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S/O- "What are you?"

post #1 of 38
Thread Starter 
I figured I would bring this out here so that the "Are those your children?" thread wouldn't be hijacked.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Barbamama View Post
Let me try to explain -- with the caveat that this is something that I haven't totally thought through, and I'm writing on the fly. Would welcome others' reactions/input on this complex topic.

I think the "It's rude" reaction (which is what I was taught), comes from a couple of different places. First, that personal matters, including personal appearance, aren't proper subjects for casual chit-chat between strangers (e.g "what's in your purse?" "what size bra do you wear?" "tampon, pad or diva cup?" Would you really ask someone who you just met any of these questions? Even if you were genuinely curious? )
I think the question "What are you?" is rude- even insulting. I mean, really, what are you supposed to say? "I'm a parrot."? I can understand "What ethnic background are you?" or "Are you <this background>?" or something else along those lines but saying "What are you?" I would take offense to.
Personally, I see a *very* big difference between asking "What's your ethnic background?" and "Do you use tampons, pads or diva cups?". One really doesn't affect the rest of the world in any discernible way. However, heritage and cultures are world treasures which we each have a responsibility to preserve, learn about and respect. How are you capable of respecting (or even attempting to respect) another person's culture if you have no idea what culture they *are*? And if it's a culture you've never learned anything about, maybe it'll induce you to do so!

Quote:
....there are sub-cultures in the Philippines too depending on what region one is from.
There are sub-cultures within the US/continental Americas also. It was a huge culture shock for me to move from the middle of Canada to the West Coast of the US. I was used to being surrounded by Natives constantly and to suddenly go to a culture where the predominant culture is "white" was a big thing.

Quote:
Second, I think that there's the sense/fear that somehow the answer would make a difference to the questioner -- that the person will be categorized, perhaps discriminated against, based on his or her answer. And until recently -- last 30 yrs or so? -- one's answer to that question, at least in the US, could hold legal implications. So, to be color-blind, politically correct, polite, whatever you want to call it, one doesn't ask the question at all.
This makes total sense to me but really, how does one address fear? In my experience, the only way to do so is to face it and do it anyway. Oh yeah, and I try not to be "politically correct". I hate that term because I hate having my culture defined for me by the majority culture, even to the point of what I call myself. But that's another rant (and one I've been on before) so I'll just drop it. The answer held legal implications in Canada also- Natives were not supposed to be off their reserves (without written permission) until not long ago (60s/70s-ish)- and if found to be, could be killed (legally).

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Also, depending on the person's background, the answer might raise particularly difficult issues. When I tell curious insistent folks that no, I'm "just black," no, not mixed, not bi-racial, "just black" -- I'm giving them the cut and dried answer to a family ethnic history (part of which was lost due to slavery) that is waaaay more complicated than "just black." People who insist that I "must" be mixed with something and press me on the issue are asking questions that I really don't know the answer to, or don't care to discuss. Not nice.
I understand this too. I don't think it's polite to challenge what someone says is their culture- with very few exceptions. I've asked one person what their background was and was told "African" when they were *very* obviously white. Upon further investigation (a simple surprised- and totally involuntary- "African?"), they were from South Africa. If it turned out that they were African as in "black", I'd respect that too. People usually challenge me when I say I'm Native. I look "white", so I understand even if it is annoying.
post #2 of 38
Call me crazy, but I'd just to have someone ask about DS's ethnic background. I'd be more than happy to talk to them about all things Turkish, discuss culture, food differences, and why he wears the beads and charms he has on. As a culture, we'll never be comfortable with our differences until we can talk about them with impunity.
post #3 of 38
My response to this question definitely depends on who is asking.

"What are you?" is a pretty common question in my neighborhood, among people of color. We have a lot of multicultural families and people. I am often mistaken for Puerto Rican, so when I shake my head in response to the question of if I speak Spanish, "What are you?" is often the next question. (For some reason, it always makes me think of Arnold's questions in Kindergarten Cop "Who is your daddy and what does he do?") My kids are 1/4 black, 3/4 white (mostly Northern European) and we we get the question a lot because they have somewhat unique skin tones and combos of features. I like the question and the conversation that it bring on. We usually end up talking about interracial relationships, culture combinations, etc.

The question from a white person I am not very close with is a LOT more loaded. It's like the white privilege analogy w/ the loaded gun (more on that here: http://sassy-red-head.livejournal.com/341244.html ). Most of the time, I keep my answer simple and short until I can get at why I am being asked.
post #4 of 38
It's all in context. When it is asked. Who it is asked by.

So far this week I have learned there was a discussion about how "Italian" my DD looks. I have been asked if her Father is Arabic. People are intrigued by race/color/culture. DD is blessed and cursed by this. People sometimes openly doubt the fact her Father is her biological Father due to color and hair type. (Ick.) She and I discuss this often and options on how to respond, on choosing not to respond (it can get old) etc.


There is no one right answer.

Due to my name I have been assumed Native American, usually by Native Americans. Out here I have had native Americans "excited" to possibly find someone else native. I respond "No, my name is actually from..." This is never offensive as the question is never meant to be. But random "What kind of name is that?" with a crooked eye is.
post #5 of 38
I'm not too keen on that question. To me there often isn't a real good reason for a person to need to know this. When white people ask I often feel like it's coming from a less safe place, especially if they barely know me. I don't think it's a polite thing to ask right off the bat, much like religion, income etc. However most of my white friends after knowing me for a while have inquired, and I don't mind answering. Because I truly do feel like they are just curious, and it's not so much trying to size me up.

People of colour and new Canadians often ask a lot sooner. I think it comes from a different place, usually trying to find some sameness. I also try to remember that in many cultures, asking someone's background is often a form of introduction so it doesn't bother me as much.

With my kids, I'm a bit more guarded. My one son is olive skinned, while my other is white as a sheet white with blue eyes and the beginnings of very light hair as his baby hair is starting to fall out. But I generally apply the same rules.
post #6 of 38
Quote:
Originally Posted by menudo View Post
It's all in context. When it is asked. Who it is asked by.

:

I am biracial, black and white. I have had people be surprised to learn this and there are times that it has bothered me. There are people who think that black people act a certain way and when I don't fit the stereotype they are genuinely surprised. This is offensive to me. And no, I do not look white. But there are other people who may know that I'm not white, but don't seem surprised or care one way or another to find out I'm biracial. Oh, and I have actually had people make completely racist comments to me b/c they assume I'm white and I will just be in agreement w/ whatever they say.
post #7 of 38
Quote:
Originally Posted by Turkish Kate View Post
As a culture, we'll never be comfortable with our differences until we can talk about them with impunity.
I agree.

As far as the question "What are you?" is concerned, it really doesn't bother me. Maybe it's because English really wasn't my first language and I can hear myself saying it. I sometimes make direct translations of Tagalog to English and some just don't sound right . I do this despite having a pretty good grasp of English. My husband often tells me that I speak better English than most English-first-language speakers so I guess if a white person asks me that, I just chalk it up to strange choice of words.

What I find a bit irritating is when people don't believe that I was born and raised in the Philippines and go, "You can't be! Your English is so good and you hardly have an accent". I just don't know how to respond or even justify that comment (maybe I don't need to ).
post #8 of 38
Quote:
Originally Posted by grumpybear View Post
I agree.

What I find a bit irritating is when people don't believe that I was born and raised in the Philippines and go, "You can't be! Your English is so good and you hardly have an accent". I just don't know how to respond or even justify that comment (maybe I don't need to ).
This may be slightly O/T but the same thing happens to my husband. A lot of people are shocked to learn he is Jamaican because he has no accent. And there's a lot of other stereotypes of Jamaican men that people wanted to "warn me" about when we first started dating but that is definitely off topic!
post #9 of 38
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Turkish Kate View Post
Call me crazy, but I'd just to have someone ask about DS's ethnic background. I'd be more than happy to talk to them about all things Turkish, discuss culture, food differences, and why he wears the beads and charms he has on. As a culture, we'll never be comfortable with our differences until we can talk about them with impunity.
Do the beads and charms have to do with Islam or Turkish culture specifically?
post #10 of 38
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by dawningmama View Post
The question from a white person I am not very close with is a LOT more loaded. It's like the white privilege analogy w/ the loaded gun (more on that here: http://sassy-red-head.livejournal.com/341244.html ). Most of the time, I keep my answer simple and short until I can get at why I am being asked.
Okay, I get the loaded gun analogy BUT does that mean I shouldn't even bother trying to associate with/find people of my own "race" because I look "white"? I'm guessing I fit into the "anti-gun Gun Owner" class since I look white. Some of the points she brings up, even though I look white, I have those problems. I can't walk into a grocery store and find the foods which reflect my traditions (haven't seen any cat-tail roots for sale, although you're starting to see bison now) and I can't expect my race to be displayed as making civilization what it is nor can I trust that my race will be portrayed accurately by curricular materials, much less that they will "testify to the existence of my race". :
Sorry, but it really irks me when people automatically assume "white" coloring= not anywhere close to belonging to a minority group.

Earthgirl wrote:
Quote:
Oh, and I have actually had people make completely racist comments to me b/c they assume I'm white and I will just be in agreement w/ whatever they say.
I totally sympathize and, taking the Loaded Gun analogy from before, I guess they were totally shocked to suddenly find one of their own "guns" turned on *them*.
I actually had someone say something racist about my mom to me, not realizing she was my mom. That didn't turn out well.
post #11 of 38
Quote:
Originally Posted by menudo View Post
It's all in context. When it is asked. Who it is asked by.
I agree it's all in the context. Sometimes the "What are you?" question bugs me when I feel like it could be asked in a more intelligent way such as "What is your ethnic background?"

For the most part I'm pretty laid back about it until someone uses the word Oriental. That just makes me grit my teeth, I can't stand being referred to as Oriental and I can't stand hearing people call other Asians or refer to Asian things as Oriental.
post #12 of 38
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by pokeyrin View Post
For the most part I'm pretty laid back about it until someone uses the word Oriental. That just makes me grit my teeth, I can't stand being referred to as Oriental and I can't stand hearing people call other Asians or refer to Asian things as Oriental.
I'm not trying to be rude, but what is wrong with the term Oriental? I've never heard that it was offensive before now and I'm feeling really ignorant for not realizing it was.
post #13 of 38
I think "What are you?" (or, if they're asking about a young child "What is he/she?") is just about the most absurd question, when phrased like that! I feel anyone who asks it like that deserves a snide response. (Along those lines, someone asked my pregnant cousin "What are you having?" and she answered "My husband wants a puppy, but I expect it will be a baby."

But - then there's the question behind it and how to answer that... as with the "are those your children?", if they are asking about your kids or if they are with you in any case, one needs to be mindful of what they are hearing in the answer and frame your response for *those* ears... never mind what the nosey questioner thinks. But, again, as with the other thread, sometimes the person's being nosey and other times they are looking for connection and to find others like them. When I'm not with DS (I'm cc, he's AA), I'd appear pretty nosey and try not to ask such questions that might be percieved as "stupid". But, if I'm with him, I can ask more questions because people see why I'm asking. (I don't ever ask "what are you?", but if I see someone who is clearly AA with similar hair or skin to DS, I might ask about product and care suggestions. I've been tempted to ask about parent-child relationships or ethnicity to try to forge some bonds, but generally start up a general kid-focused conversation and see where it goes from there. Usually I can get what I need from that.)
- Cyndi
post #14 of 38
Quote:
Originally Posted by JacquelineR View Post
I'm not trying to be rude, but what is wrong with the term Oriental? I've never heard that it was offensive before now and I'm feeling really ignorant for not realizing it was.
I *think* it is now regarded as a slur but I really don't know how that came to be either. I've been referred to by my FIL as Oriental but since I really don't know what makes it offensive, it doesn't offend me at all.
I just tell him that he's not supposed to use that word anymore because it's un-PC. He didn't know it was now deemed offensive either.

I prefer to be called Filipino, of course.
post #15 of 38
Quote:
Originally Posted by grumpybear View Post
I *think* it is now regarded as a slur but I really don't know how that came to be either. I've been referred to by my FIL as Oriental but since I really don't know what makes it offensive, it doesn't offend me at all.
I just tell him that he's not supposed to use that word anymore because it's un-PC. He didn't know it was now deemed offensive either.

I prefer to be called Filipino, of course.
I'm not sure it's a slur, but it is definitely politically incorrect to refer to people as Oriental. I was taught that things are Oriental (rugs, food, etc.) but people are not. A friend of mine adopted a little girl from China and was very offended when people referred to her dd as "oriental," instead of Asian.
post #16 of 38
Thread Starter 

Olliepop, I just looked at the pic in your sig and your family is gorgeous. Your daughter looks so much like you, definitely has your smile.

I was taught things were Oriental and people were not also, so I find it kind of odd that people were referring to other people this way. On the same note though, if it's a case of using Oriental at all is offensive, I'm going to have a very difficult time thinking of an Oriental rug as an Asian rug.
Was this change brought on by the request of people of Asian descent? I ask that because I know that Native Americans didn't ask to suddenly start being called "Native Americans" instead of "Indians" (although that may have been a case of people of actual Indian-from-India descent having an issue with it). Ah, politics.
post #17 of 38
Quote:
Originally Posted by JacquelineR View Post
I'm not trying to be rude, but what is wrong with the term Oriental? I've never heard that it was offensive before now and I'm feeling really ignorant for not realizing it was.
I knew that it was disfavored except for a few specific things, (like rugs), but didn't really know the history behind it. This link gives a reasonable explanation, but I'd be interested in what someone of Asian descent has to say about it:

http://www.bartleby.com/64/C006/007.html
post #18 of 38
Quote:
Originally Posted by JacquelineR View Post
Okay, I get the loaded gun analogy BUT does that mean I shouldn't even bother trying to associate with/find people of my own "race" because I look "white"? I'm guessing I fit into the "anti-gun Gun Owner" class since I look white. Some of the points she brings up, even though I look white, I have those problems.
The thing about that analogy is that the "gun" is most fearful and powerful when it's presence isn't even acknowledged. So, if the question of "what are you" is followed up w/ and explanation for why the person is asking, that can quickly disarm the conversation (depending upon the explanation, obviously).

IME, some white people ask me this question to find out if they can let their anti-Latino-immigrant ignorance show. :

My mother, a white woman, was shocked at how much more racist everyday-talk she heard after I left for college and she socialized more with people who did not know she had a black ex-husband and a biracial daughter.
post #19 of 38
Quote:
Originally Posted by JacquelineR View Post
I'm not trying to be rude, but what is wrong with the term Oriental? I've never heard that it was offensive before now and I'm feeling really ignorant for not realizing it was.
You're not being rude or ignorant because it's not considered by all to be offensive and it's not a slur.

I don't personally find the word Oriental offensive and I know a few Asians who don't either. But I do know there are many Asians out there who do find it offensive and stereotypical. The only time I find the word offensive is when someone who clearly knows what my ethnic background is and they still refer to me or things from my culture as Oriental.

It's just one of those antiquated Eurocentric words that I find highly irritating when it's used to refer to a person because it's also used to describe objects/goods, such as an oriental rug, jewelry, or teapot. I spent a part of my youth living in a small town in Michigan where we were the token Asians and everyone referred to us as Orientals even though we owned the one Chinese restaurant in town.
post #20 of 38
Quote:
Originally Posted by grumpybear View Post
I *think* it is now regarded as a slur but I really don't know how that came to be either. I've been referred to by my FIL as Oriental but since I really don't know what makes it offensive, it doesn't offend me at all.
I just tell him that he's not supposed to use that word anymore because it's un-PC. He didn't know it was now deemed offensive either.

I prefer to be called Filipino, of course.
My MIL drove me batty because she kept referring to me as Oriental when she obviously knew I was Chinese. I casually suggested to her that she use Asian instead because some people find Oriental to be offensive. She had no idea it was considered offensive and I wasn't surprised at all because that is definitely a term used by her generation.

Which reminds me when my dear MIL decided to throw me a lovely surprise bridal shower and across the top of the invite in big letters she wrote: "Ancient Chinese Secret" and then the details of the party and no other reference that it was to be a surprise for me.

No one who received the invite understood that it meant a surprise party. A few good friends called me up because they were puzzled by the invite which was printed on this lovely Asian themed paper with Japanese writing and designs.
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