The “What Are You?” Game: Rules and Regulations

March 12, 2010

I’m mixed. Chinese mother, white father. I don’t particularly look like either of them (nor do I look definitively “Chinese” or “white”). Ethnically-ambiguous mixed kid. In a country (U.S.) that likes to think of “race” as an either/or thing (and usually just “black” and “white”). Hmmm.

Now there are a lot of ways I could have handled this growing up. Being the smart-ass that I am, I chose to make a game of it. I now know that it is a game that many other mixed folks have played, as well (probably since the dawn of racial categorization), but here I’d like to introduce it to those who have yet to play: The “What are You?” Game.

This game has its origins in the common way in which people across this country try to figure the race of ethnically-ambiguous “others” such as myself: by asking the oh-so-polite question, “What are you?” (*1)

As a kid, when I was first asked this (probably long before my first conscious memories), it was up to me to figure out the true meaning behind it; because (most of the time) the asker was fully aware of my species and gender, and they had no interest in my religion, position on the football team, or any other possible answer to this question other than my racial background. But why did they ask it like that?

Okay. For those of you non-ethnically-ambiguous folks out there, just try to imagine, for a moment, how you might start to react to this question when asked regularly over the course of your life:

You’re a child and – over and over – people come to you (adults, children, teachers, whomever) and ask you what you are, with no context clues suggesting that you are playing “let’s pretend.” It’s not Halloween. You’re not wearing an elaborate costume. No, they are honestly questioning your identity in a way that so thoroughly strips you of pride, humanity, and belonging – and doing so as if it’s just a matter of course, and fully acceptable to do.

They are not asking about who you are – your interests, what you do, the important people in your life. They are simply asking you what you are, and in such a self-entitled manner that turning you into a thing like that comes with the expectation that you’ll give them the answer they want without any negative reactions.

Imagine what that does to a kid’s sense of identity, their self-esteem. Imagine the message it sends them about their place in the world. It’s no wonder that the majority of mixed folks I have known have – at some point – considered themselves isolated and without community.

An ethnically-ambiguous kid (or adult) will never be able to avoid this question (or similar variants). It’s going to come at them throughout their lives, often at the most unexpected times. Most ambiguous people have to figure out how to deal with this on their own through trial and error – seldom does anybody else help them navigate this particular aspect of their lives. However, as an experienced player, I now believe that there are some general rules that apply any time we’re asked this question. Whether it’s at a club, at work, or while waiting for the bus, it pays to be prepared. And I’d like to do my part to help folks skip as much of the “trial and error” as possible by giving just a little bit of simple guidance. (*2)

So – for all those mixed and other ethnically-ambiguous folks (and/or parents of mixed kids) out there playing at home, I bring you:

The “What are You?” Game (U.S. Edition) Rules and Regulations

Minimum 2 players, no maximum.

Object: You.

Goal: Retain as much dignity as possible while dealing with racial ignorance.

Materials: All you need is yourself – an ethnically-ambiguous human being – and somebody else’s lack of respect.


Be born into this world. Interact with other human beings. Game-play should ensue shortly.

When to Play/Who to Play With: The “What are You?” Game can be played at any time, anywhere. It can be played with friends and family, but is best played with casual acquaintances and outright strangers. Any time another human being asks you the question “What are You?,” the Game has begun, and your humanity can be earned or lost. Again, it is important to stress that this can happen at any time, as ignorance has no concept of appropriate boundaries and/or timing.


Game-play is commenced once another person (“the Asker”) asks you (“the Person”) “What are You?” It is then your turn.


“Just Deal” – this technique entails humoring the Asker and just giving them the response they are looking for (i.e. your racial/ethnic background); least time-consuming, but will cost you 5 Humanity Points (HPs), paid to the Asker

“Go Off” – if you give in to anger and let your Asker know exactly what you think about their questioning, you have elected to “Go Off;” “Going Off” usually involves expletives, loud volume, and possibly aggressive physical movement; “Going Off” might feel better at the time, but it costs 8 HPs, paid to the Asker, as they leave the situation believing that you are “oversensitive,” “irrational,” or “dangerous,” possibly reinforcing their own racial and/or gender stereotypes

“Play Dumb” – choosing to act like you don’t know what the Asker is getting at means you are “Playing Dumb;” “Playing Dumb” involves asking questions like “What do you mean?” or giving answers like “Pisces,” “a lawyer,” “the Queen of Dance,” or “a carbon-based life-form;” a “self-entertaining” tactic, “Playing Dumb” can leave you with 0 to 5 HPs, depending on the Asker’s reaction: a confused look allows you to break-even at 0, while having your Askers explain themselves and possibly understand the disrespect inherent in their question can earn you 5 HPs

“Flip the Script”* – this tactic involves turning the question back on the Asker (similar to the “Playing Dumb” technique of asking questions); “Flipping the Script” involves a response of “What do you think I am?” which subsequently changes the power-dynamic, as your Asker will now feel uncomfortable, wanting to make the right “guess” without exposing the obvious ignorance that caused them to ask in the first place; also “self-entertaining,” “Flipping the Script” earns 2 HPs

"Create-a-Play" – players are not limited to the above tactics; creating your own plays not only increases your problem-solving skills, but can also increase the richness of the overall game; "Create-a-Plays" are self-scoring – earning up to 5 HPs for plays that enhance self-dignity and/or cause the Asker to become aware of people outside of themselves; losing up to 5 HPs for plays that decrease self-pride and/or cause the Asker to feel "right"

*Game-Note: “Flipping the Script” can also lead to playing other Ethnically-Ambiguous-based games such as: The “What do You Think I Am?” Game (make note of all the different responses to the question you get, see if you can guess other people’s assumptions based on environment, other person’s background, etc.) and the “What Can I Convince Them I Am?” Game (try different body-language, outfits, etc. to see if you can elicit a specific, incorrect guess).* (*3)


New “Askers” or “Persons” can join in at any time. Game play continues indefinitely, “Persons” and “Askers” taking turns playing tactics or responding until physically separated or “understanding” occurs.


Unfortunately, due to the unending nature of this game, there is no way to achieve a final, decisive “victory.” However, if you can keep your head up and realize that the other players are doing so out of ignorance, and that it has nothing to do with you personally, then you are a “winner.” Being however you feel best in the world – no matter other people’s ridiculous opinions and/or questions – also results in a “win.”

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Contact an ethnically-ambiguous role model in your life, or e-mail the CVT at “choptensils AT gmail DOT com.”

© 4000 BCE Ethnically-Ambiguous, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

(*1) I have since learned that this question (and specific terminology) isn’t particular just to the U.S. I have been asked “What are you?” (in those words, directly translated from the asker’s native language) referring to my ethnic background in Malawi and China, as well.

(*2) I would also love for any readers to chime in with further rules and/or regulations that I may have missed.

(*3) These games can be dangerous, however, as they may be misconstrued as attempts at “passing,” which is often interpreted as a “self-hating” maneuver.

(*4) For the record, I’ve been thought to be all of the following (and probably more I don’t remember; most common to least): Hawaiian, Samoan, Native American, mixed-Asian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, East-Indian, Inuit, Maori, Persian, Tanzanian, mixed-African-American, Russian, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and a whole lot of “how should I know!!???”

(*5) Regarding the image – as far as I know, Vin Diesel neither endorses nor condemns this particular Game, but I bet he’s had to play it before.

(*6) Regarding formatting and no image . . . internet in China just plain sucks. Spent all this time making an image that doesn’t seem to want to post, and the formatting is screwed (I think) . . . this is really irritating.



  1. This would drive me crazy. Most people know I’m black, the trouble generally starts when I start speaking or express an interest in something not stereotypically BLACK. Then they say I sound like a white girl. When I was a kid, other black kids would ask if I had a white parent, probably because of the way I sound.
    I do agree with you that the question is very rude and dehumanizing.

  2. The sad thing is even when I don’t want to play this game I am forced to. I think in most cases in social situations I default to flip the script. At work I tend to give in. I’ve been categorized as Mexican, Latina or Hispanic, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Russian, Persian and Swiss (that one threw me for a loop but ok whatever). And when I tell them what I am, these people who ask me the very question vehemently with disbelief tell me how I could not possibly be at all Asian or Japanese. I think for me the hardest part is proving to my fellow Asians that ‘Yes I belong’. In my experience, I have found that people who are mixed or POC ask me because they know I might be something other than white and it reassures them, with me, there is a safe space. Or at least maybe in mind that is my hope.

  3. […] By Guest Contributor CVT, originally published at Choptensils […]

  4. […] The “What Are You” Game: Rules and Regulations I’m mixed. Chinese mother, white father. I don’t particularly look like either of them (nor do I look definitively “Chinese” or “white”). Ethnically-ambiguous mixed kid. In a country (U.S.) that likes to think of “race” as an either/or thing (and usually just “black” and “white”). Hmmm.Now there are a lot of ways I could have handled this growing up. Being the smart-ass that I am, I chose to make a game of it. I now know that it is a game that many other mixed folks have played, as well (probably since the dawn of racial categorization), but here I’d like to introduce it to those who have yet to play: The “What are You?” Game. (tags: multiracial etiquette race) […]

  5. A great response to what my sister and I term The Eternal Question (we’re both Eurasian too).
    A good related game would lay out the range of responses to comments on how good your English is. Like the city worker who told me, “You talk English real good– where you from?”
    Unfortunately I couldn’t come up with a better on-the-fly answer than “Miami.”

  6. This post is completely spot-on.

    Some variations:
    “Where are you from?”
    “No, where are you REALLY from?”
    “Where do your parents live?”
    “You were born here… right?”

    Last time I had to play this game was with someone at work (thankfully someone we were contracting out to, so I only worked with him for a couple days).

    He asked where my parents live and I said “San Diego.”

    Then he asked what my “ancestral heritage” was. After I explained I’m mixed Viet/Filipino, he started going on and on about what a great example Vietnamese set for other minorities, like “American Indians and American blacks.”

    I said there were lots of factors that make the Asian immigrant experience totally different from the Native/Black experience in America, but he wouldn’t budge from his illusion of a perfect American meritocracy.

    From there I tried this new thing which is to ask where his family was from. (“Ohio”) No, where are they really from. (“Germany”)

    Side-note: when I get similar questions from Asian Americans (“are you Korean?”) it doesn’t bug me nearly as much. I think because in that case I don’t have a feeling of “neatly boxing and categorizing” me, so much as trying to make a connection.

  7. Yeah, I don’t mind it as much when POCs ask where I’m from either coz most of the time they’re just trying to make a connection. And I do the same to other pocs/mixed ppl, though I usually try to wait and let them ask me first.

    But when a mixed-race friend told me that people ask her the ‘What are you’, I was left a little shocked at the insanely worded question. Another mixed-race friend who was born and raised in the country and have never been anywhere else said she gets asked ‘What are you/Where are you from’ pretty much everyday. That was shocking too. That’s a lot to deal with, even if the asker was being genuinely curious. Also, I think the power dynamics in the given situation has an impact on how the question comes across.

    Awesome post.

    • p.s. Another tactic is a combination of ‘flip the script’ and ‘play dumb’. After you’ve answered their question, pose the same question to them: “What about you? What are you?” If they say, “American”, then just press on with: “Yeah, but you don’t look native American. So are you 1/4 English? 1/4 Celtic? Irish? French?…” It puts them on their backfoot because quite often they’ve never had to answer that question. Once they’ve gained composure and have tried to answer your question, proceed to tell them stories about those places. “Oh, I went to England once, and it’s very interesting. Your people did a great job building cathedrals. And I love English food.” Or, “I have a friend who’s from France. Do you speak French? Why not?” Or, say something like, “Oh, I would never have guessed. I thought you were part German or Norwegian because you have such blond hair.”

  8. […] { March 23, 2010 @ 11:51 AM } · { racism, white privilege } { Tags: ethnic dignity, ethnically ambiguous, ethnicity, humor, mixed ethnicity, mixed kids, mixed-raced, satire } originally published at choptensils […]

  9. @fromthetropics –
    Love your “flip the script” and “playing dumb” tactic – that’s got to be worth at least 5 HP.

  10. My favorite “game”…Give the most random, non-descript country that I can think of! This took a lot of work as a kid, studying the globe. I have given these:
    “I’m Maldivian”
    “I’m Banglideshi”
    “I’m Bornean”
    “I’m New Guinean”

    Works like a charm…

  11. This post is on point. I am black, but appear ethnically ambiguous. I have been asked if I am : Black/White, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Nepalese, Hawaiin, Native American, Egyptian, White/Greek, it goes on and one. The worst part is that after I tell people that I am black, they ask “Are you sure?”. Are you kidding me, YES I am SURE!!!!!

  12. […] Also a thing he wrote about was the idea that wasians (by that I mean white-asian mix kids) are more beautiful. I admit I have had someone tell me this outright, that they are more beautiful, smarter, etc. I want to believe it, but…and random people here have said the same thing — oh, you’re mix? no wonder you’re so beautiful! And I’m thinking…is that just the very chinese everyone-looks-up-to-foreigners thing talking? What basis is there? What exactly is beautiful about my face in particular? I would rather be purebred than a mutt. Just saying. “Oh! Science says averaged-out faces are considered more beautiful!” Well guess what, I’d rather look like I belong than look like the average of so and so. I have been asked, “So what ARE you?” I do not appreciate that. At all. […]

  13. awesome post. thank you for this. I had been wondering if other people felt a bit isolated during their lives due to being mixed race (I did…) — anyway, I never had a good answer before to the question and now i have several. One thing that happened to me once though — I was asked “what are you?” and I was kinda offended so I said, “what do you think I am?” and then they proceeded to guess. Guessing wrong, they gave up and asked for the answer. Uh, it wasn’t supposed to be a guessing game. I tried to change the subject because I didn’t want to tell them but they didn’t seem to realize that the question was rather offensive to start with. Guess “flip the script” doesn’t work with dumb people?

  14. I hate this game. The last time I played it was with one of my roommates from college and it was a variation I like to term, “What Do You Most Look Like?” This variation usually starts with, “Is that your natural hair color?” (she knew it wasn’t, she’d watched me dye it in our bathroom a week previous) and grabbing a huge handful of my hair and then posing to the room at large, “What do you think Dormouse looks more like? Is she more Chinese or Italian? I don’t think she looks Chinese. Are you sure she’s Chinese? What does everyone else think?” I lost all my points by slapping her and cussing her out. I’m also (not) a big fan of, “Are you SURE that’s what you are?” This is the game where someone attempts to prove to me that there’s no possible way I could be Chinese (since my mom, her parents, and her siblings were the first members of our Chinese family to leave China and permanently settle in the US I’m fairly certain it’s completely possible I’m Chinese). Sometimes this game culminates in being told I’m adopted (I’m not. I’ve got the pictures, the blood tests, and my mom’s nose/facial features to prove it) or just being brushed off with a, “Whatever, you still don’t look Chinese.”
    All this being said, I grew up in Hawaii where most of the people are mixed (and it’s usually some form of Asian/white mix like me) so it was really upsetting going to the mainland as a kid (and as a student at university) and being tossed into this world where people aren’t asking you this question to compare what kind of “mutt” (my mixed friends and I like to call ourselves mutts…humor as protection?) you are to what kind of “mutt” they are but to make some sort of judgment about you based on your ethnic makeup.

  15. […] is often asked with the real meaning of “what are you?” something discussed brilliantly here. This is a question that the UK ethnic majority, the so called ‘white British’ […]

  16. What you are is part of who you are, genetically speaking. I am a mix myself, though mostly Caucasian with a few minor tells. When someone asks me the question, I just tell them to guess. After a few guesses (occasionally someone gets it right), I tell the person what people typically guess… then I pause. Then they have to ask again… haha. “So what are you!?” It’s not bad man, it makes you special… you should appreciate it.

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