What Are You?

By Christiana Lano.

“What are you?”

I am a woman. I am a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend. I am a student, a worker, a writer, a dancer. I am tall. I am smart. I am stubborn.

But you didn’t want to know any of that. You saw me for the first time and could not immediately categorize me.

I am a plethora of people and roles and qualities, but your all-encompassing question aimed to resolve only one aspect of my identity.

“What are you?”

Though there are a variety of answers to this question, I already know how I am supposed to answer it. I must answer your narrow question with only one aspect of my identity so you can put me in a category.

“What are you?”

You’re trying to make sense of me. I already know that because I look different or strange or odd to you, I must justify what I am. I am expected to answer to any stranger who has deemed me as “other” in their head. My response to your question will label this “other” category as something other than “other”.

Why does this “other” category exist in your head? Why are you trying to put me in a category?

“What are you?”

Do you understand what you’re asking? What if I asked you? You would be confused, wouldn’t you?

You are not used to justifying your identity. You are not used people calling you “exotic”, like you are a plant or an animal. You are not used to people making assumptions about your family’s culture and history based on how you look.

“What are you?”

I’m American.

That answer isn’t satisfying to you, is it?

“What are you, really?”

Oh, I didn’t know you were referring to my hidden identity. You got me.

I’m still American.

But I can’t be just American. Despite where I was born, I must be something else.

If I’m American, then you have to label that “other” category in your head as “American”. That would be a problem, however, because “American” more accurately describes the people in your already labeled categories.

What makes me any less American? Why do you have a narrow view of what an American should look like?

When you ask me what I am, you are acknowledging that most Americans have families that migrated from other countries. You acknowledge that we are not all the same.

Yet, when you ask me what I am and don’t accept that I answer “American”, you insinuate that Americans should look a certain way.

The not-so-subtle subtext to your three-word question is that I am responsible for justifying why I look this way to anyone who asks. I have the burden of alleviating your confusion just because of my genes.

I don’t find my identity burdensome, though. Or, at least I didn’t until customers at work started using this question as a standard greeting.

“What are you?”

When you ask this question, I internalize how quickly you have judged my appearance. I am suddenly self-conscious about the way people perceive me. I notice how I always look different from the person asking the question.

I think about my friends who never receive this question from strangers.

Why does their identity prevail over mine? Why are they considered “normal”? Why do you assume that they have more in common with people in the category you put them in than the people in your “other” category?

“What are you?”

This question is never politically-correct. Or just generally correct, since the term “politically-correct” tends to offend the politically-incorrect people more than the people who are victim to politically-incorrect terms and behaviors.

Sometimes I wonder if I answered your question with a substitute for “human” or if I said “purple” or even answered “I don’t know”, if you would reconsider the implications of your question.

Even when you try to make your question more “correct” you’re still wrong.

“What is your nationality?”

Still American. I was born here. My parents were born here. My grandparents were born here. Try again. Or just give up. But you’re determined, aren’t you?

I’ll help you out, because I am also getting tired. You’re asking for my race or for my ethnicity or want to know where my “people are from”.

You have cracked the code!

So what am I? What is my one identity that matters to you more than anything about me because you cannot put me into one of the narrow, preconceived categories in your head?

I’m Italian.


“Oh! Well you’re probably Sicilian, right?”

If you’re unfamiliar with Italian geography, Sicily is an island off the southern coast of Italy that bears close proximity to northern Africa. This proximity, according to the asker, is the reason I do not look traditionally “white”. It is the reason I have curly hair and darker skin.

You’ve finally figured me out!

Joke’s on you because all my Sicilian relatives were pale.

But I don’t tell you that. I don’t tell you any of this because our interaction shouldn’t last more than a few minutes. You are a customer and I am a worker and you didn’t come into the store for this sociology lesson. Instead, I will answer your question with a single word and you will be satisfied and then you will leave, never realizing the implications of your narrow-mindedness.

“What are you?”

Annoyed. Tired of your question. The same person I was before you were able to categorize me.

Now, please leave me alone. And go find some more diverse friends because your image of America is slightly off.


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