The Dreaded Question: Where Are You From? : Tell Me More Who's business is it where you are from? And what does that question really mean?
NPR logo The Dreaded Question: Where Are You From?

The Dreaded Question: Where Are You From?

Later, some thoughts about today's show and a peak into tomorrow's. But first, we want to continue the conversation about the segment about what to "Never Say" - from yesterday's show. The co-founder of DiversityInc magazine and Asian American executive Anna Mok talked about what to "never say" to Asian-American colleagues. It was the first of a series of conversations we have planned. Next up, what to "never say" to a co-worker about their sexuality.

At the editorial meeting after the show, we got into a discussion about some of the issues raised, one of which had to do with the sometimes dreaded question, "Where are you from?" Two of the show's producers, Arwa Gunja and Jasmine Garsd, had a lot to say at the meeting about their own experience. They had some deep insights ... thoughts we thought worth sharing on the blog, so we asked them to jot down a few words.

Here's what Arwa had to say:

As an Asian American, it often does offend me when I am asked where I am from. I was born in New Jersey, lived in New York and now work in the nation's capital. Eventually I'll answer the question, and I do understand why people want to know. But it offends me because when I am asked, I can only think the question is being posed because it is a convenient way to categorize me, to put me in a grouping - one that is separate from the rest of the American identity.

Ultimately, it is all about how you label yourself and what label - if any - you're comfortable with. My mother, for instance, is Asian, not just in nationality but in identity. She is proud to declare it, offers that information at any opportunity and finds companionship in those who too share that identity. The question would not insult her; it is one she entertains and often poses to others. Perhaps it is generational, but more plausibly it is about understanding what is about a person that adds up to defining their "identity." And it's not for any us to decide that nationality, heritage, skin color or dialect alone equal that equation.

And Jasmine:

I get asked where I'm from practically everyday. I'm a white Latin American, of mixed heritage. My mother is of Spanish descent, my father is of Russian and French ancestry. I look a lot like my father, in that I'm pale, so every time I open my mouth to speak my native Spanish to a stranger, somebody inevitably makes a comment along the lines of "where are you from?" ... "you look so white" ... or, "you speak Spanish very well."

Race has always been on my mind. Even growing up in Argentina, where there's a large Spanish and Italian population. I was always considered to look different. I was the tallest, I had very kinky hair, and I was always one of the fairest complexioned kids in my neighborhood and school. I've been reluctant to talk about this experience because I had friends who were the only black kids in the neighborhood and school. The black kids or kids that looked very indigenous in Argentina, a country with deep racial problems, experienced racism beyond what I ever had to confront.

I have light brown, long hair. My eyes are green and often I felt I was sexualized by men on the street. This began at a very young age. It made me very uncomfortable. Comparing notes with Afro-Latina friends, they had this same experience of being 'fetishized.' And when I started school in the working class neighborhood I lived in, I think a lot of the kids expected that I would be snooty, and preemptively bullied me. I had a lot to prove.

I got a scholarship to study English at a really fancy school when I was a teenager. Many of my new classmates were from the white elite and suddenly, I felt I wasn't white enough. On a few occasions, I overheard my classmates call me the racial slur 'Negra/Nigger,' which in Argentina refers to indigenous people. I remember I became very angry. One time, when a girl made a comment regarding my socio-economic background, I got into a bad fight with her. She was scared and later she wrote me a letter explaining that she meant no harm. Near the end of her note, she said "I have Negro friends too you know."

When I look back, I think I made people uncomfortable because I was unwilling to accept racial norms. When I moved to the US five years ago, I was again the white Latina. When Latinos ask me where I'm from, I get upset. I think I've figured out that it's because I feel like I'm being told I don't belong to my culture ... Latino culture. I also think there's a negative connotation associated with being a white Latin American. Whiteness is traditionally associated with elitism and oppression.

I've learned to be okay with the question, "Where are you from?" and "Why do you look that way?" I've come to accept that when another Latino meets me for the first time, I'll have to shatter some stereotypes. I'll have to prove that all Argentines of European descent are not racist. I'll continue to prove that's the case, through my actions and my work.

Thanks for reading.

Let us know what you think. What does being American mean to you? Where is the line between race and culture? And who's business is it?