“Like millions around the world, I’m not from one place.”
April 12, 2017 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Where Are You Really From by Zara Rahman [Real Life] “I’m baffled at your sense of entitlement. It’s not that you ask in the first place; it’s that you ask again, after I’ve answered. No, where are you really from? Is there any other personal question to which you would outright reject my answer? Would you say that about my height, or my profession? I can refuse — no, it’s not your role to define my identity, to put boundaries on who I can and can’t be — and yet you do it over and over. I can’t spend too much time thinking about you, though. I meet people like you regularly, at least once a week. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I will say whatever I think you want to hear, anything to make the conversation progress before we get to the awkward part where you realize that you wouldn’t be talking to me like this if I were white.”
posted by Fizz (60 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ms Zara Rahman articulates how I often feel when I find myself in these kinds of situations. I was born in India, raised in Texas, and am now a Canadian citizen. I am a visible minority with no accent and yet I'm considered “different”.

Things I regularly hear in my life:

• “That's a different name.”
• “You don't have an accent and you speak so well.”
• “No, where are you really from?” / “No, where are your parents from?”
• “What kind of Asian are you?” / “What are you?”
• “Oh you're from India, I love curry.”

I do realize that a lot of it boils down to the fact that people are curious, they have questions about other cultures and places. The thing is, there is a right way to inquire about this kind of personal information and a wrong way. Also, consider the tone with which these questions are being asked. And don't assume. Every person you're speaking with is unique and has their own story to tell.
posted by Fizz at 7:10 AM on April 12, 2017 [24 favorites]


Or, if you prefer it in comic video form: What Kind of Asian Are You?

It's horrifying how many supposedly liberal white people are so subconsciously deeply racist and refuse to examine their racial bais, and how abysmally ignorant they are and so desperately eager to show off what little knowledge they have.

I recall a woman from a class I was taking one summer at University of Pittsburgh, a young white woman who would have been horrified and deeply offended if anyone had pointed out her racial bias, asking the one black woman in our class if she could get sunburned.

Calling it privilege, or subconscious bias, or what have you seems inadequate sometimes.
posted by sotonohito at 7:14 AM on April 12, 2017 [3 favorites]


I recall the first time that I felt as if a system was in place that was limiting my identity and reducing me to something I felt I was not. I was in the third grade filling out some kind of state level aptitude test and I had to fill in a bubble.

My options were something along the lines of:

⏣ white
⏣ asian
⏣ hispanic
⏣ other

I like to think that stuff like this has changed but even if there are a few more options than there were back in 1988. Someone is going to feel limited by their choice. I think that by the time I graduated high school in 1999, these bubbles had evolved some what.


⏣ white
⏣ chinese
⏣ korean
⏣ indian - subcontitent
⏣ indian - native
⏣ mexican
⏣ latino
⏣ hispanic
⏣ other

As Ms Rahman says so well:
“I’m frustrated that this approach to identity has become entrenched in our digital technologies. Instead of building that “cyberspace” that John Perry Barlow described, we’ve re-created conditions where citizenship and location not only retain their importance but have their impact extended.”
posted by Fizz at 7:21 AM on April 12, 2017 [8 favorites]


Fizz: I think that by the time I graduated high school in 1999, these bubbles had evolved some what.

There was an interesting link from a recent AskMe about the bubbles that medical researchers have to fill in. Relevant quote:
Tishkoff: If I want a grant from the National Institutes of Health, I am required to check off the racial classification according to the U.S. government's census categories. I study very diverse people from all over Africa, but I believe the classification is African American or Black. I always feel awkward.

Roberts: The NIH guidelines require the use of race in recruiting research subjects. There's a history of advocating for that in order to increase the participation of minorities in clinical research. Then it gets confusing, because the researchers continue to use these categories in conducting the research. Scientists must conform their research to these admittedly social categories of race.
posted by clawsoon at 7:39 AM on April 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


British passport holder, grew up in the USA, lived in 8 countries, live in Spain, Argentinian wife, kids born here... I just can't answer the "where are you from"question honestly in less than a few minutes. And I'm white so I don't stand out that much as long as I don't open my mouth.
posted by conifer at 7:41 AM on April 12, 2017 [8 favorites]


Interesting article, though I must profess my ignorance as to the online aspect. I feel like the only time that it's important to specify my location online is when I need to provide a mailing address, and in that case there's a correct answer—whichever answer gets the package (or, from her example, credit card) to my house. In other cases (like her Twitter bio example) it seems entirely optional, and you could say you're from Antarctica for all that it matters.

But I do recall having to specify "Hispanic" on forms as a child. Now you can choose white, black, or whatever, and "Hispanic" is an optional check box, since the form makers finally figured out being Hispanic is about a language and not a national origin. So, progress!
posted by ejs at 7:44 AM on April 12, 2017 [3 favorites]


I'm from a little place near the Tannhäuser Gate. You've never heard of it.

The thing is, I don't mind (even like, sometimes) talking about this stuff with people, and hearing their own expansions on "Well, I was born in [place], but then we lived in [otherplace], and then...". Just not in the first 30 seconds after we've met.
posted by rtha at 8:10 AM on April 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


Also, if we could skip the part of the thread where we acknowledge the startling {/} observation that "hey, people mean well, they're just being nice!" that would be rad.
posted by rtha at 8:12 AM on April 12, 2017 [16 favorites]


I do realize that a lot of it boils down to the fact that people are curious, they have questions about other cultures and places. The thing is, there is a right way to inquire about this kind of personal information and a wrong way.

I'm also Indian(-American) and I get this a lot from people who are really into yoga or other vaguely Eastern spiritual practices or who have an interest in developing countries. Not the ham-handed and awkward "Where are you really from?" but more, just comments that insinuate things about my life, experiences and interests based on my racial appearance and name. I don't really mind because I'm currently saving my outrage for all the other, far more frightening and aggressive shit that's being aimed at non-white immigrants in this country right now but I guess that the part of this kind of behavior that has always irritated me is that it basically implies that the person asking the question has some sort of special insight into who I am and what I like, just based on the race I appear to be.
posted by armadillo1224 at 8:13 AM on April 12, 2017 [8 favorites]


I get people being surprised I'm not more organized / detail and goal oriented / intellectual / money obsessed / whatever even though I have a jewish surname, basically surprised anybody a little bit different from the norm doesn't live up to the majority's stereotypes.
Fuck 'em.
posted by signal at 8:18 AM on April 12, 2017


I don't ask people this as an adult because I know some people, especially people who are visible minorities find it hurtful.

But to this "you wouldn’t be talking to me like this if I were white.” I just don't think that's true. I grew up asking everyone this. I'm white and I was asked this all the time. Kids at my school asked everyone this. And I was white and so was everyone else (except for one new kid who came when I was in grade 4 I think.) Another common form of the question: "what are you?". And there was absolutely pushback on white kids who said "nothing" or "Canadian"* because even as kids we knew everyone but first nations people came from somewhere else.

So yeah people asking this could be jerks. Or they could come from a city where 3/4 of the population is either foreign-born or children of immigrants, most people maintain ties to other countries and speak heritage languages. It's not necessarily true they don't ask the same question of white people. In that context the question doesn't mean to imply "you don't belong", it means "tell me about yourself. (What languages do you speak? What do your parents cook? What holidays do you celebrate? Which heritage language class do you go to? Where do you travel to visit relatives?)

But anyway, I don't ask it anymore because I get that if people find it hurtful my intent doesn't matter. But if someone asks you this, don't assume they mean to imply you don't belong. I get that many do mean to imply that and are assuming that. But many don't and aren't, too. (why would having family or ancestors coming from another place mean you don't belong? Everyone's family or ancestors come from another place.)

* there was a mildly derivative term for such people, mangiacake. I don't recall ever hearing other ethnic slurs as a kid.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:18 AM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


Even in a broader context the extent to which people push back on "Where are you from?" and just straight-up refuse to accept what you tell them can be startling. At least, the first nine billion times it happens; then it just gets tiresome.

I'm as anglo as a very anglo thing, but an Air Force kid who moved at least cities about ten times before I was 18. At events where I'm expected to schmooze, small-talk commonly includes "Where are you from?" So I usually answer that I'm a military brat and not really from anywhere. And, deo gratias, most people can accept this and switch to "Where were you stationed?" or just some other kind of small talk. But even this innocuous statement visibly pisses some people off; it's immediately obvious that they think I'm lying to them or something? That of course I have a hometown somewhere and am refusing to tell them just to be a dick to them? No, but where are you from really? Where's home? Like I didn't understand the fucking question the first time. Like the existence of people without any particular regional or local attachment personally offends them.

Also, if we could skip the part of the thread where we acknowledge the startling {/} observation that "hey, people mean well, they're just being nice!" that would be rad.

People who have never experienced anything like this -- and I will freely admit that I catch only 0.01\% of the shit that south Asian, east Asian, or Latino people catch in this -- seem to have problems accepting how quickly some people can turn from "being nice" to being visibly upset, angry, kind of threatening dicks. You can just see the moment when all the "nice" drains out of them.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:21 AM on April 12, 2017 [19 favorites]


A good article that is eerily similar to this one from the NY Times in 2008. Disclosure: The author is the sister of my Sweetheart.
posted by HarrysDad at 8:24 AM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


But anyway, I don't ask it anymore because I get that if people find it hurtful my intent doesn't matter. But if someone asks you this, don't assume they mean to imply you don't belong. I get that many do mean to imply that and are assuming that. But many don't and aren't, too. (why would having family or ancestors coming from another place mean you don't belong? Everyone's family or ancestors come from another place.)

Are you familiar with the idea of perpetual foreigner syndrome? Everyone's family or ancestors does come from a different place but when people ask this question to people who are visible minorities, it feels very different than when it's asked of people who can easily physically blend into the majority. We have our lack of belonging pointed out to us daily, in many other ways as well and also, just have that bodily experience of difference--constantly walking into rooms where we are the only people who look like us. If you are white and have never had that experience, perhaps it might be hard for you to understand. But it's different.

Also, your insinuation that having family or ancestors coming from somewhere else is not a bad thing seems a little naïve. Anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia are as ancient as human social organization. People have always had antipathy towards people who come from somewhere else. It is absolutely a bad thing, in many people's eyes.
posted by armadillo1224 at 8:29 AM on April 12, 2017 [14 favorites]


My white spouse gets asked where she's from sometimes (more like: where did you grow up?). If the asker is from the same place, or nearby, then they have a chat about it. But I don't think I've ever heard anyone ask her if that's where her parents are (really) from. No one asks her about her ethnicity based on her name, or immediately leaps to tell a story about the time they visited her presumed ancestral homeland.

So. Do white people get asked this question? Well, people are gonna people so sure, white people ask other white people this question. The subtext - in the US, at least - is pretty different than when they ask it of people of color.
posted by rtha at 8:37 AM on April 12, 2017 [10 favorites]


Armadillo, I wasn't familiar with the term, but I was thinking after I posted that I should note that of course there is tone and context and a person who is a minority know what tone and context they're being spoken to in. And a person being asked this question could just know they are being told they don't belong, just like I can can recognize when I'm being talked down to for being a woman, but a man might not hear it, and even a woman might not hear it if I just repeat the conversation.

If I seemed to imply there was no reason to ever be hurt or offended or like I knew better than someone else what they were experiencing, I apologize.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:40 AM on April 12, 2017


Q: How tall are you?
(You answer with how tall you are.)
Followup Q: No. Really. How tall are you?
posted by otherchaz at 8:49 AM on April 12, 2017 [6 favorites]


Also, your insinuation that having family or ancestors coming from somewhere else is not a bad thing seems a little naïve.

My insinuation was that in the context where I grew up it was a close to universal thing. And I was talking about growing up, so I guess some naivete is implied in that. But like I said, the only slur-like word we had was reserved for people who didn't know where their family were from. I dont think they were seen as bad or anything like tgat, but it was sort of viewed as a sad thing that they had lost/forgotten their culture. Remember, there's no "melting pot" ideal here.

I know someone who now considers herself of British heritage, I think, but who grew up thinking of herself as "just Canadian" and answering the "what are you?" question that way, and she has said she felt like she was kind of excluded or considered lesser (my words, i dont recall her exact words) for not knowing her background.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:50 AM on April 12, 2017


So. Do white people get asked this question?

Anecdotally yes, but (in my experience) only because the conversation turns that way, or because of a strong yet not-quite-identifiable regional accent.

Just yesterday I was asked (by two different people I'd just met, one African-American and one Israeli) where I was from, to which I answered "Chicago", because that's where I grew up. However, as is typical in my (white) experience, each question was in response to an offhand comment I made along the lines of "I grew up without air conditioning, so I'm used to it", which invited the question. Very much like someone asking what kind of dog you have after you mention you have a dog.

Of course, there was no follow-up, no "but where did your ancestors live before you came to this country" nonsense. I can only imagine how off-putting it must be to get this question from strangers -- and have people be somehow dissatisfied with the first answer you give -- spontaneously, just because of how you look.
posted by davejay at 8:50 AM on April 12, 2017 [8 favorites]


I recognize that I'm also overly sensitive about these things. I am sure that many people do mean well and that they are not intending offense when they ask these types of questions.

The thing is, when you encounter this kind of mental/emotional trauma, and that's what it feels like, over and over and day after day ... at some point you just become so exhausted that being nice or polite doesn't feel like an option. You'd just rather not have the conversation at all. So I understand why Ms. Rahman replies in this way. I know I have.
“Sometimes I will say whatever I think you want to hear, anything to make the conversation progress before we get to the awkward part where you realize that you wouldn’t be talking to me like this if I were white.”
posted by Fizz at 8:52 AM on April 12, 2017


So. Do white people get asked this question? Well, people are gonna people so sure, white people ask other white people this question. The subtext - in the US, at least - is pretty different than when they ask it of people of color.

I am white, American, and have no accent at all (everyone else does, but I talk totally normally), but my birth name is a kind of hard to pronounce, unusual, and obviously European ethnic name, and yes, that's the go-to 'small talk.'

I'm not really interested in the topic, but I always had a couple of go to responses at hand, and if people persisted, I got pretty good at conveying boredom with the subject.

I do not ask people where they're from unless they bring it up and seem to want to talk about it.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:53 AM on April 12, 2017


The original comic link is sadly down now, but this thread was stellar in discussing the "No, really, where are you FROM?" topic.
posted by knownassociate at 8:55 AM on April 12, 2017


I know full well that people ask these questions, because of many articles just like this one, and every time my mind is blown at how rude and thoughtless people are. Like, "No, where are you really from?"???! What in the everloving fuck makes anyone think that is an okay thing to say? I can't remember a time in my adult life where it was not common knowledge that grilling people who "look like they aren't from around here" about whether they're really not from around here, in which precise way they are not from around here and why they are not from around here, is racist, inappropriate, boundary-stomping, and rude as hell.

Here in Pittsburgh, if you're white and don't have an obvious from-somewhere-else accent, people do ask if you're from Pittsburgh fairly early on in conversations, to assess in-group/out-group status. If you're not from Pittsburgh, you will get asked why you moved here (with the unspoken request to please talk about how much you love it). If you are from Pittsburgh, there will be drilling down on what neighborhood and where you went to high school. (I do usually tell people I am from Pittsburgh even though I'm not--I was born in Toronto but my family moved here at a young enough age that I have appropriate Pittsburgh cred.) But no one is ever like, "No, where are you really from?" because if you're white people believe what you say.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:03 AM on April 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


I do want to actually dig a bit into the essay:
“Yet specifying a single location as one’s place of “being” in a format that online systems recognize is posited as a prerequisite to modern digital life — or at least the financial parts of it. Now we enter systems with a particular credit card, which requires a bank account, which requires a fixed address. And of course, specifying one’s country of origin generates different treatment both within and outside these systems. Prioritizing and sorting people according to their assigned location makes it easy to discriminate accordingly, as the U.S. travel ban makes explicit. For those whose location answers relate in any way to countries with significant Muslim populations, now is a worrying time.”
I absolutely empathize with what Ms. Rahman is getting at here. At how limiting these digital systems can be. I'm assuming that one reason why these digital systems are not more accommodating of diversity has to do with the limits of programming and how we catalog systems and consume information as people. I'm thinking of a government website for example, that asks people to identify their citizenship.

I guess my question is for those more technically minded, those who program, etc. How difficult is it to integrate these types of thing? Is an additional drop down bar that much more difficult to enter into your program?

I also realize that it's not just a technical/programming issue, that we also have to change our way of thinking about humans. But can programming be used as a valid excuse for why these systems are so limited? Or does it all just come back to the fact that we can be shortsighted and tend to focus on what is familiar or close to us and that things that are diverse or "other" are easy to be overlooked, pushed to the sides.

I feel like I'm all over the place, I hope someone is getting at what I'm trying to dig into here.
posted by Fizz at 9:07 AM on April 12, 2017


Fizz: I guess my question is for those more technically minded, those who program, etc. How difficult is it to integrate these types of thing? Is an additional drop down bar that much more difficult to enter into your program?

The answer to that question depends heavily on why it's being asked. If it's EEOC-related in the US, for instance, then I think there is a proscribed list and allowed answers.
posted by tippiedog at 9:24 AM on April 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


There's a huge difference between the conversational where-are-you-from that pretty much everyone in my area participates in (a large majority of us aren't from here, so it's usually a decent conversation-starter) and the racist-assumption where-are-you-from.

And both of those are different from the organizational form-filling where-are-you-from, where you're trying to figure out what they need the info for and what the right answer is if it's not immediately clear for people who're "from" more than one place. I really like Rahman's way of teasing out those distinctions. Thanks for posting this.
posted by asperity at 9:28 AM on April 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think I understand what you're asking. I design systems like this--usually websites (currently procrastinating one right now!)--and yes, sometimes there is a need to get at some type of specific information for various reasons.

However, people tend to collect information almost reflexively sometimes, just because everyone else does.

Some legitimate reasons you might collect personal demographic information include for medical reasons or for usability and diversity purposes. So you might need to know what sort of reproductive system a person has or what their genetic background is, or maybe you need to collect demographic data to ensure that something isn't inappropriately discriminatory. In those cases, a lot of the time, you need to be more precise about what you ask. E.g., if you're trying to figure out if someone has a uterus, ask them that rather than asking gender. If you want to know if someone has Ashkenazi Jew ancestry, ask them that rather than dancing around it. And explain why you're asking. If you can't explain why you need the information, you don't need the information.

A lot of people don't do that, though. They just sort of copy other sites they've seen and assume there's some reason for it.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:31 AM on April 12, 2017 [6 favorites]


My mother's family has been in the United States for generations, and my father immigrated from the Middle East a few decades ago. The follow-up question is best sign that the person asking doesn't just want to make small talk about where you're from -- they want to know how you're Different. We moved around the country a lot growing up, but we all give the same answer when we say where we're from: a state in the deep South where my mother and I were both born, and where my parents met. In response, my mother tends to get small talk about the difference between the South and the rest of the country. My father tends to a get a laugh, because it sounds like a joke. (If they ask again, he repeats the same answer and the questioner gives up, which actually is kind of funny.)

I'm one of the fortunate ones, per the article. My identity has never been a question for me. Born and raised in the United States, I've always thought of myself as entirely American. On the other hand, that certainty means that the follow-up question always surprises me. "Yeah, but where is your FAMILY from?" is a weird thing to ask of a stranger. As someone who lived most of my life in this country, it is weird to hear.

I don't think most people mean any harm. Americans got into the habit of trying to quantify race for really ugly reasons, but most people have more nuanced views on race now. I always think of those ancestry.com ads. When you think of yourself as an American of English descent, finding out that you're also 22% Celtic and 8% Puerto Rican -- or whatever -- seems like a bit of fun trivia. (You've discovered that you're 3% black! You can't wait to share it on Facebook! Does this mean you can say the n-word now! Just kidding! You'd never do that! But could you! Lol!) But I'm nearly 30, and of Middle Eastern descent. I'm "white," and American, but it's a kind of white American that faces a lot of anxiety when traveling through the airport. I'm more guarded about this stuff than I used to be. When a stranger asks where I'm REALLY from, it can feel like a threat.
posted by grandiloquiet at 10:02 AM on April 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


White people don't typically get asked this question, but in my experience white people love being from somewhere else. Or pretending they do. Maybe it's a regional thing, but a white person was born here to parents who were born here will happily say "I'm Irish and French on my mother's side and Russian on my father's side".

I guess this is due to the US being a relatively young country, so people want to give themselves a bit of gravitas by forging a connection to some place that has been around a little longer.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:09 AM on April 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


I'm reminded of the old joke about the little girl who asks her mother, "Where did I come from?" and gets the whole birds and bees lecture, and then says, "Oh. My friend Susie said she came from Chicago."

Maybe the response to "No, where are you really from?" should be, "Well, when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much..."
posted by Daily Alice at 10:14 AM on April 12, 2017 [13 favorites]


I don't want to reject the broader concerns raised here, but this:
Yet specifying a single location as one’s place of “being” in a format that online systems recognize is posited as a prerequisite to modern digital life — or at least the financial parts of it. Now we enter systems with a particular credit card, which requires a bank account, which requires a fixed address. And of course, specifying one’s country of origin generates different treatment both within and outside these systems. Prioritizing and sorting people according to their assigned location makes it easy to discriminate accordingly, as the U.S. travel ban makes explicit. For those whose location answers relate in any way to countries with significant Muslim populations, now is a worrying time.
...is a little strange. That's not actually country of origin being sought, it's country of location, and possibly also country of citizenship (which may or may not correspond to technical country-in-which-you-were-born). And, yes, while there are unquestionably potentially nefarious uses for this data, and so we ought to be judicious about collecting it, retaining it, and determining how it may be used and shared, I mean...regulations of all sorts differ from country to country. Compliance with the laws--and I'm not talking here about travel bans--will often require the collection of this kind of data. The very degree of privacy your data is given can depend on, e.g., whether you're U.S. or E.U.-based, not because the company thinks that E.U. residents are somehow deserving of greater privacy, but because of the different laws the U.S. and the E.U. have.

This is such a very basic point that to overlook it weakens the article.
posted by praemunire at 10:25 AM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


I really appreciate that in the article itself, she acknowledges that even within communities, there are different reactions- that some immigrants really enjoy the "I'm from here, but now I'm a X" formulation, as a measure of marker of success. It let me breathe out and really appreciate the rest of the piece talking about her own experience. And she makes some valid points - that where you identify as being From can be intensely fraught if you don't have or don't feel like being part of an easy narrative.
posted by corb at 10:29 AM on April 12, 2017 [3 favorites]


I guess this is due to the US being a relatively young country, so people want to give themselves a bit of gravitas by forging a connection to some place that has been around a little longer.

Or maybe it's because the melting pot idea is sometimes bullshit and sometimes family cultures stick around a few generations? And being a descendant of immigrants is part of a lot of American culture. It seems silly to claim that doing something that is rather distinctly American is being pretentious about trying to not be American...

I mean the people who want to play up gravitas are talking about their ancestors who fought in the revolution or came over on the Mayflower or whatever.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:32 AM on April 12, 2017


I grew up in the UK, moved to California as young man, and still have an English accent.
When people ask "where are you from?" I reply "San Jose. The part of it with an English accent".
When they ask "where's home?" I say "that depends on what you mean by home, but probably San Jose".
And when they ask if I'm American or English, I tell them I can vote in America but I'm English.
It's complex even without any questions of what I look like.
posted by mdoar at 10:51 AM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


My children grew up being asked where they are from, and fully aware that the questioner wanted to know their ethnicity, which emphasized their "otherness." I told them to expect that in college, because everyone is from somewhere else, and the standard meeting-other-students talk is "Where are you from, and what's your major?" My youngest was born in India, and she gets the question every time she opens her mouth in St. Paul because of her hillbilly accent. She is tickled to just be from Kentucky now.

My older daughter doesn't have that accent. She was born in China, grew up in Kentucky, living now in Georgia, and speaks French at work. She's never sure what someone wants when they ask where she's from. But she's moving to France, and will then just say she's from America. Or lie about it if the situation calls for it, because she's not obligated to be honest to strangers.
posted by Miss Cellania at 10:52 AM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


This white girl gets asked the question – and it goes in parallel with this:
You can just see the moment when all the "nice" drains out of them.

As many of you know, I'm an Oregonian in France. Named after my Norwegian twice-paternal great-grandmother. My grandfather (her son) raised me with pride of what-he-had-been-raised-in-as Norwegian culture. This here granddaughter eventually learned that it was specifically, and beautifully, quite centered on the Lofoten Islands from whence they came and had lived for millennia (which we know thanks to DNA tests and archaelogy). He had even taught me Norwegian that was in fact Lofoten dialect. Like, Oslo dialect sounds foreign to me. When I hear people from Lofoten and neighboring places, I immediately understand it and it sounds like home, thanks to my grandpa/farfar. I also have two Irish grandparents and a Dutch grandparent, but they weren't big on the "where they came from" thing; for them the answer was "America." Which, of course, they had the privilege to claim without getting much flak for it because: white.

I'm now a white American mutt in France. At first, conversations with white French people – and only white ones – start off warmly. It's a matter of either minutes or a few days before they get the tell-tale head tilt at an odd vowel out of me and ask, "oh hey! You have a little bit of an accent! What part of France are you from again?" I smile kindly, in spite of what I'm 99% sure will happen next, and say, "oh I was born and raised in the US, but my name is Norwegian."

That is the moment when the nice drains out of them, never to return. I'm able to imitate the facial expression to the delight of my diverse group of friends and new colleagues I've come to trust. We all know it. We can see it.

It's heartbreaking when you know how much worse it is for those who don't benefit from that initial benefit of the doubt that a lack of melanin affords.
posted by fraula at 10:57 AM on April 12, 2017 [10 favorites]


I always think of those ancestry.com ads. When you think of yourself as an American of English descent, finding out that you're also 22% Celtic and 8% Puerto Rican -- or whatever -- seems like a bit of fun trivia. (You've discovered that you're 3% black! You can't wait to share it on Facebook! Does this mean you can say the n-word now! Just kidding!

It's funny that you mention this. I was having a conversation with a few of my friends last week about ancestry.com. In particular, I'm thinking of this advertisement where this white man in his fifties talks about how he always assumed that his family was from Germany and he discovers that 52% of his dna is from Scotland/Ireland and “...so I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt.”

I realize ancestry.com is a commercial enterprise and they're in the business of selling subscriptions or tests, but this upsets me for some reason. Because I know it's not that simple. I mean, do people really think it's as simple as putting on a hat and boom, you're now this particular culture/identity.

I was born in India, but I spent 18 years in Dallas, TX. I've now spent just as long in Canada. I often struggle to answer the question “Who am I?”. Am I Indian, Texan, Canadian? Yes and no to all of those. I know that some of my cousins back in India do not consider me Indian. Because I was only in that country for 2 years as a baby before my family moved to America. How we choose to identify ourselves is such a complex and personal part of ourselves. Just look at all of the interesting and nuanced stories people are sharing in this thread about their own experience with this subject matter.

Maybe take a moment to think about the significance of putting on that kilt Kyle. Slow your roll.
posted by Fizz at 11:08 AM on April 12, 2017 [10 favorites]


Ugh, Ancestry. Those commercials are so cringe-worthy. CULTURE IS NOT GENETIC.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:41 AM on April 12, 2017 [6 favorites]


Ehhhhhh....that stuff is complex, is all I'll say, particularly when it comes to 'what heritage does someone identify as', and particularly when the very concept of assimilation means that many of your cultural cues are lost to history. Many people are constantly in the process of rediscovering their cultural heritage. My own family worked ruthlessly to be as American as fucking apple pie - thus meaning the only cultural connection I had to my own culture came through my sneaky relatives who would talk about the past and What Was Done on the sly. Or be like "yeah this stuffing is not actually American turkey stuffing but this recipe that's been handed down for five generations and is not actually stuffing."

So that guy being like "I suddenly found 52% of my heritage is from Scotland", I have a lot of feels that that too is a kind of erasure, of cultures not passing themselves down because America's the melting pot and you'd better melt, damn your eyes, melt.
posted by corb at 11:50 AM on April 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


because America's the melting pot and you'd better melt, damn your eyes, melt.

Indeed, I've talked with some of my parent's family friends, first generation migrants, and they often talk about how hard they tried to be as "American" as they can. They wanted so much to fit in, to be accepted, that they often pushed their own culture/identity to the sides.

The generational divide definitely impacts how a person views this particular subject. I've seen lots of children of these 1st generation families attempt to reclaim and embrace the culture that many of their parents and grand-parents rejected or kept hidden.
posted by Fizz at 12:01 PM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


"So. Do white people get asked this question?"

To some degree. From an early age, I frequently asked people this question because what I'm most interested in is either where they grew up or, more broadly, what their sense of regional identity is. I'm very interested in people's life stories and as soon as I meet someone I start to collect this sort of information about them and, you know, build a little story about them in my head.

But, the last time this came up here it became very evident to me that a) a lot of people ask this question as a coded "you're not one of us, are you?" and b) this is deeply alienating and tiresome for people who are targeted this way. I resolved as a result of that thread to never approach this directly and to always be mindful of avoiding any of that alienating subtext.

And, really, the bottom line is that this isn't hard to do because most people want to talk about themselves and to explain who they are and what matters to them, so just engaging people about them is very likely to result in learning this sort of information. If you really just are interested and care about who they are, you don't need to ask this directly, just be interested and listen and give the person the space to disclose whatever they're comfortable with.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:30 PM on April 12, 2017 [10 favorites]


So that guy being like "I suddenly found 52% of my heritage is from Scotland", I have a lot of feels that that too is a kind of erasure, of cultures not passing themselves down because America's the melting pot and you'd better melt, damn your eyes, melt.

Not necessarily. Ignorance can stem from utter indifference to family history. It doesn't take long for family memories to die, a generation or two is enough.

Take the Baldwin brothers. Their father taught American history for years.

It took one of the brothers going on one of those This Is Your Family Tree shows to discover for the first time that they were not only a descended of American revolutionaries, but of a Mayflower pilgrim. The news changed his entire outlook on things.

"So. Do white people get asked this question?"

Yes. Both at home and abroad. Privilege prevents our being bothered by it.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:32 PM on April 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


If I keep my mouth shut I can pass as white American here in California.

Then I speak and people ask me where I am from. When I say "Mexico", 3 out of 4 times I get "Oh, I thought you where from Spain/Brazil", and I can tell it is intended as a compliment. Sometimes I event get an "I'm sorry, I thought you were from Spain".

I have not come up with a good answer, except asking why they feel sorry I am from Mexico and not Spain.

My 4 year old is smarter than me. She just answers, depending on her mood, that she is "from this planet" or "from another planet". When asked for clarification, she says "I am from the big planet in space that has all the animals and stuff, you silly"
posted by Dr. Curare at 1:30 PM on April 12, 2017 [8 favorites]


I just ask people if they are from the area code of their cellphone number.
posted by oceanjesse at 1:47 PM on April 12, 2017 [6 favorites]


> no one is ever like, "No, where are you really from?" because if you're white people believe what you say

Years ago in a store in Jackson Heights, Queens, the cashier asked me all those questions -- the no really, where are you from, where did you grow up, where are your parents from questions. I'm white and have a TV-generic American accent, I'd guess he was from India originally. To this day I don't know if he was honestly curious, or if he was bored and messing with me.

Other than that: yeah, saying "I moved around a lot as a kid" turns out to be a conversation stopper if you're white.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:57 PM on April 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


I'm kind of indistinguishable light brown skin tone so if I travel (especially around the Mediterranean), people assume I am a native to the point where I've started calling myself Pan-Mediterranean. My ancestry tree includes a lot of armies marching through so God only knows what I resemble.

But in this country, which has been my home since I was a toddler, I get the, "Where are you from? No, where are you really from?" questions as well as, "Wow, your English is really good." It is super annoying. As an adult, I used to try to create a cultural bridge when discussing my origins but now it immediately makes me to dismiss the person asking.

My first and last names are Persian so I usually answer those kinds of questions directly. Alas, sometimes, the person asking makes a face that tells me exactly what they think of my answer.

With the current political climate, I've started seeing those questions as not just rude but hostile.
posted by nikitabot at 2:17 PM on April 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


> "So. Do white people get asked this question?"
> Yes. Both at home and abroad. Privilege prevents our being bothered by it.

Not always. Here's my anecdata:

As a recent immigrant, it's possible that I get a free pass. But one of my icebreaking questions at parties are "so, did you come to Australia, or were you born here?", which is generally well received.

Some people tell me they immigrated at 4, or 12, or 21, or their boomerang stories ("I was born here, but my parents took me back to the old country at 6, then we came back at 16", that sort of thing). Others say "Ozzie born and bred, mate!" or self-deprecatingly explain, "I'm boring" meaning they are white Anglo Australians with at least three generations in the country. It's just polite chat, but can lead to deeper conversations about language, culture, identity and education, child-raising, the kind of good conversations you want to have at parties.

However. There is one type of interlocutor that can get kind of miffed by the question, some times close to offended. And that's some older white Australians, who can't even understand why anyone would ask that, despite the fact that the biggest originator of Australian immigrants has historically been the United Kingdom. And despite the fact that, if you keep asking, they may be Australian born, but at least one of their parents were from the UK, so they too are the children of immigrants.

I also like my question because reveals how many of the people that I would have thought of as Australian-born Australian (because they are white with an Aussie accent, or because I'm crap at recognising their accent) are immigrants from the UK, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, etc. It also reveals how many Asian-Australians have been in the country for generations, sometimes since the Gold Rush. And occasionally I meet people who tell me they have some Wurundjeri ancestors, so their family has been in the country for then of thousands of years (how cool is that?).

As I said above, it could be that, as a recent immigrant, I get a free pass, but I think the framing of the question matters, and so does the attitude to the answer. I (try to) never assume*, I take people's answers at face value, I never challenge people as to where they "really" are from, and I will apologise and clarify the aim of the question if there seems to be a misunderstanding**.

But yeah, some white people are bothered by the "where are you from" question. Interestingly, in order to bother them, the question has to be asked in such a way that is less offensive to others, and makes less assumptions about a particular worldview.

* And when I assume, I inevitably get it wrong, as when I met this black man who worked on Hollywood movies, so I instantly assumed he was American, but no. New Zealander. Or the Spanish-born woman who I thought was on a working holiday visa, but no. Australian mother, so she was Australian too. Never assume!

** The way to deal with misunderstandings, by the way, is to apologise for not speaking clearly enough.
Again, I get a bit a free pass as an ESL speaker, but it's only an apology if you say "I didn't explain myself well"
as opposed to "you aren't understanding me".

posted by kandinski at 6:44 PM on April 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


And the WHITE MAN said unto Me, Whence comest thou? Then I answered the WHITE MAN, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. And the WHITE MAN said unto Me, But really though, whence comest thou? So I went forth from the presence of the WHITE MAN.
posted by hyperbolic at 7:29 PM on April 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


Fizz said: "The thing is, when you encounter this kind of mental/emotional trauma, and that's what it feels like, over and over and day after day ... at some point you just become so exhausted that being nice or polite doesn't feel like an option."

This is the problem. I had the exact same reaction in my younger years until I realized that I was letting others have power over my happiness. We've every right to be hurt and alienated. But if we stay in that state of hurt, we are disempowering ourselves, giving up control over our mental well-being, surrendering our freedom.

If I expect every person that I meet to never say or ask certain things, then I will be disappointed. The only thing that I have absolute control over is my own reaction. I can still be hurt because emotions are reflexive, but how I process and react to it is my choice.

When I am hurt, I ask myself why do I feel that way? Is it because I feel that someone is rejecting or hateful of me? Then I ask, so what if this is true? Does that mean that no-one in the world accepts me? Followed by - why is acceptance by this person important? Soon I realize that it is in fact not important. Quite the opposite. If this person is malicious, why would you want his approval? If this person is ignorant, his rejection of you is based on ignorance, what's the big deal?

I recommend the Stoic philosophers, this is corny but true: they offer you the key to freedom. Take back the freedom that is rightfully yours.
posted by storybored at 8:03 PM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


storybored, does that mean that if I get myself into a headspace where that stuff doesn't matter to me personally anymore, that I therefore never need to call it out? That if it doesn't matter to me, it doesn't matter at all?

I mean, I don't need some asshole's approval, and I don't feel wounded by the assessment of some ignoramus. But it's so fucking boring to hear them talk like it's original and I can't have ever heard this before. I'm fifty years old and I have no fucks to give at this point, but I'll be damned if becoming a Stoic means that I'm somehow above calling this shit out when I witness it, or it happens to me.
posted by rtha at 8:32 PM on April 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


I do not, for the life of me, get the "Where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?" conversation. Why on earth do you care to track down their ethnicity like a bloodhound? Who the hell cares? If a brown person says they're from Ohio, then they're from Ohio! Leave it be, ya nosy parkers!

Seriously, I've never asked anyone where they are from unless it becomes specifically relevant to the conversation, like if they said something like, "Where I'm from, we eat icebergs for lunch." Then I would perhaps be quite concerned. No, this hasn't actually happened.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:05 PM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


As a (very white) immigrant to the US with a noticeable accent, I get the 'where are you from' conversation starter a lot. Not entirely sure why, but in my experience the overwhelming majority of *askers* are anglo whites. Maybe because they don't get how the question can be annoying or even a microaggression?
posted by The Toad at 10:21 PM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


I do not, for the life of me, get the "Where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?" conversation.

Stereotyping. Even when racism isn't specifically intended in a physically violent way, it's all about lazy stereotyping versus actually learning stuff. A lot of people think that if they know 'where someone is REALLY from' that they can suss out all sorts of stuff about them without putting in any real work.

Same basic principle applies to white-on-white requests like this: a lot of assumptions about personality and preferences are made based on geography, warranted or not. It's just less loaded since there's less violent history there.

(And yeah, I hate this question. I'm visibly brown, biological father was from overseas, I've never been out of the US. I bounced around a *lot* during my childhood. It's a messy question even if the person asking isn't an asshole. Like, 'do you have an hour?')
posted by mordax at 12:42 AM on April 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


Other than that: yeah, saying "I moved around a lot as a kid" turns out to be a conversation stopper if you're white.

Even though Americans tend to on average move more than, say, Europeans, most don't ever move very far. And even though moving long distances is fairly common, those moves tend to be many years apart (and mostly at specific life stages), so most people have a fairly simple geographical story, or at the very least one that can be reduced to a simple story even if that is hiding some complications. (The name/hometown linking that has always been used in war reporting -- "Private Jimmy Smith from Nashville, Tennessee" -- is one that hides any hint of complexity, for example.)

For those of us who don't have that simple narrative, the "where are you from?" question is a lot more of a pain, and as noted once in a while you get an interrogator who gets angry about a non-standard answer.

But that is just a fraction of the whole weird "no, where are you really from?" thing that gets pushed on anyone who is visibly "other," which as the article notes is entitled, pervasive, and exhausting.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:11 AM on April 13, 2017 [4 favorites]


I grew up in a small, very white town in the South. People always asked me where I was from. I'd tell them I was born in Maryland but moved here when I was very young. No, where are you really from? Or even more direct: what are you? Then I have to go into the explanation of my mom being from S. America, since what they really wanted to know was why I didn't look white. And it was always awkward trying to explain that no, my dad wasn't also from S. America, he was just a white dude from Pennsyltucky, and no, I don't really know what ethnicity he was because he didn't really know beyond "white" because that's all anyone cared about. My brother, who looks much whiter that I do never got these questions unless I or my mom were with him. It's weird, too, because I don't speak Spanish and I had the same white bread childhood everyone else in my little town got, so it was pretty jarring when people went out of their way to remind me of my otherness in this way. I still don't know whether to check Hispanic or white on forms and often I just put "other."
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:27 AM on April 13, 2017 [3 favorites]


Oh, and I have never wanted to shed my whiteness like I do in this political moment, so I'm probably going with straight "Hispanic" from here on.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:30 AM on April 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


"storybored, does that mean that if I get myself into a headspace where that stuff doesn't matter to me personally anymore, that I therefore never need to call it out? That if it doesn't matter to me, it doesn't matter at all?"

Absolutely not, rtha. The other pillar of Stoicism is our moral duty to do what is right, to make the world a better place. Doing what is right, leading a virtuous life is what gives life meaning. Reflecting on our emotional reactions and taming them in no way diminishes the acts of injustice perpetrated against us or others. Nor does it diminish our obligation to act. Taming our emotions doesn't mean "going soft".
posted by storybored at 6:52 PM on April 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


This is just as much a thing in China. I'm white and I can't escape telling people where I'm from and the resulting gasping (literally, daily) that my accent isn't "foreign". Occasionally it takes repeating myself three or four times before people are like, "Oh, I thought you were speaking English." I sometimes have to give people the eyes and say, "So I'm foreign, you over it yet? Your sense of reality still intact? Can we get on with [thing]?" Last night, [thing] was ringing me up at the supermarket.

It takes all I got not to thank people when I speak Chinese and they don't bat am eye. That happens more than the former, but not by much.

When people ask me where I'm really from, because the US is a young country and I look French/Russian/British (wtf!), I'm like, "How much of Genghis Khan's DNA do you have? Even the idea of someone who is 'purely Chinese' is kind of a joke, so I don't know what I'm supposed to look like, but this is the face I got, and it doesn't match the language I'm speaking, so... What?"

I'm amazed I have any friends at all. :). And it's not just white people, it's PEOPLE. I want genetically engineered babies so we can stop all this already.
posted by saysthis at 9:26 PM on April 13, 2017


I feel uncomfortable in the way this thread has gone from a discussion of a very real micro-aggression people of color face into people sharing their "white people being asked about their heritage" stories. I'm white, and if I do get asked for my background it's not anywhere in the same league as what someone who isn't white faces when asked the same question.
posted by daybeforetheday at 1:25 AM on April 14, 2017 [6 favorites]


This is just as much a thing in China. I'm white and I can't escape telling people where I'm from and the resulting gasping (literally, daily) that my accent isn't "foreign".

I respectfully suggest that there is a difference between a white guy in China being told how good his Chinese is and what people are talking about here.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:40 AM on April 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


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