Why Asking Someone ‘What Are You’ Is Never A Good Conversation Starter


It’s another Friday night. I am out at whatever bar all my friends decided that we would meet at and I am holding a beer standing next to a guy trying to start up a conversation out of thin air.

I’ve been there, it’s really intimidating to walk up to a stranger you think is cool and give it a go. Rejection is tough and most of the time unwarranted just for stating your name and asking how the other person is doing that night.

If a man, minus the creepy factor, musters enough confidence to come up to me I often try to engage at least in a bit of small talk. Up until this happens.

“So what are you?” You’re so exotic.”

Ahh there it is, the question I am increasingly not surprised by every single time someone I do not know hits on me, but a question I do not really understand why people feel the need to ask the second they meet me.

I get it, at times and depending on what restaurant or bar I am at, my ethnicity could be up for debate. There are countless amounts of people in my city with varying physical attributes, pin pointing what people’s background is can be difficult. Even so, that does not mean I want random men being the one to enter said debate on what I look like and where my family is from.

Maybe some people don’t mind being probed on their racial background half buzzed, but the last thing that I want is for a man who just met me to care more about my race than any other facet of me.

Somewhere in that loud bar with that top 40 song playing I want to shout back at their insensitive and often ignorant comment with “exotic? I’m not a papaya.”

When a man asks me or any woman what we are before he asks what we do for a living he establishes that all we are is our race.

He, even without realizing it, fetishizes me. He establishes that he is already treating me differently based just on how I look and how I respond to his question. It’s not a matter of wanting to know more about me once we have established we both like each other, wanting to know more about my culture and whether or not that plays a huge part in how I live my life from what foods I eat to my values. For the most part the question is strictly sexual and at the very least some type of weird guessing game he will be validated by if he gets right. “I thought you were Mexican with your hair color and skin but then I don’t know the eyes and nose threw me a little – you could be Indian too.”

Other times he is taking it one step further, focusing in on me as a “type” he usually goes for. If he establishes that I am indeed part Mexican then in his head I am also “feisty” and “have a nice butt” – both attributes he enjoys despite the fact I might, if you can believe it, have other personality traits (I am not exaggerating with these claims, I have actually been told this.)

With all of these ridiculous comments he is trying to highlight the differences between us instead of narrowing in on the similarities and as a result he is leaving me more uncomfortable than you could possibly imagine.

Most of the time this happens I don’t think the men asking this really understand it makes me feel that awkward or upset. So instead of starting an in depth conversation about race while I am trying to order a round of shots, I now reply with a line similar to what they asked me.

You’ve never seen a person more perplexed, particularly as in the case if they are a tall fair skinned guy, then when they themselves are being asked: “what are you?”

This person usually ends up stumbling on something along the lines of “I don’t know just White I guess, a lot of different things” to which I respond with “yeah I was thinking something along those lines from your ears or your nose.”

We live in a time when talking about race and how we acknowledge race can be an eye opening experience. Learning more about each other is never a bad thing, but in this case and in this way, not so much. Try asking for my name, what I like to do for fun, even my phone number. And then somewhere along our first date I’ll probably let you know “what I am.”