Once at work I was approached by a couple of older white men. I greeted them with the usual “Hello, how can I help you?” to which one of them paused before asking, “Where are you from?”
Tight-lipped but cheerily I answered, “I live in Sunnyvale not too far away from here.” The two men looked at each other and the bald one tried again, “But where are you really from?” to which I answered with “Well, I was born and raised in San Jose but I moved here for middle school. Now what can I get you today?” They were persistent and kept at it: “But what are you?” and so on as I smiled my customer service smile and completed their order so I could get to the next customer.
These experiences are not limited to strangers, but also by young children I come across, classmates, and coworkers alike. It’s more than understandable that these types of questions are rooted in good intentions and may simply represent misplaced curiosity. At the same time, though, questions such as these imply many things for someone who has heard them countless times.
“What are you?”
This is very likely the worst possible thing you could ask a person. Pose your question like an educated adult if you are asking for such personal information. When you ask like this, you are expressing amusement or curiosity over someone, or something, that seems novel to you. It communicates that the person you’re asking is fundamentally different than you. It is also a question that comes from a position of privilege, as you are demanding an answer from someone who may not fit your norm of what people should appear like.
Think of it this way: you wouldn’t ask this question if you were asking someone what breed their dog was. If you asked, “What is it?” the owner would respond “It’s a dog” as appropriate. When you ask the owner, “What breed is it?” you’re more likely to get the answer you’re looking for: “It’s a collie-corgi mix.” People like to think they are more than dogs, so frame your questions appropriately and specifically.
“Where are you from?”
A question like this may as well be asking, “Where are your skin color and facial features from? Because it can’t be from here!” It’s something that implies a person is from here, and that the person you’re asking is less American than you or doesn’t belong here as much as a blue-eyed, pale-skinned person does.
Furthermore, nationality is not the same thing as ethnicity. When thinking about where one is from, one will typically think of what town they grew up in. Oftentimes, however, providing this information is hardly enough for the inquirer.
“No, where are you really from?”
On the surface, this might seem like an innocent appended inflection to the original question in order to convey a more distinct meaning. It’s a waggling eyebrow of sorts, a roll of the eyes that says, “Oh, you know what I mean. Just tell me” as if the person you’re asking is keeping a great secret or is being unreasonably dodgy with information you’re entitled to.
Here it’s clear you are demanding a change in an answer you were not happy with. People don’t like having their worldview challenged. When I told the customer I was from Sunnyvale, I guarantee he was clearly expecting an answer more along the lines of “China” or “Thailand”. I knew that, and he knew that.
With this question, you’re trying to see how people of color fit against your own knowledge of what they appear to look like, and that’s not okay. You’re subjecting an individual to a form of objectification for your own viewing pleasure. A person may say, “I’m from Texas” as the asker shakes their head and repeats the question with emphasis in order to just understand where that dark hair and brown skin came from.
Similarly, sometimes the person who’s asking will go straight to the point and ask, “What kind of Asian are you?” or “You must be Filipina!” The thing is, no one wants to play your game of arguing ethnicity. Oftentimes a question like this is followed by a verification of a stereotype. Examples of things educated, older, people a combination of both would tell me: “You can’t be Vietnamese, your eyes look too big,” “You must be Vietnamese, your skin is too dark for you to be Chinese,” or even “Oh, that was my second guess. I can’t tell the difference between all you Asian people!”
Me neither. The reason is because “Asian” is an incredibly broad term. Your stereotype-laden questions homogenize a vast continent’s worth of individuals, all with variations. China alone has over 50 different minority variations. There is no such thing as being able to tell what a typical Asian person looks like.
“Why are you so offended?”
Inquirers can often become agitated when they are checked for their questions and do not receive a direct answer, or do receive an answer that fails to satisfy their curiosity.
I’ve read several other articles on this issue and like to scroll through the comments sections by people defending their “curiosity”. Most of these people assert that they never meant to step on anyone else’s toes, that there’s no way they could possibly know how sensitive a question is going to be to someone else, and finally that people of color should take these opportunities as teaching moments instead of getting angry.
No one owes you a lesson or an answer to an ignorant, rude, or insensitive question. You need to take responsibility for the way you pose personal questions, and take backlash with grace. Have that mistake be your own teaching moment.
Things to realize
These questions are poorly worded at best. They reinforce the idea that white is the default to being American, and that everyone else is a foreigner. That’s a pretty limited worldview and is insensitive to those who identify strongly with American culture and this country.
A question can be inherently good, as stated earlier, but having an anticipated answer in the back of your head is very possibly bad. This results in pressing people of color for more information they may be willing to share just because their initial answer wasn’t sufficient enough. It’s an example of privilege, because privilege means you don’t like being told you’re wrong because you can’t possibly be wrong.
Note also that these can be sensitive for reasons deeper than the irritation of being asked the same questions over and over again. Regarding nationality, some people are not from the same country that their ancestors were originally from. People can be born in Mexico even if their parents are originally from Albania and later move to the U.S. A white-passing person may have been born in Korea and have lived for less time in America than a third-generation Korean-American classmate. Furthermore, prying into details of ethnicity can be a touchy subject for those who may not entirely know the answer due to an unconventional relationship between their parents, and it can be genuinely difficult for them to share details of their background. Understand that this subject is not necessarily something everyone will want to be completely open about.
How to do better with your curiosity
First tip: just don’t ask. People will volunteer the information on their own time if you are able to build a good enough relationship with them. Questions regarding ethnicity, or nationality, will almost always be irrelevant if the person is a complete stranger.
On that note, think about the context of wanting to ask. How well do you actually know this person? Are you having a discussion about heritage or are you making small talk? Based on how much you know this person, how do you think this kind of personal question would make them feel? Most importantly, why do you ask and what are your motivations?
If you do in fact feel that the question you have in mind is appropriate for the person and the situation, just be direct. Don’t use any of the bolded questions in this post. Get to the point, and make it clear what you want to know and why: “Out of curiosity, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s your ethnicity?” Be sure that your question gives the person you’re asking a way out if they feel uncomfortable. Most likely, though, they will be more than happy to tell you all about your roots. Just be transparent in your intentions.
At the same time, be prepared for a complicated answer, or even a disappointing one. Don’t press for more information than the person is willing to provide. Some people may not know everything you are looking for, and some people may have lived here for eight generations. Not everyone has an exotic or exciting backstory. We’re just as American as you.