A lot of times people ask me the question, “What are you?” I have a lot of different pieces to my identity. I have black roots. I have Russian and German and Ukrainian and Polish roots. I have two moms. And I’m Jewish.
Asking the question “What are you?” in a black community assumes that I’m too white to be black or that I’m too Jewish to be black. And in predominantly white Jewish communities, asking the question “What are you?” assumes I’m too black to be Jewish.
Race is not a taboo topic. It’s important to ask these questions in a way that doesn’t force someone to label themselves as a single word. But it’s not just because I’m personally offended, or because you want to be politically correct. It’s because we need to engage in these conversations and begin to move past labels.
You might be thinking, “Then what do I ask?” And that’s fair. The next time you’re thinking about asking someone “What are you?” go deeper and say, “I don’t want to assume, but I’m curious if you’d tell me how you racially identify.” Asking someone how they identify instead of what they are opens up a dialogue that hasn’t already forced them into an “other” that doesn’t assume they’re from somewhere else or are something else. Multiple identities is an identity.
I’m not asking you to self-censor. In fact, I’m asking you to create the platform and environment for the person you’re asking not to have to censor themselves. Remember the question. The next time you want to ask someone how they racially identify, say, “I don’t want to assume, but I’m curious if you’d tell me how you racially identify.”
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I’m Amani Hayes-Messinger, and if you’re curious, check out my related spoken word piece by clicking here.