the “where are you from?” dilemma

posted by notmyname

The other day, someone I had never seen before in my life came into my office and the first thing she said to me was, “Where are you from?”

“Where are you from?” is unfortunately a frequent question that racialized persons recieve from a curious many. Often, the implication of the question is that the person in question cannot possibly be from the Western world because they obviously look different as they are from a different race and, thus, different place of origin. The implicit understanding often is that only White people are from Canada/USA/UK/etc. The problematic nature of these probes (though perhaps innocent) is something that has been widely covered.

However, what made the instance with the woman in my office different was the fact that the woman asking the question was racialized herself. She was on a student visa and did not have a very strong grasp of English. After first cheekily responding, “Toronto” to her question, she inquired further with a “Where in Asia are you from?” While this question is also abounds with problematic assumptions, it turned out that her and I were “from” the same country. She came into my office to seek help, and the rest of the time, she spoke her first language (which I happen to understand due to my ethnic background), which made me more accessible to her.

This happens a lot with fellow racialized people. They ask me where I am from regularly, and I always respond as I would with White people: I am from Toronto. But the motiviations behind their query are perhaps different, as many seek to find commonalities with me, a stranger/potential friend, and similar backgrounds and experiences lend to this pursuit.

All of this made me think about the fine line between asserting oneself as a Canadian to combat the inherent “Whiteness” of “being Canadian” and having internalized racism and needing to be legitimized by the state/citizenry to affirm my status as a Canadian citizen by birth and NOT as an immigrant. I am from Canada, I was born and raised here, which perhaps affords me some greater right or ownership to the country, hence the need to distinguish myself as a Canadian citizen before any Azn country. Perhaps we also insist on being from Canada also because there is a sense of inferiority affixed with being an immigrant, which is an extremely perilous nationalist narrative.

So whereas the “Where are you from?” question may affirm citizenship/origins as exclusive to White people, it can also be an exercise in nationalism. How mind-boggling.



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2 responses to “the “where are you from?” dilemma

  1. David

    As a white person I encounter this problem all the time from the other side. When I ask a white person where they are from I don’t expect them to tell me Scotland or the Ukraine and I also wouldn’t give that answer if asked (despite my roots being there). Typically when I ask “where are you from?” I mean “what city are you from in Canada?” However, I am always frightened to even pose the question to POCs because of the attitude posted above. I am not assuming you are from China (or wherever), you are assuming that I think that. It is a completely harmless question in all other circumstances, but if a white person asks a POC it becomes loaded.

    How politically correct do white people have to be when talking to POCs? How am I suppose to ask where they are from? Do I specifically say “Which Canadian city are you from?” What if they are American?

    I never know what to say, but to me that seems just as insulting because I’m speaking to them differently than I would a white person.

    I can assure you though that 99% of the time when the question is posed, it is out of harmless curiosity, not nationalism.

    • notmyname

      Hi David,

      Apologies for the tardy response.

      The apprehension that people of colour have towards the “Where are you from?” question comes after years — a lifetime — of the answer “Toronto” or “whatever Canadian city” not being satisfactory, and the question ALWAYS being followed up with either “where are you REALLY from?” or “where is your family from?” “I mean, what is your culture?” etcetera.

      It is important for you to recognize that “the attitude” does not come from nowhere, and 98% of my own experiences suggest that when people ask me where I am from, they do not mean which Canadian city; whereas the asker may be asking it due to their “harmless curiosity”, the question still fundamentally denies my Canadian origins.

      It is not political correctness to believe that people of colour can be Canadians too….

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