One of my most vivid memories from first year was watching somebody at a party ask ‘no, where are you really from?’ three or four times to somebody they had met only a couple of minutes ago, and how my friends and I had to step in and correct their use of language.
The person in question was from a very mundane English town, but they were not white. Their truth had been invalidated to place ethnic heritage front and centre, but what is wrong with this, and is it enough to simply change our use of language?
The problem with asking somebody where they are really from is not simply about political incorrectness, but rather respect. Often, these types of questions are asked with good intentions, yet the use of the words ‘originally’ and ‘really’ are covertly racist, although disguised as subtle rather than outwardly obvious.
Here, racist undertones may be covered by good intentions or simple curiosity but they exist in our choice of language. As humans we arguably want to categorise others in order to understand and relate to each other.
We may ask in a conversation with our uber driver, a course mate or new colleague in a simple attempt to connect in some way. Yet, the answer to these questions is often followed by assumptions and prejudices, whether they be subconscious or explicit, that affect our future relationship with this person. The question is often followed by comments on accent, education, or physical features, none of which are likely important in the situation you are in, yet we feel are applicable in some way.
You may consider reframing the question to ‘what is your ethnicity?’ or ‘what is your family’s cultural heritage?’ to remove the indication that the person is somehow ‘other’. It’s important to watch body language and consider the answer you are given before moving forward.
Some may be comfortable to give the answer you may be looking for, whilst others may not. This comes back to respect. If a friend or a stranger has offered you their truth, it is then important to accept that truth and not probe into the realm of uncomfortable disrespect.
But is it enough to simply change our use of language?
Asking where someone is really from indicates that you have been preoccupied since meeting this person, not listening to their story or engaging in the conversation, but rather considering the aspects that, to you, make them appear from ‘somewhere else’.
Consider what you really desire in asking this question…Do you want to know the person’s ethnicity, their cultural identity or decipher their accent?
Then ask yourself…
- Why do you feel entitled to this information?
- Why is it useful to the situation?
- Why have you assumed that they are an ‘outsider’ of some sort?
- Would you ask someone who looks like you?
These are all indicators that asking where someone is really from is rarely ever about genuine intrigue, more so about filling in the gaps of your raging curiosity, viewing the other person as an ‘other’.
If somebody does feel comfortable to answer your question, to then suggest that they are lying or that they have a lack of knowledge around their ethnicity is troubling. Questions such as ‘what percentage’ or comments on skin tone also act as covert racism. You are suggesting that your knowledge outweighs that of the person you have asked, that you are an expert on ethnic DNA or what someone from a certain place is supposed to look like.
This issue goes deeper than just changing our language, one must understand the weight behind their words and motivations to assess the level of respect and dignity that we afford to others.
We live in an increasingly diverse world and you may find that many are proud of their heritage and will volunteer information when they feel comfortable. Equally though, your new colleague may not feel that their ethnicity is important for you, and your questions can add to their feelings of alienation.
Ultimately, the custom of asking where someone is really from is complex and loaded. Each situation will be different, therefore it is vital that you equip yourself with the correct tools to understand how to behave respectfully. This can only be done through self-education, by taking on the responsibility to become an active ally, as it is not enough to be colour blind.
Have you recently asked somebody this? If yes, then it is time to reconsider your motives and educate yourself on how you may be making others feel. If no, have you ever corrected someone else’s language or would you if the situation arose?
Written By Tegan Davis