Mondays are starting to become my days of sharing lil’ thoughts or mini rants to you I guess! This week I want to touch upon the topic of race and ethnicity. There have been countless times throughout my childhood and up to today where I have been asked the question of “where are you REALLY from?”. The hidden question being: what kind of asian are you? I’m positive that so many other minorities have gotten this question in their lifetime. Not only is it NOT okay to ask about someone’s ethnicity/race in this way, it also triggers the underlying tone of implying that we don’t actually belong here.
This week’s lil’ thoughts comes from a conversation I had with two older men who live in my apartment building. While being in the elevator with them, they started to strike up a conversation with me. Harmless in all and consists primarily of small talk. And as the conversation went on, one of them asks “where are you from?”. From experience, I knew what he was referring to. It doesn’t take much to realize that I am obviously not caucasian. But a part of me always wants to act dumb and play along when people ask this question. Perhaps it’s my years of encountering this question and feeling uneasy that I want to pass some of that feeling along, but I want to somehow believe that I am “instilling” a form of lesson in how people phrase questions. I answered “well I am originally from upstate New York”. And of course, it prompted the typical follow-up question of, “No, no, but where are you REALLY from?”.
Over the years this question has activated various emotions within me. In the beginning it was confusion. I was born here. I am an US citizen. This has been my only home. Where else could I be from? I was constantly blind-sighted by the question and didn’t even think about what their underlying question was at first. So of course, I would have to continue the conversation asking what they meant and their response would be another scripted line “like where are your parents from?”. Granted, my parents did immigrate here from another country so when it got to that point of the conversation I finally understood what people wanted to get at. But what if my parents didn’t? There are plenty of people who have parents that were also born here…what do they say then?
As time has passed, the confusion has transformed itself into anger and then frustration. Many of you reading this might say, “but Jen, it’s harmless question to ask”. My answer to that would be yes and no. It is definitely okay to ask about someone’s ethnicity. Humans are by nature curious animals after all. But it’s not okay to ask it in a way to make another person feel out of place or at times stupid. Yes, stupid because the question comes with a side of you know what I mean and a smirk. No, I never knew what that question meant the second or third time someone asks it and I still don’t, BUT society has conditioned me to read underneath the physical words to find the hidden meaning. I don’t hear the words “where are you REALLY from” but rather “what is your ethnicity”. The surface level question seems innocuous really, but it’s all in the underlying tone.
The question of where are you from signifies a home destination for me. For people like me, home is HERE, in the United States. While our racial ties may go back to other countries, this place is all that we know. The objection that comes from this “but where are you REALLY from” is directed towards my sense of belonging. So stop asking the question “where are you REALLY from” and start phrasing the term better. The transition is not hard! This form of micro-aggression towards minorities is not okay to instill in our society. The underlying prejudiced attitude we emit can be controlled in the words we use to speak with others. It isn’t about being sensitive or overreacting, but about fixing a real social issue that can also help combat racism. If we all belong here, truly, then use words that reflect it.
A million and one thanks for reading – until my next lil’ thought then!