At a work brunch last winter, I was telling a story to four colleagues about how at a park in Brooklyn that morning while I was walking my dog, a man had said to me immediately upon seeing me, “Hey, where are you from, Japan?” I told my coworkers that I couldn’t believe that people were still asking, “Where are you from?” to ask about ethnicity. (For the record, of my four colleagues, all of whom were male, two were white, both from New Jersey and in their early-to-mid 30’s; one was Indian and in his late 20’s and in town visiting from Delhi, and one was Taiwanese American and in his early 40’s.)
One of my white colleagues was surprised and said that he himself asks the same thing to Asians to find out their ethnicity.
I explained that, yes, the question can be offensive because its connotations are alienating, so, therefore, perhaps he shouldn’t ask it anymore unless he’s trying to find out which city the person he’s asking is from. He replied that he didn’t think he was being offensive because he wasn’t “meaning to be” and that, therefore, he was just going to have to disagree with me. I added that strictly concerning communication, it’s ineffective because someone may actually be asking that question to find out in what city the person they’re speaking to was raised. I also pointed out that in regards to his comment about my being wrong and how he was just going to have to disagree with me, that the term “white fragility” had recently emerged from academia into the mainstream that explains how white people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress, sheltering them from experiencing racial microaggressions that people of color experience continually.
You may already have come across this term, coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, on The Good Men Project, Huffington Post, Alternet, or another site. Dr. DiAngelo’s research states that because “whites live primarily segregated lives in a white-dominated society, they receive little or no authentic information about racism and are thus unprepared to think about it critically or with complexity. Growing up in segregated environments (schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, media images and historical perspectives), white interests and perspectives are almost always central. An inability to see or consider significance in the perspectives of people of color results.” My coworker responded with, “White…fragility?”, insinuating that he’d never heard of this term/concept.
I also brought up how the system we live in operates in such a way that white people are often the shoo-in over people of color, a point made by the National Bureau of Economic Research study that found job applicants with “black”-sounding names were less likely than their “white”-sounding counterparts to get called in for interviews. He responded that, “Data can be manipulated.” The other white coworker, a data scientist, turned to him and said, “No, this is true. There’s been extensive research done on it,” to which the first coworker just shrugged in resignation.
As I was trying to wrap my head around my coworker’s comment that he didn’t think he was being offensive and, therefore, was going to have to disagree with me, I came across this conversation between Civil Rights pioneer Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first female African-American student to attend the University of Georgia in 1961, and Dr. Derald Wing Sue, Professor of Psychology at Teachers College Columbia University and scholar of race relations in the U.S. In their conversation, Dr. Sue explains, “Microaggressions for people of color are constant, continual, and cumulative. They occur to people of color from the moment of birth to when they die, and as a result, any one microaggression in isolation may represent the feather that breaks the camel’s back. And people who don’t see the lived experience of people of color and the daily onslaught that they experience tend not to believe that it’s a major event.”
First off, I want to make clear that I’m not saying that asking the question “Where are you from?” is absolutely always off-limits.
If someone has made it clear whether by insinuation or directly explaining that they moved to your city recently or that they were born and/or raised in another country, then, sure, it might be natural to ask, “Where are you from?” However, especially for someone like me who was born and raised in the States and sounds so American when I speak, it’s particularly strange and makes me feel alienated when a stranger or acquaintance says, “Where are you from?” and they’re waiting for me to say, “China,” “Korea,” “Japan,” or another country in Asia that I was not born and/or raised in and, therefore, am not actually from. Since I was born and raised in Atlanta, moved to Seoul for several years at the beginning of my adult life, and have been living in New York City for the last few years, if someone asks me, “Where are you from?”, the answer they’ll get is “Atlanta, Seoul, New York.”
And with that said, there have been many times when I thought the person asking me meant my ethnicity, so I answered with, “I’m Korean,” only to be met with, “No, I mean, what city are you from?” I’ve also answered the question with, “Atlanta,” and they say, “No, I mean, are you [insert Asian ethnicity]?” In fact, because it’s become exhausting to play the guessing game of what people mean, I myself have adapted, and, nowadays, I say something in the ballpark of, “I’m sorry, are you asking about my ethnicity, or what town I grew up in?” That seems to keep things moving along fluidly without having to deal with a communication fail.
In any case, I found the situation unsettling enough that the following day, I told my coworker so.
At first, his response was to tell me how “interesting” it was to see everyone’s different perspectives on the issue at the work brunch. I told him that I felt like he was missing the point by simply thinking it’s “interesting” as though it’s some type of entertainment for him while it’s a very frustrating and painful reality for Asian Americans on a regular basis. He, finally, honestly seemed to understand when I explained that the reason it’s alienating is because it’s not a question that can be asked across the board to every single person of different ethnicities here in America while expecting the same type of response. I explained that no matter how many people ask him where he’s from, he always gets to say “New Jersey” without being made to feel like he’s an outsider/not a real American/a perpetual foreigner. I also showed him Ken Tanaka’s viral “What kind of Asian are you?” video as well as this bit by comedian Hari Kondabalu. He found them both funny; I suppose that’s how we made up.
Please be sure and follow up by reading the next two articles from Sara Kim:
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