‘Where are you from?’ is a red flag. A warning sign. It prepares me for a conversation I would rather not have. It tells me that white is the default.’ Ciara Dunne
‘The colour of my skin and the curls in my hair are not invitation for you to comment, touch or play a guessing game. These parts of my identity should not be the things you are focusing on. I am so much more …’ Matisse Laida
‘I responded the way I always do: with a smile, I try to see it as a compliment. I don’t think it’s offensive if asked in the right context.’ Maya King
A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference. I was perusing some booklets when a voice next to me said ‘Where are you from?’. I started telling them about my organisation, but they stopped me mid-stream and said ‘No, what part of the world. What is your background?’.
Thing is, I used to get asked this question regularly when I lived in a rural part of England. It would take up my time and patience. The question would be asked over and over again on different occassions while waiting for a bus, going shopping, using a library, attending lectures or joining a new workplace. I used to think why would anyone ask someone that question unless they were thinking about becoming their friend? I mean curiosity is one thing, but asking someone (a stranger) about their origin is a whole other kind of entitlement.
Anyway, back to the recent conference … someone else mentioned the same thing. She said she is routinely asked ‘Where are you from?’ and finds it difficult because she was born in the UK and doesn’t know anywhere else. When she tells them that, they push it further going ‘Okay. But where are you really from?’.
For most of us we come to realise that the underlying theme to the question ‘Where are you from?’ is to place us as the ‘other’, to question our right to be – people aren’t asked at random. It’s only directed at those who look ‘different’ from the perceived ‘norm’ and/or those who have a different accent. And, unfortunately, it is asked pretty frequently, in different ways, so it can get tiring. I often tell myself that the intent of the person asking, is not always to intrude or be oppressive or to undermine my confidence about belonging, it is perhaps genuine curiosity sometimes.
If you need a few examples of how the question can impact on someone’s psyche, have a look at this Australian initiative called ‘Where are you from?’. It documents the wide range of feelings and responses from those at the receiving end of the question. I found it empowering to read, illuminating and it provided me with an insight into how connected we all really are. I also highly recommend the resource to Equality Trainers.
Sources for this post