Sunday, July 14, 2024

Why White People Should Stop Asking “Where Are You From?”

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I have many stories that follow a similar script, but one particular instance still burns in my brain. I was in college, on a spring break trip to Florida with some friends, and we were ordering bagels. It was first thing in the morning, but the sun was already hot as it streamed in through the shop’s windows. A man with white hair and a thick beard shimmied to where we were standing in line. He leaned in, his smile curling, and asked:

“Where are you from?”

I took a step back, surprised initially by the fact that anyone was talking to us at 8 a.m. But then the weight of his question sunk in, and I jerked away, stuttering “Uh, California,” before pushing my friends toward the cashier and rushing out.

That question I’d heard many times, but coming from him — out of nowhere and for no purpose other than he had looked at me and wondered it — made my skin crawl. I could still feel his warm breath next to my ear hours later. And I can still see the yellow plastic of the chairs in the bagel shop, glinting with sunshine, as my day suddenly darkened.

“The other problem with the question, the more insidious, is that it instantaneously others us.”

A simple question like that shouldn’t feel like a violation. But if you’re like me and have endured that question for your entire life — from acquaintances, cashiers, even boyfriends’ relatives — then you know how it can rattle you, can test your own sense of your identity. I know getting asked this question is a universal experience for many other people of color living in America — women, usually, and often Asian women. And when this question comes from an older, white man, it’s hard not to feel stereotyped, exoticized, even fetishized. Ultimately, regardless of intent, it’s almost always a microaggression.

In these instances, my answer is always the truth: I am from California. I was born there to a mother and father who were born in Hawaii and New York, respectively, and decided to settle somewhere in between.

Of course, I know that isn’t the answer they’re fishing for. They don’t want to know where I’m from, they want to know why they can’t quite place my ethnicity, given that my features don’t fit into a stereotypical box. It’s too long and private an explanation to tell strangers, so I stick to my answer: California. And then I’m often pressed, “No, but really, where are you from?

When I say, “I’m from California, really,” some will drop it.

Others will keep pressing: “No, I mean, where are your parents from?”

To which I reply, “They’re from the US, too.”

There are many problems with asking, “Where are you from?,” but one is that it’s asking for a neat answer, something that can be summed up into a short quip. I’m not in the business of minimizing my identity for someone else’s comfort. And every time I’m asked, it makes me wonder: what right do we have to know strangers’ personal family history?

I feel deep pride in my heritage, but I choose to tell the longer story on my own terms: my mom was born to a family of Japanese coffee farmers in Kona, HI, and my dad was born to a mother who immigrated to the US from Japan in her 20s and a father who grew up Creole in Louisiana. These legacies have shaped so many aspects of who I am, in big and small ways I’m still uncovering today, and maybe that’s why I feel the need to fiercely protect the truth when the question feels violating. It stings to realize that people probably look at me and want to categorize me as solely Japanese, or maybe part white.

The other problem with the question, the more insidious, is that it instantaneously others us. That’s why the question feels so jagged, even insulting: it always implies that I’m not from here. And that, in turn, implies that I don’t belong here. It’s a reminder that no matter how I see myself, the world sees me as something that deviates from the norm.

Even if folks asking claim to be curious, it’s worth interrogating what exactly there is to be curious about. The question is ultimately for them. It allows them to stop wondering and put us into a box — and assert that they’re the ones who dictate who belongs in this country. I’m sure for immigrants and first-gen folks, this aspect of the question is all the more painful. It doesn’t matter if the person asking thinks they have good intentions; simply by asking, they’re saying the xenophobia out loud. At least I can claim having been born here, to parents who were born here; it gives me a certain level of privilege in those skin-crawling interactions.

I do get asked the question less often than I did when I was younger, and maybe that’s a sign of progress. In fact, the last time someone wanted to know about my background, I was getting a haircut, the stylist’s hands gentle as she cradled my head. She started combing through my hair, landing on the tight waves that frizz up at the sides of my head. “Girl, what’s your mix?,” she asked, and told me hers. It felt worlds away from that interaction in the bagel shop. We were reclaiming, together, what it means to be from somewhere and right here.

Lena Felton is the senior director of features and special content at POPSUGAR, where she oversees feature stories, special projects, and our identity content. Previously, she was an editor at The Washington Post, where she led a team covering issues of gender and identity.

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