A Simple Question with Complicated Feelings

9.9.11 ShaSha LaPerf 5 Comments

"Where Are You From?"

I'm sure this phrase is a bit of a shock to you. You're thinking, "Wait, what's wrong with this one? It's a great conversation starter! You're just making shit up!"

Honestly I've used this as a way to start conversations with people. I'm currently living in the DC area and it's pretty common to find people that were not born and raised here, including myself. So I like to know where people are from, why they moved here, etc. And I'm pretty open about talking about these things myself. So I never thought of it as a big deal.

But this phrase can be more annoying to people than we like to think.

Recently Moye at 8Asians.com, explained why the question can be particularly obnoxious:
"The question is usually posed as an introduction to learn more about each other with good intentions, but it stings as much as a cutting insult. It instantly isolates you from the interviewer, who has clearly placed a barrier of differences between the two of you. In some ways, being asked this question is akin to receiving a warm embrace from a new friend, who mutters under their breath that you really don’t belong here."
Geeky Asian Blog shared a similar sentiment, though the blog post was aimed directly at people. And on more than one occasion, the website Microaggressions has had comments from people who were Asian or Latino constantly being asked "where are you from?" or "Were you born here?" and similar questions.

I remember when I asked an Asian-American where he was from. It was during my AEON Amity training and he along with another coworker and I (also Asian-American...LOL we were the only minorities and our training group and ended up becoming fast friends) were on our way to find some dinner for the night. And I was genuinely surprised when he told me he was Korea. Why the surprise? The majority of us in that group were America, regardless of race. I guess this me showing my own ignorance but it never actually occurred to me that he'd been born in another country. He just seemed "So American" to me at that time. He late said he was from California, which is the "American" answer I was looking for. Now when I reflect on it now, I realize that it was a stupid assumption. I can't even explain what "So American" means if someone actually asked me too. Anyway, he didn't seem offended by my question, but because he was so used to people asking him the question that he answers on autopilot.

But there's another side to the story. A lot of Asian Americans are assumed to be "Foreigners" simply because they don't look black or white. Because despite the variety of people living here, we still think of America this way: white, black, with a smattering of Latinos (regardless of their race). Oh and some Asians too.

Meanwhile, there is a population of black Europeans, Canadians, Africans, and folks from the Caribbean, that are hardly ever asked this question unless they open their mouths and people notice that they don't speak "American." Because in many people's heads, blacks are an American monolith. And I've been guilty of this too. I supposed for me this idea came from spending more than have of my life in Detroit. As much as I love my city, I'm no damn fool, but during my years there it was pretty obvious it was a dying city and people weren't emigrating up there for jobs and great weather. So it was extremely rare to meet anyone who wasn't born and raised in Detroit, or their families weren't. Hell, even finding black Canadians in the city wasn't common despite the country literally being a bridge/tunnel away from Detroit. But who knows, maybe there were more there than I realized.

Although I had enough common sense to know that countries like Jamaica, and Ethiopia existed, I remember my shock at seeing Geoffrey on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and his English accent. In my small-minded world, I didn't think about European blacks or South American blacks. Japan, of all places, was the place I met blacks from Canada, the UK, and other areas of the world. Honestly I mentioned, I don't think I'd ever asked another black person where they were from until I heard a distinctly non-Midwest American accent on them. Even then I was think, "What state are you from?" and not "What country are you from?" My fail again.

I can't say how non-American blacks feel, but I know that I'm pretty quick to make it clear to people that I am American when I'm abroad. Not because I hate other countries or I have a ridiculous amount of pride in America, but it is what I am. And there may be non-American blacks that feel the same way. Whereas some Asians are annoyed with being asked "Where are you from?," I wonder if many blacks are annoyed with not being asked that same question. Then again, some people may be equally annoyed not with the question but with may follow it, as comedian Godfrey points out here:

Then there are many people that don't give a fuck one way or the other. Some people will give different answers depending on who's asking the question, some people see it as just curiosity, some people admit to asking the question to other depending on their eithnicity, and some others don't care if they're asked at all.

So it's a complicated question. I don't know if there's a way to get around it and if there's a way to ask people without feeling there wrath. You may not get a wrath at all, just an answer to your curiousity. I suppose how you react after the question is answered can alter someone's feelings though. It's probably not a good idea to say, "Oh! I thought you were Korean cuz you totally look Korean!" and "Wow, you're from Barbados? What part of Africa is that?" can get you five fingers to the face. Maybe some of y'all out there have good ways to ask this question or answer it. If not, oh well. It's still something to think about at least.


  1. I feel ya!

    In the ATL( Moreso the outskirts) I rarely meet anybody from my homestate. They are whether from New York, California,Iowa, Wisconsin etc and definitely, come across many people from other countries. I was just telling my mom about these guys from Azerbijan the other day. everywhere I turn, I'm basically around the United Nations. I go to many international fairs that they have. Next week ,I will be attending( if all goes right) a Middle Eastern festival and a Japanese one. I'm waiting for the Greek one which normally happens during the month of September as well.

    I could imagine how some Asians feel about that. They have been here for the longest and they still are asked the same " are you from here, question". I will admit to one blemish of ignorance on my part, and that is what the east Asians in Britain. Initially, I didn't think that they lives there. I've grown accustomed to seeing Blacks, Whites and South Asians being there,but I was so ignorant of them being in England.Shamefully, I didn't know about that until I looked at BBC.

    Sometimes, people have told me that I have an accent..like I'm not from the South or even from another country for some odd reason. I'm never offended by it,but it's far different where you're Asian American and your place of birth is questioned. If I see an Asian person and if I ask them where they from, I reverse it and ask if they are from the states and if they happen to be from Asia, I just ask which part of it they are from as there are some Asians who are equally annoyed with people describing them as Chinese when they may be from elsewhere.

  2. It is a simple question but I think it's more so the response to the answer that can really shape the insult or not, as you also said.
    I was born and raised in the DC area, which, as you mentioned, is full of a myriad of nationalities, so I grew up with kids from El Salvador, Ecuador, Mexico, Korea, the Philippines, everywhere. But the question, "where are you from?" never really came up until high school. Right at that essential time where everyone is trying to identify themselves and where they want to fit in within society.

    And there's never really a problem until someone says "well, if you're from AB&C, why do you do XYZ." Like being from a certain country automatically dictates how you behave. That's when the question becomes an annoyance, but even then, it's not the question, or the answer, but the response to both.

    In my personal experience, I've had people ask where I'm from since I lived in America (I'm in Japan now), and I'm what Godfrey would call "regular black." I was born and raised in D.C., but I've been asked all the same. Most of the time, people are polite and just curious, and sometimes I'm just met with a wall of ignorance. It's insulting, but if I got angry every time I heard a response I didn't like, I would be wasting an awful amount of energy on people who really don't matter.

    I think it's best to take the question simply as it is. You can decide if that person is worth your time from the way they respond to your answer. :)

  3. Whenever this topic comes up on the microaggressions site there are always a bunch of microaggressive replies about how Asian-Americans are making a big deal out of nothing. What I don't get is why you would approach someone with an American accent and demand to know where they are REALLY from. I'm a black women and I have never been asked this so I'm not going to tell someone how they should feel or they should react. Clearly this is offensive, it gets mentioned on ever anti-racist site. People need to take the hint and stop interrogating strangers about their ethnicity. This is right up there with the "you speak English so well" comments that all of us POC get, why wouldn't we speak English well, we are an Americans with American accents.

  4. I'm totally guilty of asking people this. But not for that reason. I'm pretty good at being able to tell different ethnicities apart (Japanese from Chinese, Korean from Vietnamese, Mexican from Cuban, etc.), so when I ask "where are you from?" it's never "you don't look like you belong here", It's because I can't place the person's features. I guess I need to figure out a different way of asking them.

  5. I can sort of relate in a way, as far as being classified as being something "unexpected" of my ethnicity (I am African American). I used to work at an airport in a diverse metropolitan area, and a customer once asked me if I went to a private school, because I spoke so properly. I speak normally. I told him something along the lines of "No, I went to a regular public school...." What I read out of the comment was, "Hey, you're black but don't sound ignorant..." ugh