Where are you from?
No where are you from originally?
No, no. Where are you really from?
Ah. There it is. You want to know why I wrap this scarf around my head, and why my eyebrows are thick.
This person is not interested in knowing that I carry Old Bay in my purse or that I was raised to hate Jersey (sorry Jersey friends!). They see that I don’t fit what they think an American should look like, and they want to know why.
Where are you from?
It’s an innocent enough question, especially living in D.C., where almost no one is actually from D.C. The issue is the tone changes ever so slightly when it’s being asked to a person of color or anyone wearing religious garb. And, more often than not it’s followed up with “but where are you really from?”
Here’s the thing. It is not an innocent enough question. The problem is people like me get this question on a regular basis. It starts to wear you down. It starts to make you feel like you don’t belong in the land of the free and home of the brave.
“The problem is people like me get this question on a regular basis. It starts to wear you down.”
Let me tell you something, fellow brothers and sisters. You do belong here. It doesn’t matter if you are white, a child of immigrants, or an immigrant yourself. You are here, and you therefore belong here. You call this country home; therefore, it is your home.
When this question is asked, it serves to make you feel like an Other. As if you don’t belong because you don’t fit a type. This is not okay. It is not the job of any person to make anyone else feel like an outsider based solely on how they look. It is a form of discrimination, no matter how you look at it.
Some might argue that there are bigger issues I might face as a person of color. The problem with that is racists don’t come up to you and let you choose which racist way they are going to treat you.
“Behind door number one we have me calling you a sandn*gger. Behind door number two we have me asking you where are you from? Lastly, behind door number three we have me posting hate fliers outside your lab!”
I have the unfortunate pleasure of winning what is behind all three doors! I never got to choose in which racist manner I was going to get treated. So please, if a friend complains to you about this question, do not downplay it. Understand it’s one of many issues they face.
“So please, if a friend complains to you about this question, do not downplay it.”
Additionally, when I have politely told people that this question makes me uncomfortable, they have gotten angry. They argue that they are interested in my culture and background. That I should be pleased they are asking me this question.
My response to that is: are you really, though? Do you care about my family dying in Syria? Or the family of my friends getting killed by OUR drones in Pakistan and Yemen? Or hey how about that travel ban that is preventing my family from coming to the states? Do you really care?
How about when I was called a werewolf as a child because of my hairy arms and thick eyebrows? (Can we talk about how they didn’t become popular until a white model made them so?) Or how foreign kids across the country were made fun of for their ethnic food, that has inspired countless restaurants? (Side note: it’s huMOS, not haMES)
The problem with this excuse is it falls flat when tested. Yes. Someone can be interested in someone else’s culture but not be interested in how it’s being destroyed. Read that sentence again. Can you see the problem with it? How can you claim interest in a culture, but not care how it’s being destroyed either by the massacre of its people or imperialism?
“How can you claim interest in a culture, but not care how it’s being destroyed either by the massacre of its people or imperialism?”
Also, the unfortunate truth about human beings is that we are into what is popular. And foreign cultures were not popular when many of us were growing up. And those wounds run deep. It is hard to forget the years of bullying. It’s difficult to see the same people who made fun of our “smelly” lunches feign interest in our cultures now.
This is not to say that every white person that asks this question has bad intentions. The unfortunate truth is the majority have not come from a good place. I do not say this lightly. This is coming from 29 years of experience, 29 years of giving people the benefit of the doubt and being failed over and over again.
There are serious issues with this question and this essay has only started to get into them. If you have been the asker, please take what I said into consideration next time you are going to ask it. If you have been on the receiving end of the question, my heart is with you my friend.
Nour Al-muhtasib is a Ph.D. candidate in pharmacology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She is passionate about science education and communication, cats, and french fries. You can find her on Twitter at @Nouronal.