Browse By

“What are you?”

Been looking all over for the Natasha Raymond poem by that title. Natasha and I performed it with my friend Elise (menshed in “My Favorite Beatle” below) in venues around Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Natasha, like most mixed race people, got that question a lot, and as a light-skinned black woman I could and can relate.  “What are you?” these inquiring minds always asked her.  The poem runs through her various possible responses: human; a woman; various fractions of Hitler, Mussolini, and Kim Jong-il.  It ends with her fantasy of turning the tables, questioning her questioner, then deciding there’s no need for that, “because I already know what you are.”

I get that question from white people and from blacks.  Bus riders, online daters, anybody and everybody sees me as fair game for it.  Whites are a little more circumspect in recent years about voicing the question, but it still hangs on the hedges of their teeth, behind the roses of their mouths, wishing it could utter itself.

What am I?  I identify as African American, black for short.  That’s one answer.  If you look at me you can see some European heritage, pretty obviously, but no whites in my families’ woodpiles for five generations back.  Unless you count the ones that passed, like my paternal grandfather Vandeleur Rickman.

But that’s another story.

What am I?  If I want to get technical with my answer, I use the term “high yella.”  Then I’ll talk a bit about the history of color consciousness.  My father’s family and most of my mother’s belonged to the “paper bag club.”  That is, their skins were no darker than your typical grocery bag.   How relieved June’s and Denny’s folks must have been when they found each other, two properly pale people.   Yes, they loved one another, but the main thing was that they’d have paper bag babies.  But my middle sister, Julie, was born darker than either of them, darker than me; she was saved from ostracism only by her “good” hair.  Then, when I was six years old and she was four, I cut it all off her head.

That’s also another story.  I’ve already written and sold it.  It’s called “Cruel Sistah,” and they reprinted it in the Year’s Best Fantasy #19.

What am I.  When the dreadlocky man on the sidewalk outside Ross Dress for Less asked me that I igged him.  He didn’t want an answer anyways, I could tell that from how he kept on saying the same thing over and over again without waiting for me to reply.

To riff off what I wrote in my first post here, maybe you’ve never wanted to ask that question, because you thought you already knew me?  Or maybe not.  Could be you’re unsure now and always have been.   Could be that unsureness is quite all right with you.

What am I?  I am beyond what, and way, way into who.

And this is my last post.  If you don’t know me by now, you will never, never, never know me.  Woo-oo-oo.

Thank you, Tempest, and thank you everyone who has commented me.

30 thoughts on ““What are you?””

  1. marci says:

    firstly how rude to ask anyone ‘what are you?’the ‘what’ is killing me..

    i have never heard this asked of anyone over here (england)..
    it is usually ‘so… ‘where are you from’?
    my standard reply is that i was born here in london.. sometimes the next question is ‘so.. where are your parents from then?’…
    this is especially from the non english who hold their parents homeland dear.. ie the nigerians are nigerians, irish are irish, the french are french….
    there is never a need to delve further as the rest is assumed as we all ‘know’ how jamaicans got there… (and only another jamaican would go into ‘which parish?’)
    i will do the same when encountering someone with a non english surname / looks etc.. but never ‘what’? and never immediately..

    ‘what are you?’ seriously, i could not help but laugh in their face but i would hope ”I am beyond what, and way, way into who” would trip off my tongue instead..

    i have enjoyed your posts immensely – thank you… best wishes and good luck in all you go on to do..

  2. alumiere says:

    i still can’t believe in this day and age people ask that question, but i suppose i should be used to how rude our society is by now

    i’m sorry that this is your last post; i’ve really enjoyed reading what you’ve shared here – thank you for taking the time

  3. Jalanda says:

    I am so very sorry that this is your last post. I will miss your insights and shared truths.

    Be well.


  4. TanyaD says:

    Seeing this post is kind of surreal after the bizarre thing that happened to me yesterday. I was leaving work and headed off to class when a guy asks me out of the blue “what nationality are you?”

    I was kind of stunned when this total stranger asked me what nationality I was like it was a perfectly reasonable request. Long story short I told this guy I don’t know you, I’m not telling you and because I have some home training I wouldn’t dare ask a stranger that kind of question.

    I’ve always gotten those kinds of stupid “what are you questions” especially since I’m light skinned, and my grandmother could pass for white and my mother looks more hispanic than black since we have plenty of “cream in the coffee” as folks say. It doesn’t shock me that people still ask this question, because people seem to lack basic manners and home training lately.

    Nisi, I’m sorry to see you go. I’ve greatly enjoyed your columns and I wish you well in the future. I hope to read more of your words in the near future.

  5. The Menstruator says:

    This reminds me of Whipping Girl, the book that deals with transexuals. Or on that crap Real World in Brooklyn when that loser asked the trans individual about their genitalia. I can’t even imagine asking anyone something so personal. What are you? What, in fact, does that even mean?
    I wouldn’t even the have the courage (or uncouth) to ask such a question as truly, who the hell am I to ask? What business is it of mine?
    How would these even come up in conversation? I want to walk around to white males now and ask them what they are, as they certainly are not human.

  6. eccentricyoruba says:

    i second Marci regarding such questions in UK. in my experience, it has always been ‘where are you from originally?’ though i was not born in UK, i have lived here for a while and picked up the accent. some people assume i’m from London but others ask where i’m from ‘originally’.

    i really enjoyed your posts here and i do wish you the best.

  7. Bindicated says:

    It’s been a pleasure reading your posts! Thanks for sharing them.

  8. Rachel II says:

    I’ve loved reading your posts, Nisi. Do you have your own blog that you wouldn’t mind sharing?

  9. Haddayr says:

    I have loved your posts; I’m sorry there won’t be any more here. Thank you for what you have written.

  10. Sundjata says:

    I’m surprised that someone looked at you couldn’t tell your race–at least. It’s a little more polite to ask someone what their ethnicity or nationality is, but then you’d have to know the difference. For some people however, the conversation just can’t move on until they have properly categorized you in their minds. Categorization is normal though. Have you ever met an individual whose gender/sex you couldn’t discern? You end up missing part of the conversation because you can’t figure out what “Pat” or “Chris” is. This is not to condone or condemn–just offering a little different perspective. Peace!

  11. Alma Alexander says:

    What are you? You’re a fantastic woman with an infectious laugh, articulate way of speaking and a literate and deeply affecting way of writing; you wear fantastic shawls (which I suppose is an occupational hazard, given the name [grin]; you are someone I have always been proud, and will continue to be proud, to call my friend.

    What are you? You’re a human being with a fascinating outlook on life and the ability to share it with others. What more do you need to be?

  12. Jonquil says:

    I’ll miss hearing from you here. Thanks for your time and your writing; thank you in particular for Writing the Other, which I found bracing and helpful.

  13. Nisi Shawl says:

    Thanks, all you who have enjoyed the posts. It has really been fun. I’m betting I’ll get to post sometimes in the future, too, though not as regularly as in the last month.

    Marci, that “Where are you from?” variant of “What are you?” gets used over here, too. My usual answer, “Kalamazoo,” doesn’t satisfy the querent any more than yours does. Because that’s not what they really want to know….one woman at the gym aded a commendation to me for wearing my “native costume” (!!?!) while exercising.

    Another variant: “What languages do you speak?” Wish I could answer in Esperanto….

    Alma, all your answers are fine, and thank you for the compliments. But they’re who, not what I am.

  14. Andrea Hairston says:

    Great post Nisi!
    In a line of really good ones on this blog like everybody is saying.

    “What am I? I am beyond what, and way, way into who.”
    This should be a tee shirt, an international flag.

    It is interesting to meditate on “rudeness.”
    Some people feel entitled to interrogate your being, to (not so subtly) imply that you are out there, beyond the pale, beyond the comfortable boundaries of normal humanity. (Why then we wouldn’t have to ask!

    If you (weird you) are normal, a human being, at the center of reality, then they get shoved somewhere off center beyond the dazzling comfort zone they assume is their right.

    The discomfort your (amazing, beautiful) being causes the questioners means it’s all right to question you, so that they can reassert their centrality by hearing you speak your own marginality, by hearing you answer the rude question and reassert their centrality.

    They (as normal black folk, normal white folk, normal any folk) have not thought of you, have not imagined you and can’t bear the prospect that perhaps what they can’t imagine or haven’t imagined, what is not in their spacious or narrow worldview, may well be all around them all the time.

    Rudeness is a desperate act. That’s why rude people are stuck in the mundane “what.” Getting to the who is all the fun!

    So I look forward like everybody else to the occasional post from you!


  15. Alma Alexander says:

    But people who ask you “what” you are need to get told that it’s “who” you are that matters… [grin]

  16. The Angry Black Woman says:

    Thank YOU, Nisi, for your awesome posts and awesome self. We loved having you around. And yes, of course you’ll be able to post in the future should you desire. I’m sure something will eventually make you angry…

  17. Nisi Shawl says:

    Yes, Tempest, I just know something is going to get me going again, and I really, really appreciate having this space to write about it.

    Rachel II, I do have my own blog. I’m nisi_la on LJ. Haven’t done much there while I’ve been guesting here, and it’s not the same focus, but feel free to avail yourself of it at any time.

    Sundjata, believe me, I am not obvious enough, or black enough, or something enough, for some people. Though the dreadlocky man I referred may have just been making an obscure point (to himself–no one else had a chance to get in that conversation). But there have been others.

    I do get that people find categories pleasurable, and even necessary to our thought processes. My co-author Cindy and I talk about that in Writing the Other. It helps to be aware of which categories you’re using as a writer; as an sf writer you can have fun imagining the ways categories will change, die off, be born, and how methods of applying them may shift in the future, and so on.

  18. Sundjata says:

    Well, it sucks that I’ve only now discovered this blog, and now the author of the first post I’ve commented on is leaving. Selfishly, I hope that someone does something offensive enough to draw you back.

    In the mean time, I look forward to getting to know your partner in crime here–assuming she’s going to continue blogging.

  19. Sasha says:

    ugh – i get all in to the post and then i read it’s your last post. sheesh, i JUST found your blog! *pouting*

  20. Josh says:

    People go even further and try to tell you what you are. A guy at a coffeehouse once said to my ethnically Punjabi friend Kamaljit, who’s from Warren, PA, “I know where you’re from! You’re from Calcutta!” and began taking maps from his backpack to prove it to her. Last year, an African-American woman on the Greyhound bus tried to explain to Delany that, contrary to his protestations, he was Sicilian. I guess the drive to categorize is strong in these ones.

  21. Delux says:

    Thanks Nisi, I’ve really enjoyed your posts.

  22. Momsomniac says:

    It’s interesting, unknown people in small towns sometimes ask “Where are you from?” as a conversation starter – BUT obviously, if it then goes to “I mean originally” once the answer is given (rather than asking you about Kalamazoo), it was something else.

    BUT HELL – “what are you?” is so obviously rude that it stuns me that people even let it come out of their mouths. I don’t get this question much anymore – as I age, I look more and more indigenous to my own eyes, but more white to others. But when I was younger, I used to get it a lot, and since the question OBVIOUSLY implies one is not HUMAN, I often answered, “I’m a Martian.”

    You are such an engaging and powerful writer. I will miss your posts too, Nisi. A LOT.

  23. Nisi Shawl says:

    Josh, that reminds me of another Delany story. He was teaching this class at the University of Michigan in the (19)80s, using Donna Haraway texts and stuff. And I was auditing. And one day he came in really upset because while standing on a corner near campus a car full of white guys drove by shouting racial slurs. But what really riled him up was that they used the wrong slurs. They called him a “kike” and a “jewboy!” Maybe it was the beard….

  24. Thejudge says:

    At least they said, “what are you” I once walked into a patient’s room and he said, “I’ve been amongst your people” He assumed I was Ethiopian and was burning to tell me about his days in beautiful Africa. My people are from New York! In fact, they are from Shinnecock Reservation. I hate that, “what are you?” question. Nowadays, I think it is chic to be “exotic” and thus, they see nothing wrong with the question. Especially when they start telling you about their Grandmother being a Cherokee princess……………….eye roll forward…..

    1. osiyo says:

      Oh lord..The Cherokee Princess crap. What is it with non Indians wanting to have Indian heritage?? Well, the romantic FAKE heritage anyway. New Agers are THE WORST.

      Most of my fathers family live on reservations, and lemme tell ya, it ain’t nothing to boast about. There’s not one damn thing “mystic” or “noble” or “earth mother nature” about it.

      What am I? Annoyed, that’s what.

      1. Thejudge says:

        Osiyo, you are right, there is nothing mystic or noble about the rez, as far as the new agers are concerned, “I think they use the “Indian” cover to add credibility to their “enlightenment” You know how people view Native Americans, as the humble people at one with the spirits. So if people see them, crossed legged with barefeet and a bandanna, they won’t laugh. Its easier to be named howling wolf in the new age movement than to be Barbara from the Bronx!

  25. Foxessa says:

    What are you? Huh?

    The short answer: You are a person.

    Love, C.

  26. Katie says:

    Thank you so much for your posts!

    I hate being asked “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” so much. Because I am Asian, it comes with the baggage of never being American enough – somehow the questioner never seems content with the responses “I’m American” or “I’m from NY.”

  27. Eileen Gunn says:

    “What are you?” is such a complex question, aside from often being a rude one. The implication, of course, is that you are out of place or out of category in some way, as is the question “Where are you from?” To me, these questions seem normal enough when I am traveling outside the US: I know I am an anomaly. In many places I’ve visited, it’s a common enough way for an outgoing person to start a conversation with an obvious foreigner. I don’t take their curiosity as rude: it seems like a welcome, rather than a slammed door.

    When I’m in the US, it’s a more puzzling question. The last time I was asked it, it was by someone I’ve known casually for a few years. I think he had slotted me into a social category, then found that didn’t work, and re-slotted me, and that didn’t work either. He was exasperated that his sort-system had broken down. I love it when that happens.

    Ordinarily, though, it’s akin to answering the phone and having some stranger on the other end ask “Who’s this?”

    Nisi, I’ve so enjoyed your sojourn here: more formal than a chat, less structured than an essay….

  28. Shweta Narayan says:

    I’ve never wanted to ask “what” you are, Nisi, because the answer’s clear to me: you’re a damn good writer who I love hearing and reading :)

    Anything else about who you are, that you are comfortable sharing, I do like knowing and I read with great interest. But that’s because I like knowing about people I like and respect, and IMO that’s not the same thing as wanting to find a label, which the “what” questions seems all about.

    (And I never get this. I guess my “what” is clear. Instead I get the patronizing “Oh, your English is very good”.)

Comments are closed.