Author: has written 142 posts for this blog.

Chally is a student by day, a freelance writer by night, a scary, scary feminist all the time, and a voracious reader whenever she has a spare moment. She also blogs at Zero at the Bone. Full bio here.
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127 Responses

  1. Jadey
    Jadey March 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm |

    I am a white woman. Not only do I *not* get asked this question, I have travelled to several different Canadian cities, have noticed a tendency for people to come up to me to ask for directions or assistance finding places, even in places where I literally arrived only a few hours before and have just dropped off my bags in my hotel. In Quebec, I have even been asked directions in French (at least, I think that’s what they were asking – I’m a unilingual anglophone). So not only do I not get challenged on my belonging, I am actively perceived as a local ‘expert’ on the basis of nothing more than my appearance. I am only asked “where are you from?” after I have made a clear indication that I am not from that location specifically, and I am not challenged if I give an answer referencing another part of Canada. I think if I travelled in at least some parts of the US I wouldn’t get questioned either, unless I did something blatantly tourist-y like stare up at all the tall buildings in NYC (I’ve been told this is a tourist thing, but I like to stare at tall buildings in my hometown too. Oops!).

    One thing I’ve noticed is that Aboriginal people here get asked the same question – “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” – and I don’t really understand what answer people are looking for given that there isn’t the same assumption about immigration (not that Aboriginal people don’t still immigrate and emigrate, but there isn’t the same stereotype about being FOB as with other non-white groups). A story about an “exotic tribal geneology”?? Some people are just ‘from’ Edmonton or Timmins or Nanaimo – deal with it already.

  2. PrettyAmiable
    PrettyAmiable March 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm |

    In the US, I occasionally get asked where I’m from. All of those people clarify afterwards that they thought I was Russian or German (I’m Polish and apparently look Eastern European). It’s definitely not frequent.

    I find myself asking people with non-US accents where they’re from which I know is problematic, but it’s definitely not as bad as when I referenced my friend of 1.5 years who I thought had an Indian background and is actually Pakistani. Because I’m an asshole. Unlearning privilege is fun.

  3. queen emily
    queen emily March 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm |

    I’ve had this same experience in Perth too a surprising amount considering I’m white with a local accent (but not totally Anglo). I think that the entitlement lying behind it means there’s no good answer short of a laundry list of your ethnicities…

  4. Yonmei
    Yonmei March 14, 2011 at 4:29 pm |

    I am a white woman living and working within a 3-mile walk of where I was born – and I have lived in this six-mile area for 90% of my life.

    My accent, however, does not remotely sound like someone who was born and grew up here: I acquired my accent from my parents before the age of two or three (when I went to kindergarten) and apparently it’s never changed since. I get asked “Where are you from?” or “Where were you born?” probably a hundred times a year: it’s less exasperating that the perennial “Are you a boy or a girl?” question, and less painful than the verbal and physical harassment I used to get from my schoolfellows because I sounded like a foreigner. But it always reminds me, inside and outside my family (neither of my siblings have this problem) that there is something wrong with me. I put it that way because that’s exactly how it still comes to me: I never learned to speak “like normal”: I still sound like an alien in my own country.

    Years ago I shared a flat with a woman whose given name and family name both got people asking “But where is she from?” to which I enjoyed blandly replying “Glasgow – she goes back there every weekend.” – “But where is she REALLY from?” – “She says her family moved to Glasgow from Birmingham.” I partly enjoyed it because I like making mock of people who ask stupid questions like that, but it’s just occurred to me now (I never thought of my accent problem as being about “fromness” and “entitlement” though I understood perfectly that the questions about my fellow tenant were sourced there) that one reason why I enjoyed it so much is because I got asked the same question by the same kind of person, if not as often, whenever they heard my voice.

  5. Comrade Kevin
    Comrade Kevin March 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm |

    I have a mild, but sometimes detectable Southern American accent. When I’ve been home recently (there’s that word again!) or have been talking to my parents, it becomes more prominent for a time. Being that I live in a different region of the country, my accent grows more and more bland and indistinct. Mid-Atlantic accents, particularly in cities, are distinct in just how indistinct they are.

    But should someone ask where I am from, I usually respond “Alabama”. And should they continue to press, I provide the city. I think part of why I am asked where I am from is because the South has a very romanticized ethos and mythology to it that captures the attention of those outside the region.

  6. Jill
    Jill March 14, 2011 at 4:36 pm | *

    I get asked where I’m from all the time — usually right after I say my (unusual, “ethnic”) last name.

  7. becky
    becky March 14, 2011 at 4:39 pm |

    I constantly get asked where I’m from and I find it just as irritating, mostly because, to me, it implies the question: “And when are you going back there (to your actual home)?!” I one of the few non-white kids in my small home town, but raised in a “white” manner by my mostly white family, being left very unaware and uninformed about my black heritage (and it took me until puberty to realise and engage in it myself…).

    So at first, not knowing that I was somewhat “different”, I was really confused by the question “Where are you from?” – “Um, from Street X around the corner – you know… we’re neighbours and all…” – “Yeah, but where are you *really* from?” It took me a while to realise what people actually meant, and I think I can really relate to your feeling of being “othered” all the time, Chally.

    Interestingly, when I lived in the US, people still asked me where I’m from, I guess mostly because (having lived in the UK for a while as well) I have a weird mixture of a British and US accent. When I told them “Germany”, it caught people completely off guard, as in: not believing me or just saying “But you don’t look German!” (I usually replied with an enthusiastic “Thanks!!” to that – and I mean it!). There’s just no way of escaping it. And, as a person of “mixed race,” I find it particularly difficult to “belong” somewhere. For me, it is a really hybrid identity, which I find challenging in a positive way, actually – except for the constant need to define myself for others; because, obviously, I’m not allowed to fall into different “categories” at once and simply have to explain where I *really* and foremost belong to. I should try your suggestions for creative answering (“I’m hungry” would work well, because… you know… I usually am :))!

  8. Mezzanine
    Mezzanine March 14, 2011 at 4:51 pm |

    I’ve asked the question “What is your ancestry?” but…

    1) I asked it because it was already a topic of conversation, and not just out of the blue.

    2) I decided that asking about “ancestry” was way more reasonable than asking where someone was “from”, because they were clearly “from” Australia with Indian ancestry, much like I am from Australia with British ancestry.

    Question for POC: would the way I was asking be considered offensive, given that we were already discussing similar things?

  9. human
    human March 14, 2011 at 4:51 pm |

    I am white and I get asked this, but that’s because I am a grad student and a great many of us moved to go to grad school. So it’s a bit of a special situation. And of course I don’t experience it as a hostile question. I appreciate this clear explanation of how it can be so for others. I had a vague sense of this but I understand it much more clearly now.

    One alternative question that works in the grad school context is “Where did you do your undergrad degree?” Everyone did theirs somewhere, even people who are “from” right here. And people can answer with a school which is a little less bound up in identity than a geographical location. It’s been suggested to me by a friend who is a woman of color that this question is less othering than “Where are you from?”

    To be clear, I’m not looking for a backdoor way to ascertain someone’s racial background or nationality, but a way to invite them to talk about themselves without being rude or intrusive.

  10. Darlene
    Darlene March 14, 2011 at 5:09 pm |

    My father, born in Nicaragua, has fun with this. His first answer is always the town in MD he currently lives in. People usually say “No, BEFORE that…” and he says, “Oh, New York.” and they say “No, where were you BORN.” and he says “Bluefield” and they usually give up by then… :)

  11. ~s~
    ~s~ March 14, 2011 at 5:12 pm |

    I get the name thing. “Well, that’s an interesting/unusual/different/exotic name.” What do people expect me to say to that? So I usually end up saying, “It’s Italian.”

    “Oh, you’re Italian? You don’t look Italian.”

    “My father was born there.”

    “Where was your mother born?”

    “…New Brunswick.”

    People are universally disappointed and sometimes embarrassed by this point. But not always. Once when I was working–I work as a tour guide at a national historic site here in Canada–I met a professor emeritus of history from my university. He asked me about my research interests (gender and sexuality in 19th century Canada). After learning my name, he asked me why I don’t study Italian Renaissance history. I was so flabbergasted I’m not sure what I said. But he just kept going on about how “my people” did some great things, and I should be proud to study them.

    Why do people think this is okay? This professor’s research was all in Canadian history. So he can study it, and I can’t?

  12. Kathy
    Kathy March 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm |

    I’ve really enjoyed this series. This is something I think about a lot, but have never found a good way to write about it without sounding like I’m in denial of my own privilege. I’m white, socially and culturally, though not entirely genetically (my grandfather’s family has been described as creole, acadian, or metis — some so combination of all three), though mostly I look like my Italian father. I get “where are you from?” a lot. Most people are pretty surprised when I say “here.” (And that I don’t speak Italian.) “No really, where are you from?” I should note I live in a not-so diverse Midwestern city.

    “It is not quite so blatantly dehumanising as its variation “What are you?”

    I hate this like nothing else. My stock answer for this is “human,” or sometimes “guess, ” or “got a minute?” I don’t mind telling people about my heritage (I like it, actually), but not when put on the spot like that, and not in such a dehumanizing way.

  13. novabird
    novabird March 14, 2011 at 5:16 pm |

    The well-meaning white mormon church ladies are the most other-ing white folks I have ever had to deal with, personally. “Where are you from?” “uh…the Puget Sound region.” “No, but where are you *really* from?” “uh…” “Where are your people from, child?” “Oh. Uh…my dad’s mom is from Mexico and his dad is from Utah and my mom’s people are from Wyoming and Louisiana…” But usually I wouldn’t even get as far as the rest of the family tree, they would stop me at “my paternal grandmother is from Mexico…” and say thing like, “OH I JUST KNEW THERE WAS SOMETHING EXOTIC ABOUT YOU! SUCH PRETTY ALMOND EYES!” or something.
    People ask my dad what reservation he came from and ask my mother where she came from. I feel like we have (collectively) had to deal with this less in the Southwestern region of the US, where there are lots of other mixed-race latin@s.
    Like I said, I’m mixed race, abide in the US, but I pass for white most of the time (inadvertently). I sometimes clumsily “out” myself because I get tired of people not comprehending my/my family’s experiences, but it feels like a losing battle with homogeneity. “But I’m NOT homogeneous!” often feels too much like exoticism.
    All that said, I often ask my white-identified friends “where are your people from?” in asking about their cultural background. I do not ask my POC friends this, I figure they have to deal with variants of shit shit to a maddening degree all the time. Maybe it’s an asshole move, but acknowledging that “hey white folks! you are the descendants of colonialism!” is useful to me in terms of asking the people closest me to acknowledge their privilege and come at our interactions honestly. I work hard to do the same.

  14. Kathy
    Kathy March 14, 2011 at 5:17 pm |

    or metis — some so combination of all three),

    Sorry. Should read “some combination of all three.”

  15. NewMe
    NewMe March 14, 2011 at 5:19 pm |

    My mother came to Canada from Russia when she was nine. Although I could never hear her accent, I’ve been told she did have one.

    She was a friendly, compassionate person, who was always genuinely interested in those around her. She was also handicapped and had a hard time getting out of the house. When she did, it was by taxi and she almost always got into an interesting discussion with the driver. As an immigrant herself, she was quick to ask people where they came from. It was an innocent question and certainly never meant to make the person feel “different”. After all, she herself was an immigrant.

    I picked up the habit of asking people about their ethnic origins from those long-ago cab rides with my mom. I am genuinely interested to hear about the person’s background, what brought them to Canada, if they’re happy in this country that is now their home. Since I work in French (though English is my first language), I am fascinated by different accents, which also often leads me to ask about someone’s origins.

    I don’t think it’s wrong to ask people about their origins. It takes nothing away from the fact that they are living here, sharing the country with people like me (the child of immigrants), people who’ve been here since the 1600s (like my husband’s family) and people who have been here since the dawn of time. We are all sharing the same land, and hopefully doing so with care and respect for all its inhabitants.

  16. WestEndGirl
    WestEndGirl March 14, 2011 at 5:31 pm |

    As a mixed Jew, based in London, and mistaken for everything from Albanian to Iranian to Italian to Bulgarian via anywhere else you can think of covered by the former Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires, the odd thing for me is that I *never* get asked the “Where are you from?” question by white people, only ever by those people of BME or immigrant backgrounds. I would say that I get asked this on average once a week, since as long as I can remember.

    I hate the question. I particularly hate the question when it is repeated after I answer with the area of London in which I was born, raised and now live. And with the extra part of “No, but where are your parents from? And, then, after I answer that they come from another part of London, the added bonus question follows of: “But, where do your *grandparents* come from?” To which, when I reply that they come from yet another part of London, they then ask: “No, but where do you *really* come from, you’re not English” and I feel forced to tell them my ethnic background. And I feel particularly odd, London is the only home for my family (at least my Mum’s side) for c.150 years. And my Dad’s side of the family that are Mizrahi are in fact very fair, and it’s my Mum’s side that has the dark colouring that people seem to be picking up on as my ‘foreign-ness’. It makes me feel that I am hiding something by not immediately blurting out that I’m a Jew and that’s why I look ‘other’.

    I absolutely can’t stand it and I’ve always found it very intrusive and upsetting, that I can’t just be British or a Londoner and that’s that.

    I suppose why I’m recounting my experience is that people can ask the same question, using the same words, having totally different intents and meanings. As the people who are asking me aren’t of the dominant background here, there *has* to be different reasons other than entitlement and what Chally describes in the OP. It has always puzzled me. But the intrusion still feels horrible.

  17. novabird
    novabird March 14, 2011 at 5:42 pm |

    Thank you for writing this, WestEndGirl. I feel like my “practice” could use a little updating, and this is a healthy reminder of that.

    WestEndGirl: As the people who are asking me aren’t of the dominant background here, there *has* to be different reasons other than entitlement and what Chally describes in the OP. It has always puzzled me. But the intrusion still feels horrible

  18. clairedammit
    clairedammit March 14, 2011 at 6:06 pm |

    Oh wow. I’m a white woman and someone asked me this recently. She said “Where’s your family from?” and when I said “England,” because my dad’s from England, she got mad at me. “No! What state are the Dammits from?” Uh, this one, since the ’60’s on my dad’s side and the 1800’s on my mom’s? And before that, England?

    There is no right answer to this question, I think, at least when a white person is asking you, because if you’re not white they’re wanting to know how you’re “different” from them, and if you look white too they’re probably playing “who’s your daddy?”

  19. Sara
    Sara March 14, 2011 at 6:08 pm |

    Like the poster above in grad school, I am white (and I live in the US) and I and get asked this question all the time. Sometimes it means “what school are you from?”, but more often it seems to mean “what town are you from?”. Even though I am not othered by the question because of my race, I still don’t like being asked, because of the class connotations (at least for people from the same state who are familiar with the differences between towns).

  20. Kaz
    Kaz March 14, 2011 at 6:08 pm |

    I don’t usually get asked this in Germany and would be surprised if I did in a different context than “what *city* are you from?” (hi, privilege.) I do get asked this quite a bit in the UK, because my accent in English is sort of indeterminable-but-definitely-foreign. I think part of it’s also that I’m at university and this is a standard question there or at least I’ve always assumed so? because of the high proportion of foreigners and people from elsewhere in the country. But I’ll get asked this a lot even outside uni. It doesn’t bother me much because, well, they’re assuming correctly as I’m *not* from the UK even though the indepth answer gets complicated. Getting it in Germany would cause me to panic about whether I’d gained an English accent or was somehow reading as foreign.

    I’m wondering now how accurate I am considering “where are you from?” a standard question and conversation-opener at uni-level and how that might be influenced by the fact that everyone’s going to ask *me* that because I’m audibly non-British, and how to balance that with not poking at the sore spots of people for whom this is a loaded question.

  21. queenrandom
    queenrandom March 14, 2011 at 6:14 pm |

    I have gotten asked this several times, or the other version of “what are you” (ugh) – and I’m a white woman, with a Minnesotan accent, living in the Midwest (it’s the pitch black hair, I think). I’ve even had one guy ask me “are you sure?” when I told him I was born in Duluth and more than one person go so far as to invent in me the accent of their choosing (is this something POC born in US/Canada/Europe experience often?). So certain are they in their racism. The first time, I must have been oh, 15 years old I think, and I remember being so confused. Up until, that is, my answers that didn’t match what this person was really asking resulted in this person trying to guess my ethnic heritage: “Are you Jewish? Asian? Latina?” It was my first big click moment. I can’t imagine what it’s like to go through that as a young (or not so young) POC. It’s such bullshit.

  22. Kristen J.'s Husband
    Kristen J.'s Husband March 14, 2011 at 6:20 pm |

    This question never bothered me when I lived in Hawaii. People ask all the time, but they are really asking where in the islands your from, who is your family. Its usually followed with “Do you know ______?” In that way it is an attempt to uncover bonds rather than distinguish others (although it also has that effect when people answer with non-local locations).

    On the mainland though, I find the question extremely annoying because as you identified it isn’t about SELF-identity or community, but rather some amalgamation of racism and nationalism. If you are brown, you or your parents must be from another country and the same country.

    If I hear one more person sigh with irritation when I explain that my parents are also from Hawaii, as are my grandparents, my brain will melt. At least some people come right out and ask your ethnic background or where “your people” are from which I find less annoying, often still racist but less annoying.

    Although, come to think of it is most obnoxious when people guess incorrectly. A police officer once asked what part of MEXICO I was from.

    In sum, don’t guess. Don’t ask unless you would also ask a white person that question in a similar context. Don’t assume your ancestors have been in this country or on this land longer than mine.

  23. z
    z March 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm |

    I’m a student at a university where people come from absolutely everywhere, so on campus I get asked this all the time – as does everybody else. (It may be that, because I am white, I am asked this somewhat less often than students of color, but I’m pretty sure this is a standard question to ask everybody on first meeting anyway – because there’s no default answer, there’s no assuming someone is “from here”.)

    When I’m not on campus, I’m asked this when I’m with my parents – they have accents – or when I tell them my last name (recognizably Russian-sounding; just plain weird spelling-wise). Unlike a lot of people above, I’m usually very happy when I’m asked this – I don’t like people to assume I’m just American (I live in the US), I want the other part of my identity to be acknowledged. I realize this is partly a reflection of my privilege of not being assumed to be not-from-here, partly also a reflection of the fact that I *don’t* consider myself to be exclusively from here.

  24. Rita
    Rita March 14, 2011 at 7:10 pm |

    Hmmm… I guess I’ve never thought of this question as intrusive or othering. Now that I reflect, I ask it a lot – although always in the form of, “Have you always lived in Chicago?”

    I’ve considered it a good way to get to know someone, by giving them an opportunity to talk about places they’ve lived or traveled, or to share about their family or background.

    And like other commenters here, I think the question feels different in the educational context – most of my peers are recently out of some kind of school, and my neighborhood is predominantly university students and immigrants, so pretty much everybody has recently come from somewhere else.

    In my ethnic/cultural context, “where are you from?” is almost always the opening question for Dutch bingo, whereby two people who “look Dutch” or have Dutch last names try to see if they have any relatives in common…

  25. Dae
    Dae March 14, 2011 at 7:26 pm |

    I’m a white woman, and have lived my whole life in the southeast or Texas. Anytime I’m out of the university setting (where I spend most of my time) and interacting with people for long, I inevitably get asked where I’m from… and then the person asking expresses incredulity.

    Apparently I sound like a “yankee,” and if I’m not, then my parents must be. (They’re from Virginia…)

    It used to amuse me more than anything, but in the year I worked between undergrad and grad school, nearly every co-worker ended up asking me that question, and the “no really, where did you grow up?!”s really started to get old.

  26. Mechelle
    Mechelle March 14, 2011 at 7:51 pm |

    I’m not asked where I’m from often, and when I am it is usually because I live in the southeastern US and my accent must sound very country so people assume I am from the deep south. I am half Puerto Rican and when I tell people I am Puerto Rican, they always assume I was born there and ask me where I’m from in Puerto Rico. Like it isn’t possible to be from here (the US) and be Puerto Rican.

  27. RD
    RD March 14, 2011 at 7:59 pm |

    I answered this one when I answered part 1. I find “what’s your ethnic background?” equally as irritating because it is very difficult for me to answer. Maybe I just feel put on the spot, but also people find it difficult to believe I’m not whatever it is they think I am (eastern european, jewish, latina, mixed latina and white, or whatever it is they think). This is not just white people. The last time I was back in NYC I went out with a friend of mine who is mixed puerto rican and white and her friend who is a black usian. They spent forever discussing this (my ethnic background) and I discovered that my friend (the latina girl) had apparently thought I was latina or latina/white for a very long time, even though I told her right after I met her that I was not (the last time she asked). After I explained (“my mother is from oklahoma (a long line of “poor white trash” back to the oklahoma land rush and some indigenous ppl, back to the trail of tears) and my father is from virginia (I know very little about his family and ethnic background, just my mother’s speculations, which she applies to me also since I look a lot like him – why she doesn’t know, I’m not sure, she was married to the guy), etc etc etc.”), my friend’s friend was like, “oh you’re American! Me too. Nobody ever guesses that.” And then she added that she was part native american as well as black. And I was happy to be out with them and we had an amazing time, but god I find that conversation so stressful! I guess it is just that, it is difficult for me to answer, and ppl already have ideas about it that are mostly wrong.

  28. Azalea
    Azalea March 14, 2011 at 8:08 pm |

    When people ask me “where are you from” it’s ironically usually someone from Angola, Eritrea or Ethiopia and they think I am from there or I resemble someone “back home.” When it’s a person from the US they ask me “what are you mixed with?” Yup, real question, as frustrating as it is rude.

  29. stonebiscuit
    stonebiscuit March 14, 2011 at 8:19 pm |

    I get asked where I’m from all the time — usually right after I say my (unusual, “ethnic”) last name.

    Along those lines, a surprising number of people ask me where I’m from upon seeing how my real first name is spelled. Incidentally, this happens most at my office, which is around the corner from the hospital where I was born.

  30. RD
    RD March 14, 2011 at 8:19 pm |

    Re bio dad – I DO know that he is NOT eastern european, jewish, or latino.

  31. RD
    RD March 14, 2011 at 8:23 pm |

    stonebiscuit: Along those lines, a surprising number of people ask me where I’m from upon seeing how my real first name is spelled. Incidentally, this happens most at my office, which is around the corner from the hospital where I was born.

    LOL :P

  32. Katie
    Katie March 14, 2011 at 8:37 pm |

    I have to say, I have been ‘guilty’ of asking this question in the past, but I had no idea I was being rude! I am curious about people and fascinated with other cultures and countries, so when a person who obviously has this amazing experience of having lived in two different countries I hope they don’t mind talking about it and sharing what it’s like, in the course of conversation. I didn’t realise it was a painful question. Of course, it’s never the first thing I say to them upon meeting – a proper introduction is polite.
    Isn’t it a good thing when people are interested in cultural diversity? Doesn’t it help when you are given the opportunity to educate people a little about your birth country? When people ask you where you’re from, most aren’t trying to offend or exclude you. Really. They are showing an interest in you. Showing you that they want to know you. And where we live and come from is so much a part of that.

  33. RD
    RD March 14, 2011 at 8:39 pm |

    I have gotten asked this several times, or the other version of “what are you” (ugh) – and I’m a white woman, with a Minnesotan accent, living in the Midwest (it’s the pitch black hair, I think).I’ve even had one guy ask me “are you sure?” when I told him I was born in Duluth and more than one person go so far as to invent in me the accent of their choosing (is this something POC born in US/Canada/Europe experience often?).So certain are they in their racism.The first time, I must have been oh, 15 years old I think, and I remember being so confused.Up until, that is, my answers that didn’t match what this person was really asking resulted in this person trying to guess my ethnic heritage: “Are you Jewish?Asian?Latina?”It was my first big click moment.I can’t imagine what it’s like to go through that as a young (or not so young) POC.It’s such bullshit.

    Yeah “what are you” is another one I get asked. C once told a former friend of ours that I was portuguese, and even though we both started laughing she didn’t get that she (C) was bullshitting, and was annoyed later when I told that I am not in fact portuguese. But people misread her all the time! They think she is latino (male because she is an AG) but she’s east asian.

    For me, it is my large dark brown eyes and my facial features. My hair looks pretty white (well of course its not actually white since it is a medium brown).

  34. RD
    RD March 14, 2011 at 8:42 pm |

    I have to say, I have been ‘guilty’ of asking this question in the past, but I had no idea I was being rude! I am curious about people and fascinated with other cultures and countries, so when a person who obviously has this amazing experience of having lived in two different countries I hope they don’t mind talking about it and sharing what it’s like, in the course of conversation. I didn’t realise it was a painful question. Of course, it’s never the first thing I say to them upon meeting – a proper introduction is polite.
    Isn’t it a good thing when people are interested in cultural diversity? Doesn’t it help when you are given the opportunity to educate people a little about your birth country? When people ask you where you’re from, most aren’t trying to offend or exclude you. Really. They are showing an interest in you. Showing you that they want to know you. And where we live and come from is so much a part of that.

    Well my birth country is the same one I’ve always lived in and I still get asked that…same with a lot of people on this thread…

  35. Kristen J.
    Kristen J. March 14, 2011 at 8:49 pm |

    Katie: Isn’t it a good thing when people are interested in cultural diversity? Doesn’t it help when you are given the opportunity to educate people a little about your birth country? When people ask you where you’re from, most aren’t trying to offend or exclude you. Really. They are showing an interest in you. Showing you that they want to know you. And where we live and come from is so much a part of that.

    Except that…often…their “birth” country is the same as yours. Just because a person looks different doesn’t necessarily mean they are “from” somewhere different.

  36. lady
    lady March 14, 2011 at 9:10 pm |

    There was this young, college aged waiter once, who looked exactly like this kid I went to high school with. I’m in a college town, about two hours where I went to high school. He was about the right age to be a younger brother or cousin or something along those lines. I asked where he was from, without thinking, and he basically gave me his family history (I can’t remember, but not from western Europe). It went on for quite a bit, and finally I clarified – are you from X city, because you look like you could be related to someone I know. And no, he wasn’t, he was some other small local town. I felt really bad, because he clearly had this schpeal memorized to respond to that question.

    It’s such a weird ambiguous question. I generally don’t ask it, as I figure people will tell me if they want me to know. I got asked it a bunch as a kid–while I am white, I had a speech impediment (interpreted by many kids as an accent) and have hooded eyes–and it definitely meant “why are you weird and different?”. And then when I was in college–it was mostly polite conversation, meet and greet kind of thing. Except, I went to school in the North and folks were confounded by my lack of Southern accent. No, not all Southerners have a Southern accent. Also, that kid over there, with the “Southern” accent–not from the South (yes I asked him).

  37. RD
    RD March 14, 2011 at 9:19 pm |

    Oh also because I am curvy. Big hips big ass big boobs.

  38. odanu
    odanu March 14, 2011 at 9:22 pm |

    I’m white and live in the Midwest, but occasionally get asked “where are you from” when it becomes clear that I am not a native Midwesterner. The culture is different enough in the Midwest from my upbringing in Vermont, New Mexico and California that I definitely stand out.

    Unlike for people of color, though, I don’t get asked immediately. I have to *demonstrate* that I’m different before I’m asked. And yes, it does have a “you don’t belong here” tone to it. I have just enough privilege in this area to be grateful for it, because I know exactly how it feels to have that subtext thrown at me.

  39. Elisabeth
    Elisabeth March 14, 2011 at 9:47 pm |

    Heh. I get asked this question on at least a weekly basis. Sometimes…multiple times a day. I also get complimented on my English all the time. I am 4th generation white American whose native language is English. Before I even open my mouth or people see my name (which European but not Anglo), they assume I am from somewhere else, and I have even had pan handlers shout after me “do you speak English?” Most people assume I am either a tourist or an international student, to the point when the first time I tried to open a bank account I was told to bring a copy of my student visa or green card. I once tried to donate blood, and the nurse turned me away before I could even fill out the form. Confused, I asked why, and she told me that people who had been to the UK weren’t able to donate blood. When I told her I had never been there, she looked confused, and told me that she assumed most people from where I was from would have traveled there. She shrugged and followed it up with, “it’s so nice of you to want to help out Americans like this.” I have dozens and dozens more anecdotes like this.

    Outside of the US, it’s even worse. People from other countries simply flat out won’t believe I’m an American. I once got into an argument over being an American with a woman from Uzbekistan on a subway, who became angry and accused me of lying and ignoring her when she spoke to me in Russian and I told her I couldn’t speak Russian.

    In general though, since people assume I am European, I get very little hostility about being foreign, it’s more friendly interest. I am not annoyed by the question in itself, though it gets a bit tiring to go through the “No, I’m really really an American.” “No, I was born here.” “No, my parents were born here too” conversation all the time.

  40. Erica
    Erica March 14, 2011 at 10:39 pm |

    I’m going to second (third? n-ordinal?) some of the sentiments above: I really appreciate this series, and it also took me by surprise. I’ve asked the ‘where are you from’ question with some frequency (though I ask, ‘do you mind if I ask where you’re from’ because I don’t want to demand). I’ve never asked due to appearance, though – only due to accent, and only when I (think I) recognize an accent from the Indian subcontinent (I lived in India for awhile, and I feel a level of something not unlike homesickness for the place I lived).

    But the idea that I might be hurting someone by asking is really alarming, and the last thing I want to do. I enjoy forging the momentary connections that happen on the bus or waiting in line, but I don’t want to enjoy it at someone else’s expense!

  41. Verity Khat
    Verity Khat March 14, 2011 at 10:57 pm |

    …I feel about three inches tall right now. ;_; I work in an arts facility where a wide variety of people bring their children for lessons, so while I’m typing their information into the computer I have been known to say “That’s an interesting name. What part of the world does it come from?” or “You have a lovely accent, where did you pick it up?” simply because I’m curious (and conversation’s REALLY necessary when the computer is being slow). It never occurred to me that even by phrasing it politely I was being rude. Shit.

    I hate stumbling over new invisible bits of white privilege.

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Chally. I swear I will never ask that question ever again.

  42. Eliane
    Eliane March 14, 2011 at 11:35 pm |

    This is a question I have grappled with my whole life long. My parents are Dutch and Swiss, but I speak neither of their languages as I was brought up elsewhere (in the US, Brazil and France).

    In this question, there is a rather innocent intent to categorize a person using stereotypes of nationality: if you tell me you are Italian, I will immediately conjure up the various mental representations I have of Italy and its people, which reassures me as I feel like I already know something about you and your culture, and it may help us start a conversation.

    But the basic assumption behind the question, as the author rightly points out, is the distressing one of otherness. There is also an assumption that everyone has a “home” or “hometown” (one that is not here), and that everyone is “from” somewhere.

    I do not have a “hometown”, as the town where I was born is a place I have never lived in and have no family in. Towns that I have lived in for longer periods of time, but which do not have any family history for me, are not home for me either.

    I have actually found this question easier to deal with when I am in a place where my otherness is a given, such as where I currently live in Asia, where I can get away with vaguely saying that I am “European”. When I am in Switzerland or Holland, though, I squirm at this question, as I invariably know that saying I am “from” “here” is not the response the speaker is looking for. In the end, where I’m “from” seems to depend a lot more on who I’m talking to than my own personal history.

    Asking this question is in essence challenging a person’s self-constructed identity, as well as reinforcing a perceived cultural distance between the two speakers. It is the same as saying, “you cannot be from here because I am from here, and you are different from me.”

  43. Asinknits
    Asinknits March 15, 2011 at 12:37 am |

    A colleague of mine migrated from Wales to Sydney in her childhood, she’s married to a man whose family has been in Australia for 5 generations. However, everyone assumes she’s Australian and he’s not. The reason? He has Indian-Fijian heritage – he looks ‘dark’ and ‘foreign’.

    When I get asked where I come from, I respond that I consider myself to be Scottish/English (and a little too close to some very protestant types for my liking) – I never say Australian, cause I was taught at school that it was a cop out. Also, I know Australian means Anglo (or someone who can pass for one) with an Australian accent, and I’m not sure I want to join that club.

  44. Rayna
    Rayna March 15, 2011 at 2:34 am |

    Great post. Quoting above comment – “I particularly hate the question when it is repeated after I answer with the area of London in which I was born, raised and now live. And with the extra part of “No, but where are your parents from?””

    Ditto. I think I’m very lucky to not experience it as a harmful or hurtful question, but it is *very* tiresome. I can’t NOT meet new people and get asked that question, when what they *really* mean is ethnic background, because ‘Adelaide’ or ‘born in Darwin’ are unsatisfactory answers.

    I think part of the fact that the question isn’t as confronting for me is the fact that I grew up in an all-Anglo family, myself being the only exception (and I’m 3/4 Anglo myself). Not coming from a family history of having our ‘belonging’ questioned, and growing up with as little awareness of racial politics as I did and unconsciously identifying as ‘white’ because that’s what my family was – I think has given me the privilege of security that those kinds of questions can’t diminish. So it is merely a tedium, rather than an offense.

    It’s important that I recognise that as a privilege, because for the many Australians of various histories who don’t have that privilege the question just reinforces the imposition of being ‘not Australian’.

  45. Amelia
    Amelia March 15, 2011 at 3:25 am |

    I’m glad you’re covering this aspect of ‘fromness.’ I wrote my take on British-based blog The F Word, inspired by your first two posts. Both were very interesting, but I felt like you were overlooking the elephant in the room (inherent Othering) until this post. Interestingly, it sounds like my experiences and your mother’s have been very different, probably because of the UK/USA differences. “What are you?” has never, to my knowledge, been an acceptable question in Britain, while “Where are you from?” is all too respectable and trotted out all too frequently.

  46. BlindGiant
    BlindGiant March 15, 2011 at 3:55 am |

    I’ve finally decided that “where are you from” is a healthy question. It annoyed me while growing up in Texas, and deeply annoyed me once I got to college (where I was slightly more insecure about fitting in, at first). I stopped being quite so irritated when I stopped in Iowa in a blizzard, and a woman checking me in to a motel asked, “It’s Indian, right?”

    She was legitimately curious, and what exposure had she had to brown people before then? Though, “No, where are you really from?” still irritates me, I try to think of it as an honest curiosity about people in general, rather than being singled out for my otherness. I know that this isn’t always true, but if I let myself feel wronged by these things, it makes me more hostile, clearly working against the world I want to live in.

    And, honestly, the people who don’t ask are sometimes worse.

  47. Amelia
    Amelia March 15, 2011 at 5:12 am |

    Sorry, terrible assumption to make! That surprises me though, I always assume UK and Aussie language will be more similar than Aussie and USA, but I have never heard “What are you?” or even anything close.

    I’m really glad the earlier posts were setting the stage for a more nuanced discussion. I was actually really frustrated after your first post, then when I visited your profile and learned that you’re a POC it made me quite angry. Isn’t that awful? But I just couldn’t imagine what privilege might have sheltered you to such an extent as “Where are you from?” is not an upsetting question. Now I’m really looking forward to the direction of the rest of your posts. : )

  48. Kaz
    Kaz March 15, 2011 at 5:42 am |

    Query: a lot of people are talking about the experience of feeling Othered. Does that differ depending on whether you read the person asking the question as part of the dominant majority/ someone who thinks they’re from “here” themselves or not?

    I’m asking because I’m realising I’m much, much, much more cautious about asking this question in Germany than I am in the UK, because I feel as if in Germany me asking the question would have the weight of “I am from here and I do not believe you are so I shall ask” behind it, whereas if I’m in the UK I always believed it came across more as “I am a foreigner who is curious about this land and the people who live in it.” It occurs to me that that might be a very privileged assumption to make.

  49. Amelia
    Amelia March 15, 2011 at 7:49 am |

    That makes a lot more sense. I read most feminist blogs as a feed with little attention to who writes which posts, so I hadn’t put your post into the context of any body of work.

    I’m not so sure about ‘assume nothing'; I think assumptions are natural and can be very helpful. Acting on those assumptions without acknowledging they might be incorrect, however, is very clearly where I went wrong. : ) This is actually a general issue of mine, I’ll keep working on it!

    I did receive your lovely email, thank you! Replying to it now…

  50. bonniesgirl
    bonniesgirl March 15, 2011 at 8:15 am |

    Great article. I’m an Army brat and have spent equal time in my life living in the Northeast (NY), Northwest (Washington and Alaska), the South and also Germany. I was bilingual for the first six years of my life and actually spoke better German than I did English (I can still speak simple German.)

    Where ever I may be, however, I never feel like I belong. If I am in NY people say, “You have an accent, where are you from?” If I’m in Washington I get asked the same question. The same goes for living in the South. It makes me feel like a geographic orphan when people ask me that question. It is seriously dehumanizing.

    About five years ago I came up with a solution: when people ask me where I’m from I have two responses:
    1. Where do you want me to be from?
    2. Earth

    Either of those responses throws the ball back in the inquisitor’s court and leaves THEM with awkward and uncomfortable feelings.

  51. Yonmei
    Yonmei March 15, 2011 at 8:32 am |

    Kaz: Does that differ depending on whether you read the person asking the question as part of the dominant majority/ someone who thinks they’re from “here” themselves or not?

    For me, yes, very much so. Ironically this goes by accent – someone who has the normal accent for this part of the world, asking me “so where are you from?” makes me feel distinctly uncomfortable no matter how nicely they ask it: someone who lacks that accent, as I do, or who in other ways does not appear to be part of the “dominant majority”, I’m much more likely to assume they’re asking out of sociability/interest – I feel much less uncomfortable.

    Of course sometimes the question is very obviously intended to challenge my politics “You have no right to feel that way, you’re not from around here” and I then feel caught between two rocks, because one, I think people shouldn’t have to justify their politics by where they were born : but two, I am from around here.

  52. Rainicorn
    Rainicorn March 15, 2011 at 8:37 am |

    I’m white, and currently living in Britain. As I mentioned in parts 1 and 2, I grew up in a few different places and my accent is an unusual hybrid. Sooner or later, people *always* ask about it; but it’s often phrased as “What accent is that?” rather than “Where are you from?”. White privilege in action, I guess. At university, “Whereabouts are you from?” was always a totally legit question, of course, with no unfortunate implications. Personally I prefer to learn about somebody’s fromness the same way I’d learn about the rest of their personal history: by having it come up naturally in the course of friendly conversation.

  53. bhuesca
    bhuesca March 15, 2011 at 8:41 am |

    Sorry this is so late to the party…I’m originally Bohemian/German, have lived within 300 Midwestern-US miles from my birthplace my entire life inc. college and grad school, and always get this question. Always! But 99% of the time it amounts to “maybe I know someone from your as-yet-unspecified hometown.”

    My husband is an immigrant from a Latin American country, manages a restaurant that has the cuisine of another Latin American country, and always always people assume he is from a third Latin American country (he never gets asked) and he is pretty horked off about it. He’d rather they ask than assume. But how do you say “NO I’m not X!” without being disparaging?

    Oh and I took his last name upon marriage which raises some eyebrows and when I am asked where I “get a name like that from” – I very cheekily say “my husband” and invariably they blush and the conversation ends.

  54. Thomas MacAulay Millar
    Thomas MacAulay Millar March 15, 2011 at 10:02 am |

    As longtime readers may be aware, I’m capable of talking the hind leg off a mule about the experience of white ethnicity. But Chally’s post is about the experience of ethnicity as a person of color in a majority white culture, which is quite a different thing. It highlights for me just how different ethnicity is for people of color in majority-white cultures. White people who are writing about their experience of ethnicity and belonging are all remembering that, right?

  55. RD
    RD March 15, 2011 at 11:30 am |

    Oh! I should add that I am also lucky that its not Othering to me.

  56. RD
    RD March 15, 2011 at 11:32 am |

    Just stressful and irritating.

  57. La Lubu
    La Lubu March 15, 2011 at 11:45 am |

    Thomas, not all white people are white in physical appearance. “White” is a political designation, not a physical descriptor. I’m pretty sure that all the cops that pulled me over for specious reasons were doing so because they assumed I am nonwhite (and had they bothered to do a license plate check, my last name reads as nonwhite also). In much of the US, black or very dark brown hair/eyes, olive skin, and facial features atypical of northern Europeans read as nonwhite. Which isn’t to say that it’s the same as *being* nonwhite…just that, it’s more complicated when one’s whiteness is questioned and/or under suspicion.

    Which is to say, not all “white” people experience whiteness the same way. There are degrees of whiteness. I grew up having the “good white Christian” parents slam the doors in my face as a child; telling me I couldn’t play with their kids, I should go play with “my own kind.” I’ve heard similar stories from other folks who are *nominally* white via the US census (whether or not they are considered *socially* white in practice). When “we” are questioned where we’re from, *by white people* it is almost always because we are assumed to be nonwhite. It’s a weird kind of liminal space.

  58. Skye
    Skye March 15, 2011 at 11:48 am |

    I’m caucasian-and blonde and blue-eyed, no less-and I get asked “where are you from” all. The. Time.

    And when I tell people I’m “Canadian”, I’m often met with derision, which infuriates me to no end. There is no “before”. I am what I am.

    Mind you, the “where are you from” question often comes from men, not women. I can only speculate on why this is. Maybe they have their own sexual stereotypes about Scandinavian women, and they’re hoping they’ve met one.

  59. Momentary
    Momentary March 15, 2011 at 11:57 am |

    I love this series, thank you for it, Chally.

    I’m a white (USA-ian) American living in London, where I regularly get asked where I’m from, especially by taxi drivers, but only after I speak. My first response is usually a slightly rueful “Yes, I’m American” because it feels to me a bit like getting caught with my American-ness showing. But then I usually find that the asker wants to know where in the USA I am from, either because they have visited certain USA cities or have friends or relatives there and enjoy making the connection, or because they take pride in their ability to identify regional accents.

    I myself really enjoy mutual discussion of family history and wish for a less loaded English phrase to use to invite it, since “where are you from?” has so many toxic associations. Maori whakapapa seems a bit like what I’m wishing for, although I’m sure my understanding of it is very shallow.

    I wonder what people in this thread would think of being asked “What is your heritage?” Acknowledging of course that context matters tremendously and any phrase can be used to ask the question in a nasty way.

  60. sophonisba
    sophonisba March 15, 2011 at 11:58 am |

    I don’t think it’s wrong to ask people about their origins.

    When there’s no racial power differential present, no, it’s no more wrong than asking a stranger about their marital status or their medical history. That is, if you’re someone with a strong sense of privacy and a disinclination make others as uncomfortable as they’ve made you, you’re going to meekly answer and silently resent the asker and their sense of entitlement. Like other personal information, it’s fine to volunteer, less fine to pry into.

    But no, it’s not wrong, unless rudeness is wrong.

  61. Tiferet
    Tiferet March 15, 2011 at 12:55 pm |

    WestEndGirl: As a mixed Jew, based in London, and mistaken for everything from Albanian to Iranian to Italian to Bulgarian via anywhere else you can think of covered by the former Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires, the odd thing for me is that I *never* get asked the “Where are you from?” question by white people, only ever by those people of BME or immigrant backgrounds.I would say that I get asked this on average once a week, since as long as I can remember.

    I hate the question.

    This happens to me all the freaking time. I am adopted. I have no idea what my ethnic background of origin is, though my dad once charmingly told me that no matter what anyone said, I was 100% white. (I have no idea what he meant by that or if it is true. It was a closed adoption and there was no father listed, where or if he got the info is anyone’s guess.) I have very pale skin, straight black hair and dark eyes.

    When I grew up in WV, as a child, everyone treated me as white, like my parents, so that when my father said this thing to me, it confused the shit out of me. I am going to guess that someone said something to him, but I never heard anything of the sort. And I never got asked this question, because in WV in the 1960s/early 70s, there was white and there was black and you could be either one and have “a little Indian blood” but nobody thought that of me because I am so pale. I never heard of “Hispanic” till the 80s when I moved to Kentucky and met someone named Estrada who told me that people were prejudiced against her because she was Hispanic.

    But all through my teenage years and 20s, whenever I travelled to larger cities, this happened to me. And whenever I travelled in foreign countries in Europe, people thought I was a native and asked me directions and stuff, often in languages I do not understand. (I got REALLY good at saying, ‘Sorry I’m an American’ in Greek.)

    Then I moved to California. In California this happens to me ALL THE TIME. “Where are you from?”

    “San Francisco.”

    “No, before that.”

    “West Virginia.”

    “No, really. Like where are your parents from?”

    “West Virginia.”

    “No, really?”

    “I’m adopted, okay? I don’t know. The people who raised me were from West Virginia.”

    “Oh. Sorry.”

    I live in a largely Spanish-speaking neighbourhood and sometimes, ladies will walk up to me speaking Spanish, which doesn’t faze me until they start refusing to believe I do not understand them. These elderly women (it’s always elderly women, I have no idea why) will ignore all the actual Latinas who are standing around the street to talk to me, and the only way to get it to stop is to speak Japanese back. Then, they look satisfied, and I can only imagine (now that this has happened a lot) that I have satisfied their belief that I cannot possibly simply be a native English speaker. (I don’t like doing this; I feel mean; but I can’t stand there all day trying to prove that I do not actually speak Spanish.)

    In Japan, people often took me for a local but that was okay because I could mostly understand them, except for the ones who got a good look at my face and figured it out and switched to English. Their English was invariably much worse than my Japanese, alas. The two funniest things that happened with that were the bunch of American students who were being really inappropriate on a train in the middle of the night, until a girl popped up to say “shouldn’t we save this for later? It’s kind of a private conversation” and one of the guys glanced around the train, stared at me for a few seconds, noticed the manga I was reading and shook his head, then said “nobody else on this train can understand us, it’s fine.” (I almost said, “I’m from San Francisco, check your assumptions” but I’m not an asshole and they were already being loud and disruptive enough.) The second incident was when I was followed, intrusively, throughout an expensive department store, and I finally realised (when they looked shocked that I had enough money to buy what I had been looking at) that they were looking at the way I was dressed and reading me not as “American tourist/student” but rather as “half-American street kid from the military base down the road” which was funny not just because I was American but also because I was 34.

    I get it that people like to make assumptions about other people and that it comes from a part of your brain you can’t easily turn off because it has in part to do with figuring out safety/security. I didn’t even mind the children in Narita airport who asked me a bunch of questions about myself because they were little kids and they had never encountered an obvious foreigner who understood what they were saying about her.

    But I really hate it when people won’t BELIEVE me when I say I’m not actually an immigrant and that I don’t know if I’m actually the ethnicity they think I am or not. IDK. I don’t mind questions from friends or friendly acquaintances, but this information is not actually the business of every stranger on the street.

  62. Oh, the places I’ve called home | Katie Kuksenok

    […] really loved this Feministe post, and the comments beneath it. This is largely in response to that series and […]

  63. Verity Khat
    Verity Khat March 15, 2011 at 1:28 pm |

    @Chally: Oh, no, it’s fine! I need to be educated! I’m just really sensitive to Othering people due to personal experience, so don’t mind my wibbling.

    I actually get asked “Where are you from?” quite often (in all my obviously Anglo-descended pastiness), because I completely lack a regional accent. (The last 14 years of Georgia, USA has only added a fondness for the word “y’all” to my vocabulary.) I’m “from” a collection of places–born in California, grade school in Virgina, high school in Georgia, university in Florida–so experimentation has taught me that “I was a Navy Brat” is the easiest way to satisfy people. (Of course, then they make a whole *different* set of wrong assumptions about my life, but they keep those to themselves, ha!)

  64. RD
    RD March 15, 2011 at 1:46 pm |

    Yeah people talk to me in different languages than english all the time, usually Spanish but also (I think?) eastern european languages or language, or maybe Russian, I’m not really sure.

  65. Jadey
    Jadey March 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm |

    No amount of semantics is going to fix someone who’s just being an asshole, but at the very least the question, “Are you from here?”, providing it is not asked at a inappropriate time (e.g., immediately after “hello”) or in an entirely incredulous tone of voice, does not contain the same implicit assumption as “Where are you from (because you can’t possibly be from here)?” Being a close-ended rather than open-ended question, it also puts less onus on the person queried to divulge anything more than a “no” or “yes”.

    But still, for those still bent on asking this question, remember that it’s not just the question itself, but the possibly thousands upon millions of times that someone has asked this question to this person before you and just how exhausting that might be, especially for someone who can’t give the “desired” answer.

  66. Natalia
    Natalia March 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm |

    The thing that always gets me in the States is hearing “but you speak English so well!” after going through the whole “where are you from?” thing. Like, why are you so surprised, bitch?

    (Flames, flames on the side of my face, etc.)

  67. Kristen J.'s Husband
    Kristen J.'s Husband March 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm |


    I find that infuriating. I recognize that they are simply trying to be helpful, and it must be equally frustrating for non-English speakers in the US to have eveyone default to English. Still, I wish they wouldn’t assume I do not speak English. (Or point to a SIGN that says they don’t speak Spanish when I walk into a store.)

    Generally, I try to laugh about it. I even had shirt made (that I do actually wear) that says “I’m Japanese” in about 20 different languages. Sadly, people stop me and say “Really?”

  68. Thomas MacAulay Millar
    Thomas MacAulay Millar March 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm |

    La Lubu, yes, the margins of whiteness is a fascinating topic, and AFAIK have always been contested terrain regardless of complexion and hair color. I recall some Victorian English pseudoscientist inventing an “index of negrescence” to argue that the people of the Celtic Fringe, mostly the Irish, Welsh and Scots (particularly the folks form the West of Scotland) were less white than the English. To US ears that may sound absurd, but understood within the political context in which he was operating and in the context of the history of the Atlantic Isles, it was no joke.

  69. WestEndGirl
    WestEndGirl March 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm |

    I’d be interested to know, Thomas, since you are so clear to cut the lines between: “white people who are writing about their experience of ethnicity and belonging” and “the experience of ethnicity as a person of color in a majority white culture”,
    …where exactly you put my experience?

    Because, in the British context, it doesn’t fit into either. We don’t have a clear cut black/white binary, we have our own issues. A little USian perhaps?

  70. Sarah
    Sarah March 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |

    I’m white and female. When I’ve been asked “where are you from?” really meaning “what’s your ethnicity?”, it has always been by mixed-race or 1st-or-2nd-generation immigrant people, generally guys who are interested in sleeping with me. I’ve lived in New York City most of my life, and I think it has something to do with the “buffet approach” to sex relations, where you sort of type people sexually based on ethnicity/nationality, and also with living in a city where so many people retain strong cultural connections to other countries. I don’t get offended by the question, I just see it as another way people try to get to know each other. I guess I’d feel differently if they then started picturing some negative stereotype.

  71. WestEndGirl
    WestEndGirl March 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm |

    Chally, I’ve just come back in (and really enjoying the comments), in terms of your comment/question: “I wonder how much of it is people of the non-dominant background having themselves been subject to that question, and how much fellowship and interest, and how much other things I haven’t thought of…”

    I really don’t know myself. Sometimes, I think (and hope!) it’s fellowship and a way of reaching out, but sometimes it can feel very very threatening.

    There is something around Jewishness and classical anti-Semitism – where people have accused Jews of deliberately hiding among people for nefarious purposes aided by the very fact of our ethnic/racial ambiguousness – that the line of questioning makes me feel very uncomfortable. It feels like people are trying to figure out what I am, like I am trying to deceive them. I’m not sure if it’s historical memory, but it does NOT feel good. At all.

  72. Miranda
    Miranda March 15, 2011 at 7:28 pm |

    The first time I really came across this issue was at university, where, as mentioned by several posters, “where are you from?” is a frequent and less loaded question. I put it to a new acquaintance, a girl with dark skin and hair, and was taken aback when she responded with uncertainty – she said something like, “do you mean where are my family from, or – ?”

    I said something like “oh, no, just um… where you lived before here,” but I think that experience has made me extra-cautious about the question. I have asked it when talking to people I already know who clearly have a foreign accent, but only within the context of a conversation, not out of the blue. And I am actually shocked that anyone would ever say “what are you?” or continue to probe after someone has given their answer.

    I myself am English and live in California, I have white skin, and I am frequently asked “where are you from?” because of my accent. I do not mind it although I do find it odd when people start to make disparaging comments about immigrants to me and then qualify it with “oh, but I don’t mean YOU – you’re ok.” Of course I know exactly why I’m viewed as ‘ok’, but it still irritates me.

  73. saurus
    saurus March 15, 2011 at 7:38 pm |

    Really interesting post & thread. Thanks, Chally.

    I’m ethnically “ambiguous” and I can’t think of a person I’ve met who hasn’t asked me where I’m from or “what” I am. I’ve had people stop me in the street just to ask. I was even asked yesterday, actually, out of the blue. When I offer up my information without being asked, there’s always an exchange of glances and then they say something like, “Oh, I thought you were (X)”, or “Oh, when I first saw you I thought you were (Y)”, and I realize they’ve been privately wondering it all along, but afraid to ask.

    As a kid, I always assumed I look unambiguously white. I had a white-looking family and I lived in a white region and it really never occurred to me that I looked mixed-race (which I am). So even though I got that question a lot as a kid, I never understood what it implied. I assumed the asker knew I was an out-of-towner, so I named a nearby city, and no one was ever audacious enough to persist.

    It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized I looked different: a (rare) person of color from my very white area asked me where I was from. When I named a nearby city, she blushed and repeated her question, until I realized what she meant.

    I didn’t feel bad about it, because she seemed so relieved and delighted to have found me; two lone people of the same color living in an intensely racist white space. I still remember the look on her face, an excited, longing expression, like she didn’t want me to leave. No doubt the sense of shared identity was to some extent built on hope and generalization, but it was my first taste of ethnicity as something that could adhere me to others, instead of cutting me apart from them. I still feel edgy in spaces that are too homogeneously white, like I’m expected to blend in as much as possible, or like if we were all stranded on an island and had to resort to cannibalism I might be the first to go. It’s not that I think they’ll hurt me; it’s that I think they don’t know what to do with me.

    I also have a lot of experience in diverse POC-only circles, where that question is trotted out a lot because a) almost everyone was an immigrant, so you could safely assume that almost no one had been “from here” for more than five years – and b) there was a friendly interest – instead of a sense of privacy or intimidation – around each other’s cultural and ethnic identities. We were all different from each other, so no one was cast as “more different” by virtue of their race or homeland. In these spaces, it felt okay to be “from” different places or of a different ethnicity, because that sort of difference was normalized and appreciated instead of othered or exoticized or imbued with creepy crawlies.

    Anyway, while that question doesn’t bother me personally, I can see why it can. Above and beyond the nasty implications of who gets asked this question and who doesn’t – of who is seen as “more X” (in which X is your nation), and of the connotations of “from” – it’s also worth reiterating that what brings us “here” can involve violence, warfare, racism, diaspora, abduction, genocide, and so on. It can rub salt into a wound.

    I mean, I know the answer people are looking for when they ask where I’m from, and I’m okay with telling them, and they’re always satisfied. But the truth is, all I know is that one word – the country’s name. I couldn’t locate it on a map, I don’t know how my family came from there to here, and I’d be really fucking uncomfortable if asked why I know almost nothing about where I’m “from” and aren’t inclined to find out.

  74. Tony
    Tony March 15, 2011 at 8:41 pm |

    Part of the anxiety of this question for me is that sometimes I really can’t tell what kind of answer they want. Should I answer domestic or exotic? If I get it wrong, I end up looking either too embracing or not embracing enough of my ethnic background.

    The question doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, because even though it is Othering, and making explicit privilege when asked by someone from a majority culture, and therefore rude… I know that someone who would ask such a question sees me as the Other regardless, at least at that moment. And I would rather know than not know. Sometimes it allows me to acknowledge and take a little bit of ownership over it. Like, “yeah, I am an ethnic minority of this background, there it is. We got that out of the way. Now let’s move on?” A lot depends on context and what kind of follow-up there is.

    Sometimes I am more bothered by invisibility. Once I was in a seminar with 15 people, and one of the students made a racially insensitive comment and then half-acknowledged it but remarked “we’re all white here,” as if that excused it. Forgetting that I am not obviously white and sitting right there. Even years later, the triple whammy seems so much more offensive than at the time, when I was too humiliated to even speak out. But I was more upset at having been rendered invisible and forgotten about than even what was that was said.

  75. isitisabel
    isitisabel March 15, 2011 at 8:54 pm |

    I get asked where I’m from all the time — usually right after I say my (unusual, “ethnic”) last name.

    I also have an “unusual” last name that isn’t obviously a certain ethnicity. However, when I get asked about it (fairly often) people usually form the question in reference to the name, not to myself. It’s effectively the same, because I feel compelled to add “my dad’s parents are from Mexico” after I answer, so as not to give the impression that I’m Spanish.

    I don’t often get asked “where are you from” questions except in the context of being at a college with a nationally diverse student body, and those questions about my name’s origin. Maybe because I’m of mixed-race origin and I look pretty “white.”

  76. Hinemoana
    Hinemoana March 15, 2011 at 11:23 pm |

    Ones origin and family history is hugely important in Maori culture. Many Maori can trace their lineage back to the first colonising waka. Maori often ask each other where they’re from. And they ask non-Maori too. It’s not to say ‘I’m from here, you’re not’, it’s to ask about the history of that person and what makes them who they are. Hell, I’ve asked people I KNEW were born in New Zealand, where they are from, and had them reply along the lines of: ‘I think most of my family originally came from England, except one from Germany and my great grandpa married a Maori lady. We’ve owned farmland near Nelson for three generations.’

    I myself get asked where I’m from almost as soon as I open my mouth. While I look white, I don’t have an accent anyone* recognises -my family were sea gypsies so I was raised in several different countries, and have kept portions of the accent from each.

    The whole concept of Other-ising someone with question is somewhat foreign to me, as I’ve always been the foreigner. I’ve spent half my life in New Zealand but I still don’t consider it my home. Having been raised a sea gypsy, my home has always been that little dwelling where one’s family lives, and the place it’s situated was rather irrelevant. I’ve never felt like I ‘belong’ in a certain country or city. I don’t care about that either. I AM an Other. I always will be.

    … But I understand that most people don’t feel that way. Especially in North America, apparently. So I will refrain from asking such questions in situations where I might be perceived as the white-local-who-views-you-as-foreign. Also, I will try my best not to assume a non-white-looking person isn’t local in a predominantly white region. Or vice versa.

    *Well, except for a freakish taxi driver who asked where I was from because he recognised bits of each accent when I spoke. The guy should have been a linguist.

  77. RD
    RD March 16, 2011 at 3:42 am |

    Kristen J.’s Husband:

    I find that infuriating.I recognize that they are simply trying to be helpful, and it must be equally frustrating for non-English speakers in the US to have eveyone default to English.Still, I wish they wouldn’t assume I do not speak English.(Or point to a SIGN that says they don’t speak Spanish when I walk into a store.)

    Generally, I try to laugh about it.I even had shirt made (that I do actually wear) that says “I’m Japanese” in about 20 different languages. Sadly, people stop me and say “Really?”

    I’ve never had anyone point to a sign like that. Generally the people who think I am spanish/latina are latin@s. White people (and many black people) tend to read me as “white ethnic.”

  78. Joji
    Joji March 16, 2011 at 3:48 am |

    I’m white, born and raised in the US, and have lived in Italy for over a decade. The first question I get isn’t “Where are you from?” It isn’t even a question, it’s “Hey, you aren’t Italian!” (it can sometimes take a minute to hear my accent). This a-ha business, like they’ve caught me out somehow, is pretty annoying, but would be even more so if I decided to request Italian citizenship.

    Of course, if my parents were from China or Senegal, it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference if I were born in Prato or Livorno and were a native Italian speaker with my town’s unmistakeable local accent. No one I’d just met would think of me as Italian. If I were run over by a bus, the headlines would find it important to specify “Chinese girl run over by bus”. And the government would agree that I’m not Italian, because there’s no jus soli here; actually, the idea of jus sanguinis is so strong that someone born and raised in another country, who doesn’t speak a word of Italian, just needs one well-documented Italian grandparent or even great-grandparent to claim Italian citizenship (not to request: to demand). Whereas the kid from Prato who has never set foot in China will risk expulsion when she turns 18 unless she plans ahead and gets a residency permit.

  79. comelovesleep
    comelovesleep March 16, 2011 at 5:04 am |

    I don’t think it’s wrong to ask people about their origins.

    And yet here are all these people telling you how uncomfortable it makes them.
    I have a friend who refers to it as ‘being Rottweilered,’ because it’s almost always in the same frame of questions as you would ask someone about their dog. “What is it? Rottweiler and Greyhound? I thought so, you can tell by the shape of the head!”

  80. Yeny
    Yeny March 16, 2011 at 6:24 am |

    This question is the bane of my life. I was born and raised in London. I consider myself a Londoner. I’m not from anywhere else. I don’t care what I look like to you, or that both my parents were born in Colombia and that my grandparents and almost all of my family are Colombian (that’s two ‘o’s people! there is no ‘u’ in Colombia), I’m still a Londoner. I don’t care that I’m not white, or that I look different to your conception of what a British person looks like. I’m still a Londoner, and British to boot.
    Also, for the love of all that is shiny and good, once you become aware of the fact that my parents are Colombian don’t then ask me if or when I plan to ‘go back to’ Colombia!!
    Having said all of this, the fact that my family is Colombian has played a big part in the formation of my identity and it continues to be a big part of who I am, it’s just not the part that you’re ascribing to it.
    Phew, got that off my chest.

    As for what I look like, I have to say that at no point have I ever been considered white, and definitely not(!) by any white person, but it’s just not as clear to them which ‘other’ I belong to so they have difficulty deciding which neat little box to tick in order to label my ‘different’ looks.

    (I also love that fact that middle class white people sometimes think I have a slight ‘accent’, meaning an ‘ethnic accent’. I feel like screaming at them ‘it’s a working-class accent, you knob!’)

  81. matlun
    matlun March 16, 2011 at 11:40 am |

    NewMe: I don’t think it’s wrong to ask people about their origins.

    I would agree. But as should be very obvious from the above thread, getting this question will be a negative experience for some people. As usual there is no short and simple answer, you need to use your judgement and have social awareness.

    While I would not say that this question is “othering” in the sense that there is no derogatory implication, there can still be the implication that the person asked is assumed to be out group which can be bad enough depending on the situation.

  82. arimel
    arimel March 16, 2011 at 1:21 pm |

    I actually get this a lot as a white woman, albeit one who is half-Anglo and half-Eastern. I have enough of the stereotypical look that people will ask me where my family comes from after I tell them my name. I have a standard American first name, a Czech middle name, and a supremely English last name, so, to be fair, I can see where they’re coming from. My mom especially looks very different from most people you would meet in Houston, which although racially diverse tends to be very Anglo like a lot of the South.

    It is a little weird, though, how many people decide that my family must be Russian, because actually Eastern European people look very different from each other, so I think it’s just something that people assume about any white person that doesn’t look totally Anglo. In Lithuania I look like most people on the street, but no one in Russia would think I was Russian at all–we actually look really different from each other. It doesn’t bother me (except when strangers I’ve never met try to start up a conversation by guessing my ethnicity) but I guess that’s because nobody ever questions that I’m anything but 100% American. And, also, that I like talking about my family history.

  83. Amanda
    Amanda March 16, 2011 at 1:36 pm |

    When I was younger, i used to dye my hair a very dark blue-black. I’m of Irish decent, with very straight thick hair. Working one night at a restaurant in northern Georgia, I had a guest ask me, “What tribe are you from?”
    What tribe? (obviously refering to the native american people found in the area) Seriously? Even though I’m white, I remember being offended that he felt this was an appropriate question – that he would feel that I should explain myself to him in any way.
    Even years after I’ve lost the black hair and reverted to a bright copper shade, I tend to get asked questions of this sort alot. Although they generally start with “Is that your natural hair color?” and then moving to “Where are you from?” – Neither question I feel is appropriate for a complete stranger to ask.
    So I feel that if you have any remarkable feature people will try to root out the “cause” of that feature – and we’re not just talking accents or appearance. I get asked questions about the “meaning” of exposed tattoos (which is my biggest peeve). People just are over-busy-body even if they don’t have any intent latent in their questions. On the whole, I’d say people just need to learn not to ask any personal questions of people unless the people broach the subjects themselves…

  84. Katie
    Katie March 16, 2011 at 5:30 pm |

    White people on this thread – it’s not the same thing. It’s not the same to get the “where are you from?” that’s irritating, or annoying, or makes you roll your eyes. I’ve been getting madder and madder reading this, as one white person after another talks about how they have brown hair and TOTALLY get this all the time, or they’re from Tennessee or whatever.

    It’s infuriating as a person of color that my experience of constantly – CONSTANTLY – being othered, being told in every indirect way that I don’t belong here, that I wouldn’t know what everyone’s talking about, that my only worth is as conversational stepping stone for someone else’s teach-English-in-Korea experience or Korean food obsession, that before someone even knows my name they’re entitled to my race/ethnicity/parents’ races – and the racist jokes and street harassment and sexual innuendo and pain of erasure or exploitative interest and even the resentment it causes within communities and BETWEEN Asian Americans – that this is all flattened into your belief that because you’re a white person with brown hair, that our experiences are similar and that we’re all somehow relating on this thread, because, deep down, we’re all…..just folks.

    Here’s the abrasive POC telling you it’s not ok, and that we’re not relating, and that you are nowhere near understanding my experience, ever.

  85. RD
    RD March 16, 2011 at 7:31 pm |

    Ummmm I said “brown hair” because I was saying that my hair looks very white in the sense of race, but that it is not actually white in the sense of the color white because it is actually brown.

  86. RD
    RD March 16, 2011 at 7:42 pm |

    And while I don’t identify as a POC, I also feel like it kind of elides/glosses over my ancestors who were not white to identify as 100% white.

  87. RD
    RD March 16, 2011 at 8:05 pm |

    Excuse me??? Screw you. I don’t even “read” as white to a lot of people.

  88. RD
    RD March 16, 2011 at 8:07 pm |

    Excuse me? I don’t even “read” as white a lot of the time.

  89. RD
    RD March 16, 2011 at 8:09 pm |

    And you know why when I do read as white I read as “white ethnic”? Its not because I’m actually “white ethnic.” Its because of the non-white parts of my family tree.

  90. RD
    RD March 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm |

    Anyway from what I’ve read you have blond hair and blue eyes, so I’m guessing you have some mixing in your background yourself.

  91. thetroubleis
    thetroubleis March 16, 2011 at 8:13 pm |

    Thank you Katie and Chally.

    No, being asked about your last name’s origin generally is not like being freaking othered.

    FFS, I’m an adoptee and my parents were often asked which African country they “bought” me from, because of course I can’t be a Black American, who would bother to adopt on of those.

    I constantly am treated as if I am not a “real Mainer” because of the color of my skin, despite the fact that I don’t even remember my birth state, because I was two months old. Recently, I’ve had people assume that I don’t speak English, because a sizable portion of Maine’s black residents are refugees from Somalia.

    When I introduce myself or mention that my parents are white, I get asked what my “African” name is. Because obviously, Africa is a country with only one language, culture and common set of names.

    So white Americans, please, tell me more about how hard it is being you.

  92. RD
    RD March 16, 2011 at 8:19 pm |

    This one time I was walking down the street and this guy was doing the street harrassment thing, in english, and could only see me from behind. When I glanced back he looked startled and switched to spanish, and when I kept ignoring him he switched back to english. Then he switched back to spanish again…and finally I got to the subway and he stopped freaking following me. Shopkeepers, other people on the street, and so on and so forth, all the time.

  93. RD
    RD March 16, 2011 at 8:21 pm |

    And I don’t have an odd last name or accent either.

  94. RD
    RD March 16, 2011 at 8:29 pm |

    I think maybe you missed the part where I said I am NOT eastern european, I am NOT portuguese, I am NOT jewish.

  95. Elisabeth
    Elisabeth March 16, 2011 at 8:42 pm |

    I can’t speak for all the white people on this thread, but I don’t think being Othered as a white person is in any way as hurtful or carries the same baggage as being Othered as a POC. However, I DO know what it is like to have everyone assume I am a foreigner in my native country. And…I mean, literally, everyone. Every single time I meet someone new, I have to go through the “where are you from? no. where are you *really* from? no, your English isn’t good enough to understand my question. where are you *really, really* from??” ritual. Every. Single. Time. Being asked to show your green card as a matter of routine is not the same as being asked where the origin of your name is from. Being spoken to very slowly and loudly in your native language with lots of hand gestures because people take one look at you and assume you don’t speak it is pretty freakin’ Othering. Having random strangers commenting upon and touching my hair and other features may not have the same baggage as it would if I were, say, black, but I don’t see how my white skin makes it magically not disturbing. Again, I think the Othering has completely different connotations as a white person, but it doesn’t mean I’m not Othered. If this thread is about being assumed to be a foreigner in one’s native country, then I don’t see how my experiences are irrelevant, even if I can acknowledge they are completely different and less hurtful than they would be if I were a POC.

  96. Elisabeth
    Elisabeth March 16, 2011 at 9:06 pm |

    Fair enough. I think what’s hard is when people write things like, “you white people don’t know what it’s like to experience being a foreigner in your native country” since it conflates several things, like 1) being Othered in general, and 2) being Othered as a racial minority. I understand the sentiment behind it, but (aside from the problem telling people what their experiences are like) it seems to conflate between being an ethnically marked minority and being an historically stigmatized ethnically marked minority. Being white doesn’t always mean generically blending in to the majority, even if it does mean benefiting from white privilege. The initial post seemed to be about both aspects of Othering, since the focus was on foreignness and who gets seen as a foreigner, not about on race specifically.

  97. Ouyang Dan
    Ouyang Dan March 16, 2011 at 9:23 pm |

    Anyway from what I’ve read you have blond hair and blue eyes, so I’m guessing you have some mixing in your background yourself.

    So, RD is banned, fine, but I feel it apt to make a couple of points:

    1) This sort of crap? None of anyone’s damned business to begin with. Non-white people have features that don’t read as stereotypically non-white all the time. Anyone who is not that particular person does not get to decide if a person is or is not properly presenting as non-white/PoC. We are not required to Play a Role.

    2) I personally have some triggery-feelings to being called “mixed”, as if someone is talking about me like I am a poorly-bred dog or some such. I can’t speak for every non-white person/poc, but that is me. Mixed-race/mixed-ethnicity just sounds better, and takes only a few more keystrokes. Jeebuz.

    3) Being a mixed-ethinicity person myself was a painful experience for me because people always felt like they got to tell me how I should identify (You’re white, deal with it), and made up cute nicknames for me (“wopajo”). When asked where my family was from (because I have a very “Northern” accent), and I say “Michigan”, they laugh, but my family has always hailed from the region that is present day Michigan, except the side that isn’t Native/First Nation, which we know very little about. Either we were “too white” to really be “from” here, or we were too Native to be white.

    I have a few choice things to say to people who presume to toss things around like “so you are mixed”. But I’ll keep those to myself.

  98. Ouyang Dan
    Ouyang Dan March 16, 2011 at 9:38 pm |

    I will be collecting your NWW card and toaster-oven for you not having appropriately dark hair and eyes. I will also be sending you mine for the great crime of my skin being too light and my hair not properly silky and straight.

  99. Dorian
    Dorian March 16, 2011 at 9:53 pm |

    Chally, thank you for this thread and for your later comments in it in particular. I can’t personally speak to the experience of being challenged on where I’m from, because I’m “fortunate” (and yes, those air-quotes represent bitterness) enough to be near-constantly misracialised as white. So I don’t have a story to share here myself. But seeing how dominated the thread was by white voices, I was really quite uncomfortable.

    @OYD: I am really uncomfortable with “mixed” as well. With me it`s also kind of weird because being Métis is not really the same as being Indigenous and white in the general sense? It’s a pretty specific cultural/ethnic group in and of itself. And one it’s hard to describe without resorting to descriptors like “biracial”, which I personally am not a fan of, because, again, being Métis is a very integrated thing.

    Colonising language, with its mandate of sorting and classifying people, really is not well-equipped to deal with the complexities that can accompany racial identity.

  100. Kristen J.
    Kristen J. March 16, 2011 at 10:07 pm |


    I’m very sorry that you are feeling hurt by this thread. M is making dinner, but I know he has found this thread very cathartic as he’s going though a tough transition. [Okay, I don’t think he’d use those words…but I’m taking some life partner liberties.] So from both of us, thank you for taking on a difficult subject in what turned out to be a difficult space.

  101. Ouyang Dan
    Ouyang Dan March 16, 2011 at 10:12 pm |

    @Dorian: Totally. I get you there. Apart from physical markers, language (and accents) define the way people try to compartmentalize and “other” people for their own convenience, so I imagine it adds a layer of complexity to the way you define your own heritage, and the way it is technically defined as well.

  102. comelovesleep
    comelovesleep March 16, 2011 at 10:54 pm |

    Chally — Thanks for this. My (single) earlier comment was probably not very productive, but as a multiracial chick who is flat-out sick of people everywhere, several times a week (on the bus, at the park, in the grocery store, at work, walking down the street, waiting in line to get movie tickets) asking me where I’m from, what I am, or “which parent is which,” as if it matters whether I get more Asian from my mother or my father, I have to say I really appreciate posts like this. I posted it around and have been having some interesting discussions with friends over it (some of whom get it, some of whom don’t). Thank you for advancing communication.

  103. Kristen J.'s Husband
    Kristen J.'s Husband March 17, 2011 at 12:16 am |


    Let me personally add my appreciation. I think sometimes its hard to express how different the experience of racism in the US at least is from xenophobia, classism, etc. The simplest way I can put it, is that often the question of fromness isn’t just “othering” in the sense of not belonging or being unwelcome. Rather, it is itself a method of putting a person in their [racially inferior] place, sometimes with an implied threat.

  104. Maggie
    Maggie March 17, 2011 at 12:36 am |

    I’m white and I get that question all the time too. Generally people assume I’m American because my accent is kinda erratic. (In turn, I’m much more likely to wonder where someone’s from based on accent than skin.) However I was born in the USSR so I do actually have an answer for that question, and I enjoy talking about it, so it’s obviously not the same as your situation. I usually follow up by asking the same question in return, half out of politeness and half out of general interest, even if they’re white, on the basis that everyone’s family came here from SOMEWHERE at some point, and unless they’re Aboriginal it was probably recent enough for them to have a story about it. I don’t think I’ve ever been the first one to bring up the topic, though, now that I think about it. Although I did have an awkward moment once when I asked a friend from Singapore what her first language was, based on the accent, because I didn’t know what a Singapore English accent sounded like. (hint: sounds kind of similar to an Asian fluent second-language English speaker. oops!)

  105. Maggie
    Maggie March 17, 2011 at 12:38 am |

    …shit, I skipped the middle bit of the comments and posted before I read the white-people-dominated-convo thing — feel free to delete my comment? gotta learn to read the whole thread first *facepalm*

  106. Natalia
    Natalia March 17, 2011 at 5:18 am |

    In Lithuania I look like most people on the street, but no one in Russia would think I was Russian at all–we actually look really different from each other.

    I think it’s important to note the vast gulf between what is considered a Russian ethnicity and how that is “traditionally” manifested and the very different ways in which Russian people, i.e. those who live in Russia, will look. In the States, my mother would regularly be told by well-meaning (?) busybodies stuff like, “But you don’t look Russian at all! You’re too dark!” She’s a Don Cossack so she just looks “dark” to people who think that Russian = blue eyes and light hair and very white skin. Same with my husband – the Cossack blood manifests itself a certain way (it didn’t with me, I wonder if it will with our son), and people looking at our wedding pictures have gone, “But he doesn’t look Russian!” Um, the fuck?

    One of my aunts also reads as “non-Russian.” I’ve gotten that before – the “she couldn’t possibly be Russian!” stuff coupled with the, “your grandmother must’ve cheated on her husband with some Chinese dude while they were living in Khabarovsk! Haw haw!” It’s oh-so-hilarious when it happens. My aunt doesn’t look different from a whole lot of people who have traditionally lived in key places along the Volga, which is where my grandmother is from, but once again, if we construct a very specific, narrow Russian identity, this is what we get stuck with.

  107. Theresa
    Theresa March 17, 2011 at 12:33 pm |

    Amanda: When I was younger, i used to dye my hair a very dark blue-black. I’m of Irish decent, with very straight thick hair. Working one night at a restaurant in northern Georgia, I had a guest ask me, “What tribe are you from?”

    I think you could almost stop right here and have a great point. I’m not making excuses, but I suspect that we don’t evolve as fast as we think we do. There must be some reason why people keep asking this question, aside from just being @$$holes. People are still behaving as if everybody is supposed to live their whole lives and die in the same village, and air travel and large geographical displacements are rare enough to be remarked on, instead of just part of life.

  108. Miranda
    Miranda March 18, 2011 at 12:57 am |

    I am sorry that RD resorted to such hurtful personal comments towards you – not only was it unnecessary but completely overrode the whole point of the thread discussion, that pigeonholing people according to their physical appearance is misleading, Othering and (often) racist.

    I think that the reason so many white people (including myself) have responded with their stories is that you clearly touched on an issue that affects many people in their daily lives, people of all ethnicities, races, and nationalities. “Where are you from?”, just in itself, is often such a pivotal question around our perceptions of ourselves, as well as those we know and meet, and also has so many other connotations in terms of preconceptions we may have about people.

    I completely appreciate your motivations in wanting to make this discussion specifically, or largely, about the issues people of colour have in being Othered through this question. I would respectfully suggest that, given the universality of the issue, perhaps it might be a good idea to state this explicitly upfront? That way it is clear that while of course everyone’s story is of interest, you are wanting to prioritise those of people who, as we know, often see their stories misrepresented, ignored, or marginalised.

    I think it is essential to provide a space for stories such as these, but people of all backgrounds are bound to be enthusiastic when an opportunity arrives to talk about themselves! I think a clear pointer as to your intention would help.

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