One of the greatest psychological challenges of being mixed race is regularly having your racial identity questioned and rejected by people around you. Living in a society where single race categorization has been the social norm for centuries, mixed race people who look racially ambiguous often face public questioning about their race. Many mixed race children and adults regularly experience strangers approaching them to ask questions like “what are you?”, “where are you from?”, “where are you really from?,” “where are your parents from?”, and “what’s your background?”.
While public questioning might sound harmless, and some people may argue that most people are simply curious and have no malicious intention, this line of questioning can lead to the mixed race child’s confusion about themselves and their identities. It may make them feel different at a time in their life when they want most to fit in.
Often times, the “what are you?” question will lead to incongruence between the asker and the mixed race person, whereby the mixed person will provide an answer that the asker rejects. The asker’s reaction to the mixed person expressing their identity might be, “no way,” “you don’t look like that,” “I don’t believe it,” or even “no you’re not,” or “you’re lying.” These kinds of responses can lead to psychological distress in the mixed race person and a negative sense of self. Even “positive” responses (like “that’s so cool!” or “how interesting!”), while not directly challenging the mixed person’s identity, may serve to make them feel othered.
However, the “what are you” question is not always be perceived negatively. Sometimes questions can be hurtful, infuriating, annoying, exhausting, and frustrating. On the other hand, as mixed race children develop their identities and sense of self, some will go through periods of time when they appreciate being asked or having their difference pointed out — being mixed makes them feel special or unique. This may be contingent upon how the person asks, and on the situation/context/environment where the question is asked. A mixed race child growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and school may have different experiences of the “what are you?” question than those of a child growing up in an urban, multicultural environment where difference is celebrated.
Introduce the “what are you?” question and it’s variations to your child from a young age, so they can be prepared to face it in the future.
Help your child understand and identify their ethnicity in a way that makes sense for them. Perhaps comparing the different skin colors in your family; taking out a world map and talking about where their grandparents or great grandparents came from; mixing paint hues together to represent the blending of melanin.
Reassure your child that they never need to explain themselves to anyone. If someone asks them the “what are you?” question, they should only answer if they want to, and only to the extent that they feel comfortable with. Teach them ways to turn the question back around or deflect it (“I’m human, what about you?”).
Remember that there is no “right” way to identify or express identity. You can only help your child explore how they feel and how they wish to identify themselves. Check out our “Mixed Who?” page to see how real mixed race people choose to answer the “what are you?” question and other questions like it. Inspire your child to create their own variety of answers that make them feel proud, comfortable, and confident.