Unquestioned Privilege

“What are you?” is a really weird question to ask someone, especially in the United States. As many times as I’ve been asked, I still find it a bit odd.

I want to answer with “a carbon-based life form,” or “a Skepchick writer,” or “someone who is pretty sick of this question.” Such an answer would be read as snark (which it sometimes can be).

Of course, the question usually means the person  is interested in knowing the race of the person being questioned without actually saying the word “race,” considered by many to be a fighting word. Somehow, talking about race has become something to judge as racist in itself.

Race, as you might know, is not a biological thing.

“But I’m just curious!” the questioner cries. “I want to know more about you! I find such things to be interesting. I wish people would ask me about myself all the time!”

Let’s set aside the fact that the questioner isn’t letting me define myself by my own terms. That they want to be entertained by tales of my exotic-to-them experiences and family life. That they ask me things that they would never ask someone whom they take to be white. That they enjoy the privilege of walking around without being interrogated. That they expect me to be flattered by their untutored curiosity.

In their quest to ask about race without asking about race, most people get the questions dead wrong.

  • “What are you?”
    Some of us prefer not to define ourselves solely (or even primarily) based on our origins. This question is so vague as to practically beg a snarky response.
  • “What’s your nationality?”
    If one were to look up the definition of the word “nationality,” it becomes clear that posing this question means asking someone about their citizenship, which is weird and offensive. What makes it worse is that when I answer the question with “American,” i.e. the answer to the actual question, I’m met with anger or eye-rolling accompanied by a “No no no, your nationality.” It isn’t other people’s job to interpret questions that use utterly incorrect terminology.
  • “Where are you from?”
    Someone born and raised in the U.S. with non-European origins may consider themselves as “from” that place as an Anglo-American would consider themself “from” Germany/England/Scotland/etc. Personally, I’ve never even been to India, so saying I’m “from” there makes no sense at all.
  • “Where are you actually from?”
    When I answer “California” to the previous question, this is the usual response. The question supposes that someone who isn’t white couldn’t truly be from the United States. Whatever happened to the “nation of immigrants” thing?

Those who are sincerely curious can learn to be more specific with their questions. “What is your ethnicity?”, while possibly annoying, at least isn’t a question that is trying so hard to ask about race without asking about race that it stops making sense. The same goes for “What are your ethnic origins?”, “What are your family origins?”, “What language is your name?”, or “Which culture is your name from?”

Nosiness is human nature, of course. I personally have had to learn to be patient with people who are, for some reason, fixated on the fact that I am a non-white American. After all, my experiences have been shaped by the fact that I’m the child of immigrants, that I am darker-skinned, that I have textured hair. The manner in which I am questioned, however, matters.

And occasionally, those who ask so much should ask themselves how much they would like it to have their identity incessantly held up for everyone’s scrutiny.

Unquestioned Privilege

101 thoughts on “Unquestioned Privilege

  1. 1

    Great post Heina. I know that in my younger days (and occasionally still when I’m not actively thinking) I fall into these types of questions, often to try and find some basis of discussion with someone I don’t know, a friend of a friend maybe. Realistically, asking the question doesn’t even meet the need to which I’m putting it (finding a topic to talk about with a stranger). So often it would be easier to try and find something within the common setting or American culture that would provide a much more enjoyable, bonding, or entertaining topic that *hopefully* doesn’t leave any participants feeling insulted or bored.

  2. 2

    I’m not particularly curious about people’s ethnicity, but when I hear someone speak with an accent then I do want to know where they’re from. BTW, I’m a first generation American myself, and my family is full of accents of various types.

    I usually don’t ask people where they’re from because I’m afraid it would be rude, but I really want to! Do you think it’s just as bad to ask about someone’s accent as their skin color?

    1. 2.1

      I think asking about the accent thing is better than the skin color thing in the sense that if someone has an accent, they clearly are from somewhere else. Skin color doesn’t mean anything in terms of someone being from somewhere else.

  3. 3

    This is something that’s always been hard for me, because I am intensely curious about people and cultures, but I almost never ask. I figure that if I don’t know someone well enough that it comes up naturally, then I don’t know them well enough to ask the question. I think I just sort of realized at some point that there’s no good way to ask these question, and that asking in itself could be offensive. It’s certainly not the best way to strike up a conversation with a stranger.

  4. 4

    I know, right?

    “What are you?” I’m… ummm… Joe? At least that’s what my mom stitched into my underwear.

    “No, I mean ‘What’s your nationality?'” Ummmm… American?

    “No, where are you from?!?!” Florida most recently, but mostly North Carolina since I was 10 years old.

    “WHERE ARE YOU REALLY FROM?!?!?!?!” OK, OK… I was born in NYC! Jesus Harold Christ!

    I guess I feel bad for “white” people though. They’ve sacrificed their heritage for generic “whiteness”, bland food, and bad pop music.

    1. 4.1

      ‘I guess I feel bad for “white” people though. They’ve sacrificed their heritage for generic “whiteness”, bland food, and bad pop music.’

      My ancestors came from England, Ireland, France, Austria, Alsace, Germany, Mexico, and America (both pre- and post-colonial). No one in my family has lived anywhere but America for centuries. What heritage am I supposed to be preserving? What heritage have I sacrificed?

      By the time anyone in my family line first set foot on American soil there was already a whole mix of ancestries going on, and one of my family’s common traits is having strong personalities and choosing our own ways including making our own choices about whether to practice an organized religion or not (mostly resulting in not for the last few generations and the “yes to religion” people had some pretty diverse choices of religion). We’re not the type of people who would cling to something just for the sake of it, but looking back at the characters that populate my family line, I would say we are anything but bland. 😉

    2. 4.2

      I guess I feel bad for “white” people though. They’ve sacrificed their heritage for generic “whiteness”, bland food, and bad pop music.

      This just simply isn’t true. The United States has it own culture(s), which is heavily influenced by European ancestry and cultures from other parts of the world, while adding in our own special twists. It only seems mundane to you because you’re used to it.

      Aside from the obvious that there isn’t a universal white culture in our giant country, we absolutely have culture. Just visit Philly sometime. Of course we have delicious cheesesteaks, but we also have fantastic soft pretzels, which are likely a modification of German pretzels. Each region has its own food, and as a country we have other foods that represent our culture. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and our styles of pizza are things that we invented. It might seem bland to you, but it’s not.

      And then there’s music. I have no patience for music snobbery, and there’s no objective way for you to rate current pop as worse than other types of music. But putting the current stuff aside, the United States has a long history of making innovative music, from artists of all races.

      I don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed much. I have my own culture and there are lots of fantastic things about it. I loved the way my “heritage” blended with the heritages of other people, so I can get a pizza or a taco on the same block. However much you think I gave up, I’ve replaced with just as much or more culture.

  5. 5

    Maybe it’s because I’m from New York, but practically everyone I know asks this of each other. “Where are you from?” is, as I can see, irritating to you. In the context of my personal experience here it’s understood, generally, to mean where did your ancestors come from.

    I get that question quite a bit (or used to) and I’m white. In recent years, though, as the population is increasingly not born in this city at all, “Where are you from?” increasingly is taken to mean what state do you come from.

    At any rate, the above is simply my own experience and not a comment on yours. I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this particular issue. It will take time and education and people thinking about it for them to change if they ask about it at all and, if they do, how they ask about it.

    1. 5.1

      The problem is that for me, it’s a tough question to answer. Not all of our ancestors took a straight and narrow path ending with an arrival to America.

      I was born and raised in California, with a year spent in London as a child. My mom spent her teenage years in Canada but was born and spent her childhood in Pakistan. Her mother is from India and her father was born and raised in Burma (aka “Myanmar”). My father was born in Burma but was made a political refugee at age 5 after the Communist regime took over there and lived in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Singapore before landing here at age 18. His mother was born and raised in Mauritius, and his father was born and raised in Burma. My family on both sides can trace its roots back to Surat, a village in Gujarat, India, but I have no close living relatives there. All of my close relatives are in Southern California, Texas, Toronto, or London.

      So when someone asks me the “Where are you from?” question, it’s too imprecise to apply to someone with as textured as a background as I have.

      1. Interesting and I can see why that would make the question doubly-annoying even without privileged racial undertones. Having to explain all that to strangers can obviously be frustrating after a while. Thank you for choosing to share that with me. Also I want to make clear that I was only offering my experience as another one, not one in contention with yours. I’ve certainly seen what you describe happening numerous times in my life.

        My family’s story, including my own, is about as complex, though recent genetic testing made it more so when it threw out any vague Native American claims and replaced them with an East Asian ancestor some time in the past. These days I tend to answer with Godless American Jewish Viking, which boils a five minute explanation down to the essential parts I actually lay claim to.

        I get tired of getting told I’m Irish, though, simply because I have red hair. This seems to be something important to other people of numerous ethnic backgrounds (Irish, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Italian, Egyptian, you name it) in New York City. It’s never one of the ancestries I’ve identified with strongly (though I studied some in college). Furthermore my family never shared the struggles of the Irish in Ireland or America so I feel it’s mistaken to claim that identity now.

        I will list it in the cornucopia of descent from which I emerged and the places my family and ancestors have lived, but I don’t go saying I’m “Irish” and I wish others wouldn’t do so either.

  6. MWS

    What I find odd about the way people approach this how it all starts with binary- to some, people are either white or nonwhite. As if Chinese and Namibian people go about saying they all have something in common since they don’t belong to what is quite a small proportion of the planet’s racial group!

  7. 8

    Heh. I hate these sorts of questions, but I have a very unique way of shutting people up. I take out a $2 bill and say “see that dude in the back row with the top hat? That’s one of my ancestors. I’m an American.” This makes the people that ask those questions batty!

  8. 9

    I had a friend once who complained that no where has she ever gone and been asked ‘where she was from’ or ‘what her race was’ more than here in America (She is Canadian and frequently travels to Europe with Asian Indian descent) I argued that this is the logical consequence of the American focus on ‘multi-culturalism’ and ‘diversity’ You can’t walk down the street without some kind of reminder that because someone looks different they will bring different ideas to the table. Our corporate offices are covered with this notion. But that notion is itself racist, presuming someone acts and thinks a different way because they ‘look’ different is absurd.

    America’s attempt to evolve beyond racism has made it focus even more on race. White Americans are encouraged to think any non white Americans are profoundly influenced by their ethnic heritage and are ‘proud’ of their race and must have fascinating different unique perspectives on everything, and those non-whites want to do nothing more than to talk about how great their race and culture are. By encouraging that discussion those white Americans think they are proving they are not racist. Because not being racist to our culture means openly accepting anything about any race and encouraging discussion about race.

    1. 9.1

      Only in the US have I’ve been asked to define myself in racial terms. I’ve gotten the “where are you REALLY from?” question elsewhere in the world but not as often and only in the US have I’ve had to define myself racially filling out a form.

    2. 9.2

      That’s interesting because I’m Canadian and the question ‘what are you’ gets asked with plenty of frequency around me. Not so much lately perhaps but it was pretty much the 2nd question you were asked after your name when I was growing.

      That is, ofcourse, unless you volunteered what you were before you were asked – wich most of us did. None of us identified as Canadian even if we were born here because we were the children of immigrants. You were Italian or Irish or Filipino or, if not noticably ethnic, you were English or white. (It came as some surprise to me that, as a Canadian of Italian descent, I was actually white. I never thought I was one of them, but apparently I am.)

      In any case, it’s true that now I rarely ask someone about their ethnic heritage. I suppose, as I’m not a child anymore, I’ve developed that patience to wait and let the person let me know what they identify as rather than trying to classify them myself.

    3. 9.3

      Maybe it’s because I’m mixed race (part European, part Filipino), but here in France, “what are you, where are you from” is the kind of question I often get. Mostly from people whose family came from one of the former French colonies in North Africa: they want to know if I’m “one of them”, since I don’t look “really” white.

      It’s annoying because I don’t fit within the usual ethnic categories you find in Europe, and I’d rather not retell the whole family history every time, thank you very much.

  9. 10

    I love human origins and frequently as other people about them. I’m a European mutt myself and about as boring as genes can get. DNA showed friend’s family has been living in or around England, get this, for at least 15,000 years. Isn’t that cool? He was a bit crestfallen believing previously that his family had a strong Viking contribution. I recently found out that humans who went straight from Africa to south east Asia and Australia in addition to Neanderthal genes have some Denisovan genes that nobody else in the world has. My buddy from the Philippines was intrigued.

    I understand that there are offensive ways to broach this subject, but done with tact it’s something I’m always happy to talk about with someone who shares an interest especially since most people are genetically more interesting than me. Most people also have more interesting names. Damnit, I’m getting a face tattoo.

  10. 12

    ?“What are you?”
    I’m Batman (in my best Michael Keaton impression)

    ?“What’s your nationality?”
    Pardonez-moi? Je ne comprend pas.

    ?“Where are you from?”

    ?“Where are you actually from?”
    Livingston, New Jersey?

    I actually don’t mind if people ask “Where’s your family from?” or “What’s your ancestry/ethnicity?” if it’s a sincere question.

    1. 12.1

      No way! I’m from Livingston too! Well, actually, I was born in Livingston but grew up in Colonia. Well, actually, I went to school in Colonia, but I lived in Rahway. But it was right on the border.
      Anyway, it’s like we’re brothers.

        1. Unfortunately we did not. I didn’t know that you and Buzz Parsec were there. I was kicking myself for not finding either of you.

          But this year we shall!

          (I had to look up your quote there *sad face*)

          1. Hey, Scribe, hope I meet you and Brian this year. Though I can’t really swear I didn’t meet you both last year, given my general lack of situational awareness and the fact that I met so many awesome people there that my brain overflowed. And I flew in too low while bombing the storage depots at Daiquiri and got a face full of alcohol. At least, that’s the way I felt towards the end of the evening.

  11. 13

    If I ever do ask, I’ll just say something like “What is your ethnic background?” It’s out of genuine curiosity–despite being Caucasian, I am second-generation Cuban and still preserve some elements of that culture in my life. To me, ethnicity is a phenomenon that can be a really cool part of someone’s identity. Race, especially in the US, doesn’t really matter a whole lot to me and usually doesn’t have much to do with ethnicity.
    I think that talking about ancestry is a neat way to get to know people–someone who might not get that question because they’re white could have a really interesting background.
    I do get that some people might find my curiosity about their familial origins nosy and obnoxious, though, and I try to be sensitive about that.
    The thing that DOES get me is when people assume that your RACE is the determining factor. Something I get pretty often is “You’re Hispanic? But you’re white!” That shouldn’t be the interesting part. Race and culture aren’t the same thing; being white doesn’t make me non-ethnic.

    1. 13.1

      __“You’re Hispanic? But you’re white!” That shouldn’t be the interesting part. Race and culture aren’t the same thing; being white doesn’t make me non-ethnic.__

      I couldn’t agree more. Skin color is a very small, dull part of the genome.

    2. 13.2

      I’m first generation not-born-in-Cuba. I stopped saying Cuban-American in answer to this question, because I think the question is almost always 99% a question about race. And I don’t want to play that game anymore.

      Now, when I tell other Hispanics I am American, it drives them nuts. Like, really squirrely. They don’t me say from the US. I need to find a better way of saying “I’m not playing anymore.”

    3. 13.3

      You seem to be defining “ethnic” as “not caucasian American”. It’s extremely common and I understand the usage, but it bothers me, probably because I’m a language geek. Caucasian/White is an ethnicity too.

      1. The use of the word “ethnic” that way is really, at its heart, racist. Basically, it implies that anything non-white is ethnic while white is the norm.

        In the end, though, it’s hard to fight the way in which it is most commonly used, and there are few viable alternatives. “Non-white”? “People of color?” I don’t really know.

      2. True. I guess everyone has some sort of ethnicity or ethnic origin; I tend to think of the word “ethnic” as “different cultural background” though that’s definitely not how it’s normally thought of. I need to be careful how I use that word.
        What I meant is when I inquire about someone’s origins, it’s because they have a different name, accent, outfit, or simply because we’re getting to know each other. The last person I asked about that was a white guy who turned out to be of German/Jewish ancestry. We ended up having an interesting conversation about immigration and the Holocaust 🙂
        Equating race with “different” or “ethnic” is probably pretty racist; agreed.

  12. 14

    There’s a fantastic book called “Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out” by Adebe de-Rango Adem and Andrea Thompson. It’s a collection of essays and poems from the perspective of women of mixed race. They talk about having people come up to them and asking (sometimes not so) politely about the woman’s origins, the people who go up to the parents and call the children a racial slur, and so on. I found it very enlightening and have left asking about racial origins for surveys and family heritage projects.

    People are initially curious though, and many like to ask questions. From the book, I learned to leave the word “exotic” out of the conversation.

  13. 15

    I don’t think that asking someone where they’re from is particularly offensive. I ask that of nearly everyone I meet. I think the assumption that the answer will be somewhere outside the US is where it gets offensive.

    I’ve been dating someone who grew up in Turkey and moved to the US, and when asked “where are you from” he says “Pennsylvania” which is not the answer they want (since he has a bit of an accent). I learned from talking to him about it, that rather than pressing someone for a full run-down of their history, I just ask a polite follow-up question. So, if someone who speaks with an foreign-ish accent says “I’m from Kentucky” I say “what part?” or “Did you go to school there?” or something that I would ask of any other person.

    But its true that in the US we’re obsessed with ancestry and/or “foreign-ness”

  14. 16

    I live in Canada. I’m white and I speak with the dominant accent here. My husband, on the other hand, has a fairly noticeable accent. He’s always asked about his origins. The kicker? He’s a citizen here and sponsoring my immigration.

  15. 17

    I can’t believe you think it’s offensive for someone to ask what nationality you are. When someone asks me about the national/ethnic/cultural origins of my family, I just tell them that my mom’s side is from Greece, and my dad’s side is from Italy; but since I was born and raised in America, I consider myself American. So basically I’m culturally American, but ethnically Greek/Italian. That’s it. I don’t get offended. The subject has come up quite a bit, though I don’t appear “exotic” to anyone.

    I have no problem effortlessly satisfying someone’s curiosity. And I don’t complicate their question by pretending I don’t know what they mean. What they’re asking is pretty obvious. I think you’re just jerking them around when you dance around their question.

    1. 17.1

      I think you’re missing the point. As a white American ex-pat living in Canada, when I get asked where I’m from it’s usually because I still have an accent. And even then, when I say “Ohio”, people are perfectly happy with that response. No one ever gets mad at me for not saying that I’m a mix of Irish and Polish, because my whiteness is read as “normal”. There is absolutely a difference in how “where are you from” is asked of white people and how it is asked of non-white people.

      Heina, thanks for writing about this. It’s good to have perspective.

    2. 17.3

      I am jerking them around. Part of that is because I feel it’s none of their business if they don’t know me. If someone’s first conversation topic with me is “What’s your nationality?”, they clearly are not interested in me as a person, but in the “exotic” (gag) look that I sport whether I like it or not.

      I’d rather converse openly and honestly with people who care about me as a person rather than are just interested in being entertained by what they perceive my race/origin to be.

      1. I’m a white (English, back 10 generations at least) guy who has lived most of my life in Australia (which is still a white-European-majority country, although that majority seems to be dwindling.) The only time I’m ever asked “where are you from?”, it’s by another Brit, usually detecting some hint of an English accent, and their question *always* means “what part of England are you from?” I notice it’s usually people older than myself who ask the question; I guess my generation (and younger) *should* know better.

        “Part of that is because I feel it’s none of their business if they don’t know me … I’d rather converse openly and honestly with people who care about me as a person rather than are just interested in being entertained by what they perceive my race/origin to be.”

        Over the years, I have worked indirectly — meaning they were in the same office complex and I maybe spoke to them about work once or twice a month — with three or four women whom I considered attractive, whose features and/or skin colour combined to give them, yeah, an “exotic” look (which I mean in a “not easily identifiable” sense, rather than the more boring “not like me” sense!)

        Am I curious? Sure. Would I ask? Not until I knew them a whole lot better than I do. Not until we were sitting somewhere cosy, chatting about our families and backgrounds as part of the “getting to know each other” process. Asking any sooner — especially simply to satisfy idle curiosity — would be rude simply because it is so completely irrelevant to any interaction I’m likely to be having with them. Sadly for me, this means my curiosity is guaranteed to remain unquenched forever — but that’s my problem, and nobody else’s… 🙂

  16. 18

    I’m getting increasingly annoyed as I read these comments.

    Someone asking where a non-white person is “from” generally is not the same thing as when they ask a white person where they are “from” (usually in places like where I am located — NYC, it refers to what state they are from).

    Now don’t take my words out of context. Some white people just look “foreign” to others and thus are asked that same question with similar implications. Most black people in the US are assumed to be Americans. That’s not really my point, though.

    But when people ask ME, an East Asian, where I’m from/where my parents are from/whatever, they are inquiring about my ethnicity/nationality. The implication is that there is NO WAY I’m American or from the US, despite my non-broken English and wholly “American” interests. There is a stereotype that non-white people (with the exception of some blacks) are “perpetual foreigners”, and it’s an increasingly harmful stereotype at that — have you heard of what they’re doing down in Arizona?

    The whole thing is specifically annoying to me, because my dad’s side of the family has been in the states for longer than a lot of the same white people asking me where my family is from. They settled in the 1890s to farm in California, and my granddad served in WWII in the 442nd Unit despite the anti-Japanese discrimination they faced.

    I’m SO sorry for being annoyed when the 12093821308th person dares to imply that I’m not as American as they are.

      1. I once had a nice old lady ask me what I was my major was in college while I was a cashier at Blockbuster Video. Before I could answer, she asked “Engineering?”

        I responded with, “Well, it starts with E-N-G, but it’s actually English.”

    1. 18.2

      Thank you for saying this!

      A white person in NYC being asked ‘where are you from?’ is not at all equivalent to my sister-in-law in rural Michigan being asked ‘what are you?’ multiple times a day.

      People of color are frequently asked ‘where are you from?’ by strangers (out of the blue, with no previous contact, context or conversation)on the assumption that they are foreign and not ‘American.’ It is a racist assumption that perpetuates the idea that only white folks are ‘real’ Americans.

    2. 18.3

      Well said. I am very, very white, and I can tell the difference between when people ask me where I’m from (usually because I have just mentioned not being from Toronto originally) and when someone asks a non-white person “No, where are you *really* from?” It’s a test to see if they’re “really” Canadian (in this case) or is they’re daring to not assimilate quickly enough. With me, it’s because my Maritime accent is leaking. My Canadian-ness isn’t being doubted.

    3. 18.4

      “But when people ask ME, an East Asian, where I’m from/where my parents are from/whatever, they are inquiring about my ethnicity/nationality.”

      Can all East Asians read minds or just you?

      1. Usually, Dave, when someone asks that, and say I respond with New Jersey, the changeup becomes “I meant where is your family from”, “What part of Asia are you from”, or the ever popular “Where are you really from”.

        Mind reading isn’t usually required if you change the parameters of the question.

        1. Shouldn’t you assume the question is innocent until proven guilty? Sure asses sometimes lead off with questions like “where are you from”, but sometimes nice people do too. What I took particular notice of was the casual way that erikakharada asserted the question is intended to elicit a different answer depending on the race of the two people in the conversation. This is a rather extraordinary assertion.

          Actually this question is one of my favorite ice-breakers because it is so open ended and it indicates an interest in the other person. I don’t care if they tell me about the last town they lived in, their home town, their ancestry, or their DNA. I figure they’ll talk about what they like. I used to ask questions like “Where do you work”, but in this economy it’s a minefield.

          1. “What I took particular notice of was the casual way that erikakharada asserted the question is intended to elicit a different answer depending on the race of the two people in the conversation. This is a rather extraordinary assertion.”

            I don’t think you get what I’m saying. I would, without intent to be snarky, respond to the question you reference with my hometown, or my neighborhood, or my school. Then the questioner would then clarify that they meant my ethnicity. You don’t need to read minds when they explain what they actually meant. It’s not scientific, but it was expressed as being in erikaharada’s experience, my own, and if you ask many of us in the pan-Asian communities, you’ll hear the same stories.

            It’s not about nice or not nice, it’s about assumptions based on appearance vs. the position of privilege. Most people aren’t self-aware enough for this to rise to the level of being an ass, but it’s still not comfortable. That’s my personal experience, it sounds like it’s erikaharada’s experience, and I can’t imagine it’s been yours.

            I’m not above someone asking me a direct, sincere question about my background, but dressing it up in the shorthand language of “where are you from?” makes you feel like the “other”. Like Christians asking an atheists “what church do you belong to?” in a non-religious, secular setting, the assumption doesn’t make you feel welcome.

            “I don’t care if they tell me about the last town they lived in, their home town, their ancestry, or their DNA. I figure they’ll talk about what they like. I used to ask questions like “Where do you work”, but in this economy it’s a minefield.”

            My response to this is, I won’t question your personal intent or expectations. But about your own expectations…I don’t really care. From my experience, most people are not like you. One of the reasons I get worked up on behalf of a lot of the Skepchick positions on gender and privilege is because I kinda understand it from the point of view of racial makeup. So yeah, maybe you think you are color blind. Maybe you actually ARE color blind. You are not everyone else.

          2. “What I took particular notice of was the casual way that erikakharada asserted the question is intended to elicit a different answer depending on the race of the two people in the conversation. This is a rather extraordinary assertion.”

            No, it isn’t extraordinary at all. When you’re not white and someone asks you where you’re from and you don’t answer with the name of a foreign country, the follow-up question is, nigh invariably, “no no no, where are you *really* from?”

            You many not care how people answer the question, but with the vast majority of people, they’re digging for a specific answer by asking a non-specific question.

          3. “No, it isn’t extraordinary at all. When you’re not white and someone asks you where you’re from and you don’t answer with the name of a foreign country, the follow-up question is, nigh invariably, “no no no, where are you *really* from?””

            I don’t doubt this happens,I have no idea how often. I offer that when it does happen it is not the first question that is potentially offensive it is the second one. That’s all I’m trying to say.

            I’m not entirely ignorant of the receiving end of this. I’ve lived in parts of the world where Americans are not particularly beloved. When I ran into questions and comments that I found irritating I’d answer depending on whether I thought the other person was trying to be nice or take the piss out of me. If thought they were well-intentioned I’d play along. If I thought they were asses I’d mess with them. “I’m from Kzin, but my parents were born on Wunderland.” Frankly I’d much rather answer “Where are you from” a few dozen times than reply to “Talk American for me!” once.

          4. I get what you’re saying, but I think it’s a bit pedantic. I think I was pretty clear, at least for myself, asking me what my ethnic background (depending on the situation) isn’t necessarily offensive…asking me where I’m “from” expecting the answer to BE my ethnic background is offensive. And the easiest way to find that out about someone is to not answer with the ethnic background to the first question. If I answer “New Jersey” which IS where I’m from, and they accept that, then obviously no harm no foul. If they follow up, then that’s what they were really asking in the first place. Believe me, even considering cognitive bias, it happens far too often that way.

            As for the Americans abroad analogy, it does get across some of that irritation, but the problem that many of us feel is that this is occurring in a place we consider to be home, where we are clearly fellow citizens (without accents beyond U.S. regional ones), and who don’t look or act remarkably different beyond certain physical features. But, hey, everyone deserves to be treated equally, yellow or brown or normal:


          5. “Shouldn’t you assume the question is innocent until proven guilty? Sure asses sometimes lead off with questions like “where are you from”, but sometimes nice people do too.”

            Even if you have good intentions, the question “where are you from?” contains the assumption that the person being questioned must be from somewhere else, somewhere “foreign”. As a white person with an unusual last name, I get questions about my ancestry all the time, but no one ever asks “what are you?” or “where are you from?” They never ask me if I’ve learned any of the languages that my ancestors spoke (even though I have) or what language my parent’s speak at home, and they almost never comment on my accent. In other words, they tend to (correctly) assume that I’m a native-born U.S. citizen.

            I don’t think Heina is saying that it’s bad to be curious about other people’s heritage, but rather than people should examine the assumptions that they make about other people, and think about why they make them. Why should anyone assume that I’m an American, but that Heina must be from somewhere else?

  17. 19

    Asking “what” you are sounds incredibly offensive to me. Am I an object? No? Then I’m not a what. What are your origins, maybe.

    I know that when I was younger and more ignorant I’d ask someone where their family was from (I don’t think I ever asked out of the blue but while talking about holidays or religion or something), but why would I ask “what” they are? They are humans.

    Now hopefully I’m more aware, and only if we’re talking about how we grew up or something will I feel comfortable in asking something like that, because really it’s none of my damn business. I might ask if someone’s accent is something (“Is that an Australian accent?”) if I’m already acquaintances with them and hoping to get better acquainted, because it opens up conversation topics. If it’s a stranger, again, none of my business.

    I don’t want to act like I’m “colour blind” or something stupid like that, because I am white and I know that pretending we’ve all had the same cultural experiences is not true – probably people are familiar with my cultural background because it’s the dominant one here, but that doesn’t make it the default. I’m sure I make mistakes sometimes and say/do ignorant things but hopefully I’m getting better.

    1. 19.1

      “Asking “what” you are sounds incredibly offensive to me. Am I an object? No? Then I’m not a what.”

      You know, sometimes, a loose usage of the word “what” is just a loose usage. Not an insinuation.

    2. 19.2

      Well I think often when people ask, it’s often kinda saying “under what grounds are you here you minority” or are making specific assumptions about you just because of your race. And a lot of times they don’t see that they’re doing this, because of the inbred privilege of the minority – which is what Heina is trying to bring to light.

      I personally participate in Couchsurfing, a travelers network and people often ask each other where they’re from. However, I’ve noticed for instance people tend to ask Black American Couchsurfers in particular questions that basically amount to “Wow, you’re black, that’s rare, why did YOU join?”

      Naive, but also quite racist at heart.

  18. 20

    I’m tempted to ask that question all the time, and most people that I’ve screwed up the courage to ask seem to be more than happy to tell me about their background. I’m just interested in people who may have had a different life experience than myself or who have an interesting family background.

    I get the question myself quite often. I play the bagpipes, so whenever I play in public I get loads of people asking if I’m Scottish, if my parents were Scottish, etc.. People generally assume that my parents must have come over from there. In reality, my ancestry is dominantly Scottish, but also contains Norwegian, English and First Nations (Cree and Metis). I’m 4th generation Canadian on my dad’s side and 6th generation on my mom’s. I don’t mind telling the story because I feel that knowing a bit about each other brings us together. Family history is fascinating to me, and I don’t mean to imply (at all) that someone doesn’t belong here or is “less Canadian” than myself.

    As for how to phrase the question, I usually ask where someone’s ancestors are from or what their ancestry is. And I only ask people that I know, as opposed to strangers on the street.

  19. 21

    I always figured that those sorts of questions were sort of silly. I mean, what happened to getting to know PEOPLE by you know, gradually getting to know them by doing things together? Don’t you learn more about an individual or family by say, having a meal with them, visiting their home, or attending an important event with them than by asking silly questions? Having someone tell me that they are hispanic, that their family at some point lived in India, or that their family name is Arabic is far less meaningful than actually getting to know the person as an individual, especially if the only way to gain that information is to ask questions with a predetermined set of acceptable types of answers and a blatant disregard for honest answers that fall outside of that set.

  20. 22

    I am Canadian and white (English/Irish ethnic background), and I do ask people what their family background is, regardless of what colour their skin is. Mind you, I ask only if it comes up in conversation – and I don’t ask total strangers. Why do I ask? Because to me, origins are interesting (mine, and other people’s).

    That said, I’ve had it asked of me by complete strangers out of the blue and it’s jarring. I mainly get “Are you Jewish?” and, not as often, Portuguese or Italian. (I’ve also been asked, totally out of the blue, if I was a drummer and if I was a witch. Not by the same person).

    Your post reminded me though that not all people care to talk about it, and may resent being asked. The people I hang out with most regularly are very open and irreverent about things (improv/comedy community), and I forget sometimes that not everyone responds the way I or my friends do.

    1. 22.1

      Well honestly, I think this is something that people of mostly european descent just don’t get.

      We find it doesn’t bug us, because people aren’t coming up all the time to us and asking us about it just because we’re an obvious minority. And I think what Heina is saying is that often people are making a lot of assumptions when they ask, whether they know it or not.

      So that’s our privilege there, we can go about our lives without constantly being interrogated about “Why we’re here” and thus naturally “we don’t mind being asked”.

      We’re the privileged group in this situation, and thus, we don’t really understand how it feels. And just as men can be sexist because they don’t understand the perspective of a woman, white people can be kinda racist for the same reason when we ask such questions because we don’t understand what it’s like NOT to be in the majority.

  21. 23

    I’ve experienced that “what are you?” question many MANY times in my life, but since I was born from a multi ethnic background I think there was a different goal behind that question than just being curious as to what “race” I was.

    I’ve known many people who’ve told me that they couldn’t tell what race I was just by looking at me, in fact I’ve been mistaken for Arab, Latino, and even White, none of which are in my cultural makeup. For a long time I never really had a problem with telling people about my ethnic origins, but around my junior year in high school I had sort of an epiphany about the whole questioning of my race.

    I started to realize that people weren’t asking me about my race because they were curious about it, they were asking because they couldn’t tell what race I was. Then I thought about why knowing what ethnicity I belonged to was so important to them and just like that it dawned on me that they were trying to use my race as a way to classify me, they didn’t have the stereotypical guide lines regarding race to show them how they should act around me. Since they didn’t know what race I was, they had no way of knowing if the things they would normally say around everyone else would end up being offensive to me. I mean sure they knew I was different from them but people use stereotypical views to dictate what is expected of a certain culture and they use that to guide their interactions with said culture, and they had no way of doing that around me. From where I stood I was as close to an ethnic blank slate as I could possibly get and I have to admit it was FUCKING AWESOME. To see so many people tip toe their way around racial comments whenever I was around always made me chuckle a little bit.

    Ever since that year in high school I’ve made it a rule in my life to never tell anyone what my ethnic background is unless I’m sure they won’t use it to prejudge me.

    1. 23.1

      I’ve totally done something similar. For a lot of people, I can pass as white. I’ve gotten Latina, Native, Romanian (what?) French (WHAT?) and a few others pretty frequently. It’s fun to see how people act when they are trying to figure out what I am, like they can’t be relaxed until they KNOW.

  22. 24

    There are questions like this that are not racial as well, but with the same discimanotiry intent. I’m suspicious when someone asks me which football team I support, because some people are actually asking: “Are you protestant or catholic?”. Unfortunately, for some people the reformation is contemporary history.

  23. 25

    “Not being racist is the new racism.”

    There’s not much I can really say other than I feel you. I’m tired of gadje asking questions after they hear my heritage, but I’ve never gotten the question before hand. ‘Cause I’m white. 😛

  24. 26

    I’ve actually had students, classmates, and friends ask me flat-out, what my ethnicity is/where my family is from/what my heritage is, because my skin is darker and my eyes aren’t exactly round. I start listing off countries like Germany, England, Ireland, and France, they usually look confused for a moment and say “oh, oh okay. So you’re…just of European descent.” Yes, I usually answer. I’m white. Thanks for asking.

  25. 27

    I’m not sure if it is because I grew up and live in a very multicultural area and DC is a transient town to boot. But that is a pretty common question around here. I do have dark hair and eyes and olive skin so I’m not terribly surprised when I get asked, because my looks *could* appear to from a lot of different backgrounds. They only time I was really surprised was when I had just given an orientation talk covering harassment and one of the new employees had been the one to ask. But my wife’s has very light coloring and she gets asked all the time as well…

  26. 28

    When I first moved to Arizona in the mid-80’s, my company was hiring 10 new-grad engineers a week. So we always ask where you were from. It wasn’t a skin color thing, just a state full of new immigrants from everywhere, US and abroad.

    Lately I find myself asking what college they went to. Over the years I’ve gotten just a taste if what most schools teach well. That way, when they ask a technical question, I can try to pose the answer based on what I assume they’ve learned. Of course, I’m wrong sometimes but it does jump start the learning process.

    I noticed above someone made a comment about only have to identify their race on forms in the US. I believe that’s due to gov’t regulations more than cultural sensitivity.


  27. 29

    I’ve been asked this question a ton of times, not so much anymore. I would always answer American, and if someone tried to be snotty, I’m of Native American origin so I’m a “real” American. This usually heads off the entire conversation by adequately displaying my inability to understand why they care.

    I usually only ask if people have an accent, although genetic information I always find fascinating.

    I can definitely see how people need to learn how to discuss heritage. Asking people where they are really from is insulting but it gets asked of even the most Caucasian because Americans are obsessed with origins (and how it ties into the American story and dream).

  28. 30

    I’m asked a lot where I come from. It doesn’t particularly offend me because I’m a naturally curious person when it comes to ethnicities (my inner anthropologist). I love to hear stories about where peoples’ families came from. I guess I don’t make the assumption that this enthusiasm is necessarily shared with other people though, and I can definitely see how incredibly white it can be to assume that Americans should be white to live here.

    Sidebar: I’m a kiwi living in San Francisco, so questions about my accent are sort of inevitable.

    Of course, I also get really offended when questionaires ask me if I’m white, because my feeling is that skin color has nothing to do with ethnicity. I understand why they ask it, but since I don’t identify as what they classify as white (e.g. I’m NZ-European – 1/2 kiwi, 1/2 Dutch), I usually just check the 2 or more races box.

    1. 30.1

      //I’m asked a lot where I come from. It doesn’t particularly offend me//

      Well this is because you’re white and not automatically identified as a potential foreigner immediately based on the color of your skin.

  29. 31

    I once worked with a woman who was a tremendous smart-ass and “wouldn’t truck no nonsense” as she often put it. She told me of a conversation that she had with an acquaintance that went something like this. (If I remember correctly, this was fifteen years ago.)

    What are you?
    Criminally attractive.

    No, where are you from?
    I’m from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.

    Ha ha. No really, where did you family come from?
    Originally? A small tribe surviving on the savannas of Africa.

    No really, I would like to know your nationality.
    I’m American.

    I meant your ethnicity.
    Why do you ask, because I’m brown?

    You know what, never mind if you are going to be hostile.
    Think about what you asked me and why you are interested and ask yourself who is hostile.

    At the time I thought she was a bit out of line (I wasn’t always so enlightened 😛 )but I have remembered it because it made me laugh and it made me think.

    I am white (very much so) and as such have never been asked where I was from since it is obvious that I am from here, a fact that just shows how unconsciously we all make these assumptions. Thank you for pointing it out.

  30. 32

    I just tell people I’m a misanthropic rebellious barbarian who loves putting the heads of nosey people on spikes. To my way of thinking the only appropriate response to such rude questions is snarky ruseness.

  31. 33

    Conversely I am a white African (Blonde, blue-eyed with a British accent). This also really confuses people. Many people, especially Europeans, are actually surprised that there are white people in Africa. I find it bemusing.

    In many places I’ve lived most of the people I’ve met are not from the area. Often we ask “Did you grow up here?” or “Are you originally from here?” as a conversation starter. In my experience (myself included) people love talking about their country/state/province/city and these questions can lead to many cool discussions.

    1. 33.1

      Really? Hm, you would have to find a very ignorant and uneducated European to not know about the former colonies in Africa…
      I think the most likely assumption by an average European would be: Boer ancestry.

      1. Yes really. The conversation normally goes along these lines:

        “Where are you from?”
        “Where’s that?”
        “Southern Africa, on the Atlantic coast boarded by South Africa, Angola and Botswana.”
        “But you’re white?” or “But you’re not black?”

        This has happened to me in Germany!

        People who know about Namibia assume I must be or speak German. But the implication is usually you’re not African you’re white which is stupid. It’s where I was born and grew up. It’s my identity. So I do understand where Heina is coming from.

    2. 33.2

      My area has a lot of people who have moved here from elsewhere, so I find “Where did you grow up?” to be a good conversation starter. It doesn’t make any assumptions about ethnicity, and lets people share as much about their cultural background as they feel like. Often it leads into som really interesting conversation without my feeling like I have been too “nosy”.

      I once had a friend who was born in South Africa, but whose ancestry was Greek, specifically from the island of Lesbos. It was always fun to watch people do a double-take when we would introduce this white guy as a “Lesbian African-American”!

  32. 34

    Sorry if I ramble, I am remembering a lot as I type…I have always had a hard time with both kinds of the “where are you from” question. Largely because I grew up as an army brat (from the time I was 3), I never really had the experience of being “from” somewhere. I was born in upstate NY, but that seems irrelevant. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a New Yorker. I grew up as an American. I lived in Germany for 3 years on a NATO base and crossed the border every day into Holland to go to school with kids from France, Canada, England, the Netherlands and Turkey, which certainly cemented my “Americanness,” but also made even that seem hardly relevant. The “what are you” question certainly feels different depending on who’s asking it. And although because I am “ethnically” mostly Irish (there are rumors of a great grandmother who may have been french canadian and *gasp* part “Indian”), and have certainly been on the cluelessly privileged side of privilege most of my life, there are definitely times I have gotten a tiny glimpse behind the curtain and seen how such a simple question can be used as intimidation. Once, the year we moved back from Europe, my sister and I stayed with my grandparents in a tiny town in Lake Champlain where EVERYONE had known each other since birth. And everything about us was wrong. Our clothes were wrong (fashion in Germany in the late 80s=/=fashion in the US). Our music was wrong. We “thought we were so great” etc. The contempt with which we were asked where we were from by this uniform brick wall of people is something that still makes me anxious just thinking about it. How much worse it could have been if our skin were darker, or if we had accents (we had only just shed the southern accents we had picked up from early childhoods in Texas and Oklahoma)? This question from the Turkish girls on my softball team, or my German friends was always clearly just curiosity, but this was that mixed with a frightening disgust. Since moving to DC, I get a lot of curiosity-mixed-with-resignation. I am often asked where I am from in DC, mostly by African Americans (once followed by a sigh and, “boy. this city sure is getting diverse!”). I usually just say, “I live in DC. I haven’t lived here that long” and I have found that usually is a good enough answer. People usually don’t really want to know where I am “from”, they just want to verify their suspicion that I am not from around here. For the first time since living in Germany, I am a minority in my community, but my perspective is far different that when I was 12 (I hope). But “where am I really from”? Certainly not Ireland! I usually just say “Earth.” This does tend to frustrate people, but I usually just shrug and say, “I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t think I am able to give you the answer you want to hear.” I am not trying to give them a hard time, but it really is kind of a personal question, and usually when someone asks it we clearly aren’t friends yet, and I don’t always feel comfortable spilling my life story to strangers.

    I think I had a point to this story besides narcissism… oh yeah! The point about privilege! The point is think about who *you* are before asking someone pointed questions about themselves. I am often curious about aspects of cultures other than my own, and if it comes up as a reasonable part of the conversation I am happy that someone wants to share with me. But it shouldn’t be taken for granted that other people exist just to satisfy my curiosity. And for FSM’s sake, don’t EVAR touch someone else (on the hair or otherwise) without their express permission or the level of trust that implies that permission.

  33. 35

    I’ve never really thought in those terms. In a general sense I’m aware that someone seems to be white, black, Asian, middle eastern, blends, whatever, but it’s never been a point of curiosity. If I ask a friend about their past, I ask specifically – “Where did you grow up?” – it’s tied to them, not their ancestry.

    This is somewhat related to the phenomenon of people touching pregnant women’s bellies (strangers!) to me in that so many people do it but I don’t understand why. Except in this case I at least understand the idle curiosity if not the rudeness of asking.

  34. 36

    I haven’t gone through every comment here deeply, so if I miss something I apologize.

    Heina, I’ll throw this out at you: I live in NYC. I identify as Jewish, but if you probe deeper as they say, “It’s complicated.” Maybe Jews are better about this since that’s the right answer for any Jewish person.

    But let me put it another way. I got that same question a lot as I am sort’a white but get dark in the sun and my mom is Asian. (HER mom was Japanese, and her dad a Russian Jew from Brooklyn). Meanwhile, my dad’s dad was a Hungarian Catholic and his wife was a Jewish girl from the Lower East Side.

    So we have two Jews a Buddhist and a Catholic. And my sister is strawberry blond with blue eyes. People used to ask me if one of us was adopted.

    Now, I approach it a little differently. I have long since learned to put the answers in tiers, as it were. It might be generational, too.

    In NYC, as a lot of people have noted, it’s a common thing to hear from both white and non-white people. I have been asked if I am Latino (because I speak Spanish reasonably well) Turkish (really!) and god knows what else. One dude insisted I was Chilean. My family is as Latin as Don Ho.

    Anyhoo, Tier 1: the person you don’t know at all really, asks. I answer “In what sense?”

    Tier 2: people I am willing to tell my family story to. I say “Are you ready for this?” If they say yes I tell them to have a few minutes handy.

    Now, I understand the privilege issues that go with the question in certain contexts. I’m just offering a way to deal with it that I use. YMMV. But I find it helps. And damned right I get annoyed sometimes and get tired of telling the story.

    But I also use it as a sort of teachable moment when possible. Lemons and lemonade, you know? Yeah it sort of sucks. And I too have answered “carbon based life form” and “human.”

    Is my method a perfect or even good one for everyone? Probably not. But it does make me less irritated. Your own family story is pretty freaking fascinating, just what I saw here. You tell a great story! I want to hear more, I dunno.

    But I also understand the whole exoticization thing. I get that sometimes. And I’m a guy. I shudder to think of what it is for women.

    1. 36.1

      I don’t think your approach and mine vary all that much in real life. What you described sounds very similar to my day-to-day MO. I can’t be annoyed/political all the time, haha.

      1. You know, I teach a martial arts class sometimes. And something I thought of: judo.

        That is, force on force is almost always a bad idea. If you try to out-muscle someone you will probably lose. Try to beat a guy bigger and stronger by being just as big and strong – you’re done for.

        Now, the relevance here: I have never, ever convinced anyone of a damned thing when I was mad. Or political. That is, when I discuss racism with people, I don’t say “you are a privileged git.” I remember one incident where I said to a guy I consider a friend, “you hurt my feelings.” The response I got was much different than the usual defensiveness. Because the guy wasn’t a sociopath.

        That’s why I approach the “What are you” thing the way I do. Am I making sense?

        1. I *was* agreeing with you there. However, I do take issue with the whole “well you’re angry therefore your argument is invalidated” line of thinking. I feel that valid anger has its place. No one ever completely won any sort of social issue by being nice all of the time.

          1. I would say not just has its place but is really important.

            Unless people get angry, others don’t know how they feel about that kind of treatment. It wasn’t until I kind of yelled at a lot of my friends that I stopped getting gypsy jokes constantly. Anger is usually the first thing that really shakes people out of complacency and, while it may result in immediate defensiveness for a variety of social reasons, it usually breeds some kind of consideration later. Even if it’s just to avoid touching the oven while it’s hot.

            I think by being nice you surrender a certain amount of power to the other party. In some situations (like work, school, or family) that might be a good thing. Among friends it can be a sign of respect. But random strangers? There’s only so many times a day I can avoid schooling people.

          2. I’m not saying you should never be angry, in certain contexts it’s necessary and valuable. For instance, righteous anger galvanized just about any movement I have ever had the privilege of interacting with — the labor folks, and anti-racists too.

            I was thinking in terms of the very individual interactions you were talking about. That’s why I brought up judo. You win a fight when the other guy gets all mad, you know? That’s when he’s vulnerable, because he isn’t thinking straight. Key point: as the song says (h/t John Lydon), anger is an energy, but you have to harness it properly.

            Like I said, in the situation I was talking about it was with a guy I knew and he wasn’t a sociopath. With a random stranger obviously it will be a bit different. At work it will be a bit different.

            That’s all I was thinking of. I’m not talking about being “nice” all the time. I’m talking about letting people know that what they do can hurt. Since most people want to be liked, and are not sociopaths, and obviously excluding the guy with the National Front t-shirt who blathers on about “luvin’ to get innit wit ‘im some Pakis” I’ve found if you tell someone they hurt another person (especially when they think they are decent folks) you can accomplish a lot.

            Again, judo and aikido offer some valuable insights. or me anyhow. But do you see the distinction I am making between being angry and acting angry? It’s the difference between smashing the windows and getting 1,000 of your friends together to march. Between Occupy protests and riots.

  35. 38

    Thank You for posting this. Here is a transcript of a typical conversation that I occasionally get from complete strangers.
    Random person: Oh, where are you from ?
    DB: London
    Random Person: I mean what’s your nationality
    DB: British
    Random person: I meant where were you born
    DB: Queen Charlottes Hospital
    Random person: where were your parents born
    DB: I don’t know. I never saw their birth certificates.
    Random person: What’s your problem ! Why are you being so evasive !
    DB: I’m not, I’m just answering your questions as best I can.

    Having a conversation turn into an inquest is never fun. Especially when the other person is working so single-mindedly to get at one fact, as if that’s the only thing they ever need to know about me.

  36. 39

    I have a friend who grew up in Minnesota but whose parents are Bangladeshi. He has a stock response to the “Where are you FROM from?” question”

    “Are you asking me where am I from, or why am I brown?”

  37. 40

    Like @Garbledina above, I too was an army brat so I got the “where are you from” question a lot, and it was complicated, so I can relate to some of the frustrations expressed.

    I have used “where are you from” as an icebreaker. Maybe it is not as loaded a question in Australia cos we are mostly immigrants in a relatively new country.

    The oldest building in the country still standing is from 1830. I am only 3rd generation myself, my wife is daughter of an immigrant, we had the despicable White Australia Policy til 1975 so most Asians are only first or second generation.

    I appreciate that some may be sensitive to the question, but I guess context is everything. For instance we had a new bloke at work – in that context you should expect some questions. He was African – which is rare here – Sudanese in fact, a friendly and affable character and a brilliant technician. Used to smuggle tobacco across the border to make a buck – profitable but hazardous because of bandits!

    “What are you” OTOH sounds damn rude.

    I would suggest that it doesn’t do anybody any harm to be part of a racial or ethnic minority in somebody else’s country for an extended period (as I was).

  38. 41

    What are the implications of a non-white asking a white or other non-white person the same question? Because as a Chicana, I find myself curious to others’ origins, European or otherwise.

    When asked in Spanish, “Where are you from?” the question almost always means, “What state do you/your parents come from?” The point of this exchange is to establish what culture is adhere to and/or what generation American you are.

    I understand it gets wearing to be questioned and the racist implications it could have but I personally don’t want to be lost in the framework and am immensely proud of my culture.

    1. 41.1

      That’s actually a separate issue, and one that I feel a bit conflicted about. On one hand, I don’t want to quash anyone’s sense of pride. On the other, it’s annoying to be interrogated about my background no matter what the other person’s ethnicity might be. As I stated in another comment, mine is a confusing mish-mash and not a straight path from a single country to the U.S., and telling the full story takes longer than I often want to or can invest in a casual interaction.

      Incidentally, just because I’m brown and live in Southern California, I am often assumed to be Latina/Chicana and people immediately talk to me in Spanish without even bothering to find out if I’m of an origin where that would be appropriate. I’ve even been scolded for “not knowing my heritage” or of “having bad parents” for my mediocre grasp of spoken Spanish; I try to correct people on that but it’s hard when they’re angry at me. It’s incredibly obnoxious to me that I’m not of any Spanish-speaking heritage and that I learned Spanish so that I could better communicate with the people around me in my area, only to find that they assume that I’m a “bad” Latina/Chicana person rather than someone of another origin who wants to learn.

  39. 42

    Am I bad person if I say that I honestly do-not-care what someone’s ethnicity is? (which isn’t a dig at people who are interested in other people’s ethnicity).

    All I care about is getting to know someone as an _individual_. After that, if THEY attach importance/weight to their own ethnicity, then I’ll be interested…..because I’m interested in them. Only if someone’s ethnicity is ‘significant’ to them will I care about it.

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