Where are you from?

The “What Are You?” Game

I would call it the “Where are you from?” game, as this is the question that plagues me, but as a mixed race person I do indeed play this game, with equal parts resignation and reluctant enjoyment. Want to know my family’s ethnic background? You’re going to have to earn it, and the more obnoxiously you ask that question the harder I will make you work for it.

However, the asker usually has such a lack of self-awareness and respect for me and my identity that he/she gets frustrated and irritated with me for daring not to answer a question to which I am awarded legal protection not to answer! “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” is the most common refrain, but even once I swallow my pride and tell them what they want to know I am frequently treated with exoticism, condescension or, worst, disbelief.

EXOTICISM: “Ah, yes, I can see it now! India is such a beautiful country, isn’t it? My son went backpacking there and told me such wonderful stories. Let me tell you some…”
CONDESCENSION: “Why are you learning Japanese? You should learn Bengali. Have you ever heard of this celebrated Bengali writer? How about this one?”
DISBELIEF: “Hmm. Those Spanish eyes tell a different story…”

The common thread in each of these responses is that these people are telling me what my identity should be. I have had to endure numerous lengthy rhapsodies about a country I have no interest in, and lectures about the greatness of a culture I will never be a part of. I have gone to the trouble of telling people, in detail, what my family’s background is only for them to tell me that I must be mistaken. Here’s a hint: if I go to the trouble of explaining to you, in detail, my family’s ethnic background and you dismiss that, I will be fuming. And you will deserve it.

A note on people asking “Where are you from?” because they can’t place your accent: I’ve experienced this type of “Where are you from?” too, and the results involve nowhere near as many “Sure, that’s what you think, but this is how your identity SHOULD be! Let me tell you at length how wrong you are about your own identity!” responses. In my opinion, if you are a native English speaker being mistaken for American/Australian/Welsh/whatever, then these are not equivalent situations. (The situation is obviously different for, say, Eastern Europeans making a life for themselves in the UK, but they don’t need me to speak for them.)

I have had friends – white, middle class friends – tell me that I overreact to this question. I can explain myself and provide examples and anecdotes until I’m hoarse (this is a REGULAR EVENT, I was mostly recently asked ONE WEEK AGO) but I still just end up close to tears with a friend who is being entirely obtuse at best and self-righteous and patronising at worst.

It is a privilege to be able to choose your own identity and have other people respect that identity. This is applicable not just to people of ambiguous race but to people of ambiguous gender, sexuality, people in relationships that do not conform to heteronormative monogamy. To have that identity questioned, dismissed, distorted into something it is not is offensive. I wish I could convey that to my middle class, white friends who seriously need to check their privilege, but I’m not teaching Mixed Race 101 to people who think they’re overqualified for the class, because the only thing worse than being told that attacks on your identity don’t matter is being told that your concerns about attacks on your identity don’t matter, by people who care about you.

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4 Comments

Filed under check your privilege, ethnicity: other, the personal is political

4 responses to “Where are you from?

  1. Karishma (Kari) Reddy

    I feel the same way I always wonder if a guy likes me for me or my ethnicity!

  2. Exactly. I’ve actually had more of an issue with it from the other side, i.e. “I bet [Guy Who Likes My Blonde Best Friend] would actually like me if I were white!” Sometimes I think that’s been true, especially with Japanese guys I’ve known, but sometimes it’s had more to do with my friend being flirtier, more confident, genuinely clicking better with the guy, etc. The point is that being ethnically ambiguous makes you suspicious if you get attention and suspicious if you don’t.

  3. johanna

    Oh yes. I hate when people want to know “where I’m really from” & then tell me all about it. *shudder* Or… rather, I find it infuriating when white people do it. I’m half-Filipina & half-white, & often I find other people of color asking me what I “am.” Sometimes I definitely get the impression that they want to know if I’m “one of them,” which I can understand. (Sometimes when it’s Filipinos they want to put me through an authenticity test — which I almost always fail — which is another story…)

    In my opinion, if you are a native English speaker being mistaken for American/Australian/Welsh/whatever, then these are not equivalent situations.

    Yes, I definitely agree. Such a different dynamic.

    I’m from the US but now living in the UK & I am never quite sure, when people ask me “where I’m from,” if they want to know if I’m from New York (b/c apparently people keep thinking I sound Canadian) or if it’s that more usual dubious question underneath (about where I’m “really” from) — or both.

    My partner, who is white, says that he doesn’t get asked nearly as much as I do — though I don’t know if that’s b/c his accent is less ambiguously from the US, or…

    • Sometimes I definitely get the impression that they want to know if I’m “one of them,” which I can understand

      Oh, I REALLY understand this! To be honest, the majority of queries about my ethnicity that piss me off are from POCs, obviously with exactly this question in mind. I don’t look quite Indian enough to merit an authenticity test, and usually put an end to that line of questioning pretty quickly, but I have had people come up to me speaking in some non-English language and looked visibly irritated when I didn’t understand. That said, it hasn’t happened for about ten years, so maybe racial awareness has improved in POC communities in my hometown since then?

      I haven’t experienced the “What are you?” question at all in my life; I don’t know if it’s more of a US-based question or if I’ve just been lucky, but I hope never to be asked that, because “Where are you from?” is obnoxious enough, and I don’t want to think about how I’d cope with somebody essentially questioning my very humanity!

      Your partner’s accent may well be less ambiguously from the US, but don’t you find that your ethnicity distorts expectations that people would normally have? He is white therefore he MUST be American. You are not white, so you might be a native speaker, but you might also just have got really, really good at English. That seed of doubt is probably enough for people to be more curious about your background than about your partner’s, and it’s my opinion you’d not be asked as much if you were white.

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