Mi manito took my 8-year-old Sobrino to the movies, during fiesta time in northern nuevo méxico. At the theater they ran into young girl from a nearby town, still decked out in her dress and crown, clearly proud to have been named queen this year. (btw-fiesta queens are usually seniors in high school—17 or 18 years old.) Manito introduced Sobrino who was standing next to him.
“So what, did you have jungle-fever?” she asked Manito.
“You did not just say that to me in front of my son!” he responded, making his annoyance clear.
“What are you?” she asked, turning to Sobrino.
“I’m Mexican!” he stated defiantly.
She was taken aback by his confidence. “Oh yea? Well, what’s your mom?”
Sobrino looked up at Manito, unsure about how to respond. “It’s okay. Be proud of who you are. Tell her about your mom.”
“My mom is black,” he said.
“See, I was right!” she exclaimed, self-satisfied.
This was the story Manito relayed to me a couple weeks ago. He was real pissed. As was I, upon hearing the story. This was, after all, a fiesta queen. And if we understand correctly, she was chosen by her peers and her community to represent her town as queen. She must have good grades and speak well in front of a crowd. To paraphrase Manito, that’s a bullshit way to represent. Oh, and also freakin’ racist. Yea dude.
When I was a kid, I always hated the “what are you?” question. And hearing about Sobrino’s experience makes me more angry than I felt when it has happened to me. Actually, the “what are you?” question bothers me less now than it did then, but that may be because these kinds of questions tended to surface only when my classmates saw my mom. Otherwise it probably didn’t occur to them that I’m Chinese Am too—until I started going to Chinese School (which only lasted for a year) or when they saw my middle name. I didn’t know how to respond to it. Even now, it surprises me—making me take a brief moment of stunned silence before I respond. And I usually have to decide whether the person is actually ignorant, an asshole, or just careless with his/her words. I see the multiracial issue taking shape in other ways in my life, but not so much in these overt ways anymore.
Manito and I discussed the pros and cons of different responses to the “What are you?” question. And whether stating the obvious—“I’m a human being”—can be misunderstood to mean that you are not proud of who you are. Or if asking the same question back—“what are YOU?”—does any good. Because if the person is pendej@ enough to ask it in the first place, they probably are too pendej@ to understand how fucked up it is.
The fact is, the “what are you?” question denies your humanity. It is more a statement than a question. Most of the time there’s an underlying judgement of sex that mixture implies. And after that, it depends on how the conversation goes. Maybe it’s the half-this-half-that thing which I HATE with a loathing indescribable. Or maybe it’s the oh-mixed-people-are-so-beautiful thing (which I tend to think is true, but that’s probably also linked to some kind of arrogant, leo-ish sorta thing–and then again, who isn’t mixed anyhow?). Or maybe it’s the oh-what-an-interesting-mix or the aren’t-you-just-a-model-of-the-American-melting-pot bullshit. Whichever way the conversation goes, it will most likely make you out to be only partially human (and therefore either an animal or not of this earth), and will probably mathematically divvy up your body parts across the globe, reifying all those socially constructed, geopolitical boundaries.
Funny. That fiesta queen (who’s probably related to us in some way because everyone from that area is) didn’t ask Manito the “what are you?” question. And Sobrino didn’t say anything about being Chinese too. The thing is, when the “what are you?” question comes up, it’s only a moment–but it’s a moment with strong ripple effects.
So, how to prepare mi sobrino to respond to this question and questions like it. It will surely come up in his life again. And you’d think that his papá and his tía, being multiracial people who have thought a lot about this sort of thing, would have an answer. But we don’t. Manito’s response, not because Sobrino is multiracial, but because he is brown (meaning not white), is to foster a sense of pride. He wants Sobrino to know and love his familia, to understand our histories and cultures, to feel as comfortable with himself as possible, so that he can confront other obstacles. Maybe that’s all we can strive for.