Where are you from? What are you? You look so exotic.
When Senator Elizabeth Warren released her DNA test results earlier this month, she highlighted our country’s obsession with defining and identifying racial identity, ethnic heritage and culture.
For racially ambiguous students at UT, questions of racial and ethnic identity are central to their experience on campus. During my freshman year, I remember a classmate loudly expressing disbelief when I mentioned that I was Latina. I wished I hadn’t said anything.
While many students might be comfortable discussing their racial or ethnic heritage, it’s disorienting when this discussion takes place during introductions. Instead of making assumptions about a student’s race or indirectly asking about it through dehumanizing questions, sometimes, it’s better to just ask.
“I think the weirdest question I get is ‘what are you?’ and it makes me feel like a monster,” said advertising junior Alyssa Barbee. “I know that they’re asking about my race, but it’s such a demeaning question.”
When students are asked questions such as “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” they’re really being asked to unpack and negotiate all the facets of their racial and cultural identity. “I make them explicitly ask me what race I am,” Barbee said.
There’s no doubt that race is a major part of our society, and racial color-blindness isn’t the answer. However, we should be mindful of our intentions when asking someone about their racial or ethnic identity.
Asking a student where they’re from might be well-intentioned, especially because students at UT come from all over the world. However, when a student says they’re from a small town in Texas, it’s uncomfortable and invasive to follow up with “But where are you really from?”
It’s appropriate to ask students where they’re from as long as the intention is only to find out about their high school or home-town. Usually, students will volunteer more information about their background if they feel comfortable. However, asking a student “What are you?” is less appropriate. Instead, if you’re curious about someone’s race, there are ways to ask that are appropriate and direct – “How do you identify racially?” is an option. Of course, this will vary for each individual. Be prepared to get turned away if the person does not feel like identifying themselves.
For mixed-race and mixed-ethnicity individuals, claiming a racial identity can be especially complicated. “People want you to be just one thing, a mental shortcut,” said Delaney Holton, an Asian studies junior. “Even though others might try to invalidate your identity,” Holton said, “Being mixed doesn’t mean being less of either one.”
“It’s a part of who you are, but it’s not who you are,” Barbee said. “I’m a person, I’m a student.”
Regardless of what careers we choose to pursue, we must learn to be aware of how we talk about racial and ethnic identity and the questions we pose to those who are racially ambiguous. In doing this, we will develop the interpersonal skills necessary to become decent human beings.
So if you really want to ask me about my race, don’t make assumptions – just do it already.
Lopez is a rhetoric and writing junior from McAllen.