“Where are you from?”
As a non-white individual, I get asked this quite often, mainly by people I’ve just met i.e. complete strangers. By shopkeepers, by colleagues, by fellow passengers on trains, by men in bars.
I answer depending on how I’m feeling and my relationship with the person. “I grew up in Southend-on-Sea”, I say if I think people will know where that is. “I’m from Essex”, if I’m keeping it vague. “Near London” if I’m pretending I’m not from Essex.
Regularly, my answers are deemed unsatisfactory by the stranger and they ask another question.
“No, I mean where are you actually from?”
My heart sinks. This question is different. If someone asks me this, I normally narrow down whatever answer I gave previously and end up explaining I’m from a small village close to Southend-on-Sea which is in Essex, a county near London. Yet still some people are frustrated with my answer and may even repeat the question for a third time.
The basic translation of this question is, ‘You can’t be from Essex because you’re clearly Asian. I can’t work out which Asian country exactly, so you must tell me”. The underlying message is: ‘You don’t really belong here’.
I am not alone in this experience. I have heard the exact same story from non-white friends, from my sister and have read identical recollections online. It’s a shared experience that unites us. One of those things where, if someone starts to recall a similar incident, you can’t help but burst out OMG THAT ALWAYS HAPPENS TO ME!
Some may argue that I am putting words in strangers’ mouths and that they are just being harmlessly curious about my background. I can tell that those who ask this question commonly think they are being really polite by taking an interest in me and equate this question to others such as, “So….what do you do for a living?” or “Where did you get your coat from?”.
It isn’t the same at all. It’s not a polite conversation opener, it’s directly asking for personal information from someone who you do not know. This is accompanied by the expectation that I won’t mind giving said personal information. Try substituting it with a different personal question such as “How much do you earn?” or “When did you last have sex?”. It’s widely agreed that asking someone those particular personal questions is not socially acceptable.
Furthermore, a personal question is not a polite conversation starter; such as “Do you think we’ll have to wait long for this train?” or “Do you think this rain will ever stop?”. Rather, the question is the conversation rather than an attempt to instigate one. It’s not a two-way exchange that we can participate in equally, it’s one person demanding information from another with no explanation for why they ‘need’ to know.
Aside from the impertinence of asking a personal question, “Where are you actually from?” implies that I have not been honest in my first answer and that the speaker has the right to know what they deem to be ‘the truth’. The question is a blatant example of othering and a common form of microaggression.
Othering is a process by which one group establishes itself as ‘us’ and views or treats another group as ‘them’. The persistent questioning even after I have answered reveals that the speaker is frustrated and dissatisfied with my response and believes they are entitled to know more personal information than I may be willing to give. It implies that the speaker thinks I owe them an explanation of why I have an Essex accent but straight black hair, a darker skin tone and almond shaped eyes rather than Western features. They persist in interrogating me until they get the answer they are looking for. It implies a belief that I cannot truly identify as British or call Essex my home because of my ethnicity and the way I look, despite having lived here for my whole life.
It is this underlying hostility that makes this question a microaggression. A microaggression is a subtle, brief form of communication or incident of hostility or discrimination towards a marginalised group. They can be intentional or unintentional and are a display of underlying derogatory social attitudes. The fact that this type of action may be well-intentioned by the perpetrator does not mean it is not a microaggression. The message the speaker is sending is: despite the fact I have lived here my whole life and have stated clearly that I am British; in their eyes, I am still an outsider.
That’s how I feel whenever someone asks me “Where are you actually from?”. Like I’m an outsider. It’s an interrogation of my identity. Regardless of the speaker’s intentions and whether they did or didn’t mean to be offensive, I always leave these encounters feeling embarrassed and alienated, coupled with guilt for not calling out this kind of behaviour.
Responding to this question is a dilemma. Previously, I have said “China” bluntly and promptly scooted away to the other side of the room. Sometimes there are no escape routes available, for example, if I am at work, sat on a train or stuck in a queue.
If I’m not able to disengage and duck out of the situation, I’m then forced into choosing between two options: explain that I was adopted from China at the age of 6 months by a British couple or take the more hostile route and ask, “Why do you want/need to know?”.
I dislike both options.
Option one feels like admitting defeat and gratifying a stranger’s ignorant, requests for me to explain myself, my identity and my appearance. I have always been at peace with the fact I’m adopted and enjoy explaining my back story to friends, but when it’s a stranger who is not willing to accept that I predominantly identify as British and from Essex, I just don’t see why I should delve into my story.
Option two still makes me feel uneasy even at the age of 24. Although I feel strongly about this issue, I still shy away from the idea of engaging in a potentially hostile conversation with a stranger. Particularly if I’m alone (which I often am).
Aside from the awkwardness deciding how to respond, the fact that people often lead with these questions before they’ve even asked my name also makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. What does this say about our society if we think it’s more important for people of colour to declare ‘where they’re from’ before even asking their name? To me, that implies they are trying to pigeonhole and stereotype me to substantiate their belief that my ethnicity is incompatible with identifying as British. They do not see me as an individual but as the stereotype they have formed based on my looks.
Phrasing is paramount. Of course, not all questions about my background are offensive, and if someone is genuinely interested in my heritage or ethnicity then they should use that terminology; although definitely after they’ve at least asked my name.
But asking “Where are you actually from” reveals ignorance, the need to stereotype others and is yet another example of how far Britain still has to go culturally in its everyday treatment and perception of ethnic minorities.