“So, what are you?” This is one of the most absurd and honestly, useless questions that I have ever heard asked while in conversation. The person posing the question has looked at you and is unable to determine your “race” based on your physical characteristics and subsequently, your economic class and social worth. In a matter of seconds, they have looked at the pigment of your skin, your eyes, nose, mouth and the texture of your hair. They have done an initial racial examination and the results have come back inconclusive. Unable to tell whether you are one or the other, it makes it difficult for her/him to make a decision about you. She/he needs to know how to treat you, how to talk to you and what to make of a future relationship with you. They need to know where to place you: at the center or the margin; who to number you with: the majority or the minority; how to color you in: black/white/red/yellow/brown/beige. Then, she/he will know who you are.
Primarily, I do not like the question because it assumes that once you tell the person “what” you are that she/he will understand something about you. However, all that a racial identity provides for the person is one’s associations and experiences with the socially colored group mentioned, most of which is stereotypical and more often than not, has nothing to do with the person standing in front of them. Secondly, it objectifies the person being asked the question. This is how we are able to say that we have “two black/white/red/yellow/brown/beige friends” as if we are creating a human being collection. I have two of those and so I understand. But, we don’t truly know or understand anyone and we spend much of our lives trying to come to grips with who we are.
For all that race claims to know, there is much about humanity that it does not. The information the stereotypes of race provide do more to alienate us from ourselves and each other than ito form relationships. This is the purpose of race and why it is often difficult and dangerous to talk about. Stereotypes are treated as a cheat sheet. We have them and this is why we feel that we know a person or people group. We don’t have to visit their neighborhood or sit at their dinner table. We don’t have to start a conversation them or see them when we are walking down the street. We don’t have to invest time in building relationships and community. We don’t have to talk with someone to know them; that’s what race is for.
For all of its predictions, race cannot tell you that I’m allergic to chocolate or that I love french fries. It cannot tell you who I wanted to be when I grew up or where I would like to retire. Race cannot tell you what I dream about doing or what I pray never happens; that I prefer silence and solitude; that I love to clean in my spare time. Race does not provide details; instead, it provides generalizations that more often than not do not address the specific truths about the individual. For all that we think we know about a person based on “what” they are, we walk away having never learned anything about the person if we do not discover who they are.