The “What Are You” Question – Alive and Well

By Takara Larsen, MRN Secretary and Historian

Recently, I was at a social event where the only person I knew was a co-worker.
Though everyone else there was new to me, it didn’t stop these new acquaintances
from asking me variations of the question I’ve fielded my whole life—the “What Are
You” question.

I identify as multiracial; my father is half Japanese and white, and my mother is
African-American. I look racially ambiguous—funny enough, people have assumed
that I’m Spanish, Polynesian, Indian, etc. When I was younger, in grade school, high
school, and even college, people wouldn’t hesitate to ask “what are you” openly. I
would need to recount all of my family history to satisfy people’s curiosities about
my background.

It gets pretty tiring to have to keep answering the same question over and over,
especially when it’s so intrusive! It’s generally thought of as rude to ask people
they’ve just met how much money they make, how much they weigh, or what their
religion is, but people let it fly when they want to know more about my background.
I’ve noticed presently, with the American public being more aware of political
correctness, that the What Are You Conversation goes something like this:

“So, where are you from?”
“Uhh, from here” (meaning Massachusetts)
“No, I mean, like, where are your parents from?”
“They’re from here, too, why?”

And…the conversation goes on from there. Of course I know what people are
getting at when they begin to ask me these kinds of questions, and I admit that I am
vague on purpose. It’s almost fun to go back and forth until the real purpose of the
conversation comes out.

It’s never just curiosity—even though I was born and raised in Massachusetts,
people automatically assume I’m not a native New Englander. I must be from
somewhere else, somewhere exotic. That would explain it! Since I’m not from
somewhere that seems exotic, like, I don’t know, Brazil, people often fixate on the
most exotic-sounding part of my background, which ends up being the Japanese part
of my family background.

When it comes out that I’ve never been to Japan, no unfortunately, I don’t speak
Japanese (my grandfather didn’t want his kids speaking Japanese in the ‘50s
and ‘60s United States), and my Obaachan (grandmother) lives in Connecticut and
not Japan, I become much less interesting than at first glance. Yup, though I might
not look it to some, I’m a New Englander that complains about all four seasons of

weather during the year and worries about whether the Sox are going to be any
good in the spring, just like everyone else.

While these continuous interactions are more of a nuisance to me than anything
really serious, it’s grating to have to prove that I’m not from some foreign land of
people’s imaginations, and that I am, once again, just like everyone else. The 2010
US census showed that the multiracial population is growing rapidly, so there surely
will be other multiracial individuals that will go through similar experiences as I
have and do. Hopefully, with time, we’ll be seen not as an “other” but as people with
many things in common with everyone else.

About the Author
Takara Larsen is in her second year serving as the secretary and historian for MRN.  She works as a Residence Director at Emerson College in Boston, MA.  Takara has a personal and academic interest in the subject of multiracial students in higher education.  She has facilitated RA training and professional development sessions on the topic.  The representation of multiracial people in pop culture is also of great interest to Takara—look out for her next blog post this spring!


One thought on “The “What Are You” Question – Alive and Well

  1. Wow Takara! I love this post. Thank you for sharing your narrative in a very candid and authentic way. I’ve been thinking a lot about this question- as I get asked it a lot too. I haven’t felt conflicted in answering until recently as I’ve been starting to apply to positions for after graduate school. Some applications require me to answer the “What are you?” question, but there is no way for me to indicate two or more races or “other.” It’s pretty much just “choose the ONE you identify with the most.” And then I wonder which race I choose will create the path of least challenge/resistance/explanation. We should definitely continue the conversation!

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