Please Stop Asking People of Color Where They’re From
This seemingly innocent question has racist overtones.
I have a friend who lives in New York City and has a super-strong British accent. Hers is quite the upper crust Londoner, more like Lady Diana than Queen Elizabeth, approachable and not at all overly intimidating, but definitely British. Anyone who’s ever watched a Harry Potter movie or an episode of Downton Abbey, or has listened to Christiane Amanpour report the news would know, this woman is from London. Her husband and sons were raised in America—and sound it. Unlike my friend, their English is accent-free. There is no Southern drawl, no Minnesota lilt, no New Yawk “cuppa cawfee,” no L.A. “like” or Bay Area “hella” to be heard. Nothing in the way her family members talk would compel special interest. No one would say, “You must be a Texan!” because her kids don’t say “howdy.” So, why do people always ask her “Where are you from?” when it should be clear she’s from England?
“It’s because I’m Asian,” she’ll tell you. And she’s right. Because if my friend says that she’s from London, the person asking the question inevitably follows-up with, “But where are you really from?”
If she’s feeling snarky, she’ll smile, and say she’s really from London.
A kind of microaggression
The question is a kind of microaggression, or everyday insult experienced by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and other marginalized persons. The American Psychological Association (APA) identifies the “where are you from?” question as a particular kind of microaggression called a microinvalidation, which is defined by the APA as “communication that subtly excludes, negates, or nullifies the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color.”
Sometimes White people commit microaggressions unknowingly. Because of their privilege, they might not realize the person who’s been asked to identify a country of origin has heard that same question, over and over and over again, and so is tired of having to label themselves. This exhaustion is especially true for a person who lives in the United States and has an American accent, as it should be obvious they were raised in this country.
Would a person who sounded, dressed, and behaved the same way, but was blond with blue eyes, be asked where they’re from? Whether it’s my friend with the British accent or any person of color with an American accent, the subtext is always a dig to unearth ethnicity, racial identity, home language, or religion. It’s a way of categorizing the Darker Other in a neat box like the kind checked on a census form.
Too often, the question is simply aggressive.
There’s nothing little about microaggressions
We Americans operate under a delusion. The delusion is that we exist, that we are originally from America.
This is what I mean: None of us, not one, except for Indigenous Americans, is in fact, from here. We are all Something-American. I speak as a woman whose great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. Someone whose family members have served this country in every conflict ever since, and even I am not from here. Not really.
So the question, “Where are you from?” could routinely be asked of any of us.
And yet, there is only one group of people who are asked, regularly, to identify their origins. As if we alone are outside the rim of immigrants, forced or voluntary, and their descendants. The Outsider among all outsiders. That group, of course, is People of Color. Even Indigenous people are told to identify their homeland, as the gazer, brazen with White Privilege, demands to know: What are you, really?
White people who “speak American” are never asked to identify their origins, yet those “American speakers” routinely ask People of Color to tell them where we are from. The power to ask has to do with the Black-White binary. This question, directed by White people to People of Color, has ethnocentric origins.
A history of exclusion
Racism is exhausting. It is also deadly. Historically, People of Color have had their entire futures decided by a person of authority casually glancing at them and making a determination about their origins based on skin color. Whether added to the Dawes Rolls at the turn of the 20th century, placed in a segregated school, forced into an internment camp during World War II, or refused food in a restaurant with clearly visible signs that read “No Irish / No Jews/ No Italians / No Coloreds,” for Americans, access, and so freedom in this country, has always been determined by a racial, ethnic, or religious identity.
Because this legacy of exclusion continues to impact People of Color, white people must consciously resist language that enables insider/ outsider status. No one should have to prove their identity, to be subjected to random, internal rankings that only concretize the existing system of racial, ethnic, and cultural stratification.
“Where are you from?” really asks People of Color to behave like an American, by assuring the asker they belong, or to prove their fealty, or simply to titillate with stories of their exotic origins. To ask the question is to assume the socially constructed power of the ethnicity police. To ask “where are you from?” is to dehumanize the person asked.
Just don’t do it, because, to be frank, it’s really no one’s business.
Next, read on to learn about everyday acts of racism that don’t get talked about enough.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.
Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].