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"Where are you 'really' from?" Ask Away

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I read an article on CNN the other day by Tanzina Vega. It was titled “Where are you ‘really’ from? Try another question”. Just by the title of it, and being a person that has been asked that her whole life, I knew where this article was headed. And for all her talk of being exhausted by “that” question, I was seriously exhausted by this debate. The very common idea in left-leaning circles that she was perpetuating is that asking people about their backgrounds was somewhat of an offense. A “microagression” of sorts. And that people should avoid asking such things because of underlying racist themes behind the question.

I could write a whole dissertation about why Vega is wrong, but quite frankly, I wouldn’t be the first to approach this perspective either. Opinions are really split down the middle on this issue and advocates of both camps are quite stubborn. And both sides can make a valid case. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to explain to a complete stranger the entire history and background of my people. Much like Latinos, people from where I’m from are ethnically diverse. We’re Black and Asian, but most of us just consider ourselves “Malagasy”, the people from the island of Madagascar. Therefore I understand the complication that comes with narrowing down your whole person to one preconceived notion of “race”. But I honestly do not mind the question as much as she makes it seem as though people like me do. I’m not offended because people are genuinely curious, which Vega admits to herself. And when it comes to the idea of “race”, people are increasingly accepting of the idea that humans aren’t always of one specific race. That’s why I would like to give my opinion, which is all it will ever be, because in the postmodernist era that we live in, my opinion does not superpose someone else’s opinion, neither does it speak for others. So I concede that my statement might not carry out too far into the world, but I like to think that some people will listen nonetheless.

There is a statement in the article by a Columbia professor that I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with and it is this: “The impact to the person receiving that persistent questioning is that you are not a true American, you are a perpetual foreigner in your own country”. If in fact you were born in America, and your family has been in America for generations (for example Native Americans or Black-Americans) but it just so happens that you don’t quite fit the image of an average white American, you have every right to be upset at that question. The only thing we can hope for is that soon that image will change, especially with the increasing representation of ethnic diversity in the media. However, I completely disagree with this article when it calls for people to stop ever inquiring about someone else’s background. You can always assume that the people asking you this question are asking you this question with malicious intentions. But there is never any harm in giving them the benefit the doubt. And be honest with yourselves: how many times have you just seen someone, read their name, heard their accent, or heard them speak in another language, and you have wondered out of sheer curiosity where this person is from? “White people” have been asking each other this since before people of color started showing up in bigger numbers in their cities. If an American asks another American where they are from, the assumption is that that other American is not from the region because they have a different accent, or they act differently from everyone else there. Of course, they won’t say: “I’m American”, they will say something like “I’m from Georgia” or “I’m from New York”. I always ask people that I meet where they come from not because I’m suspicious of them, but because I just find other humans and their stories fascinating.

Which leads me to the second reason why I think this narrative is flawed: people should never want to hide their background. I once asked my friend if she was offended when people asked her where she was from and she told me no because she was proud of being an Arab of Palestinian and Lebanese descent, which I think really underlines the importance of why people shouldn’t hate the question like they are told to by the media and people like Vega. Whenever someone asks me where I’m from I will always say I’m Malagasy, and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever feel bothered to tell people about their origins. When I meet someone from another country, one of first things I want to learn more about are their customs, their history, their language, etc., because it is so damn interesting to learn new things about a culture you don’t know much about. I also ask because I know from my own personal experience, some people are flattered when you inquire about these things, and their national pride will often show. Some of those “white people” that we reproach so much are often the proudest to claim they are of Irish, Italian, or English descent. So I really don’t see anything wrong with explaining our own lineage as immigrants and people of color.

Finally I would like to address awkward referencing to hate crimes and racial discrimination in her article. She seems to infer that in a race-sensitive environment right now where tensions are high and people of color are routinely targeted for acts of violence, the question of “where people are from” somehow solicits more of these deplorable assaults. I’m sorry but in what world is a person asking about someone else’s background insensitive to such acts? Do you see white people going around asking people of color where they are from, while then holding them at gun point? Of course not, because as I have already established, most people mean no harm whatsoever when they ask that question. I live in Canada so maybe I don’t quite understand racial tensions as well as an American, but Canada is still a predominantly “white” country. Canada’s history is still tainted with Native American genocide and racial discrimination. So tell me how it is that demeaning and calling white Americans things such as the “Nice white people” is somehow going to fix race problems in America? You don’t get to replace an injustice with another injustice.

So yes, I guess I prove Vega’s point when I say I ask people where they are from because they look different than the typical “blond hair, blue eyed” American, but I hope I have also proved to people on the receiving end of that question why it should not be met with hostility. In any case, embrace that question because it means that people are genuinely interested in who you are. And you should always be proud of who you are and especially where you come from, whether that’s only America, or America and somewhere else in this huge and diverse world.

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