I’d be the last person to downplay the prevalence of racial problems in this world, but I have to say I do think there’s such a thing as being too sensitive about race. And I think that uber-sensitivity does us all a disservice in drawing attention away from real, actual problems of race, crying wolf when the real wolves are elsewhere, doing far more damage.
Here’s a case in point: an article on Jezebel about how to ask someone about their ethnicity. Let me summarize their answer for you: Don’t. It’s otherizing and exoticizing and that’s offensive. Apparently.
Now, I’m one of those people who never has an easy time with the question “Where are you from?” because the truth is a long story. So my answer depends on the context. If it looks like a shorter answer is appropriate, my response will be either “The States,” “California,” or possibly “Santa Barbara” though I could just as easily say Mission Viejo or Westminster if I’m being city-specific. If it’s a Thai person asking, I’ll usually respond in Thai that I’m a “half-race child: Thai & American.”
Sometimes more detail is called for: “My mom is Thai and my dad is American, but he grew up in South Africa.”
Sometimes it’s appropriate for me to mention that while my dad is an American, he primarily grew up in South Africa, but his family is actually from Norway. He’s as blond and blue-eyed as they come, but he grew up speaking Zulu (clicks and all) before he learned to speak English.
When asked where I grew up, I say southern California. But occasionally I surprise everyone when I admit I was born in Mississippi.
By that time everyone is confused, and I haven’t even gotten to the part about how my brother and sister are actually my cousins (no incest involved, thankyouverymuch) and technically, biologically, I’m an only child.
Like I said, long story. If people try to place me based on looks, they generally think I might be Hawaiian, or Mexican, maybe Indian. Not Thai, though. And not white either. If anyone has a claim to feeling “otherized” I’d think I do because I don’t fit the mold anywhere.
But while the “Where are you from?” question is never easy to answer, I don’t think people are assholes for asking it. Honestly, when I read articles like this Jezebel one, I just have to roll my eyes because, to me, it reeks more of the author’s own insecurity and discomfort in their own skin than racist behavior on the part of the questioner. More often than not, people asking where others are from are just making conversation. You never know their history either–maybe you look like you’re from Lebanon and that person just traveled there last month and is looking for a point of connection and a chance to talk with someone who gets it about the awesome time they had there. Or maybe you sound like you’re from Germany, and my family is from Germany but you’d never know it to look at me. Whatever. If you have an interesting heritage, maybe people are asking because you look like you have an interesting story to tell. Let me put it another way: would you rather forgo an interesting heritage in order to look just like everyone else? Is looking “exotic” such a bad thing? Is there something inherently better about looking obviously placeable?
I’d personally rather have people be curious about me than write me off.
The only time I’ve ever been really annoyed by the questioner was when he kept trying to make assumptions about me, being overly familiar and getting it all wrong. And I just wanted to tell him, “STOP. I’m sorry, dude, but I don’t fit in your preconceived molds so just stop trying to stuff me into one.” But that kind of questioner isn’t curious–in fact, he’s the opposite of curious, when he’s really just looking for the most efficient way to categorize everyone he meets–which sounds a lot more like racism to me than simple curiosity about others. Turns out this particular guy, a restaurant owner who liked to get real friendly with his guests, is now operating a hub for trafficking young girls and boys out of his restaurant, so he definitely qualifies as an asshole.
The world is only getting more globalized and we’ll only begin to see more multi-ethnic people and more convoluted stories about where we’re all really from, whatever that means. There’s no one way to ask a person about their heritage that encompasses all the possible responses. Is it really better to shut up and not ask the question for fear of “otherizing” each other, or is it better to leave open the opportunity for making a connection with each other, either through the magnetism of our differences or because there’s a hidden similarity that might not otherwise have been seen?
Meanwhile, if I feel otherized by or that I don’t fit in with a particular crowd because of my answer to the “Where are you from?” question, then they’re not the kind of people I want to spend my time with–regardless of whether they so boldly ask the question or not.