What Are You? Short Answer: Alien

As a typical-modern-everyday product of the American society I have been exposed to a multitude of different people with unique ethnic backgrounds. Many of my friends as well as acquaintances are of various races. For example, two of my closest friends are Somali, and during our college experience I have noticed a large increase in how often they were approached with regards to their race or ethnicity. However, curiosity is not the issue, but rather the way these inquisitive strangers have asked these questions like:

“What are you?”

“Are you of African descent?”

“Are you black?”

Once they have disclosed their ethnicity they were stereotypically placed under the category of being “black”, despite the fact that race is a socially-constructed ideal. Consequently because of the category they had now been placed, they have also gotten the luxury of carrying the stereotypes in social settings.

In a generation where more interracial children are being born, it has become harder to distinguish between ethnicities. (Fun fact: Our generation has the largest number of bi-racial young adults in college.) Nonetheless, our American society is still constructed to label everything, and put everything—and one—in its place; hence the creation of races.

Yet the other problem aside from the questioning, is the idea that being one race isn’t enough. While researching I stumbled across this article jam-packed with a refreshing attitude depicting the exact situation I am discussing. Kristin Booker, the author of the article, humorously illustrates scenarios of when strangers don’t believe her when she says she is black or African-American.

I myself have encountered the same situation, but in the face of disbelievers I shrug it off. Also I am often tempted, like Kristin, to lie about my ethnic background. The truth is that it is far easier to tell a stranger that I am simply black or even African-American (sometimes I even go as far as to name a country), rather then go into the extended ethnic history of my family. It is unnecessary to know that my maternal grandmother was born and raised in a small Native American tribe in northern Florida, or that my grandfather is African-American. My disclosure of being black should suffice, but it never does and unfortunately is often challenged with “are you sure?”

A short video demonstration:

I’ve noticed this “need to know” is predominantly the woman’s affliction and has a strong relation to perceived beauty. Does exposing my ethnicity determine or affect my attractiveness? The bigger question being do men do this to other ethnic men? My assumption is that they would, because this is where presumptions, stereotypes, and possibly egos would, once again, come into play.


About alexisib

Junior at ODU
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2 Responses to What Are You? Short Answer: Alien

  1. Who are these women in the video you are using? Are these friends of yours? I don’t think you ever say.

    I completely sympathize with your fatigue at being asked about what your ethnicity is. What is really fascinating to me is how you (and the woman in the video) put it as “It is easier to just say…” Because I identified immediately with what you’re saying but I don’t believe I’ve ever read an anthropologist or sociologist tackling that issue in the literature. This notion of: who I am is complicated but I’m going to act like its not so that people will treat me a certain way. That is just begging for more research because it really reflects how inflexible American attitudes about race are.

    American racial discourse wants things to be in simple terms of black and white. So by saying: “It’s complicated, but whatever, I’m black” — you are giving into social pressures that are forcing you to conform to what other people say you are, not what you say you are. Really, really thought provoking!

    • alexisib says:

      The girls in the video are of no relation to me. I found them on youtube to use as my example of “these” types of questions. I agree with you about the research. I had a hard time finding anything about racial identities and american attitudes.

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