I always know when it’s coming. People always have the same look on their face right before they say it: “What are you?”
The first time I was asked this, I didn’t know what to say. There were so many answers — I could have said “I’m Asian — Filipino, actually,” or I could have said, “I’m Russian,” or I could have simply said, “I’m mixed-race.”
But truth be told, the people who ask me these questions are usually not satisfied with any of these answers, responding with “Really? You don’t look Asian” or “Oh, I would have guessed _______.” Every once in a while I receive a, “You can’t be Filipino! You don’t seem *random adjective that actually has nothing to do with Filipino culture*.” Even the simple, “mixed-race” answer elicits a whole lot of questions. When I am straightforward and tell people my ethnicities, I often get responses such as “Ooh, how exotic” or “What an interesting mix!” My least favorite — and the most common — comment I get is, “Yeah, I thought you looked like you were something.”
The objectification of mixed-race people is nothing new. It’s been happening for centuries and I’m certainly not the first person to deal with it. Referring to mixed-race people as “exotic” has become so normalized that most people don’t even realize how dehumanizing it can be.
It took me several years to realize how much these questions — and moreso, the responses to my answers — hurt me. Why do people feel entitled to interrogate strangers about their race or ethnicity? Why do they feel that they have a right to question my identity because I don’t look white enough or brown enough to fit their stereotypes? Why do people think that it’s okay to trivialize someone’s culture by reducing it to one-dimensional characteristics?
I don’t have answers to these questions yet, except to say that most people still feel like they need to catalog people in their minds by race or ethnicity. I understand the natural curiosity that people feel towards someone who appears racially or ethnically ambiguous, but I think it will always bother me that others think it is okay to argue with someone about their identity because they don’t fit into what the outsider believes that identity should look like.
I’ve accepted the fact that I will probably have to field these questions for the rest of my life, but I’ve got an answer for the next time someone tells me that I look like I’m “something:” Everyone is something.
My race is not what makes me “something.” Being a mixed-race person does not make me “something,” and neither does my whiteness or my Filipino heritage. I do not want to be exotified or objectified for my race(s). I do not want to constantly be looked at as “something” instead of “someone.” If you deconstruct “something,” do you know what you get?
I am not a thing. I am a person. I should not be defined by others solely by my race —whether through visible or invisible characteristics. People should not have to challenge my cultural identity in order to contextualize me in their minds. My race is a part of me, but it is not who I am.