Where are you from?

The relentless racist question.  Doesn’t it just do your head in?

Lots of people – most with greater experience of racism than me – have written adeptly on this already.  I’m not going to recover that ground.  If you’re not sure why it’s racist, or want a reminder, or think it might not be, have a google or check out this for starters.  Instead I’m going to cover a secondary aspect of its racism: the assumption that there is a single answer.  As a preamble, I’m going to describe some of the various forms of privilege which I wield, which make my experience of this question different, and much better, than folks without those privileges.

So: I’m mixed race.  In some environments, I’m read (or raced?) as white – the more urban, the more diverse and the younger the environment, the less likely it is that the white people will ask me where I’m from or otherwise comment on my race.  Growing up in the very-white countryside, however, meant being othered and facing racism on a much more regular basis.  People occasionally even assumed that I was ‘from’ Africa, that being the only or main place they knew non-white people ‘came from.’

Since then, interactions involving ‘where are you from?’ have generally pissed me off less.  People have been more respectful, are sometimes satisfied with my replying with the name of the town where I live, without asking ‘yes, but where are you *really* from?’ or other such racisms.  They often expect answers involving Mediterranean countries or South or Central America.  If I give the answer that they were really getting at  – my non-UK family heritage – they’re much less likely to follow up with a racist comment.  Generally I have felt safer and less othered.

Why?  I gained some age privilege, and being asked by people who raced me as white or whiter certainly improves things.  People assess me as really not *that* other, so they probably feel less of a need to interrogate my otherness, put me in my place, exoticise me, etc.  But I think my class and education privilege has a huge amount to do with it.  In those aspects, I occupy a position which people are trained to respect, so their racism is less likely to be overt and aggressive.  Privilege along other lines, which prevents people from categorising me as ‘other’ ‘less than’ or downright ‘freak’ can’t hurt either.

So, personal evidence of the political (#1): disprivilege can be mitigated by privilege along other axes.

Side note: So far, I’ve been talking about white people asking this question, when of course it is asked by non-white people too.  Sometimes this comes from a place of race privilege or colour privilege, in which case similar ideas probably apply, but when it doesn’t, but I see this as a significantly different phenomenon.  I attribute those causes and effects not to racism, but to seeking solidarity, the desire to categorise, and perhaps internalised racism.

With this privilege, I have been able to conduct an interesting mini-experiment.  When I am feeling particularly kindly towards whichever wazzock is asking me where I’m from, I ask them to guess.  I have compiled the following list: (* indicates particularly common guesses)

Eastern European
Greek
Indian* (and various Indian subgroups)
Iranian/Persian
Italian
Jewish
Mediterranean
Mexican*
Moroccan
South/Latin American*

No-one has ever guessed any of the three ethnicities actually involved in my heritage.  Personal evidence of the political (#2): the idea that you can tell where someone “comes from” by looking is bullshit.

More tellingly, and more hurtfully (for me), no-one has ever guessed any kind of mixed heritage.  It’s possible that this is because mixed=bad and therefore people avoid suggesting it out of fear of causing offence, but I think it’s probably more due to the fact that mixed-ness is just totally off most white people’s radars.  It also erases histories of multiple migrations.  Even the very phrasing of the ubiquitous question, ‘where are you from?’ assumes that ethnic identity can be pinned to one discrete location.

An additional explanation shows one reason why mixed-ness is so often off the radar: one-drop ideologies.  This is the idea (and law) that any amount of racially ‘other’ lineage trumps the person’s white lineage: that you’re either wholly white or wholly other.  In this way, mixed-ness is acknowledged in ideas and laws, only in order to redefine and erase it, to maintain the fiction of discrete racial categories.

Personal evidence of the political (#3): mixed-ness, though statistically quite ‘normal’, is not normative.

So there you have it.  My experiences of ‘where are you from?’ have revealed the question’s racist assumptions and effects on people raced as non-white, although beyond my childhood, this has been largely mitigated by my other privileges.  But it has continued to revealed the racism of assuming single ‘origins’ and ethnic identification.  So: two interdependent kinds of racism, one privileging certain groups over others, the other maintaining the fiction of the rigidness and thereby appropriateness of those boundaries.

Stealing from Serano’s distinction between ‘traditional sexism’ (men are superior to women) and ‘oppositional sexism’ (male and female are “rigid, mutually exclusive, ‘opposite’ sexes”), I was thinking of calling the latter kind of racism ‘purity racism’.   This would refer to the subsection of racist ideologies which uphold the fiction of discrete races and the normativity of non-mixedness, which is crucial to upholding the major racist ideologies privileging whites over non-whites and other racist hierarchies within that.

So for example, when I’m asked this question by someone with darker skin than me, this is not an example of racism, but, when phrased to assume a single origin, probably is an example of purity racism (or internalised purity racism).

But I’m not sure.  Readers with experience: what do you think?

5 responses to “Where are you from?

  1. Whenever anyone asks my dad this question, he says “America.” Shuts them up every time. He is mostly Italian (and therefore people assume Mexican, due to skin/hair color) and I turned out blond & blue-eyed so people never assume we’re directly related.

    I don’t really think this question is always racist, not even unintentionally. Some people are genuinely interested in another person’s culture. Also I think that the bias against mixed race is more for simplicity’s sake–for the same reason that dating books don’t have section in the back labelled “in case you’re gay.” People ask about the ethnicity they presume you are most, instead of asking “are you X or a combination of X and Y and Z in various percentages?”

    Frankly, I’ve never liked the emphasis on origin in the first place. Yes, culture is important and fascinating, but culture and race are two distinct and different things these days.

  2. I sincerely hope you don’t think this negatively about all white people. I can assure you, if I ask where someone is from, especially here in Europe. it’s because they have said something that has peaked my interest about where they are from, it has absolutely nothing to do with race.

  3. Being asked where I am from by another English person really angers me. When telling them the town you live. They get confused. If a person asks this question it really reflects that they can not except you as part of there s ethnically pure society. Because they view you as being different to them.

    But on the other side a lot of people of other ethnic backgrounds have asked me where I am from too, this does not bother me.
    Because they tend to choose their words better, Where does your name come from, or where is your family from.
    It is the way I am asked that bothers me, not just the question.

    The question is not how we, persons of duel heritage, view our self but the question we need to ask is how does British society view us.

    • ephemeradical

      Exactly. The question, when coming from white people, is less often about how we see ourselves, but how that person can fit us into their view of society and race.

  4. I used to ask people with cool accents where they were from, assuming that their cool accents indicated they were more interesting than the locals, but I got so many negative reactions from POC (I had no idea why at the time) I had to stop, especially when it turned out a woman with a cool accent grew up in the same town as me. (Her parents were from elsewhere.)

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