The question can be “othering,” people of color say
The question can reveal more than the answer.
President Trump reportedly pursued the dreaded “Where are you from?” line of questioning last fall with a Korean-American intelligence briefer, sources told NBC News, proceeding to ask where “your people” are from and querying an adviser why the “pretty Korean lady” wasn’t negotiating for his administration with North Korea.
“His idea that it should just define someone’s thinking and career expertise … it was just really demoralizing,” Mieke Eoyang, vice president of the National Security Program at the D.C. think tank Third Way, told Moneyish. “It just felt really familiar.”
“Where are you from?” by itself might indicate mere curiosity, said Eoyang, a Chinese-American born and raised in California. But a subsequent “Where are you really from?,” she added, can convey that “this person’s mental math of what it means to be in this country doesn’t include someone like me — that I am an outsider in my own country to that person.” “It’s as if somehow the origin of genetic material,” she said, “defines some kind of ongoing characteristic about you.”
Born-and-bred Columbus, Ohio resident Aren Carman’s mother is from China, he told Moneyish, while his father is a “white American.” So the Ronald McDonald House volunteer coordinator relies on a familiar script: Where is he from? “Columbus, Ohio.” What nationality is he? “American.” But what race is he? “Mixed, two or more.” “If I answered the question ‘Where are you from?’ immediately — even though I know what they’re getting at — and say, ‘I’m Chinese,’” he said, “that diminishes my status as American and allows people to assume that I don’t know what it means to be American.”
Omid Safi, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center and the son of Iranian immigrants, answers the “Where are you from?” question with his birthplace — Jacksonville, Fla. — or North Carolina’s Triangle region, where he has spent the majority of his life. But an insistence upon that line of inquiry shows an “assumption that a North Carolinian or a Floridian or an American can’t possibly look like you and me,” he said.
“If you go back far enough, of course, every single person who is not a Native American either moved to this country as an immigrant or was brought here in the belly of slave ships,” Safi, who aired his distaste for the question in a column for the website On Being, told Moneyish. “Somehow, people whose heritage and ancestry is English or German or Italian — they don’t keep having to answer four generations down the road where they’re really from.”
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Eoyang, who responded to Trump’s alleged remarks in a Politico op-ed titled “I’m From America, Mr. President. Where Are *You* From?,” says she has even watched organizations self-sabotage by forming assumptions based on appearance. A U.S. admiral in Japan, she said, once sat through a meeting assuming Eoyang was a translator rather than the congressional staffer who could address his military personnel policy needs. “I looked too young; I looked not American to him, whatever,” she said. “And so he lost a valuable opportunity to convey what he needed from Congress in that moment, when he had the chance to do so face to face.”
You can typically tell by a person’s tone whether the question was borne of curiosity or “because they don’t think you’re from here,” Eoyang said. For Tanzina Vega, an Eisner Fellow at the Nation Institute born and raised in New York, it comes down to who’s asking and how they’re asking. When Vega taught English in a small South Korean town, for example, one student’s question, “You’re not white; you’re not black — what are you?” didn’t offend her. “I challenged her view of what an American looked like, and it wasn’t any fault of her own,” said Vega, whose parents are Puerto Rican. But things get “tricky,” she said, with a superior or in a professional setting in which you’re already “the only person of your racial or ethnic background.”
“It can be a conversation that just kind of comes up naturally, or it can be something that feels very ‘othering,’” she said. “I think that race being fair game early on in a conversation, particularly when there’s a different power dynamic at play, can be really unsettling. And I think people who ask those questions should really look at the intention in asking that question.”
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Safi, in deciding whether to engage, relies on his sense of “the energy, the aura, the feedback” a person puts out — and usually only gives them one chance. “If you’re asking the question to say, ‘Should I be scared that you’re from one of those bad countries?’ then I owe you nothing,” he said. “If I sense an opening and a curiosity and a genuine ‘Please educate me’ … I may share things with you.” Carman looks for “nonverbal and situational cues” that indicate whether a person is being rude or inquisitive.
Overreacting to the question, Carman added, can “make you seem like the instigator”: “I feel like we’re just in a position in general as minorities to take … anything that might seem prying with more grace than the person asking the question,” he said. “Which isn’t fair; it’s just the state of affairs.” “Being offended by it doesn’t help the interaction in the moment,” said Eoyang. “I don’t think shaming the other person helps them understand.”
While the question is “not necessarily uncouth to ask,” Carman said, it “shouldn’t be the first thing you ask someone — and it should probably have some bearing on what you’re talking about before you just raise that question.” Vega seconded that order of operations: “I think it’s a question that people really need to … (be) sensitive about, and should probably wait a little bit until they’ve established more of a rapport with the person,” she said.
“I don’t have any problem talking about my culture, my ethnicity, my race — I’m very proud of it,” Vega said. “But there are moments when I just don’t want to have to have that conversation, particularly in an environment like where we’re in today … If I say I’m Puerto Rican, is that going to lead to a long conversation about the impact of Hurricane Maria that I may not want to have right now?”
Eoyang, for her part, eagerly awaits the day when minorities read her op-ed and can’t relate to it. “If it didn’t ring true for so many,” she said, “I wouldn’t be so troubled.”
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