America's Annoying "So...What Are You?" Game


I got an issue with this. And this. I’m going to try to put my finger on why. Bear with me.


So the idea that “the face of America is changing” is one that keeps popping up in reputable news outlets. This, of course, makes me wonder whose face was “the” face of America, the world’s self-described melting pot, before. In the National Geographic and Slate pieces linked above, there are photography-driven essays that accompany articles about how races are mixing. I read them, I flip through the photos, and I wonder “so what?”

In these photos are people at varying shades of brown, whose specific ethnicity is not exactly discernible upon first glance. Anthropologically, is this noteworthy? Sure I suppose. But when it creeps up in consumer magazines, something about it reads to me like a warning shot to White America: They’re taking over!

So of course, I’m curious as who the intended audience is for these things because for Black folks, we’ve generally accepted mixed-race folks as our own. We seem to almost always assume someone is “part Black,” especially if their hair has any bit of a curl to it. This, of course, is because of the so-called one-drop rule and anti-miscegenation laws that shaped the way we’ve come to think about race, and most particularly, about Blackness.

The U.S. Census has long predicted a shift of some kind, especially with projections for the rise and dominance of the Latino population in the United States. Still, with Loving v. Virginia almost 50 years behind us, with a biracial Black man with roots from Kenya to Kansas sitting over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it seems silly that Slate is running a piece with “Stunning Portraits of Mixed Race Families.” Certainly, we are not post-racial, but are we still so shocked at the presence of multiracial people that we need to photograph them like some sort of exhibit? Is there still a lingering curiosity about the regular ass day-to-day minutiae of being in a family of mixed race, as though it’d be much different from a family where everyone is of the same race? So much so that photographers are lining up mothers and fathers with their children to show how different they all appear?

“Separating the individuals within each portrait, with parents on the left and children on the right, also makes it easier for the viewer to compare and contrast each family,” the Slate piece reads.

Sounds like an editor-approved game of “So, what are you?” to me.

Perhaps I’m unphased because I’m from a major metropolitan area. Perhaps being a person of color desensitizes me to the idea that blackness and brownness come in all shades and varieties. Perhaps, being “regular Black,” the descendant of U.S. chattel slavery, I just don’t get it. And perhaps in some quiet, more homogeneous corner of the country, this is news. This is truly “stunning.” But laying out portraits of folks side by side, close ups of their racial and ethnic idiosyncrasies laid bare seems like one big game of looking at so-called “race-mixing” under a voyeuristic petri dish.


What matters in a country like the United States, who has its fraught battles with race, ethnicity, identity, and what it means to be American is how the push and pull of modern globalization and migration patterns will force us to reconsider all of these things, whether we self-identify as part of one group, or see ourselves as belonging in multiple communities. Despite what the articles say, the focus on photo essays that accompany these pieces seem to shift the discourse towards a superficial discussion about phenotype and less about the sharing of culture — the part that really causes things to take shape.

The implications here reach policy level when we start talking about policies like affirmative action, or tracking the outcomes of specific groups of people. But sensationalizing racial ambiguity and multiracial families? Man, that just seems racist as hell.


Maya K. Francis is a culture writer and communications strategy consultant. When not holding down the Black Girl Beat for VSB, she is a weekly columnist for Philadelphia Magazine's 'The Philly Post' and contributes to other digital publications including xoJane, Esquire, and Sometimes TV and radio producers are crazy enough to let her talk on-air, and she helped write a book once. She cites her mother and Whitley Gilbert as inspirations.



It is funny that you ask this because I was reading a neuroscience magazine article talking about the human brain and pattern recognition.

Removing the social issues around race for a split second (work with me), the human brain is highly trained to find patterns. Actually, there is a belief that the human brain is wired to find patterns and organize. This is whether deciding a person or animal is friend or foe. This is whether that plant is safe to eat or not. Even whether a person is fit to be a mate. People create maps to organize and seen patterns of physical space. We have a whole science of cryptography which is about finding patterns. Humans try to create patterns in order ot have a sense of order to the world. That i why I find the question "what are you?" so interesting. Because, yes Western society has HUGE issues around race and that questions does definitely revolve around this issue, but also it speaks to this innate human drive to attempt to find patterns and create order.

Now back to the Slate piece. Now I understand that race is not biological but definitely social. I understand that race =/= ethnicity (thank you anthropology courses. this article kind of confused the two but ok). But what I do know is this: race is arbitrary. And it is arbitrary not to benefit POC, but to benefit White people. It is a system of categories to determine who is White and gets those bennies, and the rest of us folk. Which means the definition of "what someone is" changes if it looks like POC getting too close to equality and fairness.