would have been the light skin woman with kinky hair and a muscular body and prominent behind!
Everyone asked me the question, blacks, white, and Latinos among others, but there is a difference between white people and black people asking the question. The first group will have that surprised look as I announce the “French” part of my heritage, then a high pitch “really?” usually escapes their mouth as they start a cross examination with questions such as “not Haiti? Or a Brazilian background? Are you sure?”
The need to discern where the black features on my face or body come from is always stronger than just accepting my answer. I guess every French person should come dress with a beret and a baguette at hand while singing “La vie en rose” and having Pepé le Pew on a leash.
This is exactly what bothers me when the question comes from a white person. Most of the time, they look disappointed when I explain that I am a mixed child born from a black woman and a white man, as they were expecting a more exotic and interesting explanation.
When I usually return the favor, they often look surprised and simply answer ” I’m from here” or “I’m from New York.” I have yet encountered someone who would explain “My mother’s family came from Poland, and my father’s side fled England for a better life in the State, and that is why I am white with green eyes!” So if they don’t feel obligated to give me their geological tree story when I ask them, why should I?
I recall growing up in France and having children and adults confused about my ethnicity regardless of their skin colors, so it does not only occurs in Miami or the States. My mother has always told me tales of people stopping her dark skin black figure in the French supermarket to ask her the origins of the little girl with the blond Afro she was “babysitting” aka moi!
But let’s return to the States where some of my early experiences as a mixed woman really opened my eyes on the lack of discernment from my black peers. My social security application was received by a black man at a Miami office. After reviewing it, he handed the form back to me telling me I made a mistake by checking the black box in the race identification section.
I asked him what I should check instead, and he looked at me as I was mentally ill and answered with a firm tone “White!” as it was obvious to him. I had to explain my heritage background for five minutes for him to accept my application as is. Although he did not understand why I would choose to identify with the Black side instead of the white one, he still insisted on informing me that as I was entitled to check white as my skin was so fair.
I found it more offensive for a black person to doubt my answers. I am aware that most people will ask me where I am from because of my accent, but the “What is your mix?” makes me feel like a new breed at a zoo. Curiosity can be blame on human nature regardless of their skin color, but some people can be plain rude on the topic. I used to work in a department store as a make-up artist for a black make up line and once encountered two black women who started yelling and cursing at me when I described a specific powder as “one made for us, black women.”
They refused to believe I was black. They felt offended thinking I was trying to pass for black to reach my sale goal and that I was a Latina. I had to take my mother’s picture out of my wallet to calm them down and avoid potential trouble with my management.
The “where are you from” question does not bother me as I know my accent will always tip people off, but personally, I would expect black people to have a better understanding of our wide cultural and ethnic spectrum.
To summarize, I get the questions from all type of people in Miami or any other city. There is a polite way to inquire about someone’s ethnicity but the reactions to my answers are really what offended me throughout the years coming from white and black people: “Are you sure there is not some Spanish in you?’ or ” You must have been your mom’s favorite for being the lighter”, or ” I knew you had some black somewhere.” Or my favorite ” Ahhhhh…I knew you were not 100 percent French!”
I now decided to have fun with the perpetual questioning instead of being offended. I sometimes lie and invent some fictitious backgrounds just to see reactions.
White people always seem passionate about my personal stories. I can pretend to be half Russian and Peruvian, or two third Australian and one quarter Mexican; they will always question my answer and ask if I am sure that there is not something missing.
Black people ( I need to specify African-American, and not Caribbean in this example) are usually amazed at my cultural difference and not so much my skin tone or hair style.
But most of the time, it boils down to trying to explain my difference by rationalizing my ethnic origins. If my parents are mixed, most black people would tell me that “I came out very fair”, or “I did not get the good hair from my father’s side!”