A Lesson in Code Switching
July 9, 2018 10:33 PM   Subscribe

“I am fluent in very many different forms of English. Yes, I know African American Vernacular English. I also know the English we speak over the phone when talking to an absolute stranger. I know how to speak Customer Service English, where smiling and nodding both count as punctuation marks. As a matter of fact, in this painful conversation, I am speaking yet another kind of English. It is a coded format where every word and gesture has a hidden meaning or dilutes the substance of my thoughts to make it taste sweeter to you.

[...] I have never been further from home. I have never felt more isolated. But, I’m too far gone for going home to be an option. There is no other recourse but success.”
posted by stoneweaver (39 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
This is a beautifully written piece, and I hope everyone takes the time to read it.
posted by Morpeth at 12:56 AM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

[A few deleted. Sorry folks, an early comment was deleted by the poster's request (because it didn't really relate to the article). Also, just in case you're not reading the linked piece, it's not actually an article about code switching in general, so probably better to read before commenting. Thanks.]
posted by taz (staff) at 1:10 AM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

Agreed, this is great writing. The relentlessness of the script and the repeated interactions comes across, and the exhaustion of leaving the other person affirmed and positive.

The vignettes from her real life are so much more interesting, including the unknowns, and now I've learned about Richland Farms.
posted by carbide at 2:10 AM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

Thank you for posting.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:33 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is a really good piece.

I think I could avoid the obvious shittiness she's describing—but we have to make those conversational decisions really quickly, and who knows what my face would betray if I heard the name of a famously "bad" area that I don't actually know anything about. Would my eyebrows go up? Would an "Oh, wow," of vague recognition still be a kind of microaggression? Probably.

But maybe I'll have a fighting chance at not being That Guy, thanks to this. I'm glad I read it.
posted by Sokka shot first at 5:49 AM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

That was so good, it's getting me to sign up for Medium. Thanks for posting it.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 5:53 AM on July 10, 2018

Excellent piece. But man, sometimes I despair for the human race:
You: “Have you ever seen a drive by?”

Me: [Try not to glare nor sound too angry] “No.”


I hate being asked that question by the way. Yet, it always comes up.

You: “You’re so different from what I’d expect. You are very articulate.”

Me: [Frown but relax before they notice] “My parents took my education very seriously.”
Why do people just open their mouths and spew the first dumb thing that pops into their heads? I mean, if you're five years old you get a pass, but how do you reach college age and not know better?
posted by languagehat at 6:05 AM on July 10, 2018 [23 favorites]

how do you reach college age and not know better?

The Ivies, at least, are full of sheltered prep school kids for whom the rest of the world is an anthropological exhibit full of interpreters just dying to answer their questions about how the other 99% live.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:48 AM on July 10, 2018 [18 favorites]

This is good writing, but I have to admit that this is the exact reason I -don't- approach people at conferences, etc, even though I'd love to get to know more people ... because I'm totally afraid I will say something stupid and be an asshole. *sigh* I know this is my problem and not hers, though, and I'm sorry she has to deal with horrible people. I would love to be better at learning about people and asking questions, though.
posted by jferg at 6:54 AM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

stoneweaver, thank you for posting this.

You become an expert at things you do over and over again. I'm grateful to writers like Brown, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, for bringing their analytical powers to the racist interactions they have over and over again and sharing their expert findings with us in such accessible prose.
I can talk about the night when the police were in pursuit of a suspect on my block. They shined their lights into our house
I had a similar night -- less terrifying, because we did not have to lay on the floor, but yes, very late at night, those almost painfully bright artificial lights coming in through the windows, casting incomparable shadows in our living room. When people meet me and find out I partly grew up in Stockton (especially people who know enough about Northern California to know its reputation), I have various polished things I say, about the university and the community college, about the hippie activist mentor who taught me, and now about the young mayor who's introducing a Basic Income pilot program. I don't talk about that night. And one reason is that those other things I can sum up in sentences, sentences with onramps and offramps so the other person can take the conversation someplace else, convenient sentences. I don't know how to sum up that night, that fragmented experience where I don't quite remember what time it started and I don't know whether the cops caught their suspect or whether we were ever in real danger. I don't know how to give my interlocutor an offramp from that night.

jferg, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People was, no joke, a big help to me in giving me guidelines for meeting new people and being both real and hospitable with them. And maybe there are some relevant Ask MetaFilter questions or Captain Awkward threads in the archives too?
posted by brainwane at 7:02 AM on July 10, 2018 [13 favorites]

When I meet somebody and learn they're from a "bad" town or neighborhood, I try to just acknowledge my ignorance and try to learn something. "Oh, I don't know that area too well. What was it like growing up there?"

And then I get anxious that I sound like an ethnographer collecting native stories. /shrug
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:20 AM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

The Ivies, at least, are full of sheltered prep school kids for whom the rest of the world is an anthropological exhibit full of interpreters just dying to answer their questions about how the other 99% live.

I was in a book club a few years ago, with some local friends in our well-to-do suburb. I did not grow up well-to-do, or in a place where many other people were. We were reading Laurie Halse Anderson's The Impossible Knife of Memory, about a poor teen whose dad has PTSD and is abusive and several scenes were flat-out triggering for me, like at one point he throws his kid's phone into a bonfire he's made because she was texting a boyfriend and her despair is super high because she knows there's no replacing it and I felt it really acutely, as someone who had an abusive parent who isolated me.

One woman from the group, who had been to an ivy, grew up in a wealthy area, went on and on about how great it was that teenagers could read about "lives like these" when they have normal ones, and that this book was such a "unique window into an alien experience" and i was like, but what about the teenagers (and adults!) who have lived it! And i got blank stares from the entire group. Later they repeated pretty much the same narrative with Kekla Magoon's How It Went Down, about an inner city shooting: "isn't this a wonderful window into another life?" And I couldn't get past the point of poverty/tragedy porn, the disbelief that other people's experiences mean something to them, the feeling of being...watched and almost preyed upon.

I no longer go to that book group.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:30 AM on July 10, 2018 [44 favorites]

I love that she describes herself as A recent college graduate who has not yet grown tired of writing essays.

It's a nice contrast to the privileged students at Ivies and the like who complain about how they're soooooooooooo tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiired of doing work like writing things. HOOOOOOOOOW many pages does my final paper have to be?

I'll look forward to reading more from her.
posted by Dashy at 7:58 AM on July 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

This is a really powerful essay.

However, as an awkward, socially anxious person who also has a fair amount of privilege, and who would absolutely be the one to blurt out "Hey, cool, do you know [first random cultural association that comes to mind]" or "Wow, that's really far away, do you miss it?", then spend days hating myself for it... I must admit I'd really like to hear some positive examples of how my part of these conversations should go, assuming that I'm a basically well-meaning person who can't fix the world's many injustices, but would love to minimize the additional damage another human being takes just by talking with me. What's my best course of action, when I'm in a comfortable-to-me social space making casual small-talk with someone who shares some-but-not-all of my cultural and class background?

--Breezing past the difference to assume a common outlook/ focusing on very local points of commonality ("These are yummy bagels, huh?") seems like it minimizes what's unique about their experience, and may make them feel unseen.

--Taking a positive, upbeat tone about points of unshared background ("Wow, great! That's so interesting!") minimizes what may be painful experiences they've had, either because of that background or via the experience of difference in this social space.

--Taking a sympathetic tone, conversely, sounds condescending and minimizes the positives.

--Mirroring whatever attitude the person themself projects would seem like a safe bet, but seemingly may just be buying into an exhausting fake rhetorical attitude they've adopted to please you (e.g. the cherry-picked "sweet" anecdotes the author mentions) and seemingly makes the conversation lots more tiring for them, as well as demonstrating that you're comfortable just hunkering down in the privileged cocoon of partial information they've created for you.

--Getting too interested in the points of difference risks exoticizing them (the "ethnographer effect" stupidsexyFlanders mentions)

--In addition, asking any follow-up questions risks appearing to project stereotypes ("Why would you ask that?"), OR presuming that they should be ambassador for others from this culture, OR forcing them to educate me when it's not their job.

At this point, I'm out of ideas for things to say, beyond the time-honored and universally-reviled "Wow, you're tall!". It's absolutely not the author's job to suggest a better option, but I really wish someone would. It sucks to enter a social interaction with the absolute certainty that I'm about to make this person's day a lot worse (to the point of never wanting to see me again!), no matter what I do.
posted by Sockinian at 8:20 AM on July 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

If you’re at a networking function, as she describes, ask questions about work. Aske questions about what’s the best restaurant. Don’t ask questions that say “I know you aren’t from here/like me - tell me about your otherness.” If you are at a networking function, you likely have much in common with someone, talk about your points of commonality.
posted by stoneweaver at 8:38 AM on July 10, 2018 [20 favorites]

> Sockinian:
"What's my best course of action, when I'm in a comfortable-to-me social space making casual small-talk with someone who shares some-but-not-all of my cultural and class background?"

IMO, trying to not say much, or ask loaded questions, or make any kind of assumptions about them or their lives, and let them talk.
Sometimes, just shut up and listen.
posted by signal at 8:44 AM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't know if the author is describing an academic conference, but hoooo boy does it ring familiar.

I, a white lady, came up poor, literally grew up on 8 Mile Rd, and then attempted to pursue an academic career. The fact that I didn't know limoncello was not a shot (even though it was served in a shotglass, whatever) made me the stuff of fun for multiple conferences. No one has ever called me 'articulate' (b/c white), but I have been told that my speech is 'too ghetto' (which, fuck off) by an ostensibly well-meaning white man giving career advice (if you start your insult with 'you're obviously very intelligent, but-' please know you are on my Enemies List for life). I grew weary of academia for so many reasons, and the way that academic white liberals are incredibly oblivious yet think they see so much is one of them.

An example: my well-meaning, well-regarded school offered etiquette dinners once a semester, whose sole purpose was to familiarize people with upper-middle-class white American social norms. They did not, for example, teach people how to have good introductory conversations that are distinctly non-ethnographic in nature, to avoid the dread 'where are you REALLY from?'. I gave it a hard pass, although I probably would have learned the proper way to quaff digestifs.

The author uses the word 'interrogation' and that's exactly what it is. Someone apparently doesn't belong - their accent, their wrong-fashion clothes, their skin color, their visible disability, their visible queerness, their gender - and it's a series of questions to figure out whether or how they even COULD belong. And worse, the obliviousness of these people - so well-meaning! - means that any attempt to point out the interrogation as such gets one painted as 'difficult' or 'humorless' or 'intense' or 'hard to work with, probably.'

One of my good friends in academia is a white lady who graduated from Stanford and came from money, so I know what getting-to-know-you conversations sound like when directed to someone who belongs. I don't know if anyone ever asked her about her childhood, her early education - because they're not trying to figure out how she got here, her belonging is implicit.

Of course, I am 100% aware that I got off relatively lightly compared to people who are non-white, less assigned-gender-conforming, etc, and that makes me even angrier because the way folks talked to me like a surprisingly well-adapted feral child was already sufficiently rude.

It would certainly be nice if those of us from places well-to-do white liberal academics fear to tread were not treated as oddities and anomalies. That our homes could be seen just as places, with bad and good like anywhere else. That our being in the room is the single most important sign that we belong.
posted by palindromic at 8:50 AM on July 10, 2018 [27 favorites]

> If you’re at a networking function, as she describes, ask questions about work.

I always tell people to try not to ask questions about parts of someone's personal life that they haven't first broached. Until someone says "my mom" or "my boyfriend" or "when I was a kid," assume those topics are off limits.
And if someone says "oh, they have deviled eggs, my mom makes deviled eggs at holidays but with more spice" that is a license to ask about their mom's cooking, not their mom's career history or what languages she speaks.

And if something seems like it doesn't add up, consider if it's because they're purposely leaving out some details, and shift the subject. Your curiosity is not license to probe.
posted by smelendez at 8:58 AM on July 10, 2018 [19 favorites]

If you are at a networking function, you likely have much in common with someone, talk about your points of commonality.

stoneweaver, that's generally the approach I do take, but doesn't that qualify as "smugly universalizing my own perspective," to assume that the other person would be interested in the same things I am? Asking about restaurants is social signalling and presupposes a specific class/cultural framework. Asking what they think about that latest memo we got at work may risk missing the fact that some other workplace issue was way more important to this person, and it's offensive that I would fail to see that. (says weeks of anxious rumination after every one of these conversations.)

RE: just shutting up and letting the other person talk, I am great at this, but (a) even the shut-up method does require that one submit follow-up questions from time to time, and (b) based on this article it may be that even the other person's self-disclosure is carefully crafted to please me, in a way that's exhausting and irritating to them, so following their lead ("Hey cool, chickens in your yard! Were they the friendly kind or the mean kind?") seems likely to just make matters worse.
posted by Sockinian at 8:59 AM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't understand why questions about someone's heritage, home town, childhood, etc. are considered go-to conversation starters. They're intrusive, and almost always off-topic in a professional setting. They seem like the kind of thing that friends talk about when they get to know each other better, not something you expect a complete stranger to tell you at a conference. This is part of a broader pattern of behaviour which really annoys me -- feeling entitled to have your curiosity about another person satisfied, whatever the cost. Because you really neeeeeeed to know about their genetics / genitals / hair texture / whatever.

I'm pretty socially awkward, but I dislike networking at conferences slightly less because at least they come with a topic of conversation baked in: the conference, which we are all presumably attending because it is somehow related to our interests. So that's where I start, and try to navigate to a topic that we both find interesting.
posted by confluency at 9:07 AM on July 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

They did not, for example, teach people how to have good introductory conversations that are distinctly non-ethnographic in nature, to avoid the dread 'where are you REALLY from?'.

They lie. Or if they higher morals, they bend the truth to something appropriate, like the Fox tells the Bunny to do in Zootopia, and answer the question they want to answer. "Well I spent 8 years at Harvard, feels like I've been here my whole life". That's why "Simpsons steamed hams" is funny. Because Skinner keeps trying to lie, but Chalmers happens to be from the exact place he mentions in his lie, and so the location keeps getting more and more narrow.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:08 AM on July 10, 2018

How to Win Friends and Influence People

That is a solid book just filled with sensible advice. It's kind of sad it gets maligned due to it's archaic now skeevy title, should really be "How to Win Friends and Influence People By Being Nice and Interested In Them"
posted by Damienmce at 9:14 AM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

don't understand why questions about someone's heritage, home town, childhood, etc. are considered go-to conversation starters.

I am non white and non-this class, and I ask questions like this all the time, because it is a wonderful way to make actual friends rather than just awkward acquaintances. I will die on the hill that it is possible to have conversations with strangers more significant than “where did you work”.

However, the socially appropriate way I learned this is to start with your own vulnerability in that area and offer the other person to come in at a less vulnerable place. If you have just told an embarrassing childhood story, it comes off as much less interrogating to talk about the benevolent aspects of someone’s early life.

I don’t hate personal questions- I hate personal questions where it’s clear I am the only person expected to share, and I think that’s an important distinction.
posted by corb at 9:18 AM on July 10, 2018 [22 favorites]

I don't understand why questions about someone's heritage, home town, childhood, etc. are considered go-to conversation starters.

They are (usually) intended to be a place to start a conversation. Something everyone has that you can then expand upon.

Not that they are great starters on their face but supposed to be a lead-in to an attempt at finding commonality (or un-commonality).
posted by ArgentCorvid at 10:06 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

this is an area where this community has really opened my eyes.

I took a lyft home from the airport sunday night, really late, with my teenage son. the lyft driver was pretty chatty. His name was Mohamed and he spoke with a pronounced accent. It was all I could do not to ask the obvious. we chatted about the weather and where we had been, how busy the airport had been earlier in the evening and how great it was that there was no traffic so late at night. My son mentioned after he dropped us that he was a great driver and whether I had tipped him (yes, nicely).

I'm sure that past me would have led with "where are you from?" and i'm glad that I no longer do that. thanks to you all for these discussions.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:21 AM on July 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

I spend a lot of time asking who I am. I stare in the mirror at my skin and eyes. I dissect my features one by one curious about how many histories led to this combination of physical traits that would eventually become me. This examination, compounded with the blank roots of that tree, leads nowhere. I have no history. Thus my search ends prematurely with me wondering, “How did I get here?”

[...] I doubt they understand how painful it is to constantly be asked where I come from, as if that identity had not been stripped away from myself, and my family over the course of centuries. My ancestors never anticipated that they would be forgotten or wiped out of the record of time. They never anticipated that they would only be known forevermore as an entity called “slave” with no recourse to regain their identity or sense of self.

Wow, I just made a comment yesterday about this exact thing. Like, yes, good.

And I'm not sure how kosher it is to mention a mod note, but I'm glad it was done, because it really is about a particular type of code switching when you're a black person in the US with this kind of background. Not all black people, etc., but this one feels it. We're probably around the same age, too. People really do weaponize "where you're from" depending on who they're talking to, and I've experienced many times where it means "why are you here / how did you get here?"

I had to figure out early on when to shorten my name in an introduction, then when to shorten it on a resume, when to shorten it even online. That I'd always be praised for not having a particular type of accent or way of speaking because my family pushed me early on to keep developing the one I'd been picking up from television and radio, not from them -- it'd be "beneficial". The double takes after a phone conversation or in the drive through. A glance at my hair or skin, then a guess. How to type online, what not to share, especially in fandom or gaming spaces. Hell, how to type on Metafilter.

When I write it that way, I guess you could say this about a large cross-section of folks, and it's hard for me to pinpoint how it feels different. I mean, even the racism feels different when the only country you've ever known spent hundreds of years doling out subjugation and propaganda to make sure you were always at the bottom of the pile. Anti-black and Native racism practically feels like one of the foundations of American society. Over fifty years on after a landmark decision is not enough to paper over generations of rot, I think. You're still treated as the underclass here, nevermind your ambitions for law school or how you much you sound like a broadcast journalist. So it's not just that so many people are garden variety, human race level unaware, or nervous, or maybe insensitive, but these kinds of universal strains of humanity have molded over sooty, bloodstained bricks of a terrible foundation, to create a unique kind of terrible dynamic in 2018 and into an uncertain future.
posted by Freeze Peach at 10:28 AM on July 10, 2018 [13 favorites]

One thing I've noticed is that people who grew up wealthy often share very little in conversation.

Ask "how was your trip to Connecticut?" and they'll say something like "oh, I visited my mom and we sipped wine on the beach and it was soooo relaxing." A poor or middle class person is, in my experience, much more likely to respond with a solid anecdote or piece of information that you can riff off of or ask appropriate questions about.
posted by smelendez at 11:00 AM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm not African-American but I'm a woman of color, and I feel her pain. In my corporate days, I was very frequently the only POC around & I'm garbage at small talk.
posted by honey badger at 11:24 AM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

For those of you that self-describe as "socially anxious" or having trouble figuring out how to have intro conversations - there is a great book called "Life Skills For Adult Children" that can really, really help here.

I think one thing that gets overlooked a LOT in our shared story of upward social mobility/American Dream is that yes, while technically you can move upwards, you're going to be made to feel that you don't belong, CONSTANTLY.
posted by chinese_fashion at 11:47 AM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've notice some people expressing reluctance, because of a sense of social awkwardness, to reach out to minorities at events. I feel it's incumbent on any person with privilege to make an effort to talk to people who may not feel welcomed, not to avoid them for fear of causing pain, because avoiding them is itself potentially hurtful and isolating. It's putting all the risk on the minority individual, and making them do all the work of making connections.

Of course, you might accidentally say something you regret, but at least you are the sort of person who thinks about it, which can't necessarily be said for everyone there. Plus talking to people gets easier with practice. Do the best you can, that's literally all you can do, is try your best.

My personal opinion, subject to change as I learn of course, because I'm a bit awkward myself, is that I think it's important to ask people about their thoughts and insight, not about their background or ethnicity. That's not to say that we should ignore background and ethnicity, they are part of who a person is, but they are also not all of whom someone is.

So maybe don't start by asking questions about where someone is from when you meet them, or where they work. Ask them what they think of the conference/party so far, and what they are looking forward to, and what they like about the city you are in. Give them space to express themselves, not merely relate facts about themselves.
posted by gryftir at 4:29 PM on July 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

One question I've gotten in such situations is "What's your story?" which I thought was nice because it's open enough that you can set your own parameters when answering.
posted by emeiji at 5:19 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I recently got a (temporary) job that meant a huge increase in wage and responsibility. I've never worked at such a place, and similar to the author, I had to give myself the time to find the right words.

My co-worker (that is, colleague) told me before I started that the people in those kinds of jobs all had the right everything -- the right words, the right clothes, the right education. It was another set of You that I had never met before. And in an effort to be polite, I supposed, they assumed that I was one of them, and I had to go through a number of uncomfortable conversational points that indicated that I was not.

Beautiful article, by the way.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 2:08 AM on July 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

His name was Mohamed and he spoke with a pronounced accent. It was all I could do not to ask the obvious... I'm sure that past me would have led with "where are you from?"

"How long have you lived in <name of city>" is a good choice in that situation. Often you'll get the answer you want (e.g. "I moved here from Pakistan five years ago") without the insinuation of "you are different, what's up with that?"
posted by nnethercote at 2:17 AM on July 11, 2018

Because of Metafilter, I stopped asking “where are you from” and instead started asking “are you from here”. I had recently started a job in a new city so I got to test this out a lot. I asked an Indian coworker and they said they were from the area, to which another coworker who knew him better said “no tell your whole story”. It was pretty uncomfortable.

The last two places I’ve lived have a lot of people coming from other areas, so when some says they are from there, it kind of ends that conversation path for me and I have to think of a new ice-breaker. (If I want recommendations, I’ll ask for them. I’m asking about background because people’s stories are so interesting!)
posted by LizBoBiz at 4:48 AM on July 11, 2018

His name was Mohamed and he spoke with a pronounced accent. It was all I could do not to ask the obvious... I'm sure that past me would have led with "where are you from?"

"How long have you lived in " is a good choice in that situation. Often you'll get the answer you want (e.g. "I moved here from Pakistan five years ago") without the insinuation of "you are different, what's up with that?"

I am actually trying to skip the whole ethnography bit altogether (unless freely offered) and move on to "hey, you're here now, I will interact with you as I would anyone I assumed was a resident" in hopes that it keeps us on comfortable footing and perhaps makes it obvious that I don't care at all about the surface differences, and this is absolutely a change i am making as a result of discussions here.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:56 AM on July 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

Because of Metafilter, I stopped asking “where are you from” and instead started asking “are you from here”.

I often ask, "are you from Seattle too?" (Yes, that's where I'm from.) Mostly because people can tell stories about when they moved here, where they're from, or be vague about it and turn it back into a question to me about having lived here my whole life. And every now and then, someone is from here and we compare childhood neighborhoods (solidly inside the red-lined area) and where we've ended up and that's interesting too. Comments are often better than questions, but if questions at least have something to grab onto and reflect back, that's helpful for people who don't really want to answer.
posted by Margalo Epps at 12:10 PM on July 11, 2018

Great piece, thanks stoneweaver.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:02 PM on July 12, 2018

One of my standard small talk questions (regardless of race) is "how long have you lived in City" or "have you always lived in City", which is intended to avoid giving the false impression that I'm asking what ethnicity they are or implying they aren't "really" from here or whatever, while leaving it up to them if they want to share personal info or just say they moved here 5 years ago or whatever, so we can talk about how they like the city and so on.

That makes it relatively safe territory (I think?) and I only became aware that I should switch from "are you from around here" because of metafilter, so articles like this are very helpful.
posted by randomnity at 7:28 AM on July 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm late with this, but the discussion made me realize a useful way to look at this kind of thing, or at least a way that shines a light on it for me -- and hopefully other people like me, which is to say folks operating from privilege.

You must to be aware that questions you might reflexively ask out of honest curiosity, with no loaded agenda, are *also* deployed by people asking them in bad faith for gatekeeping purposes or to establish hierarchy, or could *also* put someone on the spot in a way that would never occur to you, especially if the conversation is inherently imbalanced (like an interview).

"Where are you from?" is a question like this. If you, a nice person operating out of good faith and friendliness, meet someone with an accent, it's entirely normal to wonder where they've come from. For me, I'd assume their story is FAR more interesting than my own very whitebread tale, and I'd want to hear it.

But that question, posed by you, is a loaded one. So are lots of others. And you have to be aware of the way these things sound, and the way these things may be deployed by jerks, or even the way these questions land when posed to someone who is not operating on what Scalzi calls easy mode.

Default-friendly as you were taught by your privileged background includes lots of paths that are NOT friendly to people who didn't grow up the same way you did. Being ACTUALLY friendly and nice means recognizing that, and behaving accordingly.
posted by uberchet at 9:28 AM on August 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

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