The Pragmatic Hybrid

Where I’m from, redux

I say this with love, because I know some people’s hearts are in the right place. But it must be said:

You can’t ask people of color, who obviously grew up here (wherever here might be), where they’re from.

It is not okay.

I hear the question, but what comes through loud and clear is the real question under the spoken one: “Why are you brown?”

Here are some of my smartypants answers when I get what they’re asking for but don’t want to give it to them:

“I was born in Washington, D.C., but we moved when I was small so I don’t remember it.”

Or “Oh, I’m from Arizona.” And then I watch to see the calculation happening: is she Mexican? I don’t think so, but aren’t there supposed to be a lot of Mexicans in Arizona?

And then sometimes, the follow-up question: “But where are you really from?”

Even though I know how much I don’t like it when people ask me, I totally get the temptation.

I really, really do.

I was just in Holland, and it was much more racially and ethnically heterogeneous than I expected. I saw that modern Dutch people are very commonly of Arab and African and South Asian descent.

And even though I know how much it irks me when people ask me “where are you from” when what they really want to know is “why are you brown,” I was still SO tempted. One night I had a beautiful curly-haired waiter with skin almost the same color as mine, and I almost died of unsatisfied curiosity.

Here’s why I went ahead and risked death from dissatisfaction: if someone is born and/or raised in a particular place and looks different from the majority, asking where they’re from is not a neutral question.

It points out to them – again, because believe me, you’re not the first person who’s asked, or even the twenty-seventh – that though they think of themselves as regular, they are seen as something different. As Other.

If you go down this conversational path with someone and they are too polite to deflect it, it goes to well-worn places that just make one into a bigger and bigger ass.

To wit: “Oh, I had a Pakistani friend in college!” This is the most innocuous of the many dumb things people have said to me.

More insidious, and altogether too common: “Oh, are you Muslim? What do you think about Iraq/Iran/Qaddafi/Hussein/Ahmedinijad/Afghanistan/Palestinians/the Taliban/Three Cups of Tea/Reading Lolita in Tehran/the oppression of women/hijab/niqab/burqa/chador/the veil/madrassas/jihad?”

This one is usually accompanied by the fish-eye. Like, “I thought you were alright for a foreigner, but I stand ready to adjust that opinion based on any insufficiently vehement espousal of the proper opinions!” Or maybe a gleam that translates to “Let me demonstrate my insider knowledge to you, so that I can build a bridge between our cultures!”

I will pause here to heave a mighty sigh. Because it’s almost funny, isn’t it? If you’ve been the unfortunate recipient of this line of questioning, it’s so ridiculous that you have to laugh, because the script is so familiar.

It’s such old news that I hesitate to write about it, because it’s no longer even an interesting topic of conversation to those on the receiving end. It’s just the laughable, pathetic way things sometimes are, and when it happens you shake your head about it and roll on.

Except lately, it’s getting worse.

I grew up in an environment where I got this kind of agenda’d questioning all the time. It didn’t feel good, but I could tell myself that it would be different when I lived in a bigger place, and that it was getting better all the time, and that the world was changing and ever-evolving in the direction of love and acceptance and clear-seeing.

But we seem to be going in reverse. Something backlash-y is happening recently to make Pakistani and Arab and Muslim even dirtier words than they already were in this country.

I wish it were just a matter of rhetoric. But these are things that are affecting people’s physical safety and fair treatment.

I don’t worry so much about hate crimes for my own sake, because I’m probably safer in New York City than in most places in the U.S. (the recent slashings of taxi drivers notwithstanding).

But it hurts my feelings, even if I poke fun at it, that I am seen by some as a permanent foreigner.

That when everyone else goes through airport security unmolested, I get patted down even when I don’t beep.

That I have to go through the “special handling” line, and every now and then the special handling involves phone calls and verifications that take so long that I miss my flight.

All this being-put-in-a-particular-box (the one labeled “the usual suspects”) makes one extremely sensitive to being unfairly categorized.

This sensitivity also makes me hyper-adept at sniffing out the intentions of someone asking “where are you from?”

I get that occasionally the intent is just genuine, open, loving curiosity about another human being. It does happen!

But more often, it’s an attempt to relieve the asker’s cognitive dissonance. To get a short, easy answer that will confirm his suppositions so he can stop trying to figure me out and relax into his picture of me.

Wouldn’t it be cool if it wasn’t so loaded?

If asking about someone’s cultural/racial/geographic origins was a neutral thing that meant no more than that?

It would be AWESOME. Because it’s fascinating – where people’s ancestors came from, and when, and why. What it’s like to live in their skin, with their particular tribe, in that particular place.

And when that day comes, I will feel completely free to ask someone I don’t know well if his curly black hair comes from his mother’s side or his father’s, and what it’s like to grow up with that particular cultural mix in a small city in the Netherlands.

Until then, I’m keeping the question under wraps. It’s only polite.

Comment Fu

In case you couldn’t tell, this is sensitive territory. I’m really curious about what this brings up for you. If you’re a receiver of the above-mentioned boorishness, how do you respond? How does it affect you?

This space is like a Quaker meeting that is happening in my living room. Please speak as you are moved to. And let’s be awesome to each other, because graciousness among friends is why we hang out together.

  1. pearl mattenson

    Thank you for writing this. I think the sad part is that it seems like by now we should all just get this and yet, we don’t and we still need reminders like this. And as someone who’s skin color affords me all kinds of privilege in this country and knows it, and is willing to speak up about it, I also know I still don’t have a clue and have probably fallen in to the trap of, “I’m not like those people so if I ask this question it will be heard differently.”

  2. Liz

    Amna-

    Thank you so much for bringing this topic in such a personal, thoughtful and direct way.

    I used to teach a course called “Race, Class and Gender” in a university and the only thing that ticked the students of color off more than overtly racist comments (which there were few of- given the self-selecting nature of the course!) were the good-hearted liberal white kids who would say something like, “I don’t really see color.”

    These conversations are so hard, so touchy and yet so necessary- race is the elephant in the room that we never point out because it would be ‘rude’ to do so, and yet to ignore it is to ignore something essential to our own experience (even if because of the privilege bestowed by our skin color, we are not aware of how our race shapes our experience.)

    As a white person, I’m often left feeling like whatever I do is the “wrong” thing. If I notice (even to myself) that a person is different, that feels ‘wrong,’ and yet if I strive to think and act as if they are ‘just like me’ then I’m obviously committing “the usual error.”

    I totally get that most of the time the questions that people of color get asked are as you so aptly put it, “an attempt to relieve the asker’s cognitive dissonance” and allow the object of inquiry (using that term very consciously!) to be put into a box and relieve the speaker of further effort to understand or come to know the other. Not cool.

    And yet how are we to bridge the gaps in knowledge/ compassion/ empathy without talking to each other? Asking ‘taboo’ questions? If we don’t get ‘real information’ all we have left is our assumptions and stereotypes. And that’s not going to get us very far either.

    I’ve tried a few different strategies for these conversations. One is that I’ll ask permission to ask my question. So for example, I’ll say, “Can I ask you about that beautiful X you’re wearing?” And instead of “Where are you from?” which as you say, presupposes an ‘othering,’ I’ll ask, “So where did you grow up?” It may seem like a subtle difference, but it seems to avoid the alienating quality of the first question. And of course, I hope that my genuine curiosity and interest in the other person as a person (and not as an other) comes through in my tone of voice, body language, etc.

    I’d love to hear whether these questions come across to you as invitations to a conversation that you would like to participate in, or if I’m just fooling myself!

    .-= Liz’s last blog 5 Quick and Dirty Meal Planning Tips =-.

  3. Jesse

    As someone who does not want to offend, and who fervently believes in everyone’s right to exist in public (and private) without having to answer questions about origins/beliefs/etc…sometimes it is so hard not to ask this question. I notice that often, the impulse behind the question (for me) is a fervent desire to connect with that person — a different level of understanding. I want to somehow communicate that where they are from, where I am from, where anyone is from, is an important thing to me. I believe that growing up East Coast and now living on the West Coast is important to understand who I am. Maybe origins and destinations and way stations and current situations are less important to other people — it seems to be a theme that comes up in my life, though.

    And at the same time I recognize that it isn’t friendly to assume anything about anyone. And how I speak and interact with a person shouldn’t really change much if I know more about them — right? I mean, if I’m with a fellow ex-Bostonian I might wax nostalgic about the North End pastries, but learning that someone is from a particular country or county, or that someone grew up in a particular culture, it doesn’t really change how we interact. Civility, equality, and respect should be in our conversation whether we are strangers to each other or not.

    Thank you for writing this, Amna.
    .-= Jesse’s last blog Very Personal Ad No 8- Conjuring up a balancing act =-.

  4. Christine Martell

    Amna,
    Thank you for your beautiful honest reflection. I can’t wait for the day when we can discuss ethnicity and culture without the undertones that are so loaded and painful. Identity is like a minefield, so many places where pain can hide.

  5. Tom Tiernan

    Even in responding to your post, I find myself hesitating. Not wanting to say the ‘wrong’ thing, which in a way is a good thing I suppose. Your writing has caused me to reflect on how I approach people. Once again.

    Let me just get this out of the way. I’m a white guy. American by birth. I know that this, for many people, puts me in the camp of clueless about cultural differences. I have been and most likely will continue to be in some ways. Call me human.

    And yet there is still this curious part of me that wants to know about people. I actually enjoy learning about people’s experiences and where they’re from. Even if they are from other parts of the States. Being from the NE, I find that north-westerners are quite different. Fascinating.

    In some places I’ve been, it’s considered rude to not ask about people. Their families, jobs, histories. Not so much in the US but many places.

    How do we balance all this in a way that doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable and perpetuate stereotypes? And yet allows us to explore our genuine curiosity and get past surface differences?

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  6. JoVE

    What a thoughtful post. I love how this is such a common question when first meeting someone (even someone like a waiter) that even you find it difficult not to ask.

    And I think that while other commentors are right that knowing this information helps us to connect, maybe one of the key things is not asking it as one of the first things. Even of people we aren’t going to connect with on more than a superficial level (like a waiter).

    When you have met someone several times, and connected over other things, this kind of question might become possible, and there might be less loaded ways to ask it.

    What your post does is shake us out of the habit of asking it unthoughtfully as “small talk”. And that is an important thing to do.
    .-= JoVE’s last blog If someone’s crying- something needs to change =-.

  7. chicsinger simone

    Gosh. I hope I have not offended anyone; sometimes I ask someone “what’s your ethnicity?” There are a lot of Asian faculty/students in my university town and I am genuinely curious to learn more about the different cultural nuances between the various countries of their origin.

    And many of the few people of color in this homogeneous (read BORING) Western NY area are from someplace interesting like Bermuda or India or Turkey or the Dominican Republic, and I love finding out more about them and their culture, and how they are adapting to our crazy winters.

    As a singer, whenever I hear someone speak with an accent of any sort, however faint, I always inquire as to where they are from, meaning (to me) where did they learn to talk? (Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins!) Regional accents fascinate me.

    Now I’m really wondering if I’ve stepped on anyone’s metaphorical toes! I hope not, and I certainly learned from reading your take on the “where are you from?” question. I’ll be more mindful in the way that I ask about someone’s background from now on. Thank you.
    .-= chicsinger simone’s last blog Saks Fifth Avenue That is all =-.

  8. Catherine Bayar

    Great post, Amna. This happens to me, as a white American woman living in Turkey. In Turkey, it’s a normal ice-breaker to ask a person you meet “Where are you from?” to establish any possible connections about hometown origins, since here in Istanbul, everyone seems to come from somewhere else. I’ve grown used to answering politely where I was born but that I’ve lived in this country a long time. I know that as you say “I am seen by some as a permanent foreigner.”

    But it’s the travelers I meet that are most annoying, when they say “You’re not from here”, Statement, not question. It implies I’m in the wrong place, when no, I’m exactly where I want to be. Why do I have to explain that to a random stranger? So I just say, “Not originally, no, but I’m from here now.” Or “I’m a hybrid”. That usually stops all questioning, unless they are tuned in enough to know what I mean. Thanks so much for your blog!

  9. Tara Hopkins

    Wow. What a can of worms here! I too am a white American women living in Turkey, 2 decades now. I get such questions pretty much every day, from Turks and from foreigners. I am, for better or worse, a permanent foreigner as Anna put it so well.

    I myself am curious, in part, to the different factors that have worked to bring a person to where they are, geographically, professionally, personally and so on. And I understand the curiosity in others for myself with same. And yet I find I am asked this so often that it is just tiresome. Sometimes I can be patient and answer gently, and other times, well, I wish I were more patient. Nothing I can do will change where I am from and for whatever many reasons, I have lived in this part of the world for much of my life. I can’t always answer ‘why’ to myself but don’t really feel a need to do so…There is a certain degree of discomfort with being ‘the other’ but it’s different when you are from the west originally. I am sure others experience a much higher discomfort level than I do.

    It can also be difficult as many of us are active members of society, doing what we do, being part of it all, speaking the language, living the culture, working with the community. This is also different for those of us who moved elsewhere as adults rather than those who moved as children and really fit in.

    Anna, I have to apologize as I happen to have rather strong opinions on most of the topics that you espouse!

    How nice to have such a candid introduction and candid feedback! thank you so much!

  10. Stasa

    (Stands and waits a moment for the Spirit to put words to this leading.) (Struggles with Quaker cultural norm not to respond directly to what someone else has said! Gah! Gives up completely.)

    Thank you for this post.

    I’m a white woman whose speech patterns often confuse people, even in the region where I grew up (which has a large Eastern European immigrant community). I also just spent several years living in different parts of the US from the region where I grew up. When people ask me where I’m from, I hear, “Why are you different?” — which is similar to, but not the same as, “Why are you brown?”

    Whereas, at least in the US, when people ask me, “Where did you grow up?,” it seems really clear to me that they’re asking about language, speech patterns, and accents. But I’m pretty sure part of that is because I’m white. If I weren’t, would it feel like people were asking me if I’m a “real” American?

    I expect this to get more interesting next year when I move to Scotland, because I know such constructs are definitely different there.

    Thank you again.

  11. Diane

    Very interesting article. I’m from the very diverse SF Bay Area, so I never leap to the assumption that someone is foreign because they are not white. That would be insane here. Indeed insane anywhere in our heterogenous country, but especially so in the bay area.

    But while I’ve never asked “where are you from” – I do confess that as a “pasty white chick” who loves desi culture, and spends much of my time with south asians, I do struggle with wanting to ask someone who looks south asian where their family is from, out of honest curiosity. Are they of Bengali background like my best friend? Or Fijian like my former PA? Or maybe not even south asian at all, but of Algerian background like my sister-in-law? I want to reach out and find out about their background. Where they lived, what experiences they have had. How to broach these questions without seeming like a big goober is something I sometimes struggle with. But I think honest interest can build bridges.

  12. Liz

    Thank you for writing this. One of my students, the only student on our campus who wears the hajib, was recently asked where she was from. When she responded, “I’m American” the response was “You can’t be.” Needless to say this hurt a lot, but the laughter it evoked from folks who should have known better hurt at least as much.

  13. Natalya Lowther

    Six or seven years ago, I–middle-aged apparently caucasian woman–took a sabbatical, rented out my Kansas, USA, farm, and started a 2-year voluntary service assignment in Canada. Two months later, I was unaccountably “fired”: thus made essentially “homeless and jobless in a foreign land”. Not too much of any of those, because I had some resources and managed to fall in with kind strangers. But never-the-less, torn up by the roots.

    Two years of transient living, mostly in Canada, often in spiritual communities of various denominations (Quaker, Anglican, Catholic), brought that question up a lot: “Where are you from?”. Plus I started wearing a religious headcovering (Anabaptist “Plain” style, a close-fitting bonnet in rainbow colors instead of traditional white because I am not traditional even though I am a Mennonite). So aside from the backpack and map and matter-of-fact need to ask basic questions a local would know, I was clearly “other”.

    On trains and Greyhounds, in hostels and boarding houses and national church gatherings, it’s obvious that everyone is from somewhere else. So there is a little more leniency to the question, it seemed. It was a safe conversation-starter with a seat-mate or random meal-time neighbor.

    But “Where are you from?” or “Where do you call ‘home’?” or “Where do you live?” takes on a very different difficulty when one is struggling with homelessness/transience…especially on the in-between journeys. Am I “from” the place I just left or the place I am going…or the place I can’t go back to for 2 more years…? Finding a truthful answer that was kind to both myself and the questioner, and that expressed something of the wisdom that this experience was teaching me, took some time.

    I eventually learned to say simply and quietly, “I live between my covering and my shoes.”

    Now back in my own community, on my farm, driving a city transit bus for extra income, I find I’ve changed. More than ever, I want to know where people are from…as well as where they are going. Especially, I find myself wanting to know the cultural background of others, what country, what language they are speaking, which Native American accent is that? My travels made me aware that there ARE other cultures, many of them, intricately weaving into a fascinating, richly-colored tapestry. How color-blind I was before my travels, and still am in many ways! Humanity was a sort of dim, grayish tapestry at best. By asking people about themselves, I learn to see these other colors–not skin colors, but the “color” or “flavor” unique to different cultures. I treasure especially the bus customers who are from far-away–I may never be able to travel to their home, but they can bring me a glimpse of it, and by my interest in it, I see that they find something valuable in being encouraged to speak of where they are from. It is something they know better than I do, when all here seems strange. A competency. They can teach me. Just as I loved talking about my sheep while on my journey…Hey– something I KNOW, that others are interested in!

    As I continue my sabbatical journey in my own community, I realize part of that journey into seeing cultural multiplicity is within me. I begin to be less and less comfortable checking the “caucasian” box when my great grandmother was a Mexican indigenous woman. I suspect some Anabaptist ancestors many generations back, that bequeathed to their descendants peculiar values that set them apart as a distinct culture even when the religious practice was not carried on…perhaps explaining my lifetime of “marching to a different drum” compared to my rather homogeneous peers.

    So it is a new thing for me to realize that someone would be offended by that question. But that, too, is another color in the beautiful tapestry of who we are, together, as humanity.

  14. Marni

    Thanks for writing this.

    The version i particularly encounter is being asked “What is that?” about my name,
    when the asker means “what ethnicity is that?” and _really_ means “are you Jewish? I thought so.”

    It might be kind of refreshing if they’d just ask “are you Jewish” and _say why they care or why it matters to them_ to find that out about me. I am feeling inspired by your posting to try something different – instead of just feeling ‘othered’ and uneasy, perhaps i might answer “What is that?” with “it’s my name”, or more to the point, “What is it you’re trying to find out about me?” and “Why do you want to know that? Are you going to share your ethnicity with me as well?”

  15. Edgar W. Hopper

    I really, really feel your pain and discomfort. Ever since I turned about 13 years old (I am now 81) I’ve been fighting for my manhood and hating having to answer the question “are you colored?”, “are you a negro?” It’s almost as if people try to verify whether it is alright to exhibit a manifestly prejudiced attitude toward you. Of late, I’ve been trying to blog about “Racism Encounters My Mind Can’t Forget” it’s not easy. I do hope you will find it in you to continue to ventilate about this. People ought to, no need to know how it makes certain of us feel.
    .-= Edgar W. Hopper’s last blog Ground Zero Is In My Neighborhood =-.

  16. Lydia

    I agree with you, Amna. Asking “Where are you from?” is completely unacceptable and I don’t answer politely either. I’m Filipino and when people ask where I’m from I answer that I’m from Seattle and that’s all that person will get from me. Having grown up with that question and “What are you?” Oh, don’t even get me started on that one. And of course there’s always the laundry list of Asian ethnicities that would follow, and mine, of course, was never on it.

    For me what is angering about the question is like what you’ve shared, the Otherness, the displacement, the assumption that someone who looks like me can’t be from the U.S. or be American. If people want to know, asking ignorantly won’t get any answers. If you want to know what my ethnicity is, then ask that.

    I’ve been giving people really smart ass, standoffish answers when asked what my nationality is too because honestly, my citizenship isn’t anyone’s business. What are you, Where are you from, ethnicity, nationality – get it straight people. They are not synonymous.
    .-= Lydia’s last blog The Price of Perfection =-.

  17. Bridget

    The assumption is not just that you’re different and not from here. It’s also that your ethnicity is the most relevant thing that they can ask about you.

    People ask me if I’m Irish because I have red hair. Often, it’s the first question out of their mouth. It’s weird!

    Then again, nobody seems to ask me about my Norwegian heritage (which mostly expresses itself as a love of saunas and snow and cookies).

    I’m starting to think if people ask me where I’m from. In Portland, everybody is from somewhere else, so I think it’s asked a lot. But it means something different here, or perhaps it doesn’t. I’m not sure.

    I wonder if the people who ask this question are people who grew up in isolated places where everybody was the same ethnicity. I grew up in such a place.

    Perhaps the answer back is, “Oh, what backwater did you grow up in?”

    Also, I think that there are people who are genuinely curious about the lives of others and also quite graceless in their delivery. They want connection. And they make an assumption that their “being interested in your culture” makes up for their graceless question-asking. It doesn’t.
    .-= Bridget’s last blog Intuitive Animal Communication-My Other Life =-.

  18. quinncreative

    Amna–a well-written article on a topic that has brought me a lot of confusion. I am an “other,” too, but not because of my color. Because of my religion, age, speech inflection, occupation. All “other.” (And no, you can’t tell from my name.) It doesn’t bother me when people ask “Where are you from?” because it gives me a chance to engage on a one-to-one level. Sure, if I give a pat or snarky answer, I’m going to get the “Some of my best friends are X.” So I have learned to engage in an answer that allows for insights into the questioner. And yes, I’ve gotten hurtful replies. But that’s not about me.

    Do I ever ask? Sure, I want to find connection. So I ask, too. If people take offense, they don’t know me well enough, don’t know my intention, and maybe I have to get to know them a bit better before I ask personal questions. That’s simply protocol, but doesn’t forbid learning.

    One of my acquaintances is deaf, and hates people who try to use American Sign Language. It’s demeaning, she says, not to speak to her. Another colleague loves people who try to learn a new way to communicate. We can’t paint the whole world with one brush. It’s more of a challenge than that.

    If we all hang out with people just like us, and stifle our curiosity, and close the door to possibility, well, that’s pretty much where our culture is now, forming tight little knots of people we think are just like us. Ask, talk, question, learn. It’s a big world. Get to know it one person at a time. It’s a life changing task.

  19. Marianne

    Reading this thoughtful post, and the interesting comments in response, I keep thinking “What really matters is context, and how that effects how the question may be received. No matter how benign my intention may be in asking.”

    I may wish that “Where are you from?” or even, “What is your ethnic background?” could be a neutral question. In fact, I do wish that, because I’m fascinated by my own ethnic background and that of pretty much everyone I meet. But it is not neutral. Not as long as it’s being asked in the context of ongoing racism, zenophobia and religious bigotry.

    Thank you for articulating this so clearly.
    .-= Marianne’s last blog The Art of Non-Conformity =-.

  20. Valaree Weiss

    I just read your blog, it made me really think. I am a average, plain, white gal born in the US, nothing special just an average older girl. So when I meet someone who is different I am curious, I won’t lie, they may hold a mystery of a life and world so unique and unknown to me. So it is with honor when I ask, because I am positive they have something, I don’t have…

  21. Sharon Martinelli

    This thoughtful and provocative piece has my nerves entangled in a way that I did not think was entirely possible. In part, I nod my head and say “yes, I get that” and then the other side of my brain says “no, I really don’t”.

    As a very fair skinned woman with a soft somewhat southern but sometimes mid-western accent, I am most often deemed to be from the south and of Irish descent. While I do live in South Florida (the United Nations of the South) I am of mostly french and scottish ancestory and I was born in the West Indies. There have been occasions that when I allow the questioner the answer, eyebrows have been raised and the question of how did that happen probably means are you biracial. Or it simply means, wow, that is fascinating – I never would have guessed.

    What started both sides of my brain dancing is that all of us have a piece of us that struggles with complete acceptance and our world today has so much distrust of the “other” that we find ourselves responding to questions of any sort trying to determine the agenda of the questioner.

    As I have entered my sixties, I find myself trying to stop listening for any agenda and simply answer the questions. I also find that I limit the amount of time that I spend with individuals who do not send off good energy.

    There is a part of me that truly believes that peace is possible when all of us start taking off our armor and allow ourselves to engage with one another from a place of love. And so, my agenda when I ask anything of another is to learn more about them and form a meaningful connection if only for a moment. I also try to answer from a place of love and silence the fear or anger based part of me that might be trying to make me see the agenda of the other person.

    This blog posting has truly touched my heart in a most positive way. And the other responders make me so pleased that I landed in this room and received the opportunity to hear the voices of others. This is a posting that I will save and revisit often. Thank you, dear one, for starting the conversation.

  22. Amna Ahmad

    Thanks to everyone for sharing your stories about this.

    Ever since I posted it, I’ve been in a mental conversation, writing blog posts in my head right and left. Apparently I have a ton more to say about this! And am working on getting the ton out of my brain and onto this site. So, more to come!

     

  23. Stasa

    You know we are looking forward to it.
    .-= Stasa’s last blog Pagan bloggers- beware- intellectual property theft in progress =-.

  24. Marlene

    Stasa-

    I’ve been on both sides of the ‘fence’ with this. Sometimes I resist the temptation but too often my curiosity ‘gets’ me and I ask some form of the ‘Where are you from?’ question. I try to justify my rudeness by ‘only’ asking if’ I hear a strong accent, or by telling myself I’ve asked so subtly the person can’t guess what I’m up to.

    The reason I say ‘both sides’ is that I too am a person of color (of African descent in the USA). But in this country I am the recipient/target of these questions when I speak in another language to other family members, raising questions re my ethnicity/immigrant status (especially in NY of FL) . Having immigrated at age 5 but not raised in a community of foreign speakers I have no readily discern able accent when speaking English, so I’m a ‘stealth immigrant’ vis a vis my color.

    Perhaps even more culpable on my part is that when I travel I more readily offend. If a person seems out of place to my particular sense of country specific demographics I ask.

    As illustrated by the posted comments the behavior you’re describing (the sin I practice) is not exclusive to one group, but common to all situations where any us/them insider/outside or ???/other paradigm ‘matters’ to the questioner. A true sense of courtesy, value for human dignity, and genuine respect for privacy will help all of ‘us’ tempted to offend, to instead bite our tongue and still our minds.

    Satisfaction, in this ongoing ‘opportunity’ to -blend or separate- is a false reward, rather a wound to our own character, as much as a turn-off or offense to the person questioned.

    No excuses. Just thankful for the reminder.

  25. Jesse

    I already commented here but I wanted to return with one thought that has been nagging at me — something bigger I want to acknowledge:

    Even if in every individual case, the asker of the “where are you from” question is coming from a place of curiosity and good intentions, that cannot undo or negate the reality of the collective weight of all those questions, which often becomes a burden to those who are being asked to answer.

    I just want to acknowledge that because I think there is room for further exploration here, going beyond the “But I’m nice!” defense and looking at how larger issues of privilege and personal identity/safety play out in public and over a longer timescale than that of one conversation. Anyone can be nice and yet still invoke a problematic power dynamic; surely there are ways to go forward without simply resting on the laurels of “But I’m nice!”—which must sound exasperating after a while to some. Personal good intentions cannot undo a collective history of trauma but we *can* work harder to acknowledge them, you know?
    .-= Jesse’s last blog Doom- comfort- and stompy boots a dialogue =-.