Humans 101

The Problem, and Possibility, in Asking People of Color ‘Where Are You From?’

Your curiosity does not take precedence over another person’s comfort

Bridgette L. Hylton
Human Parts
Published in
8 min readFeb 23, 2021


Painting of many colors.
Photo: marthadavies/Getty Images

Recently, a friend of mine asked me why people of color often get defensive when White people ask where they are from. She had a new friend whose heritage she was unsure of. She genuinely wanted to learn more about him and asked where he was from. Her question led to a disagreement, hurt feelings, and offense on both sides.

For people who don’t fit the stereotypical social expectations of an American identity—whether because of their skin color, accent, or any number of factors—this question can come up a lot.

And it’s almost always a White person who asks.

If you reply, “I live in California” or “I was born in Boston,” the person will double down: “No, I mean where are you from?”

This line of questioning continues until the asker has pried out whatever country or region your ancestors came from—no matter how far back your ancestors migrated to the U.S.

At times, this devolves into the questioner saying they know someone else from there, or they’ve vacationed or studied there. They may even attempt to pronounce a word or phrase in…