What It Really Feels Like To Be Asked “What Are You?”

“Where are you from?”
“Florida.”
“Where are your parents from?"
“My mum’s from Ohio and my dad’s from Florida.”
“But, you know what I mean: What are you?”
This is the way most conversations with Tasha Gear, a 25-year-old photographer based in New York City, start. Tasha, who’s half Black and half white, has been fielding questions about her background since she could talk. “People barely say two words to me and then ask what I am,” she says. And hers is not an isolated experience.
Since interracial marriage was legalised in 1967, the percentage of interracial couples in the US has grown from three percent to 17 percent. As a result, a new generation of ethnically ambiguous young people has formed; nearly one in seven infants born is considered “multi-racial,” according to a recent Pew Research Center study.
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These young men and women — and the love they were born out of — should be cause for celebration. But in more cases, their experience is fetishism (every rapper on the top 40 list talks about bagging a “foreign” chick), speculation ("but what are you, really?”), or even a dismissal of identity within their own cultures.
In their own words, five multi-ethnic young people explain why they’re rejecting the “what are you?” question to explain who they really are.
Photographed by Myles Loftin.
Sebastian Rosemarie, 21, Model
I am Black and Puerto Rican. I grew up in a white neighbourhood, but my mum and my grandpa grew up in the projects. I felt very distant from where I grew up and the kids I was forced to associate with. They didn't like me. I was made to feel like my difference was a bad thing — that being multicultural was something not to celebrate.
I was definitely bullied. A lot. I had my hair pulled, I was pushed down steps. Elementary, middle, and high school weren’t great. It was really when I got out of a school setting that I started to thrive and discover myself and my creativity. I got heavy into reading feminist literature, and started volunteering with other queer youth. I got scouted when I was like 15 or 16, but I wasn't embracing myself at the time. I didn't get booked for stuff because I was very much in my shell. It wasn't until I was 18 that I felt like I could express my creativity more.
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So when I was 18, I shaved my head. I used to have really long hair, but I got the cut to almost stop those questions. I still get them a lot in medical settings, though. I have mental health stuff I deal with, so I'll go in for depression and they'll be like, "Oh, but you're too pretty to be depressed." I exist as a queer femme walking through places as Black and Latina every day, so it's something that you desensitise yourself to, but it's also something that still reoccurs.
Every time I go on set or have to go to a casting or meet a new person, I get asked about where I’m from originally. “I'm from Brooklyn. I'm a New York native,” I say. Then they're like, "No, where are you really from?" It makes me uncomfortable. I would be fine if it happened casually, like on a date or something. But at work, it feels weird.
I definitely get professional opportunities, but my career isn't where I want it to be right now. I want Black girls to have opportunities that white girls in the industry do. We just don't get booked for the same jobs as often. I've gone to shoots and literally had to shave my head after because they scorched it. It's still a process. The industry is becoming more open, but it's not there just yet.
Who I Am:
I'm a sex educator. I'm polyamorous. I'm very open with my feelings. I'm affectionate and being around people makes me happy, although it might not look like it, because I have a very shy demeanour. I just want people to stop judging so fast. Talk to someone and get to know them first.
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Photographed by Myles Loftin.
Ashley Javier, 19, Student
I'm Dominican. Eight out of 10 times when I meet a new person, I get asked about what I am because of the colour of my skin. I’m Afro-Latina. Growing up, I didn’t know that was a category, especially in middle school: You were either visibly Hispanic or Black — one or the other. Because I looked this way, I was too Hispanic to identify as Black and too Black to identify as Hispanic.
By the time I was eight years old, I was already the designated Black friend. Back then, if you were dark, then you were considered ugly — so I was kind of ignored. Guys would come and talk to my best friend, who was light skinned with curly hair and blue eyes… the epitome of beauty. And then there was me. I remember spending summers on the beach with my dad, who lives in Virginia. My mum was still in New York, because my parents are divorced. Over the phone, she told me I couldn't sit in the sun because I was going to get blacker. It got to the point where I would leave my dad's house early because I didn’t want to get darker.
I didn’t see people who looked like me until I got to the High School of Fashion Industries in New York City. Because there was more diversity there, I found more people that I could identify with. In school, my friends would get so defensive whenever someone asked what I was. At that point, I grew more comfortable, especially because we had such a diverse group.
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Once, years later, I met a girl and told her my background. She told me to speak Spanish for her because she didn’t believe me. I was like, Do I look like a science experiment to you? To me, that's an insult, like I have to prove myself. Why do you need to hear these words coming out of my mouth to know?
It bothers me. It's to the point where I don't really mingle with Spanish folks anymore because I'm always the odd one out, and sometimes they make me uncomfortable with Black jokes and things like that. They feel like it's okay, but Dominicans are still Black. It's not okay.
Who I Am:
Just saying I'm Dominican doesn't do me justice. I do love my heritage and my country; I also identify very strongly with my Black side. And not even just that... there are many other parts of me. I like to model. I like to sit all day and watch Netflix. Being Dominican isn't my only thing. People see you and that's the first thing they want to know.
Photographed by Myles Loftin.
Nali Henry, 19, Artist
I’m Jamaican and German. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Union Square and this guy came up to me because he couldn't place me. I asked him what he thought I was, and he said I just had to have some white in me. I wasn't Black, so I had to be Latina. I had to tell him that he was completely inaccurate. As a biracial child, I felt like I was in the middle of both my whiteness and blackness. To come into my blackness as an adult and appreciate it has been something that has taken me a long time.
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I've always been aware of my racial standing, but I never really thought about it until I was hanging out with a bunch of white friends. In middle school, an old friend signed on to my AIM and forgot to sign out, so I saw she was talking about me. She was like, Do you really think that that white boy is going to like her? Doesn't he know that she's Black? That was the first moment where I realised that maybe this is a black-and-white, colour-blocked world. My parents always told me that I'm a celebration of my blackness and my whiteness. Suddenly, that was all taken away from me and I felt like had to choose.
Funnily enough, being light skinned has made me feel uncomfortable. At times, I felt like I didn’t have a right to own my blackness because I didn’t get some of the treatment that a lot of Black people in the community do. My light skin excused me from that. But just because I'm light-skinned, that doesn't negate my blackness in any way.
Who I Am:
I'm an artist. I'm a dancer. I'm a kind and empathetic person. And I'm a dreamer.
Photographed by Myles Loftin.
Jheyda McGarrell, 20, Student
I am Guyanese and Mexican. Within that, it's Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese. For a while, I felt like I had to be super duper pro-Black to the point where I would ignore my Latina identity. No one in the Latino community sees me as being one of them, so I felt excluded from being able to join in on issues and being able to make commentary on my culture. My mum got really offended and told me I didn't want to be Mexican because I don't speak Spanish. It's also hard to identify with Mexican culture sometimes, because I find that there's a lot of deeply-ingrained racism and colourism in Latino communities. It made it hard for me to identify for a long time.
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Most of the questions are from other Black people. I'm a darker-skinned person. Black people say I’m not Black because of my being Latino. I get confused because I'm like, What constitutes blackness to you? Just having a looser curl and a different shaped nose makes me not Black?
In high school when I was remarking on a Black issue, someone was like, Why does it matter? You're not even Black. Your dad is Caribbean. People from the Caribbean aren’t Black. Do people know the African diaspora? It makes me upset that people only think of Blackness as darker skinned people with 4c hair and whatever other features people associate with Black people. Even in Africa, people look different with every region.
But when I visited Cuba, everyone was so nice to me. They accepted me and it felt okay to be both and identify as both. I am a Mexican person. I am a Caribbean person. I am a Black person. I can be all of these things and not have to separate all of them and feel forced out of my own community because of someone else's opinion of me and my appearance.
Who I Am:
I am a photographer. I go to NYU, I'm a junior there. I'm from California. I like to write and try to make music for myself. I love gold jewellery. I'm really secretly into ghosts.
Photographed by Myles Loftin.
Tasha Gear, 25, Photographer
I’m half Black and half white. The “what are you?” question doesn’t really bother me, but for some reason, strangers feel the need to ask it. I guess they're just curious. Sometimes I do hesitate. Why does it matter? I've never felt the need to ask someone what they are. If it comes up, it comes up. People assume that I'm mixed or Black or Spanish. They know that I'm something. I always answer the question really honestly. However, I don’t like when it’s the first question that’s asked of me, especially when I’m meeting new people.
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My identity was questioned a lot when I was growing up. I never really felt like I fit in anywhere. My mum's boyfriend, who’s basically my stepdad, is Black. My white friends’ parents wouldn't have a problem with me, but when they saw my stepdad, they wouldn’t let their kids come over anymore. And in middle school, I was called Medusa, Oreo, and a mutt.
Today, I still get the whole “Oh, you're not really Black” thing because I'm light-skinned… and probably because I pass as white. Because I grew up with my white mum and I'm light-skinned, people will invalidate the fact that I'm Black. But I think being multiracial is its own thing. I'm not white and I'm not Black. I'm both.
Who I Am:
I'm a photographer. I make my own skin care. I'm honest. I feel like I'm constantly changing, trying to figure it out. It's funny when people ask what I am, because it's like… I don't know, what am I? My identity is constantly changing.
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