"No, where are you really from?" "Screw off."
March 9, 2006 9:57 AM   Subscribe

"STRANGER: 'Do you mind my asking where you are from?' [This is code for 'What is your race?'] "ME: 'Canada.' [This is code for 'Screw off.']" Sometimes, "Where are you from?" means what it says. Sometimes it doesn't.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus (138 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Real racists don't need to ask.
posted by smackfu at 10:08 AM on March 9, 2006


Yeah, they just know.

So, what are you wearing?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:12 AM on March 9, 2006


good post.
posted by chunking express at 10:20 AM on March 9, 2006


When asked "the question," Mrs. Docgonzo always plays dumb, as it were, and answers: "Vancouver."

What's funny is that she -- brown -- is much more Canadian than I am, having been born and bred in suburban Vancouver, while I -- honkey -- was born in England and immigrated later.

Good post.
posted by docgonzo at 10:23 AM on March 9, 2006


I have some white friends who were born in Japan (and, in two instances, Africa), and it occurs to me that nobody ever asks them where they are from, although they have good stories in response to that question.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:26 AM on March 9, 2006


i know one of the people in the berkeley article, she's awesome. that article is interesting because it really illustrates the racial diversity (or lack of) at berkeley in subtle ways.
posted by kendrak at 10:33 AM on March 9, 2006


If I were given a quiz after reading these articles, I would fail it.
posted by mullacc at 10:40 AM on March 9, 2006


I'm native american. I was born in america.
posted by b_thinky at 10:43 AM on March 9, 2006


In Canada we have a "long" and "short" census form. The long form is distributed randomly to a subset of respondents and includes a question about race. If you choose not to answer this question you can be fined and/or jailed. The government's rationale is that funding for minorities and multi-culturalism should be based on accurate data. I've never gotten a long form and hope I never do. I'm not particularly brave but I honestly don't know whether I'd answer that question.
posted by 327.ca at 10:44 AM on March 9, 2006


So, cybercoitus interruptus, why'd you feel the need to post this? Where are you from, son?
posted by orthogonality at 10:48 AM on March 9, 2006


Canada. Really. :)
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:50 AM on March 9, 2006


Excellent post (and first post!). I'll link to two of the best pieces I know that address the subject of racial categorization and the resulting confusions: Lawrence Wright's "One Drop of Blood" and Malcolm Gladwell's "Black Like Them." The whole idea of race is dumb, but it's like an itch we can't help scratching.

When people ask me "Where are you from?" I start "Well, it's a long story..." and wait to see how quickly their eyes glaze over.
posted by languagehat at 10:53 AM on March 9, 2006


In general, if I want to know someone's racial, ethnic, or national background, I'll ask them about their racial, ethnic, or national background. If I want to know about their hometown, I'll ask them where they were born or raised. Most people don't mind answering a politely stated direct question.

My previous method of saying "What are you, anyway?" was discarded as... less than optimal.
posted by Jart at 10:55 AM on March 9, 2006 [1 favorite]


Good post. I am asked these questions often (three times in an hour at the bar yesterday), and it is a bit tiring. Until now, I didn't really notice that I rarely feel compelled to ask the same questions in return, certainly not with the same unspoken emphasis. I suppose I've grown accustomed to thinking of myself as a racial outsider.
posted by Errant at 11:01 AM on March 9, 2006 [1 favorite]


During college applications, I interviewed to go to Columbia. I didn't get in, but the interviewer was a very nice Asian woman. I was curious and asked what her nationality was. She gently rebuked me that what I meant was ethnicity but thanked me for not asking where she 'was from.' I always just put that distinction down to the phrasing, not the intent.

I guess, being Obiously White, that I never realized the depth of hyporcrisy and racism inherent in that question.

cybercoitus interruptus: Thank you for educating me.

On preview: I actually have been asked once or twice, but rarely be people who have heard my name (which makes my background rather obvious), always during a discussion about backgrounds and such, and certainly never with the undercurrent discussed above.
posted by Skorgu at 11:11 AM on March 9, 2006


When I say I'm from Washington, DC, people say "where are you really from - Maryland or Virginia?"

Probably a different issue, though...
posted by Happy Monkey at 11:25 AM on March 9, 2006


There was a similar thought on Slate today in Dear Prudence. See the second query.
posted by pithy comment at 11:27 AM on March 9, 2006


I'm biracial and get asked The Question all the time. How I answer depends largely on my general crank factor for the day; my instantaneous and subconscious determination of whether the asker is a bigot, an asshole, or just an idiot; and finally, how much time I'm willing to devote to the answer.

On my crankiest days with those I've judged to be the worst offenders, my response is likely to be something like: "I'm American. My family has been here for five generations and 125 years, and three generations have served their country continuously for the last 55 years."

On less cranky days, with those who seem harmless, I might answer: "San Francisco." This answer seems to satisfy many since SF is, you know, pretty exotic to the kind of people who ask these questions.

On my best days, when the asker is a really nice old lady, or a super hot guy, I'll say: "I'm fourth-generation American-born Chinese, and third-generation Italian-American." Funny that I only feel like I need to throw in the "American born" part for the Chinese half of the equation.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 11:29 AM on March 9, 2006


Oh! I forgot my best story about The Question.

Years ago I was working in a post library on an Army base in Germany. This young, blond private, straight out of the cornfields asked me The Question thusly: "Where are you from, because I know with that hair you can't be American."

I. Lost. My. Fucking. Mind.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 11:32 AM on March 9, 2006


Race provokes some interesting questions, as perviously mentioned, particularly in situations where nationality fails to be bound as specifically or as tightly as it may have in pervious generations. Personally I am Metis though not brown enough to be classified as easily as some would.... prefer.

With enough squinting I might look partially Italian or Greek as though such generalizations would be useful in the context of such a discussion. I am also not a verbally... gifted person. My writing often looks stilted, my voice always so. The combination results in a 'where are you from' nearly daily.

The immigrant side of my family has been here for 4 generations. The other side.... somewhat longer. I've travelled but never lived anywhere outside of western Canada. I am Canadian.

As was pointed out in one of the links it's becoming less and less useful to attempt to label large multinationals with national identities. By definition. As fiscal power continues to globalize, citizens continue emigrate and the world continues to shrink will such discussions tend to lose power? Or might their focus simply shift. In a homogenously brownish world socioeconomic factors might become the new race.
posted by mce at 11:35 AM on March 9, 2006


I used to get that a lot-- typically it would be old white people asking "where are you from?" and when I replied "Las Vegas" (where I grew up) they would look unsatisfied. "But where were you born?" I was born in Kansas, old white person!

My friend Angi had a funny take on this:

stranger: so, where are you from?
me: texas
stranger: (obviously disappointed) oh...but where are you REALLY from?

i am still amazed at how many times i get asked that question. and even more amazed at how many times strangers show obvious disappointment that their expectations are not met when i do not answer that i'm from china.

well, i have made a resolution. i certainly don't want to disappoint my audience. if they want a show, then a show they will get:

stranger: so, where are you from?
me: oh i'm from a town called xing-pao. it's a small little farming village in the southern parts of china. my family has lived there for generations and most of my family is still there. we grow rice and i go back there in the summer to work on the rice fields. and actually, i'm going back this summer to get married - i'm betrothed to the son of the head of the village.
stranger: (obviously pleased) wow! that's so neat!
me: yeah, isn't it?

posted by jcruelty at 11:36 AM on March 9, 2006


327.ca: The last time I got a census sheet I left some spaces blank, lied on a couple of other questions, and then wrote on the back that none of this was the government's business, and they shouldn't send me another because I had no intention of ever doing it again, law or no law.

They haven't come for me yet- Oh, excuse me a moment, someone's knocking on my door...
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:39 AM on March 9, 2006


I'm from New Jersey. You gotta problem widdat?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:40 AM on March 9, 2006


Personally, I don't get offended when I get asked this kind of question. (My stock answer: I was born in Vancouver, my parents are from Singapore and Malaysia.) My impression is that Americans of Asian descent tend to be more touchy about this than Canadians--maybe because in the US there's more of a tendency to look down on foreigners?
posted by russilwvong at 11:53 AM on March 9, 2006


People often ask me where I'm from, because my itinerant upbringing apparently gave me a "weird" accent. (I'm in the UK - people generally assume American/Canadian).

My favourite answer is "the ocean", or else "around the place".
posted by Drexen at 11:59 AM on March 9, 2006


Funny, but here in Atlantic Canada that question gets asked all the time, and it has nothing to do with race. We just don't like any "come from aways", and this question is used to figure out your ties to the region.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:17 PM on March 9, 2006


I call shennanigans. The fellow from Calgary asks and answers a key question incorrectly when he wonders how often white Canadians without discernably Allophone accents ask one another about their heritage.

I haven't been asked The Question 15,000 times, but I've been asked at least 2,500 times. The disparity, as I see it, is because I look more like the majority population.

Anyone who seems to differ -- by custom, appearence, style or language -- is going to arouse polite curiosity among their fellow Canadians. People who are more apparently different than the majority will arouse more curiosity.

Curisoity isn't racism. People showing interest in other people's differences is what makes Canada nice, not bigoted.

It's sad that some visible minorites have been so scarred by racism that they will over-react like this.

They should clue into the fact that anyone from the Maritimes who visits the west will be accused of being Irish, and then get the same questions everyone else gets.
posted by CheeseburgerBrown at 12:23 PM on March 9, 2006


Because of this post, I have finally joined Metafilter.

Hopefully I won't be considered an eternal foreigner here as well :)
posted by yeloson at 12:37 PM on March 9, 2006 [2 favorites]


If someone has an accent, I like to know find out where they are from because I am very interested in various countries, etc. When I am in a foreign country, I don't mind if people ask where I am from, as long as when I say "America" they don't spit on the ground and walk away.
posted by cell divide at 12:39 PM on March 9, 2006


What I meant to say is that I would never ask someone with an American accent where they are from if they have a different look, because that's supposed to be the whole point of the USA.
posted by cell divide at 12:40 PM on March 9, 2006


yeloson: Where y'all from now?
posted by Skorgu at 12:43 PM on March 9, 2006


Yeah in Atlantic Canada we are mostly so perplexed by the idea that anyone would want to move here that we have to keep tabs on tje 'from aways' to try and figure them out. ;)
posted by Space Coyote at 12:46 PM on March 9, 2006


When I got the long form census once there were always options to answer 'other' or 'mixed' or some such thing. Making the choice to self-identify or not is hard. Out of principle I don't; that means that people like me are under-reported in my workplace. Now we need an 'action plan' because 'the numbers' are too low. Sigh.
posted by leftoverboy at 12:49 PM on March 9, 2006


Welcome, yeloson! Where are you from, anyway?

Have a great time here!
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:51 PM on March 9, 2006


When I was younger and more sassy, I used to answer the "where you from" question by saying "My mother" as if it was a really dumb and obvious question.

Now I just tell people the city or vicinity I live in -- a much more boring, less graphic, and less truthful reply.
posted by rw at 12:59 PM on March 9, 2006


Isn't anybody else tired of describing almost every sort of awkward interaction between different looking people as some kind of racism?

I often ask "Where do your people hail from? Can you guess where mine come from?" I ask because mine are from Ireland, Danish, North (native) America and Africa. But my physical appearance is an amorphous swarthy dark mix that could be South American or middle eastern. This throws people off because the rest of my family is tall, blond or red haired, and blue eyed.

The answer is interesting to me because it's always against assumptions. I like to be surprised. And starting off surprised - or with assumptions shattered - is good place to make new friends.
posted by tkchrist at 1:00 PM on March 9, 2006


Mostly I just assume honest curiosity when "the question" comes up, so I wouldn't say I'm inclined to be offended when asked. It can be tiresome when someone is clearly dissatisfied with the answer, indicating that I didn't pick up on their unspoken question and that I must be dense for not telling them what they really want to know but didn't feel comfortable asking openly. Still, in my experience, being polite tends to work better than grasping at straws for reasons to be morally outraged, so I don't really get worked up about it.

There are people who ask me, "What heritage are you?", which I take to be an honest inquiry into my background and reply in kind. There are also people who ask me where I'm from and sound so disappointed when I say "Massachusetts". I sometimes wonder if they were hoping for a little exoticism in their otherwise bland day.
posted by Errant at 1:07 PM on March 9, 2006


i would agree with you, but i have one problem. i live in philadelphia. what's more, i live in a rough area of Temple where, if you aren't black, you're a cracker. not being qualified as a cracker by my heritage, it is irritating.

the point? at least you got asked. here, people just assume.

i hate this city.
posted by Doorstop at 1:30 PM on March 9, 2006


It's really frustrating for me, because I know it's an annoying and often-asked question, but I'm genuinely curious. What is a continual frustration for the person who has, after all, been "different" their entire life, is being treated once again as if they're different -- even if the interest is (as I would certainly characterize it) benign.

I've had plenty of non-Anglo-appearance friends over the years (not to mention an Indian-American and a Filipina immigrant as relatives-in-law) so you'd think I'd have learned. I think I have learned that it helps to get to know someone first before you start asking the probing questions about what it was like being the (almost) only N kid in your middle-America high school. (To me, the geek outcast experience probably has some consonance -- but almost everyone I've asked has been more friendly, gregarious, and even wildly popular -- which may not after all be a coincidence.) Of course, I view The Question as one of the steps on the way to getting to know someone.
posted by dhartung at 1:36 PM on March 9, 2006


I don't think I've ever approached anyone who looked mixed and asked them what they were or where they were from, because that just strikes me as an incredibly rude thing to say to a stranger if they aren't the one who raised the subject. (And yes, I am Canadian, too.)

On the other hand, I have friends and in-laws who are mixed race, and I've found out the details of their ancestry when they decided to tell me. In fact, my sister married into a Caribbean family who think their mixed ancestry is a fair topic of discussion socially. They're fond of saying that sibling A looks quite Indian, and B and C look half Indian and half Chinese, while D looks much more East Asian, maybe Filipino. (Their father was Indian and Chinese, their mother is Indian).

I think people are generally curious and love novelty and puzzles. If I see a photo of a mixed race person in a magazine, I tend to linger over it more than a photo of a person who is less obviously mixed, all other things being equal, as I try to figure out what their ancestry might be. If someone who looks mixed volunteers the information that satsifes my curiousity and confirms or disproves my initial hypotheses, I really appreciate that. But I am still deeply uncomfortable with putting anyone on the spot and asking them to divulge this information. I don't think it's necessarily racism, but it is rude.
posted by rosemere at 1:51 PM on March 9, 2006


I'm not even American in my own country. I've always noticed that everytime I've visited a foreign country, say Korea (my ethnicity), or Spain, everyone notices that you're an American. As soon as I come back to the states I go back to being American born Korean.
posted by bam at 2:05 PM on March 9, 2006 [2 favorites]


From the article:

The offence-causing kernel at the centre of this line of interrogation is its implication: "You are not white, you don’t look like me, so you’re clearly not Canadian." It also suggests "Since you’re clearly not Canadian, and I am, I am within my rights to ask you just exactly where you’re from."

As an individual that has Filipino, Japanese, Chinese and Scottish ancestry, I've been asked the question many, many times. Never has it crossed my mind that this question was born out of anything other than curiosity. Never have I felt I was being interrogated as a second class citizen when being asked the question. Frankly, the people who would want to treat me as a second class citizen because of my physical appearance wouldn't have the guts or the interest to approach me in open dialogue. If my sense of Canadian identity was shaken by someone asking me the question, I think I'd have bigger issues to consider.

When someone asks me where I'm from I say Canada. If someone asks me about my background/ancestry, I tell them. What's the big deal here? Why be a dick about it? I've probably asked the question myself a hundred times before, to a hundred individuals of all shades of colours - both from a "what's your background" to a "where do you live"? (Code: I'm interested in getting to know you...do you want to get to know me?)

One more thing...I found it odd that the author also choose to say that he doesn't see black people asking that question of others? Really? While I would have to agree that I've been asked this question by white people more than anyone else...I would also say that white people certainly don't have a monopoly on asking this question. I've been asked the question by just about everyone, including black people.

I've experienced racism many, many times in my life. The guy/girl asking me where I'm from doesn't bother me...the guy in the other room yelling, "who invited the gook to the party?"...now that's offensive!
posted by Mooskey at 2:25 PM on March 9, 2006


skorgu:

I'm from Seattle. Thank you.

Where's my family from?
The land where we beat the petty for asking such questions. =P
posted by yeloson at 2:32 PM on March 9, 2006


The flip side of this ethnic curiosity is the perception that white people have no ethnicity at all. There are dozens of flavors of ethnicities on those surveys...for the non-white folk. But all the white people of the world are lumped together as caucasian.
They might as well replace the list of ethnicities with a color chart: just hold it up to your skin and find the one which matches.
posted by Lord Kinbote at 2:36 PM on March 9, 2006


Everyone in Florida asks and answers this question a lot, since there seem to be nine people who moved to the state for every person born in it. "My family is from (culture and/or country) and I was born in (state)" seems the standard response.

I used to say my family was Russian, since whenever I'd truthfully tell people they were from Estonia, I'd wind up having to give geography and history lessons. Stopped doing that after I got an utterly evil glare from someone who'd left Cuba in the sixties.
posted by cmyk at 2:59 PM on March 9, 2006


oh i'm from a town called xing-pao. it's a small little farming village in the southern parts of china. my family has lived there for generations and most of my family is still there. we grow rice and i go back there in the summer to work on the rice fields. and actually, i'm going back this summer to get married - i'm betrothed to the son of the head of the village.

I just have to remark on the utter genius of this.

Stopped doing that after I got an utterly evil glare from someone who'd left Cuba in the sixties.

I got a lot more careful about snappy ethnic judgments after I proudly said to a customer at a bookstore I worked at "You're Czech, right?" (having seen the name on his credit card). He gave me an evil glare and informed me he was Slovak.

All you people who think it doesn't matter: fine, to you it doesn't. Good for you. To others it does, and they have a right to be annoyed/pissed about it.
posted by languagehat at 3:07 PM on March 9, 2006


Even if the question is asked in idle curiosity? People don't get as pissed off when asked about what they do ("what I do doesn't define me"/"what about who I am"). I think a lot of this blown way out of proportion. Not being comfortable with your identity or something.
Good post though.
posted by pantsrobot at 4:02 PM on March 9, 2006


People in Australia tend to ask "What's your nationality?" which makes no sense at all -- are they asking to see your passport? But people have come to know that as a shorthand for "what's your racial/ethnic background?".

I have come to feel, as rosemere does, rather uncomfortable about asking this at all, but if I really have to, I say "what's your background?" or better, "where's your family from?".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:06 PM on March 9, 2006


Don't ask me about my ethnicity. Buy my book about my ethnicity instead. He's like the friggin' orphan from The Simpsons: "Don't touch me! Nothing gives you that right!" Except I'm guessing the orphan didn't pimp his arse all over Amazon. 'Used and new from $0.98' - heh.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:17 PM on March 9, 2006


My wife and I were heading into a bookstore when this middle-aged fool in what appeared to be a safari outfit asks her, straight out of the blue, "What country are you from?" Long pause from both of us. She says "uh, the United States?" He says impatiently, "no, I mean what nationality are you?" As if that was a different question. She tries "American". Still acting like he has some inherent right to information, he's halfway through rephrasing the question to one including the word "ethnic" or "ethnicity" when I put my hand very rudely in front of his face and ask him very politely to excuse us.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:12 PM on March 9, 2006


*applause*
posted by Eideteker at 5:25 PM on March 9, 2006


Yeah... I personally think this question comes about from curiousity a lot more than some sort of barely repressed racial bias. I personally prefer to just ask directly what ethnicity someone is, since, well, why beat around the bush.

I'd also say that us white people get asked this question a great deal, too. Perhaps not by some stranger on the street, but I'd say, to a certain degree, one's ethnic background is treated kind of like a curiosity: I'm german and scotch, I have a friend who's english and portuguese, and another who's irish and costo rican. Hell, we've sat around parties before talking about what we are, all with the tacit understanding that we're actually all americans.

As an aside, my girlfriend constantly gets asked The Question. But not "what are you". Usually gets asked "do you have a little latina in you?" or "are you italian" or greek or spanish or what-have-you (she's actually persian), and she only gets that question from people of that particular background. I insists that it's probably just guys trying to hit on her by finding some sort of common ground, but she refuses to believe me.
posted by gambit at 5:26 PM on March 9, 2006


CheeseburgerBrown: People who are more apparently different than the majority will arouse more curiosity.. . . Curisoity isn't racism. People showing interest in other people's differences is what makes Canada nice, not bigoted. . . .

Two of the authors address this difference between honest curiosity (AKA "getting to know you," "small talk"), and stereotypical categorization. From the first link:
"Ah," you may say, "but it’s just curiosity. What’s wrong with people being curious?" . . . What is wrong with The Question? Nothing at all—when it is asked at the right time, when it results from a genuine interest in you as a person, and when the person asking the question actually accepts the answer.

From the second:
For . . . rare individual[s], asking "where are you really from?" is intended as an invitation to a dialogue about what it means that each of us has come here from elsewhere and where we can go together. . . . The answer [to what's wrong or right with The Question] depends on why the question is asked.

CheeseburgerBrown:They should clue into the fact that anyone from the Maritimes who visits the west will be accused of being Irish, and then get the same questions everyone else gets.

So you're saying that white-looking Newfoundlanders (I'm sure there are born Newfoundlanders who don't "look white"), say, visiting Alberta, usually get a minimum of three increasingly specific versions of The Question, so typical exchanges go like this:

1. "Do you mind my asking where you are from?"
"Newfoundland."
2. "Yes, but you sound Irish. Where are you really from?"
"St. John's, Newfoundland."
3. "But your place of origin? Your parents? What are your parents? [Code for: 'They're really Irish, aren't they?]"

as opposed to 3. "Ooooh that's why you sound Irish!" or even 2. "Ooooh that's why you sound Irish!"
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 5:30 PM on March 9, 2006


One more thing...I found it odd that the author also choose to say that he doesn't see black people asking that question of others?

Yeah, pretty stupid thing to say without real research to back it up. I've been present when a black man has asked another black man where he was from because of his accent (Trinidad). I doubt you can generalize except to the extent that a black person will or won't for the same reasons a white person would or wouldn't.

I'm told -- and have to some extent seen in practice -- that it is very, very common for Asians to ask each other The Question.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:32 PM on March 9, 2006


Maybe it's because I'm Chinese, or maybe it's because I'd make such a bad Chinese person if I were to ever live in China (don't know the language, don't eat the food, don't celebrate the heritage), but I can't remember the last time I was asked this question. The question really does seem silly to me—I'm from Canada; my race has so little to do with my identity that whenever it does become an issue, it's a shock to me. The only time I've ever run into trouble telling people where I was from was when I would tell them "Toronto," and they'd ask if I really lived in the city. Whereupon I'd sheepishly say, "no, Thornhill."

Well, either that or they'd start yelling at me about how much Toronto sucks. But that's a different matter.
posted by chrominance at 5:41 PM on March 9, 2006


For me the situation is reversed.

Being an obvious — and I mean obvious — minority in Hong Kong, I get that question all the time.

I'm proud to tell them I'm from Canada, but when they ask how long I've been here, I reply more than seven years — and then tell them in Cantonese I'm a "Hong Kong person". Most folks like that.

The most interesting thing is when they don't ask: most everyone asks if I'm either from England or the US, even if they can see the Canadian flag sewn on my camera bag.

99% of the time it ends there. No one seems to care about the source of my whiteness.
posted by bwg at 5:52 PM on March 9, 2006


By the way, this phenomenon is not restricted to the US/canada. My girlfriend is Mexican, but since she has a white american mother, she looks ...shall we say...non-typical-mexican. Anyway, the fact that she always gets The Question all the time in Mexico, by people who refuse to believe she's actually Mexican irritates her no end. Here in Australia, while I'm curious to know about people's ethnic connections, I always try to determine it from the accent alone.
posted by dhruva at 6:00 PM on March 9, 2006


All you people who think it doesn't matter: fine, to you it doesn't. Good for you. To others it does, and they have a right to be annoyed/pissed about it.

And I suppose, conversely, we also have the right to not care that people choose to get annoyed over the most trivial of things.

I hereby am avoiding reading another post that contains the word "racism" in it. I have rarely ever seen a place that generally more trivializes a serious issue like racism with mouse-shit liberal guilt, melodramatics, double standards, and obsessive semantics.
posted by tkchrist at 6:04 PM on March 9, 2006


This article is very interesting, and I'm sure it does happen to him all the time (and probably for the reasons he says).

But he is completely wrong when he says it doesn't happen to white Canadians. I'm white, and my family has lived in Canada for several generations on all sides. (Actually about 300 years or more in North America on one side.) Until I married a British citizen, I had no relatives who weren't Canadian, and had no heritage other than Canadian (which made me the most boring person on Heritage Day at my school).

But when I worked in a donut shop in Toronto, what happened? "Where are you from?" "Up the road." "No, where are you from?" "Canada." "But where before that?" "Canada." Exactly what happens to this man.

The interesting thing was that most of the people who asked me were non-white, and all were recent immigrants. They just thought that everyone in Canada was from somewhere else, originally. Of course, in that bit of Toronto, 99% of the time they were right. But the interest in where someone is from isn't just about white people not believing there are no non-white Canadians.

It was really funny when people tried to guess - apparently I can pass for Turkish. Someone else swore I looked very German. I have no idea - white people all look alike to me.
posted by jb at 6:07 PM on March 9, 2006


Like others in this thread, I really don't think it has anything to do with racism. Canadians are just really curious about this sort of thing. I mean, for the most part in Canada, everyone is from somewhere else if you go back far enough. I invariably ask people where their families are from, regardless of what they look or sound like, once I've known them for a bit. The important thing to remember here is that people want to know because they find it interesting, not because they want to hold it against the person. That is, if not a good thing, then at least vaguely better.
Also, I completely agree with the others that people from the Maritimes are really nosey and curious about anyone not from around there.
posted by nightchrome at 6:20 PM on March 9, 2006


I'm white, Jewish, and I have a last name that isn't common at all, that sorta looks like the name of a country, and I grew up in a time and place in Ontario that had very few non-Christian non-UK-heritage people. "What kind of name is that?" was a common question that I was brought up to fear or to avoid in a very similar passive-agressive style as the "Where are you from" exchanges described above. It seemed to be an invasive question that would never go smoothly no matter how it was handled, but it was usually initiated with little grace.

We never got "UGH! JEWS! YUCK!" in response; it was more the feeling of being pushed to outsider status than anything overt.

Great post and great discussion. There's a lot to ponder here.
posted by stevil at 6:24 PM on March 9, 2006


I hereby am avoiding reading another post that contains the word "racism" in it.

This post doesn't contain the word "racism" in it.

it is very, very common for Asians to ask each other The Question.

When they do ask it, of somebody whose first language is Cdn or US English, they're not usually assuming that the questionee was born outside of Canada/US. In my experience. (On the other hand, some of them asked me The Question because they had their own racial hierarchies structuring their worldviews, and they wanted to slot me into a category they perceived as lower status than theirs.)

I get The Question more from older people, less often from younger. Must have to do with lived experience.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 6:34 PM on March 9, 2006


Also, from one of the articles:
Given the genocide, slavery and colonialism unleashed in the name of Christianity over the last two centuries, do you feel your religion is compatible with democracy?
This is wrong. It's at least four centuries.

("What do you mean, you can't Morris dance?" I so need to use that more often.)
posted by jb at 6:34 PM on March 9, 2006


Sorry - I missed this the first time through the first article.

Have you ever noticed that black people rarely put other people of any race through the ringer like this?

Again, he's wrong on this. Most of the people who asked me where I was from were black (generally from Somalia).
posted by jb at 6:47 PM on March 9, 2006


I have no issue with it either, and I think being hostile about it merely reinforces racial disharmony. In Toronto, I just take it for granted that we are all of Canadian nationality. I have no problems talking about my ethnic background, and I frequently ask about other people's.

Living in a place as ethnically heterogeneous as Toronto, attitudes towards race become almost blase. Among my peer group, ethnicity is just another characteristic. I'm secure in my Canadian identity - what's the point of denying that me or my ancestors were orginally from somewhere else?

I can easily see becoming sensitive about this in a more racially charged atmostphere, though.
posted by lemur at 7:02 PM on March 9, 2006


I'm with cell divide... I ask people "where they are from" all the time when they have an unusual accent. Note that in the south, "unusual accent" means anything that isn't precisely like your accent, even if it is southern as well. I have a much milder accent than some of my neighbors, and I get asked often where I am from, as they don't believe I am a TN native.

Also, southerners take pride in answering The Question. It matters to us if we are from TN, or Alabama, or Mississippi, or Arkansas, or the Carolinas, etc. Race has no bearing on the issue.

I don't recall ever asking someone "where are they from" because of their race/appearance/skin color/whatever. In other words, if someone has an obvious Indian appearance, but speak non-accented, I wouldn't ask them "where they are from" because it is obvious they are from America, due to the accent. Conversely, someone with white skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair walks up to me and says "Ello" with an obvious Scandanavian accent, I'm going to ask where they are from.

It's much, much more about accent than skin color. And the purpose is nation of origin, not race. But of course, maybe I'm just not a bigot.

Making the choice to self-identify or not is hard. Out of principle I don't; that means that people like me are under-reported in my workplace. Now we need an 'action plan' because 'the numbers' are too low. Sigh.
posted by leftoverboy at 2:49 PM CST on March 9


So, let me get this straight. You purposefully don't report your race, and then lament that the official numbers are too low?

I'm glad it was a census form and not an IQ test.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:08 PM on March 9, 2006


Just ask "where were most of your great-grandparents from?"
posted by techgnollogic at 7:38 PM on March 9, 2006


My initial response has got to be "cry me a freakin' river". As a euro-descended Canadian in monocultural Korea (by choice, of course), I'm a visible minority in a way more obvious way than Asian folks might be in Canada. And people stare. Old men mutter. Children fall over because they can't take their eyes off you. Women point and whisper behind their hands and follow you with their eyes, oblivious to any discomfort that may be causing you.

I've long since gotten used to it and it doesn't bother me most days, and I'm here by choice, of course, but I've only limited sympathy for those that complain that an innocuous question, in Canada of all racially (whether race exists or not)-sensitive places, makes 'em feel all oogy.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:26 PM on March 9, 2006


no... the Question is not racist. but it IS a form of racism. not an overtly bigotted one like, say, Neo-nazis or KKK members have. no. this Question is more of a cultural landmark which has been driven into our minds - race / ethnicity is important to how you relate to the society around you. not to say one's ethnic history and culture is unimportant, i think it is of the utmost importance to remember where we came from and what our past teaches us. I believe this is more of a sign that society institutions have not yet achieved what we wish them to be. As much as we would LOVE to say that we in the US are a "melting pot", its probably that we're more like a fruit sald. It's not a BAD thing, but everyone still has their stupid stigmas which irritate everyone on occaision.

what REALLY pisses me off is TRUE racism, including so-called reverse racism. Black people calling each other the N word, and white people "crackers", and all the while preaching their oppression and how we should feel guilty. White people assuming that a black man who is about to ask the time is gonna ask for money or sell them drugs. White people pretending that race does not influence their decisions, all the while assuming stereotypes. Anyone who is of brown skin being labeled a terrorist by everyone else. etc. etc. etc. I can't stand it. Its retarded. And I hate that shit.

Yeah I know I'm probably a goddamn hippie for saying "why can't we just all get along", but the difference is i know why, and i don't like it, but its part of life. So deal. That is all.
posted by Doorstop at 8:53 PM on March 9, 2006 [1 favorite]


I really have to say that Canadians are just curious. I'm a stereotypically white Canadian, and I get asked all the time where I'm from, or where my family is from. The fact of the matter is that my family has lived here since the 1800s, and we have no idea where we're from apart from somewhere in Europe. People seem to get really annoyed when I say that I'm Canadian, and this continues when I say that I don't know exactly where my family originated. As I look very generically caucasian, this leads me to conclude that this question, while it might seem to indicate racism or prejudice, is just a really easy way to start a conversation.
posted by jubilee at 8:54 PM on March 9, 2006


stavrosthewonderchicken -

actually, race does exist. but not in an overt way. its heterogeniety of a species is all. if you look at the basic skeletal features of a black, white and asian man's skull, you will see noticeable differences. however, these same differences exist between men an women of any ethnicity as well (smooth jaws women compared to robust jawed men). Physiologically, however, we are all the same - possessing equal potential athletically, intellectually, etc. Every species has these differences (brown dogs, white dogs with black spots, etc.). its just that we let ourselves be guided by what we see.
posted by Doorstop at 8:59 PM on March 9, 2006


Mooskey: The guy/girl asking me where I'm from doesn't bother me...the guy in the other room yelling, "who invited the gook to the party?"...now that's offensive!
Doorstop: at least you got asked. here, people just assume.

Yes, getting The Question is better than being called a pejorative name, getting physically assaulted because of your skin colour, or being beneath notice entirely. Racial slurs, and having others' assumptions of your race imposed on you without possibility of positive interaction, are at one end of a continuum (very bad).

At the other end are things like zeroing in on how somebody's "race" supposedly makes him/her different, at the expense, or ahead, of finding out what makes her/him, as an individual, different. Paying attention to my individual verbal cues and body language... not making assumptions ("You don't like xxxxx food? You funny thing. Your English, you hardly have an accent! You should be used to hot summer weather, considering where you come from") about me based on whatever racial category you've identified me as or gotten me to acknowledge...that makes the difference between someone who really, truly, just wants to get to know me, and someone who craves to know my "race" so s/he can frame the rest of our discussion according to the assumptions s/he holds about it, and therefore, about me.
The former have dealt and dispensed with their underlying assumptions about race, and are building actual bridges. The latter are trying, and that's great, and I try to help them understand that the bridges they think they're building U-turn back to themselves.

It's much, much more about accent than skin color. And the purpose is nation of origin, not race.

I get asked in the city where I was born, and English is my first language, taught to me primarily by my parents whose first language is also local English. French is my second, and I don't have any others. It's not about my accent. The askers who compliment me on having barely-accented English, in fact, have to be manufacturing my purported "accent" in their own heads, based on how they expect someone who looks like me to sound.

If it's not what you define as "racism," it certainly proves the strength of race-related stereotypes. Not physically abusive stereotypes, agreed, but does speaking up about this mild, subtle form prevent me from speaking up about harsh, obvious forms? Not for the other 364 days of the year.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:04 PM on March 9, 2006


stavrosthewonderchicken - actually, race does exist. but not in an overt way.

Doorstop, I was merely making a gesture in shorthand to recognize the fact that we've had that fucking argument about race as a social construct vs. race as whatever so many goddamn shitgargling times on this site that I didn't want to get into it again, but was aware of it.

Thanks for your condescension, though. I love it when people wipe imaginary drool off my chin.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:10 PM on March 9, 2006


no problem. i love it when people get indignant.
posted by Doorstop at 9:12 PM on March 9, 2006


I think a lot of this blown way out of proportion. Not being comfortable with your identity or something.
Good post though.


I'm not only comfortable with my identity, I'm extremely proud of it. My ancestry is rooted in two great cultures, and I'm the result of a match that, at the time, could have occurred in few places other than America.

The problem, which those who are being dismissive seem to not get, are the underlying assumptions of The Question: 1) I must be from somewhere else because Americans don't look like me (see my post above; 2) I look so different that it must be commented upon or questioned; 3) strangers feel they have the right to know the answer merely to satisfy their curiosity despite the fact that such questions are considered outside the bounds of normal polite discourse between strangers.

And it's obvious to me that those who think that anyone who finds The Question offensive is being overly sensitive havn't been subjected to a relatively personal question asked by complete strangers on a regular basis. I don't mind being asked by people with whom I'm socializing. I do mind if someone walks up to me out of the blue - on the street, in a store, in an elevator. It happens all the time. The very frequency makes it annoying.

I really hate to say this, but I think that unless you've experienced it, you can't possibly understand it.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 9:19 PM on March 9, 2006 [2 favorites]


And it's obvious to me that those who think that anyone who finds The Question offensive is being overly sensitive havn't been subjected to a relatively personal question asked by complete strangers on a regular basis.

It may well be obvious to you, but you're wrong. As I described above, I've experienced it, I understand it, and I still think it's weak as piss.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:33 PM on March 9, 2006


I've experienced it, I understand it, and I still think it's weak as piss.

You've posted about being treated as a foreigner in a country where you are a foreigner. Have you got a story about strangers who are your own compatriots, who approach you on the street in the city where you were born or grew up, and ask you a series of questions - not just "Where are you from" but 2nd, 3rd, 4th variations eventually extending to your parentage, grandparentage, greatgrandparentage?
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:42 PM on March 9, 2006


In Canada, everyone's a freaking foreigner. That's what the country's about, for christ's sakes.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:46 PM on March 9, 2006


It may well be obvious to you, but you're wrong. As I described above, I've experienced it, I understand it, and I still think it's weak as piss.

Pardon me, stavrosthewonderchicken, but I have to call bullshit. You may currently live in a monolithic culture where you are a minority, but you have the option of returning to your own culture and being comfortably in the majority.

I don't have that option. Where do I go where people will no longer stare and ask impertinent questions?
posted by ereshkigal45 at 10:00 PM on March 9, 2006 [1 favorite]


Dunno. What's your ethnic background?

*ducks*
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:02 PM on March 9, 2006


(You were totally asking for that one.)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:03 PM on March 9, 2006


In Canada, everyone's a freaking foreigner. That's what the country's about, for christ's sakes.

yes - except for First Nations peoples, who were here before the rest of us - and do "white-looking" Cdns whose ancestors immigrated to Canada generations after mine did (1890), generally experience, 1. as a regular occurrence throughout a week or month, 2. by complete strangers walking up to them on the street when they're minding your own business, 3. that series of Questions, 4. in the context of a conversation whose general thrust is that they have to be culturally "foreign" (ie to "Cdn" culture - whatever it is in that locality, hockey, cold weather, America-bashing, whatever) and they must be delighted to have a complete stranger quiz them about it?

The many "white"-looking Cdns I've asked say "No. Duh."

Before I go to bed -

languagehat - thanks for those links. I hadn't read them before and will be passing them on.

yeloson - Welcome, thanks for being here, and I hope peoples' kneejerk defensive/judgemental reactions, in this or other threads, don't deter you from contributing.

skorgu - Thank you, first, for learning without having to have things spelled out in microsyllables in several different ways , and second, for having the grace to say so. Can you clone yourself? The world need more of this openness to self-learning.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:09 PM on March 9, 2006


except for First Nations peoples, who were here before the rest of us

Yeah, duh. And they get asked all the time if they're from Irkutsk or Mongolia. Poor bastards.

In response to the rest: I dunno. What I do know is that life sucks. Get a helmet.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:19 PM on March 9, 2006


Outraged by the outrage, stavros? Why?

Anyway, I think not everyone here is talking about the same thing. Some are speaking as though the issue were being probed about your race as part of a longer conversation which involves other topics, getting to know someone.

Others, (including me) are referring to people who want very badly to know what your race is, as the first and possibly only thing they want to know about you. And that shit is fucked up, and so are they.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:38 PM on March 9, 2006 [1 favorite]


I think that a non-perverse and intellectual comparison can be made between "exotic-looking" people receiving unwanted questioning about their ethnicities, and women with huge breasts who don't like when men sneak glances at their busts: anything that sticks out always attracts attention and curiousity, and is immediately identifiable as distinct or different. People with a need for inclusion don't like to feel excluded or exotic, so they feel upset.

I don't mind the question anymore, though things were different when I was in college and was told I should be offended by such things. I eventally decided it was more liberating not to feel indignation every time someone was curious. If I feel like the other person is being ignorant, I see it as a teaching opportunity.

(For the record: I am "exotic" multiethnic/multiracial, whatever the hell you want to call it, I really don't care. Though my parents were definitely an interracial couple (Asian/white) - my wife and I haven't decided whether we're an interracial couple. Is an Asian/white and white couple interracial? I don't know.)
posted by bugmuncher at 10:51 PM on March 9, 2006


Outraged by the outrage, stavros?

Heck, no. More playing the crotchety old guy in the corner, shaking his head and muttering 'kids these days...'

North Americans in general seem to have developed this idea in the past decade or two that it is the duty of the rest of the world not to offend them. Which is, of course, in more ways than one, completely bass-ackwards.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:03 PM on March 9, 2006


What I do know is that life sucks. Get a helmet.

Dude, I totally posted the SAME THING to this Sudanese woman who was raped by the Janjaweed the other day on Slashdot, and she wouldn't even listen!
posted by iamck at 11:11 PM on March 9, 2006


Right, sure, smartass. A Sudanese woman raped by the Janjaweed is clearly exactly the same as some whining twat upset because people are curious about his ethnicity. Precisely the same.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:16 PM on March 9, 2006


Try being a Republic of China national who lives in Taiwan, was born in Mexico and raised in the US, of Russian and Native American descent. The whole question of "So where are you from?" takes on several interesting shades of meaning.

I usually say "Disney World", myself.
posted by Poagao at 12:00 AM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


I find the question difficult to answer not because of race but because I have moved a lot. So where am I from? Most recently? Originally? On average? It's complicated and I feel stupid answering because I never know which question people are asking.

Most people are simply curious and mean no harm. I'm flattered that people even bother.
posted by srboisvert at 3:58 AM on March 10, 2006


I really hate to say this, but I think that unless you've experienced it, you can't possibly understand it.

No, that's an overstatement. You can understand it, it just takes a little effort. You have to make an analogy between that person over there being bothered and you being bothered by something, and make that analogy emotionally real to you. It's how we develop empathy as kids (those of us who are lucky enough to develop it); at first we don't care when somebody else is hurt, but then it clicks: that person makes the same funny sounds and expressions when he bangs his finger that I do when something hurts me, and I really hate it when something hurts me, so that's bad, and I feel sorry for him.

But when you're a kid you have lots of time and energy for that, plus you haven't learned the importance of being cool. When you become a big boy and get to post on MetaFilter, it's so much easier and cooler to go "Hey, buddy, that's life, get over it." I mean, if you're not getting raped and murdered, what do you really have to complain about? Somehow I doubt that these people apply the same principle in their own lives and go around in a Zen-like trance, no matter what the petty annoyances of their day (because, after all, they're not getting raped and murdered), but that's not important, because all we see here is their über-cool attitude. And that's what's important.

Again, thanks for the post, and I'm glad you're not taking the snarkers too much to heart.
posted by languagehat at 5:02 AM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


Gee ... if memory serves, when I was back in Canuckistan, being asked where I was from was kinda ... normal.

Us toques want to know, because if you're from Edmonton, like me, and someone is from Toronto, you don't want to say something that would piss him off — such as: "Toronto thinks it's the center of the universe."

Conversely, the Torontonian doesn't want to say" "Bloody Albertans and their oil money."

So we ask, "Where are you from?" and then we say, "Let's go for a beer and catch Hockey Night in Canada on the big screen, eh?"

And Stav ... I hear ya.
posted by bwg at 5:13 AM on March 10, 2006


languagehat -

honestly i would love nothing better to agree with you, but that just isn't true. believe me, i have lived both sides of that arguement now. i have tried to see things from that perspective, then i moved somewhere where i had that effort tested. completely different.

you don't necessarily have to live it though. just observe it. watch any of your friends get asked that question for the hundredth time and see the irritation crawling under their skin.
posted by Doorstop at 5:31 AM on March 10, 2006


Ynoxas - "So, let me get this straight. You purposefully don't report your race, and then lament that the official numbers are too low? I'm glad it was a census form and not an IQ test."


I don't think you got it straight. What's wrong with saying "ask the wrong questions and you'll get the wrong answers" (and then make the wrong decisions)? That's all he was saying, no?


Personally, I'm glad this wasn't a reading comprehension test.

Oh.
posted by blastboy at 6:18 AM on March 10, 2006


stavros: North Americans in general [think] that it is the duty of the rest of the world not to offend them.

I have said zilch about North Americans vs. 'the rest of the world." Could you refute points I have actually made?
If you meant to refer to my points about many self-identified "white" Cdns...if they crave to cling so tightly to the importance they assign to "race" in their social interactions that they insist on seeing me, first and foremost, in terms of whatever racial category they identify me as (with its attendant perceived "traits," usually inaccurate)...instead, or ahead of, making an effort to treat me as an individual and compatriot...then I certainly don't consider it their "duty" to "not offend" me. I consider the duty of anybody, who believes s/he isn't a racist, sexist or whatever-ist, to make an effort to treat those different from themselves, first and foremost, as individuals. Zeroing in, right off the bat, on the "race" you perceive somebody to have, and the corresponding cultural differences you assume of this person, does the opposite.

As for the many self-identified "mixed" or POC who've posted that they like it when people ask them the Question or the series of Questions, or that they don't mind answering, or that they find it innocuous compared to blood-and-guts racial stereotyping - they prove my point that, guess what? We're all individuals, and there's no "right" way of approaching this issue except by approaching us as individuals. What exactly is it that bothers you about the option of paying attention to a different-looking individual's verbal cues and body language, and using those to shape your interaction with him/her rather than preconceived notions of who they are? Because this is much more efficient at "getting to know you, the individual I claim to be interested in," than focusing on finding out his/her "race" while ignoring her/his verbal & body language cues that s/he is not at peace with this line of questioning.

life sucks. Get a helmet

instead of trying to educate people about how they could optimize their social bridges? Why? Because some people take offense at the suggestion that their bridges could be improved, and not enough other people take the suggestion as an opportunity to improve theirs?
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 6:46 AM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


honestly i would love nothing better to agree with you, but that just isn't true.

Uh, what do you mean by "that"? I'm not exactly sure what you're saying, but I'm pretty sure you've completely misread me. Because this is exactly what I was saying:

you don't necessarily have to live it though. just observe it. watch any of your friends get asked that question for the hundredth time and see the irritation crawling under their skin.
posted by languagehat at 6:50 AM on March 10, 2006


Right, sure, smartass. A Sudanese woman raped by the Janjaweed is clearly exactly the same as some whining twat upset because people are curious about his ethnicity. Precisely the same.

If I could change my username, I would change it to "Whining Twat." Seriously.

Nobody is suggesting that being asked The Question repeatedly over the course of one's life is equivalent to the kind of overt, palpable discrimination experienced by other groups. It's not the same as being told to ride in the back of the bus, having someone cross the street as you approach, or, of course, being raped by the Janjaweed.

It's merely annoying and offensive, in the way that many slights having nothing to with race are annoying and offensive. And I really don't see how expressing one's annoyance with The Question constitutes being a Whining Twat, but perhaps that's because I'm not a Blustering Asshole.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 7:02 AM on March 10, 2006


when I was back in Canuckistan, being asked where I was from was kinda ... normal. . . . So we ask, "Where are you from?" and then we say, "Let's go for a beer and catch Hockey Night in Canada on the big screen, eh?"

Do you realize you're implying that your experience speaks for that of all Canadians? I'll break it down for you:
You talk about your experience (please note, from your description, you don't seem to have experienced any series of Questions as outlined in this thread), making sure to account for regional differences.
You then generalize ("we ask . . . we say") to the experience of all other Canadians, apparently regardless of skin tone. Or self-acknowledged bigotry, for that matter (ie the people who, in private, use "nigger," "chink," "wop" etc to dehumanize those they feel threatened by).
If you truly believe that your personal experience of "Where are you from" (minus its endless iterations), obviously innocuous, no hidden meanings, is typical for ALL Canadians, then you illustrate perfectly how "privilege" is most perfect when it's completely unaware of itself.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 7:11 AM on March 10, 2006


funny, i only see one whining twat in this thread...
posted by iamck at 7:24 AM on March 10, 2006


languagehat: I'm glad you're not taking the snarkers too much to heart.

I had thought, this being my first post, that the snarkers would get to me more. I was wrong. People more interested in performing their SuperSnarkySkilz, than using the guts and mental discipline it takes to refute or even engage logic, are completely inconsequential to me.

On preview: ooooo your ExtraSuperDuperSnarkySkilz sure proves my points wrong!
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 7:28 AM on March 10, 2006


That's funny, few people ask me that and I'm a mulatto. (Okay, what's the Latinate term for "1/16 Negro"?) But I see his point. That's one thing he might like about Louisville KY: most folks would just assume he's Black and not bother to inquire.

I myself have often been asked if I'm Jewish, though some ask if I'm Christian -- the latter being "Christian" code for "Are you Jewish?". Those Mefites who know me as a critic of Israel and the "Old Testament" might find that funny.
posted by davy at 7:31 AM on March 10, 2006


An aunt of mine always accussed me of "Trying to be white"
whenever I talked to her or my other relatives. I heard that phrase about 500 times in my life. Who woulda thunk that speaking perfect N-glish made your skin color change?
posted by doctorschlock at 8:03 AM on March 10, 2006


I have asked The Question and been upset to discover this pissed someone off. It seems to me that people that get upset by this are engaging in stereotyping my lilly white ass. The specific case in mind was someone beautiful, and brown. I'd never seen someone that looked like this man. I probably wanted to know where to find more like him!

I will ask The Question because of accent more than anything. I love accents, and like to know their origins. And with accents, I would naturally ask "Where ya from?". What the fuck, I'm from Michigan. We generally sound like that talking head that does the network news, only less formal.

Reading the thread, I can see where some of you can get an attitude about it. But watch the attitude, friend, because it's a step or two on the way to being a bigot yourself. As a generic white guy, what would I know about how you'd be asked all the time?

So you suppose I'd be waiting to assign some stereotype? What makes you think I even know a stereotype for whatever ethnicity you may happen to be? Again, I'm from Michigan. By the time I left there, I'd already learned how silly such things are, and don't pay much attention to such things. Where I grew up, there wasn't enough diversity to have stereotypes. Funny how that works.

I tend to be open, honest and damn curious. If you're different, I'm curious about how. Fascinated about it, to be sure. But I have this notion that every different group has something about it that does something better than my own. But I'm a geek. From Michigan. I'll shut up now.
posted by Goofyy at 8:11 AM on March 10, 2006


Hank: So are you Chinese or Japanese?
Kahn: I live in California last 20 year, but first come from Laos.
Hank: Huh?
Kahn: Laos. We Laotian.
Bill: The ocean? What ocean?
Kahn: We are Laotian. From Laos, Stupid. It's a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It's between Vietnam and Thailand, okay? Population 4.7 million.
(blank stares from Hank, Dale, Boomhauer,and Bill)
Hank: So, are you Chinese or Japanese?

posted by tdismukes at 9:18 AM on March 10, 2006


The question is really only offensive because asking it really conveys the sentiment that "you are not one of us." It may be really obvious as it is in stavros's case where his skin tone doesn't match the (broad) majority of the local population, but it still stings. Especially if you're speaking the same language and living in the same area. It has to hurt when total strangers approach -- why would a total stranger ask that? Can I go up to a woman with a child and ask who the father is? This is unnecessary detail that could offend because it's not relevant to the social situation.

The other, nonoffensive place I've heard this question is among college students and (unsurprisingly) in suburban areas. Why? Because no one could be from there, because the population is either new or turns over regularly. It's almost a common bond to declare you're not from there.
posted by mikeh at 9:20 AM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


I think stavros has a point. It's important not to be offensive, but it's also important not to be easily offended.
posted by russilwvong at 10:11 AM on March 10, 2006


One can be as thick-skinned as a crocodile, and still get worn down by the sheer repetetiveness of The Question.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 10:54 AM on March 10, 2006 [2 favorites]


I grew up in a small town in Atlantic Canada. My parents came 'from away' (British and Bermudian) and I believe I was allowed to forget that fact never. Nobody asked me The Question because everyone knew the answer, and those who didn't know just made something up. I got called such refreshing terms as jungle ape, bush niggar, and my personal favourite, niggarfucker. I was also a small kid, so every so often someone would remember to call me bootpisser as well. These insults never hurt me; the people who made them were cavemen. And I don't really look particularly black (I actually look a bit like Tony Pierce, if that helps). At the age of eighteen I moved out to Western Canada, where people assumed from my accent that I was British. And I got The Question a whole lot.

The Question was worse in some ways than being insulted, because you had to go through the laborious process of being categorized. Too often the implicit message behind The Question is Are you in some way a threat? Not a physical threat, mind you, but a threat to the questioner's emotional equilibrium.

I'm in my thirties now and I'm not overly bothered by The Question anymore. I tend to deflect it whenever possible, and it can be highly amusing to watch people scan your face and try desperately to fit you in somewhere. It's a part of my social interaction with whitey Canada, and it's not going away anytime soon.
posted by palinode at 11:16 AM on March 10, 2006


I was drinking in a bar in Hamburg with a buddy, and the bartender and her girlfriend would look over at us and giggle, then return to their conversation, look over again, giggle...Finally she came over and asked us where we were from. I replied, "Canada". The two of them laughed and laughed and laughed until they were able to control themselves, then blurted out, "Oh! We thought you were from Denmark!". They then doubled over in laughter again. I'm glad I didn't tell them my father's side was German, or I wouldn't have got this story.
posted by Ohdemah at 11:40 AM on March 10, 2006


At the age of eighteen I moved out to Western Canada, where people assumed from my accent that I was British. And I got The Question a whole lot.

But wouldn't this make sense if they thought you might be British and were interested?

I actually always use the expression "Where are you from?" because I don't want to assume the person is foriegn or run the risk of guessing anything. (Especially with accents, I can never tell New Zealand and Australian accents apart, total minefield.) If they are local, I expect to hear "Etobicoke" or "Scarborough". Or in the case of Vancouver, Port Coquitlam or Kamloops or something.

People coming up randomly on the street to ask you is terribly rude - I find it shocking this would ever happen in Toronto. For one thing, in Toronto it's rude to talk to people on the street even to ask the time or for directions. But in general conversation, when it's perfectly normal to try to make small talk, it is putting just as much a stereotype on the asker to assume their thoughts behind the question.
posted by jb at 12:06 PM on March 10, 2006


I wonder if I've ever asked somebody "where are you from?" and was thought of as racist or rude, when all I wanted to know was "Cleveland" or whatever.
posted by mullacc at 12:16 PM on March 10, 2006


Well, I'm a white girl born in the USA and still living here and people ask me "The Question," too, kind of a lot, it seems, considering that, well, I'm a white girl born in the... etc.

So I'm guessing it doesn't always stem from some sort of racist exoticism. Some guy once came up and started murming French in my ear because he thought I was French (I am not). Once, in a one-week period, two strangers asked me if I am Russian (I am not). For some reason the consensus of these strangers is that I definitely don't "look American," which I take as a compliment because that's how they mean it.

Instead of being offended by the impertinence, I just amuse myself by making people guess and keeping a private tally of all the different countries in which, apparently, I'd be able to blend in.
posted by tentacle at 1:39 PM on March 10, 2006


Goofyy: So you suppose I'd be waiting to assign some stereotype? What makes you think I even know a stereotype for whatever ethnicity you may happen to be?
Jb: putting just as much a stereotype on the asker to assume their thoughts behind the question.

Thank you for addressing something (racial categories in a questioner's mind) I actually brought up. Perhaps I didn't make it clear enough that, speaking for myself, the problem is not "Where are you from" accompanied by things like "Any siblings? What did you think of Brokeback Mountain? What countries have you travelled?" People whose statements and questions have no underlying pattern around "race" or "foreign-ness," I conclude, are genuinely interested in me instead of my "race."

I assume nothing. People who cherish subconscious or conscious stereotypes, and hold them to be of paramount importance, out themselves. If they follow up their potentially innocuous "Where are you from?" with variations 2. 3. 4. ad infinitum, and/or start telling me apropos of nothing about their visit to the Philippines or China or Vietnam and how much they loved/hated the place, and then fish for congratulations/outrage from me - they teach me, by doing this, that they have racial categories in mind to slot me into.
But I agree that assuming that generic "whites" want to slot me into stereotypes, would also be stereotypical. I agree that a solitary 'Where are you from?", without any reincarnations (or long rambles apropos of nothing about Asian countries), is racism-free.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:31 PM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


Goofyy, look it up, called white privilege buddy, sorry, you got it. There's some drawbacks from being the oppressor, part of the elite power structure, especially when you're born into it, and didn't choose it. It's hard to come to terms with that your prejudices are more harmful then those of a racial minority. Sorry.
posted by iamck at 2:58 PM on March 10, 2006 [2 favorites]


That being said, this attitude and question is more based out of ignorance then anything else. My friend (whose parents hail from Vietnam) often gets asked this question, followed by "But, orginally, where?" - but it's most often in small towns, or white towns, or by people who just haven't been surrounded by anyone who looks of any other ethnicity. Of course he's annoyed by it, but mostly says he just laughs at their limited exposure to the world.
posted by iamck at 3:02 PM on March 10, 2006


cybercoitus interruptus, I was being completely facetious.

Sheesh ...
posted by bwg at 5:37 PM on March 10, 2006


I'd still rather be a blustering asshole than a whining twat, is all I got to say.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:07 PM on March 10, 2006


bwg: oh. *sheepish grin* Sincere apologies. been dealing with a family member's emergency surgery over the past 24 hrs (thank cod, it was successful) and I guess I let my singlemindedness get out of control while Metafilter R&R'ing! Thanks for the support.

iamck: On reviewing the thread I realize I mistakenlythought you were snarking me earlier. Sorry. Got distracted. Also, ignorance must be more how I've unconsciously thought of this attitude than racism, because I didn't think to put "racism" in the tags. I'm not yet persuaded that it's more one or the other or that they're not interwoven, but will keep on mulling it over.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:21 PM on March 10, 2006


Russilwvong: It's important not to be offensive, but it's also important not to be easily offended.

I know this thread's dead now, but whatever: Examples from this thread of "easily offended"
would be...?
cuz if somebody explains persuasively to me how they think I've been trigger-happy about taking offense, as opposed to pointing out suboptimal situations that could be optimized, I have no problem admitting to being wrong.

Replying, "Canada/Calgary," politely, to "Where are you from?" - do you consider that answer as evidence of my being easily offended?

What about pointing out that there's a difference between "Where are you from?" (innocuous, getting-to-know-you) and "Where are you from? versions 2.3.4..." ?

What about pointing out that many Serial Questioners hold racial categories for slotting people into?

eh, whatever. It's been fun. Thanks all, including the Fartitudinous Asshole. :)
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:52 PM on March 10, 2006


I joined the thread late, by thanks cybercoitus interruptus, great FPP! I'm glad you did it. If it got through to just one person, it was worth it.

The thing is, this is not about being 'offended'. This is about something that's at the very core of who you are. About how you are never allowed to feel at home, to feel equal, to belong. I am not 'offended' when I get asked the question. I feel like the person just ripped out a little part of me.

I don't know how this ever became white vs. everybody else, as it seems to have done for some people. It's not about that. I get asked the question by all kinds of people of all ethnicities. All ethnicities can be prejudiced. The effect is the same.

I'm not hurt every time people ask the question. Believe it or not, I am capable of figuring out the motivations behind such questions. If it is one of genuine curiosity and friendliness, I welcome it. I can tell when it's not.

stavrosthewonderchicken: I'm really sorry for the way people react to you in Korea. Even if you're not bothered by it anymore, it does not make it right. Countries and cities with more multi-ethnic populations are leading the way in learning to abandon such senseless and useless notions as race and ethnic origin. Discussions like this help it along. One day people in Korea will catch up too. But if we all had the attitude of "life sucks, get a helmet", there would be no progress ever.

At the end of the day, I am not my heritage. I am not my "race". I am not my ethnicity. I am just what I say and what I do. And all I want is that, a fair chance.
posted by questionmark at 10:43 PM on March 10, 2006 [2 favorites]


....fuckin' kids these days.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:44 AM on March 11, 2006


Good thread (and speaking of offended, have you ever realized how hard it is for white people to talk about race).
posted by iamck at 8:19 AM on March 11, 2006


Personally, I've always thought that asking The Question was a rather lame way of making small talk with me, 'coz given my shining brown skin and black hair, it's quite blatantly apparent that I'm Indian. So I usually reply by asking The Questioner where she thinks I was from and so on. Easiest way to sustain conversation, methinks, which is the whole point anyway.

That said, I did get pissed off once when someone asked me where I was from. Told him I was from France., which he obviously didn't believe, given my rather thick Indian accent and rolled 'r's. So I told him that it's a small province called L'Inde somewhere on the west coast. Unfortunately, an Indian acquintaince overheard this and couldn't stop laughing, not for my measly attempts at creating a French heritage for myself, but for a very Indian reason; as any native Hindi speaker would tell you, 'laund' (which is how I pronounced L'Inde apparently) in colloquial Hindi/Urdu has a rather explicit connotation. It means 'dick'.
posted by the cydonian at 8:50 AM on March 11, 2006


It means 'dick'.

Har har har!

Questionmark - heeeeey good to see you! *waves* Thanks for expanding on the inaccuracy of the "easily offended" accusation. Seems to me "Oh they're offended again" gets trotted out often these days. It's an easy, intellect-free way to dismiss legitimate critiques of racial privilege (though not so much gender or class or hetero privilege - why?). Many of the ones who do this, I think, confuse critique with thin-skinnedness because they just can't be bothered to exercise empathy. Or think about the logic of the critique.

I don't know how this ever became white vs. everybody else,
I was surprised at this too. I thought someone would comment on the quotes from the Berkeley article about being accused of not being Asian or black "enough" for other Asians or blacks.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 8:56 PM on March 11, 2006


The New Majority

~Secret Asian Man
posted by bwg at 6:04 PM on March 12, 2006


thanks for introducing this guy to me, bwg!
"Defaults" is good too.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 6:37 PM on March 12, 2006


Examples from this thread of "easily offended"
would be...?


I wasn't referring to this thread in particular. It's just a useful principle to keep in mind when dealing with other people in a diverse society: don't get offended easily.

Human communication is inherently ambiguous. Any particular statement can be interpreted in multiple ways. I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming the worst. (An example of someone taking offense too easily.)

As I understand it, the "political correctness" movement puts all the responsibility on the speaker to avoid offense. I would suggest a more balanced approach is to put some of the responsibility on the listener as well, to avoid being easily offended when no offense is intended.

The "Where are you from?" issue strikes me as being an example of political correctness. Are we so fragile that being exposed to other people's incorrect assumptions is going to shatter our self-esteem? If you're perceptive enough to be able to tell what the person is really asking, why not just tell them what they want to know? I have no problem with telling people that I'm Chinese. Is there something wrong with that?

questionmark: At the end of the day, I am not my heritage. I am not my "race". I am not my ethnicity.

But your ethnicity is nothing to be ashamed of, either.
posted by russilwvong at 11:57 PM on March 12, 2006


the cydonian: Well, you might think it's obvious you are Indian, but someone else might be trying to not offend you by assuming you to be Indian. South Asian people, like European people, don't look very different from each other - you could be Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, or maybe American, Canadian or British or Trinidadian, or South African or from any of the dozens of countries where South Asian people have emigrated. If you told me you were from France, I would say "That's nice, which bit?" because I have met people from France who do not have French accents (having immigrated there, for instance), just as there are Canadians who don't have a Canadian accent. After all, isn't this whole discussion about NOT assuming non-white people cannot live in majority white countries?

(That said, when I first met new friend at University in the States, I asked her where she was from. She said "Couldn't I guess?" And I said no, though I knew she wasn't American (we were at an International students's event). She was surprised and miffed that I didn't say Indian (which she was), after all they were the biggest South Asian country, whereupon I had to explain that where I was from, there were many more people originally from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. We both had our own stereotypes - she, that almost all people who looked South Asian she had ever met were Indian, me that most that I had ever met were Canadian and/or recently emigrated from any of several countries Since then, of course, most people of South Asian ethnicity I've met are British.)

My amusing anecdote - another friend and I were discussing visible minorities in Canada, trying to guess at the proportion. Being from Toronto (about 50% visible minority, aka not white or aboriginal), she guessed about 30-40%, while I thought it was much lower, only 15-20%. We were both wrong - Canada was at the time only 9% visible minority, though 18% of people were born outside the country. So being in Toronto (or Vancouver or Montreal, etc) isn't like being in the rest of the country at all - it's a whole different world.


cybercoitus interruptus: thank you for a good post, and a good discussion.
posted by jb at 7:26 AM on March 13, 2006


russilwvong: I'm sorry, I find it hard to have respect for someone who thinks "political correctness" is a valid concept. I won't get into that now, as that will likely be another heated, tiring, dispiriting argument that goes nowhere.

You prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not assume the worst. That is an excellent attitude, and I applaud you for that. So how about giving me the benefit of the doubt and not assume that I can't tell the difference between someone genuinely trying to be friendly and someone being prejudiced and hostile?

Are we so fragile that being exposed to other people's incorrect assumptions is going to shatter our self-esteem?

No. Not for the first few times. But it wears you out. You start bracing yourself for The Question from new people you meet after a while. Prejudice doesn't have to be physical for it to have an effect.

If you're perceptive enough to be able to tell what the person is really asking, why not just tell them what they want to know? I have no problem with telling people that I'm Chinese. Is there something wrong with that?

But your ethnicity is nothing to be ashamed of, either.

- So, where are you from?
- Erm, around here?
- No, really - where are you from?
- Oh, you mean ethnicity? I'm Chinese.
Scenario 1:
Silence. Then person turns away.
Scenario 2:
Person starts mimicking and mocking their perception of the piercing sounds of Chinese language. CHINGCHONGCHAGUOSHAHCHA! It's the glee in their eyes when they do it.
Scenario 3:
Person starts speaking Chinese to you. Maybe they know one rude phrase they can barely say. Maybe they do know Chinese. Problem is the assumption that you know Chinese because you look Chinese. Or, person starts talking about Chinese culture with you. You try to gently break it to them that you are not tied to a country or culture by your looks. But they insist. They insist it's your heritage.
Scenario 4:
So.. what martial arts do you know? OR Mention of Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee.

etc.

So it's not so much the question itself, but what often follows. The question starts becoming a great big warning sign for you after a while. At least that's what happens with me. Maybe you're so much stronger than me, and I'm overly sensitive and "politically correct". The problem's not with the people being prejudiced, it's the people being hurt by it. Thank you for your contribution to social progress.


Thanks bwg and cybercoitus interruptus - those strips are great. The black man thing, I've been pissed off with that for so long. And people are not even aware of the prejudice inherent in their description. You point it out to them and they become indignant - just like some people have on this thread. But it's not a hostile accusation, we all have our own prejudices or insensitivities, and if you point out something I can within reason do to make another person's life easier, I'll be happy to listen and consider changing. Isn't that how social progress happens? How we evolve as the human race?
posted by questionmark at 5:32 PM on March 13, 2006 [2 favorites]


--someone being prejudiced and hostile?

In scenarios 1 and 2, isn't the hostility the problem, rather than the question itself? My reaction to scenario 2--although this hasn't happened to me particularly frequently--is to confront the other person. ("What's your problem?", using a hostile/aggressive tone. Not particularly smart, I suppose in terms of personal safety, but that kind of person pisses me off.)

In scenarios 3 and 4, though, my interpretation is that it's a matter of ignorance/incorrect assumptions, rather than malice. Of course if you don't feel like educating people, that's your business. But I think it's reasonable to distinguish these two cases (hostility vs. ignorance). Reacting to ignorance with hostility (e.g. cci's "Screw off") doesn't seem so great to me.

The question starts becoming a great big warning sign for you after a while. At least that's what happens with me. Maybe you're so much stronger than me, and I'm overly sensitive--

I doubt it, it's probably that I'm in Vancouver, which has a very large Chinese population. As I said in my first comment, I think Asian-Americans are much more sensitive to this issue, because they probably run into hostility and/or ignorance much more frequently than Asian-Canadians.

The problem's not with the people being prejudiced, it's the people being hurt by it.

As I said, I think the responsibility should be shared (don't be offensive and don't be easily offended), not put solely on one side or the other. If someone's not being offensive intentionally, I give them more slack.
posted by russilwvong at 6:07 PM on March 13, 2006


German Jamaicans wif
twisted faces
Same as it ever was
Tell me what the race is

posted by Eideteker at 9:37 PM on March 13, 2006


Reacting to ignorance with hostility (e.g. cci's "Screw off") doesn't seem so great to me.

I hope you get that I put "Screw off" in the post title as a rhetorical device. It grabs attention, summarizes one of Lawrence Hill's points (that "Where are you from?" fatigue gets trying - he's not advocating actually saying "Screw off"), and provides a little humour for those of us who can relate. I've certainly never said anything like it, or advocated doing so.

The "Where are you from?" issue strikes me as being an example of political correctness. Are we so fragile that being exposed to other people's incorrect assumptions is going to shatter our self-esteem?

No. Are people with race-based assumptions all so closed-minded that I should stop trying to enlighten any of them about the existence of those assumptions, or about the fact that their social skills, regarding people with different skin tones, could do with retooling?

I'd simply rather not have my energy consumed by having to correct people's incorrect assumptions, so bloody often. Pointing out that they have race-based assumptions will, in the long run, help reduce the number of times I have to do this. Look at Skorgu. He'll most likely treat me, if we ever meet at a Mefi meetup, as if my mind, not my "race," is the main thing he finds interesting about me, and he'll probably pass along to others what he's learned in this thread.

I have no problem with telling people that I'm Chinese. Is there something wrong with that?

Of course not. As I said repeatedly above, we're all individuals. Just as there's nothing wrong with you being ok with telling people that you're Chinese, there's nothing wrong with me explaining to people who treat me as a representative of my perceived race instead of as an individual, that they're doing so, and I'd rather they didn't. Unless... do you think there's something wrong with me doing that?

If you're perceptive enough to be able to tell what the person is really asking, why not just tell them what they want to know?... your ethnicity is nothing to be ashamed of

Ah I see! To your mind, "refusing to proclaim race/heritage upon demand"="being ashamed of race/heritage". I'm sure you're right that for some people, this is the case. Not me. I proudly proclaim my heritage and the achievements of my ancestors often. Just not when someone's trying to get the information out of me like they're playing Whack-a-mole.

Why don't I tell them what they want to know? Because shaking up people's assumptions is my priority, because that's the only way things will ever change. Just telling them my great-grandparents' provenance leaves their underlying racial assumptions not only intact, but invisible to themselves. That's not harmonious with how I want to conduct my life.

Again, this doesn't mean I think there's anything wrong with you or any of the posters who've said they don't mind the Series of Questions. You don't agree that there's the problem I see, so of course you react differently. I'm sure you all speak up plenty on issues that are your own priorities. As far as I'm concerned, it's all good.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 7:08 AM on March 14, 2006


russilwvong: Firstly, the world is bigger than the US and Canada. Prejudice and ignorance is worldwide. But in most western societies, what you call "political correctness" and what I see as social progress means that in many places it's socially unacceptable to be openly hostile for reasons of race or ethnicity. So people who are prejudiced have had to resort to more subtle ways of putting you in your place. "Where are you really from?" is one of them.

My scenarios are what have followed the question in my past experience, but people often are much more subtle than that. I can only ask that you give me the benefit of the doubt and not assume that I'm being "sensitive". That word implies that you consider the problem to be with me.

Let's not call it "educating" people, it's a bit patronising. Let's say informing. No I don't feel like informing people all the time. Because I am not a teacher, or a great ambassador from foreign lands, here to educate the masses. Because I just want to be a human being. Because it's exhausting. If you haven't had to do it much in your heavenly Vancouver, excellent, until I can move there take my word on this will ya? And what makes you think people want to be "educated"? If I tell them that race is irrelevant, that it doesn't define me, that stereotypes are stupid and dehumanising, do you really expect a positive response in most cases? Metafilter is a relatively intelligent and left-of-centre crowd. And yet in this thread so many people have reacted strongly to what they perceive as accusations, with nothing really getting through. And all we're asking here is to please, think a little bit before you ask the question next time, and maybe give a little think over your assumptions behind that question and its likely effect on minorities. But people are already getting defensive, and this is just words on a computer. Do you really think it's so easy to "educate" people face-to-face? I'll have to tell you, again from past experience, that most people really really don't want to know.

If someone's not being offensive intentionally, I give them more slack.

And you are still running on the assumption that I cannot tell the difference in people's intentions.

I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave this thread now, because this discussion is just getting me down. russilwvong, I think we're likely going to have to agree to disagree.
posted by questionmark at 11:17 AM on March 14, 2006 [2 favorites]


I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave this thread now, because this discussion is just getting me down.

Sorry to hear it. I have to admit that this discussion has piqued my curiosity about your personal experience, but I know how frustrating Internet discussions can be when the other person doesn't get what you're talking about.

Having looked up your posting history and found that you're in London, I think I have a better idea where you're coming from.

No I don't feel like informing people all the time.

Neither do I. So I just tell them what they want to know; IMHO, it's the simplest and fastest way to deal with the question.

How would I respond to someone who then looks down on me--who uses the question to put me in my place, as you said? (Oh, you're one of those Third Worlders from the ex-colonies. Silence.) Truthfully, I have no idea (although I suspect sour grapes would come into it--I'm not interested in talking to snobs, or some such). Open hostility I have some experience with. Snobbery, very little.

(The only time I've ever seen an actual cold shoulder was at a recent MeFi meetup. And yeah, it was from somebody from the UK. I felt pretty bad for the target.)
posted by russilwvong at 12:45 PM on March 14, 2006


As I said repeatedly above, we're all individuals. Just as there's nothing wrong with you being ok with telling people that you're Chinese, there's nothing wrong with me explaining to people who treat me as a representative of my perceived race instead of as an individual, that they're doing so, and I'd rather they didn't. Unless... do you think there's something wrong with me doing that?

No, not at all, if you have the energy to do so.
posted by russilwvong at 12:55 PM on March 14, 2006


Let's not call it "educating" people, it's a bit patronising. Let's say informing.

good point. "Informing" is much better.

heavenly Vancouver

like jb's point (thanks jb): Canada was at the time only 9% visible minority . . . So being in Toronto (or Vancouver or Montreal, etc) isn't like being in the rest of the country at all - it's a whole different world.

questionmark: all we're asking here is to please, think a little bit before you ask the question next time, and maybe give a little think over your assumptions behind that question and its likely effect on minorities

Hear, hear. Political correctness and being "easily offended" have got nothing to do with it.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 1:14 PM on March 14, 2006


The black man thing, I've been pissed off with that for so long. And people are not even aware of the prejudice inherent in their description.

Which has at times left me in a very awkward position.

Not wanting to categorise by race, I try not to describe people unnecessarily by their race. But when trying to describe someone to someone else, sometimes that leaves you really stuck. I have a friend, and I would say "He's the really tall, big guy", "He has black curly hair", but frankly at the time he was the only male black person I was knew. Five minutes later, it becomes finally becomes obvious who I meant, and even more painfully obvious how I was tiptoeing around the dreaded race issue.

I essentialize people by their looks all the time, when describing them to other people (usually people who may have met them but not know the name). "They are short" "They have yellow, extremely curly hair," "She's very pale," "she is skinny and has HUGE blue eyes, and crazy hair". In a white majority society, being of a minority race can become a short form description. Describing someone as Asian doesn't mean that's how you always think of them, but that they have black straight hair and Asian facial features. Black translates as black curly hair and dark skin. If someone is biracial, I tend to start describing the colour of their skin or hair Saying someone is white is less useful if it describes too many people you know, but the police always do it to be unambiguous.

The question is, are white people described as white in a situation where another race is in majority? Is this racist, or convenient?

-----------------------

One could always answer the Question with the Question : "Where are you really from?" Which would either lead to people happily discussing their heritage, or point out how rude their pushing can be.

But when I'm asking the Question, I do expect/want something like "Toronto" and if I say, but really where, I expect "Etobicoke, Islington and Dixon, by the big Loblaws there." (okay, less specific if it's another city, province or country, but I know enough geography to know American states, Chinese provinces, English counties, Indian regions - I often ask people from these countries where within the country because I am curious. I also read maps for fun.)

------------------------------------


The more aware of race I become, the more careful I am in my language, and the more uncomfortable I am with the whole issue. When I was a child, I was blissfully blind and understood people as shades of pink or brown, and was disapointed I was stuck with the shade that came with straight hair. But now when race is discussed, I'm white, and no matter what I do, I'm of the oppressor race. No, I'm not being sarcastic or fllippant. I'm aware of the advantages my race has brought me. Being white and of a non-regional accent means that no one who talks to me knows whether I've grown up in public housing or a nice suburb. I never will be stopped for driving while black (though I'm curious - does that happen to black women? Or is it a combined gender-race discrimination against black men specifically?) But it does essentialise me by my race - one race starts being discussed, I feel like I'm no longer jb, with a variety of experiences (including living as a minority) and knowledge from other people's experiences in my mind, but I am that White Other. I'd rather, like all people, be seen as me. I try not to understand people, any people as an Other, and I hope people try not to see me that way.
posted by jb at 1:40 AM on March 15, 2006


I try not to describe people unnecessarily by their race

I don't have a problem with saying "the black guy" or "the Asian-looking girl" etc in value-neutral contexts (eg, "so I was talking with Alex the other day, you know, the black guy you've seen me hanging out with").

It becomes a problem when connecting something negative to a person's (non-white) race, if that person's race doesn't actually add anything important to the story. In "Defaults", the storyteller says "So I saw this guy walking down the street, minding his own business. Suddenly this black dude comes out and..." probably pulls out a gun or something equally heinous ("minding his own business" strongly implies something bad's going to happen).

I have a white friend who once told me about her horrible day at work (cashier at a grocery store) involving a customer, "a black man" who yelled at her, "and I'm saying he was black because he was black". I asked her ,"Why does it matter that he was black?" "Because he was," she said again. The tons of white guys who gave her grief in that job were, in her mind, assholes whose skin colour was irrelevant to their assholery, but the black guy's skin colour somehow mattered to the fact that he behaved like an asshole. She doesn't think of herself as racist, she's a thoughtful and caring friend who I'd do anything for, and at the same time she's got these associations in her head that express themselves where they're not warranted and that are extremely difficult to dislodge. There's a bit in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink where he talks about the subconscious associations we have with "black" vs "white" people, and how you can test your own. He says his own test showed him to his dismay that he'd internalized several of the usual stereotypes (and he's mixed himself - see languagehat's link).

One could always answer the Question with the Question : "Where are you really from?" Which would either lead to people happily discussing their heritage, or point out how rude their pushing can be.

Tried that. It can lead to happy discussions of others' heritages, but not (in my experience) to others realizing that their pushing is rude. They just get perplexed, since there's no parallel put-down or alienizing subtext, and they won't get blistered from having their heritage demanded of them repeatedly by stranger after stranger for their entire lives.

really where, I expect "Etobicoke, Islington and Dixon, by the big Loblaws there."

I'd say that's an atypical use of "really where", and your non-alienizing intent would probably be (or become) evident to the people you were talking to. One would hope.

I'm white, and no matter what I do, I'm of the oppressor race

my husband feels this too and it gets him down sometimes

is it a combined gender-race discrimination against black men specifically?

probably, but I've never looked it up

now when race is discussed, I'm white, and no matter what I do, I'm of the oppressor race. . . . it does essentialise me by my race

Agreed, though I'd say the essentialization gets neutralized as your process of listening to, engaging with, and digesting new viewpoints becomes evident.

I try not to understand people, any people as an Other, and I hope people try not to see me that way.

Agreed. Makes me visualize a path and a sign next to it that says: This Way To A Better World.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:20 PM on March 15, 2006


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