The Problem, and Possibility, in Asking People of Color ‘Where Are You From?’
Your curiosity does not take precedence over another person’s comfort
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 the language or dialect spoken there. Sometimes it’s laughable and awkward; sometimes it isn’t.
When natural defensiveness leads you to politely return the same question, the White person usually responds that they don’t know. Or they reference being “American” or “vaguely European.” Their curiosity seems only to extend outward, to your origin and ancestry and not their own.
You know instinctively that this exchange only happened because you are a person of color or you speak in accented English. The entire interaction centers on ancestral identity and ethnicity in only their most general terms. You’ve learned nothing about the other person and you don’t feel they’ve learned much about you.
Why people ask the question
This question can be dangerous because it creates an impulse to highlight Americanness and neutrality. In the U.S., our recent political climate has been hyperintent on labeling and classifying individuals. The seemingly harmless question of “Where are you from?” can and has been used as a weapon. Even if the person asking it has the best of intentions and a genuine interest, it can feel threatening to the one being asked.
Those who feel compelled to ask these questions should reflect on their impulses and work to unpack their conceptions of what “American” means. If their question is met with defensiveness, they should try to understand why — and they should be respectful enough to not press past someone’s resistance to answer. In other words, back off and remember that your curiosity, however well-intentioned, does not take precedence over another person’s comfort. What’s more, if a person is genuinely interested, they should be bold enough to ask the questions they really want answered: What is your ancestry? What is your ethnicity? Where are your ancestors from?
I’m always more than happy to wax poetic about being Jamaican American, but if someone asks me where I’m from, I’m likely going to answer “Massachusetts.” That’s the truth, but I know it doesn’t always satisfy their curiosity.
“Where are you from?” is a colloquialism. It’s become shorthand for asking about ethnicity without having to acknowledge that ethnicity and differences exist, an acknowledgment that seems to make White people uncomfortable. But when the question is a cover for, “Where are your ancestors from?” or “What is your ethnicity?” it can be triggering for people of color. Until we achieve greater cultural understanding and a more inclusive and realistic acceptance of what it is to be American, triggering other people in this way is often hurtful and never helpful.
Questions like this highlight differences and otherness. They are rooted in a narrow conception of Americanness that has excluded people of color for deplorable and inhumane reasons historically and even now. The question is premised on the idea that an American is an English-speaking Anglo person with European ancestry who can’t necessarily point to a specific ancestral immigration to the United States going back at least a few generations. The question fails to acknowledge that every White American person is also the descendant of immigrants as well. The question excludes Indigenous Brown people from the narrative entirely. For many, it’s endlessly frustrating that no matter what our passports and birth certificates say, we aren’t seen as “American” despite long intergenerational legacies of presence and cultural profusion.
Why we resist answering
For complicated reasons, people around the world see American citizenship and identity as protected and desirable statuses. Many first-generation immigrants and their communities want desperately to assimilate and align with Americanness because of the socioeconomic advantages that can result.
People of color often feel compelled to stifle their ancestral identities and minimize their otherness.
Often, for many people of color, this pressure to assimilate carries with it an implicit willingness and desire to promote and highlight White proximity — or to highlight distance from Blackness. We rarely acknowledge how deeply racist and connected these impulses are. This racism is dangerous to other groups who are perceived as less White. It perpetuates the forcing of all non-White people into a racioethnic hierarchy that is highly toxic and deeply problematic. We know how troublesome this is, but by now we also know the pressures and oppressions that make minority groups behave this way.
This reality creates an impulse for people of color and immigrant groups to “pass” or “nearly pass” whenever possible. As an act of self-preservation, they feel compelled to stifle their ancestral identities and minimize their otherness to align more closely with Americanness and Whiteness. We can’t singlehandedly deconstruct the underlying pressures that cause this impulse until we embrace our own otherness, yet the pressure to assimilate persists. And it will continue to persist and be passed down to our descendants.
In the absence of Whiteness, proximity to Whiteness has been an invaluable tool for socioeconomic advancement in the United States. Aligning with Whiteness and distancing from Blackness—whether in terms of race, phenotype, or other markers—has historically allowed many non-White immigrant groups to advance. This advancement sometimes occurs at the expense of other groups that are less able to do so. The racioethnic hierarchy generally places Blacks; immigrants, especially non-White immigrants from the global South; and non-English speakers collectively and intersectionally at the bottom.
Given that context, it’s understandable that we’d resist answering this question. Still, refusing to answer questions about ancestry — trying to “blend in” and be accepted as American without further consideration of our histories — harms others who may be perceived as “different” and “less American.” By indirectly accepting and highlighting White proximity and Americanness at the expense of our ancestries, people of color become complicit in enforcing the racioethnic hierarchy. This reinforces the inequitable treatment of people of color and does nothing to challenge conceptions of what an American is—which must be our goal if we wish to truly deconstruct the impulses behind this line of questioning.
Why answering matters
We know our stories are part of American identity—and should be. To make them more generally accepted, we must share them. When we don’t celebrate our ethnic and racial ancestry, and instead align ourselves with Whiteness, we do nothing to challenge these hierarchies or to incorporate our varied legacies into the American fabric.
Of course, these very differences — being non-White, immigrant, and/or non-English speakers—make our stories invaluable to the discourse around American identity. Sharing them helps to build a more diverse and inclusive nation and conception of Americanness. We have to push back our own discomfort if we want to move the story of America and being an American forward.
This doesn’t mean we should make ourselves uncomfortable. Nor is it our collective responsibility to educate White people on how to engage with us. Generally, when forming relationships, people primarily seek to establish common ground. We want to establish amity and trust. When someone we’ve just met focuses on our differences instead, it can feel challenging and confrontational. If this makes you uncomfortable, feel free to exit the conversation or engage in it however you feel best and most comfortable. But it might be worthwhile to educate the questioner on what it is to be an American—and to challenge the narrative that underlies their question.
On the other hand, that discomfort and our resulting defensiveness does nothing to promote our own integration into American society. Because we live in a country that tends to idealize Whiteness, we must recognize that our reflexive shutdown may also reflect a subcontextual desire for proximity to Whiteness that says, “I’m not that different from you.” This is of course true on a human level, but it’s not true in a lot of other ways.
Many people of color, excluding indigenous Americans and the Black descendants of enslaved people in the United States, are the descendants of immigrants from the last 50 to 150 years—and that isn’t something to be ashamed of. We should wear our immigrant roots as a badge of honor. For many of us, our ancestors, whether in the far distant past or as recent as our parents, came here and made lives for themselves and created legacies for us. We should try to speak more proudly and eloquently about that instead of trying to blend in.
We should be unashamed of being non-White, or being non-native English speakers—even in a society that tends to value the antithesis of those things. We should not be willing to downplay our differences, including ancestral ones. Highlighting those differences is a form of resistance to the exclusionary narrative that defines America.
By presenting our unique cultural backgrounds as part of the American narrative, we decenter Whiteness and/or intergenerational American citizenship as the only ways to be a “real” American. We leave room for future immigrants and their descendants. We challenge the racioethnic hierarchy. When we fail to acknowledge our differences, we do nothing to challenge the underlying assumption that America is a White, intergenerational citizenship based country. That perspective is increasingly outdated, and data shows this is changing and will continue to do so.
As someone of Afro-Jamaican descent and from the Caribbean, I have a unique perspective on this. In my experience, fellow Caribbean people and African people are especially proud of being of Caribbean and African descent. Of course, many reasons behind this are complicated and problematic as they relate to intentional distancing from the Black American identity.
I look forward to people asking me where I am from, but I try to only highlight my background when it won’t come at the expense of other Black or immigrant people. The question usually comes up not because of how I look but because of my family members’ thick accents. I delight in sharing my cultural heritage—sometimes offering it up before the question is asked, if it feels safe to do so. I am all these things—Black, American, the child of immigrants—and I wear each with varying degrees of pride.
When we share our culture and heritage, we normalize them. We decentralize any specific American narrative in favor of a narrative that includes all lines of citizenship and identity. In the words of Langston Hughes, we must, “too, sing America,” but an America that includes all of who we are. This very act of being counted benefits and challenges the entire cultural discourse around who we are as a nation and who we are becoming.
More people should take this attitude. We should seek less to assimilate. We should feel more blessed to be vessels for our ancestors’ stories and legacies until they, too, are as American as apple pie.