Where Are You Really From? (Yes, It Needed a Second Post)
More thoughts on a harmful act of racism
The other day, I posted the following on LinkedIn.
Thought for the day: if you don't understand why "where are you really from?" is a problem, you have more learning to do before you enter the conversation.
I’d done a mini-podcast on the topic - paid subscribers who missed it can listen here - but having seen the conversation continue, I felt there was more to say. You see, as someone pointed out in the podcast comments, every time this comes up, there are several distinct responses from different groups of people.
There are white folks who have Global Majority people in their lives and have seen this example of racism up close. There are a handful of Black and Brown folks who don’t want anyone to have this conversation at all. (Some of them say it shows a lack of self-worth, but if that’s how they feel, they have other work to do.) I’m not going to talk about those two groups. Instead I’m going to talk about:
the many, many Global Majority folks who’ve experienced this type of racism multiple times in their lives.
the many, many global minority (white) folks who think that we’re all getting het up for nothing because there’s no harm in asking someone where they’re from.
Yes, It’s “Really” Racism - The Experience of Global Majority People
Let’s start with the first group. As more than one person has said online, if we had coins for each instance of this type of racism, we’d be rolling in money now. It happens countless times. And it never fails to make Black and Global Majority people feel othered. In that respect, it achieves its aim.
The addition of the word “really” suggests that whatever you’ve said in answer to the first question can’t really be true. The insistence via subsequent questioning reveals the intent to other.
Of course, as I pointed out, some people don't even realise that by asking the question they're making an assumption that the person being questioned doesn't belong. But surely by the time the person you’re interrogating has answered you a SECOND time which, to be fair, they shouldn’t have to do, why are you still insisting?
You know what I’m going to say: that’s racism, folks.
One commenter pointed out that sometimes white folks don’t even greet you before they wade in with this racism. My take: it’s the idea that white people have a right to your answer before they even acknowledge your presence. As Shayla S. Dube pointed out it’s a colonialist sense of entitlement - and it’s also racist and genocidal if you look at history.
For those who are already feeling unwelcomely visible and different, this can be yet another sign that they will never be seen to belong, no matter what their birth or the passport they carry. That stings, AND it can actually be dangerous. In this case, we’re talking about a royal reception, but what if the same thing happens on the street at the hands of someone who has the authority to wield a taser or a gun?
A Challenge to Educate Those Determined to Misunderstand
As for the second group - the white folks determined to misunderstand - my original comment stands. If you’re reading this newsletter, I’m going to assume you’re not part of that group, but here’s a message from me you can share with those who are:
“I’ve now taken the time to explain - again and as so many have - why this is a thing, why you should never go beyond a polite first enquiry if you choose to do it at all, and why your insistence is racist even if you weren’t aware of it before. Now that you know, how will you change?”
My challenge to you, would-be allies, is to get the word out about why asking where people are “really” from isn’t innocuous, but deeply harmful. Maybe together we can get more white folks to stop using that enquiry to other Global Majority folks.
Thanks for your help, and thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva
I am an anti-racism writer, educator and activist, Co-Founder of Mission Equality the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.
I cannot imagine adding the "really." How rude. It doesn't even matter what the question is, unless you're truly astonished. As in, "I was born on a colony on Mars." "REALLY??"
Or asking twice, when the person has indicated that they would prefer to change the subject.
I've been guilty (out of genuine curiosity and interest) of asking, "Where are you from?" but it's never the first question! (You're not genuinely interested in the person if it's your FIRST question.) Some people are offended by any question, so "Tell me about yourself" is safe. I guess. Though, on the receiving end of "Tell me about yourself" I feel about as awkwardly put on the spot as I do when someone says, "Say something in French." Like...what? "J'aimerais que tu partes maintenant"? "Je peindrai mon visage en violet si tu arrêtes juste de parler"?
The entitlement of the asker is always appalling.