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Stop Asking the Question, "What Are You Mixed With?"

Updated on June 22, 2009

Have You Ever Been Asked?

Has anyone ever asked you, "What Are You Mixed With?"

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A young woman, approximately eighteen years of age, walks confidently across the college quad, clutching a small stack of textbooks to her chest. The cool September breeze cuts across the campus, causing her thick hair to fly into her face. She pauses in her trek to her first class, readjusts the books in her hands, and moves a strand that has gotten caught in the long eyelashes of her almond-shaped eyes. Glancing impatiently at her watch, she realizes that she'll be late if she doesn't hurry, and her long legs carry her forward once more.

"Shorty!" The loud and boisterous call catches her off guard.

"Wha...?" She turns quickly, not noticing anyone directly behind her. Not having time to look closer, she continues down the concrete path to her destination - Psychology 101.

"Shorty red! Hey, shorty red, can I holla at you for a minute?" He is persistent. And LOUD.

Finally, the voice is attached to an attractive young man wearing the school football uniform. He touches her on the shoulder, and she looks around nervously to see if they've garnered undue attention from the rest of the student body milling about. No one else seems to notice.

"Shorty red, why you actin' like you don't hear me?" His smile is wide, and so she flashes one back at him.

"I'm sorry. I didn't see you. Do I... uhm... know you?" She knows what his answer will be. She's a new freshman, and it's only her first week. Obviously, he doesn't know her. She would love to get to know him.

"Naw. Hey, shorty... what you mixed with?"

She bristles. Ah well, it could've been magic.

"What Are You Mixed With?"

This is a question I have lived my whole life enduring. One glimpse of my naturally-curly locks, my tanned complexion, and my Asian-slanted eyes, and it seems as though random people believe that this is a reasonable thing to ask me. I answer cordially, and detach myself from the conversation as soon as possible, telling myself that they must not understand how rude they've been.

Not only does this question reveal the ignorance of the person asking it, but it makes me uncomfortable due to the personal nature of the inquiry itself and the brash way it is being presented. If you want to know my racial make-up, there are far better ways of saying so.

High School Hell

That horrid space in time that occured between 1992 and 1996 was extremely painful for me. I was never a popular child, and during high school, the torture seemed to magnify itself by the hundreds. I was awkward, nerdy, and to top it all off, a theatre geek. My forehead was bulbous, my nose was flat and wide, my hair was wild and frizzy, and my teeth looked like they belonged on a chipmunk better than they did me.

I struggled with my identity, coming from a household with a Taiwanese mother and a Black father who had met while my father was stationed in the military in Taiwan. My parents stayed married all the way until my father passed away in 2004. I had grown up with my older Taiwanese half-brother and half-sister, and by the time I reached high school, they were both married to Caucasian spouses. Our family was a regular rainbow coalition, filled with love and acceptance.

Unfortunately, this acceptance didn't carry over to my educational institution. Desperately, I tried to fit in with the Asian clique, made up of mostly Filipino and Thai kids, but I wasn't able to meld with them. They often spoke a different language around me or ate different foods, because, contrary to popular belief, not all Asians speak the same nor eat the same. Soon, I was made to realize that I just didn't belong there.

Trying to fit in amongst the Black girls in my school was always a hit and miss. I had a fantastic best friend who stood up for me and made me feel welcome, but most often, I was being teased, threatened, and berated by the very girls I wished to be friends with. I remember many occasions when I was harrassed on the school bus and on the long walk home. I didn't seem to fit into any group while I was growing up.

I Hate It When You Say that You're Color-Blind

As I grew older, I met adults who were more understanding and less judgemental of my mixed heritage. They seemed innocently curious as to my racial background. They would find polite ways to ask me what boiled down to the same old question:

"What is your culture?"

"What is your heritage?"

"Where are you from?"

... and, of course, "What are you mixed with?!"

Don't be mistaken. I am proud of my culture, and I love to talk about my heritage. As far as I am concerned, my family is a shining example of what the American dream is all about. When the opportunity strikes to explain our cultural traditions, I jump at the chance. However, when I answer this question by saying that I am Black and Taiwanese, too often I hear the response, "Oh, that's great. I'm colorblind, anyway. I don't see race when I talk to people."

What do you mean, you don't see race, and you are colorblind? It takes for you to be blind to my heritage in order for you to see me as equal? I don't want you to be blind to what makes me special. I want you to be curious and interested in it. I want to share with you the many amazing things about my background that make me unique. I'd love to learn about your traditions and where your family originated from. Don't be blind. Open your eyes and ears, and learn something about me. You might be surprised what you didn't know.

Did you know that my father was an old school Southern Baptist pastor? Or that, even though he was Black, he had bright green eyes due to our Irish ancestoral history? Did you know that my mom owned a barber shop and three rental properties in Taiwan before she moved here to become a housewife and support my father? Did I ever tell you that she learned how to cook soul food for my daddy from his mother, my grandmother, who had sixteen children with my grandpa? Did you know that I have lived in Japan, and that I was actually born in Spain?

Don't discount anyone by telling them that you don't see their heritage when you see them. It insults their intelligence, because we all see race when we look at people, regardless of how idealistic our values may be. It also doesn't do their rich culture justice.

So, What Is the Right Thing to Say?

You may be thinking that I seem over-sensitive to semantics, but imagine living thirty years of your life having to hear these terms over and over again by people who don't even realize what they're saying. Instead, let's work on some ways to get the point across without stepping on any toes.

  • Be honest about why you're asking the question. "I noticed that you have Asian features, but your complexion is darker than most Asian people. You are beautiful! Do you have a multiracial background?" I can respect someone who is honest and upfront about their curiosity. It opens the door to conversation.
  • Once you've gotten the answer you were looking for, if the person seems open, ask some more! This is your chance to learn something new about a whole group of people you may have never been exposed to before, and it is the person's opportunity to tell you about their culture. Let each revelation that they give you lead into the next question, and stop when you feel you may be being too intrusive.
  • Tell the person that you appreciate them sharing this information with you, and thank them for teaching you something new. If you're inquiries come from a genuine place, people will be able to tell. Don't be afraid to ask about something that you don't know. Be friendly, and let the other person's answers guide you.

Diversity is a wonderful thing. This is something that my family has taught me consistently. It is our differences that make our love stronger and our bond tighter. The more we learn about other people, the more doors of communication that we ultimately bust wide open. Do yourself a favor, open a door today.


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you for writing this article. It was great for me to read, as I too have struggled with this question all my life. Plus, I have a Taiwanese mom with a black dad too, with a bit of Irish. Can I ask you this question? How do you answer when people ask, "What are you?" or "What's your ethnicity/race?" Do you tell them "I'm multiracial/biracial," or do you say, "My mom's Taiwanese and my dad's black"?

    • JennaRebecca profile image


      9 years ago from Louisiana


      Superbly written.

      A large majority of people don't know that sometimes the words that they didn't turn over a bit in their heads before saying them can cut right to the quick.


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