Why People Ask, “What Are You?”
We’re often driven to identify a person’s race—but we should resist that urge.
Posted Nov 27, 2018
Did you know that one in 10 babies born in the U.S. today is mixed race1? Nowadays, approximately one out of every 40 people that you meet is multiracial2. This proportion is higher among young people2 and will only continue to grow over time. Multiracial Americans are a heterogeneous, diverse group of people, and their identities can be complex, dynamic, and nuanced. Nonetheless, one common experience of multiracial individuals is that other people are confused by their racial background. Multiracial people are often asked, “What are you?” Hearing this question can be abrupt, abrasive, and dehumanizing, especially when it’s asked by a stranger and occurs outside of the natural flow of conversation.
I’d like to reflect on this seminal multiracial experience from the perspective of the question-asker: What is driving this person to subvert social norms to ask this question? How can they take a different, less intrusive path that leads to a more positive interaction?
First, be honest with yourself about whether you’ve ever been the question-asker. Maybe you haven’t asked this out loud but have found yourself preoccupied with trying to figure out a racially ambiguous person’s race. Why are we so dedicated to identifying the person’s race? Social psychologists have a simple answer to this question. Racial categorization and categorization of other demographic characteristics (e.g., their gender) is a ubiquitous part of social perception. The rare occasions when we can’t tell someone’s gender or race surprise us because we typically deduce this information about another person instantly.
Moreover, we generally find social category information to be informative. Although most people agree that having strong expectations about someone based on their race isn’t right, we do use information about a person’s racial background to guide our knowledge of the person when we don’t have better information on which to rely. One example of this is a job interview. Imagine that you are apprehensive about an upcoming job interview. It’s a nerve-wracking situation in which you know you will be evaluated on your job skills and your social skills. Somehow, knowing the age, gender, and race of your interviewer in advance might calm your nerves a little bit, because you think that you have a better idea of how the interview will go. Even if you are wrong, having social category information feels like having a social “safety net” going into a social interaction. To return to the question of why knowing someone’s race is important to us, the mere fact that you are curious about another person’s racial background is a byproduct of normal mental shortcuts. Emerging research suggests that, among White Americans, knowing a racially ambiguous person’s background (compared to not knowing it) leads to more positive social interactions with that person3.
When you don’t know someone’s racial background, it can feel unnerving4,5. However, asking “What are you?” to another person can be perceived as intrusive. The question can communicate that you care more about satisfying your curiosity than you do about being polite and considerate. Instead, think about whether there are other ways to satisfy your curiosity about this person. Since this curiosity stems from wanting to know what to expect and how to act around the person, try to replace the curiosity about a person’s race with curiosity about the person. If we have more detailed information about the particular person, their social identities become less relevant. Perhaps ask questions about the person’s job or hobbies. We’re all eager to share who we are and what we take pride in. After all, getting to know others on a deeper level is more rewarding!
1) Pew Research Center. (2015). “Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers.” Washington, D.C.: June.
2) Lee, J., & Bean, F. D. (2004). America's changing color lines: Immigration, race/ethnicity, and multiracial identification. Annu. Rev. Sociol., 30, 221-242.
3) Gaither, S.E., Babbitt, L., & Sommers, S.R. (2018). Resolving racial ambiguity in social interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 259-269.
4) Chen, J.M., & Hamilton, D.L. (2012). Natural ambiguities: Racial categorization of multiracial individuals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 152-164.
5) Lick, D. J., & Johnson, K. L. (2015). The interpersonal consequences of processing ease: Fluency as a metacognitive foundation for prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(2), 143-148.