Humans interact with each other in strange ways, especially when they first meet: instead of exploring each other’s individuality, they face each other through the lenses of their society’s conditioned biases.
Subsequently, when two strangers meet, questions such as, “What do you do?” pop up. A question dreaded by many who, at a first encounter, don’t want to discuss a part of themselves that may have little to do with their passion, desires, or interests; or because of the value we place as a society on various lines of work; or because work is generally what we do to pay our bills, not who we are. Another first encounter question that pops up repeatedly is the focus of this post: “Where are you from?”
“Where are you from?” is a question that is asked across countries and cultures. Proponents of this question argue that it is only a means to start-up a conversation between strangers—a way to connect with each other in a light-hearted way. Most of us are so accustomed to it that we neither question the lack of literal logic, nor the everyday racism embedded in the question.
What Defines Where Someone Is From? —The Literal Challenges
Let us first explore the lack of literal logic. Has anyone ever identified what determines where someone is from? Is it supposed to be the location where someone was born, lived the longest, most recently, or identifies herself with?
Even though there is no definition of what determines where someone is from, there is a preconceived idea that everyone somehow knows what the answer is.
The question is based on the assumption that humans somehow are from fixed, easily identifiable locations, which can make anyone outside of this standard feel as if they are some sort of an outsider—somewhat “odd.” Many military children struggle with this question, as they tend to move around often and, subsequently, don’t know how to answer it. However, they are not the only ones.
Covert Racism: Where Are You Really From?
For racial and ethnic minorities, “Where are you from?” offers an additional layer of challenge. It is one of the most powerful reminders of everyday racism. Here is how the interaction often plays itself out:
When minorities tell the inquirer where they are from, the inquirer is not always satisfied with the answer, as in the case of an “Asian looking” woman who “claims” to be from San Diego. In those cases, the inquirer finds it appropriate to probe further by asking follow-up questions such as: “I mean, where are you really from?” or, “Where are you originally from?” or worse, “Where are your parents from?”—keep in mind, we are talking about strangers who just met.
Do these questions sound like a light-hearted, striking up of an innocent conversation with a stranger? Regardless of what the answer may be, there is more.
When minorities return the question to the inquirer—to the one who apparently sees him- or herself as native to the United States—they have no problem with answering, “Pittsburgh,” or “Austin.” Why the double standard? Why would someone who is allegedly from Pittsburgh be unable to accept that someone else is from a similar location? No one is from Pittsburgh unless they are Native Americans from Pittsburgh.
If we are going to play a game of where someone is from, we could even question that Native Americans too came from somewhere, some time. However, we are not going to play this game because it is ridiculous.
Minorities Also Participate in the Othering Game
It must be noted here that the inquirers are not always persons of the dominant culture. Minorities, themselves, engage in this type of interaction, as well. This makes sense because the power of racism lies in the fact that minorities buy into the narrative as much as the dominant culture does.
People who never witnessed the awkward situation that many minorities are way too familiar with may not understand just how disturbing these interactions can be. Because the awkward conversations generally do not end at this point, either, especially if the person asked—God forbid—volunteers the national origin or ethnic background information.
Then, the inquirer usually gives a sermon about how wonderful people from x, y, z country (not racist at all) are, how they have a friend from that country, or tell all about his or her recent vacation to that country. Such follow-ups clearly reflect something very crucial: the denial of the other person’s individuality. They show how the inquirer is grouping and boxing the person in front of them. What does one person “from” Spain has to do with another person from Spain? Just as much or as little as over 300 million Americans have in common with each other—or not.
Romanticizing Diversity—Narrative, Little to Do With Reality
Minorities, however, often also stress that the “Where are you from?” question is appropriate to ask, because they are proud, and want to discuss their national origin, their heritage, or what have you. They claim that those factors make up their identity.
Identifiers such as ethnicity, culture, or national origin, however, are all arbitrarily determined constructs, just like race. Contrary to wide-spread beliefs, where someone “is from” has little to do with who the person is. We are not the spices we eat. Who we are is also not determined by arbitrarily drawn political borders or by whether we drink our tea in the morning or the afternoon.
Here in the U.S., we especially tend to romanticize ethnicity and culture—traits that we conveniently mistake for diversity. “Conveniently,” because true diversity is based on a high level of individuality and requires much more effort than having an annual diversity festival at a street corner. Diversity in complex societies, such as ours, is a serious challenge—a challenge, the level of which we hardly appreciate.
Everyone has to decide for themselves how they feel about “Where are you from?” The purpose of this post is to make us question how we interact with each other on a daily basis, the questions we ask, and the answers we give.
The purpose of this post is also to make us think, if, and to what degree, we want to help others deny our individuality and humanity.