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…