In seventh grade I attended a poetry slam at the College of William & Mary performed by two women speaking about what it was like to be labeled “Asian.” They brought words to a sentiment I had been feeling my whole life. They reminded me that I was allowed to be angry, that it was okay if I was frustrated by others’ need to place me in a box.
Ever since I can remember, within five minutes of meeting someone new, they never seem to fail to ask me the wrong question: What Are You? Their eyes squint unapologetically at me, and I can see the gears of their mind turn gracelessly to a halt by the inability to put a finger on the answer to their somewhat thoughtless question. What they mean to ask is what is my race, ethnicity, heritage, culture, give-it-any-name-you-wish. I often respond, capriciously, that I am a human being, a girl, a student, whatever bland alternatives to the disheartening answer for which they are truly searching. This usually makes for unfavorable first impressions, but if a label is really all they wanted to know other than my name, I am fine with it.
“What are You?” Quite the serious question to ask someone you’ve just met. As if I were some novelty knickknack in an antique store. As if I were some object they could check off of their “I Spy” list. As if I were a new toy that didn’t quite fit into their preconceived boxes, as if I needed a new box just for me. Trust me, 2 Chainz reminds me that I’m different, yeah I’m different, but does that make me special? When did it become okay to ask a person if they could just kindly sum up exactly where their parents, or their grandparents, or even their great-grandparents happened to be born? Why is it so frustrating when my answer is still the United States of America?
When I was asked this question in preschool I was not sure how to respond. I went home to my mother and she told me to tell them that I was a negress. So I went back to school proudly and mistakenly declaring the fact that I was a tigress. (Maybe that explains why I chose Princeton?) In elementary school when asked again, I would tell my friends that I was black. They would laugh at me and tell me, “You can’t be black, I mean just look at your skin.” How could I prove it to them? How could I tell them about the history of the Cape Verde islands when the only blacks we learned about had been brought against their will on slave ships instead of famed navigators on whaling ships?
Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of who I am. I am proud of the people in my family and the sacrifices they have made to get me where I am today, based on their individual tenacity and hard work rather than their race. What I was not proud of was when my multitude of races could only be explained in such narrow-minded formations. People assumed that when I got good grades it was just because I was Asian but when they found out I was a DJ it was because I was black. I hated it. I hated how they thought that they could pick apart pieces of me to find explanations for my actions instead of perhaps looking at the whole me, the multitude of identities that I possess.
But that’s just it, what the question fails to account for is who I am, which is what they thought they were asking. No. They were asking me the wrong question. My ethnicity can’t tell them that I am a harpist or that I love to watch action thrillers. My race can’t tell them that I have traveled to Peru but never laid eyes on Japan. Maybe in the future I will tell people what I am not. Maybe I will tell them that I am not just another person to fill up the diversity quota of my progressive white friend groups. Maybe I will tell them that I am not in fact a “cool mix,” because I am not an album by their favorite DJ nor am I dog. But above all, I will tell them to look beyond the superficial and ask the right question.