The “What Are You” Game: Rules and Regulations

By Guest Contributor CVT, originally published at Choptensils

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.

About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

The founders of Racialicious are Carmen Sognonvi and Jen Chau. They are no longer with the blog. Carmen now runs Urban Martial Arts with her husband and blogs about local business. Jen can still be found at Swirl or on her personal blog. Please do not send them emails here, they are no longer affiliated with this blog.

Comments on this blog are moderated. Please read our comment moderation policy.

Use the "for:racialicious" tag in to send us tips. See here for detailed instructions.

Interested in writing for us? Check out our submissions guidelines.

Follow Us on Twitter!

Support Racialicious

The Octavia Butler Book Club

The Octavia Butler Book Club
(Click the book for the latest conversation)

Recent Comments

Feminism for Real – Jessica, Latoya, Andrea

Feminism for Real

Yes Means Yes – Latoya

Yes Means Yes

Sex Ed and Youth – Jessica

Youth and Sexual Health


Online Media Legal Network

Recent Posts

Support Racialicious

Older Archives


Written by: