Where are you from?

I’m from Virginia.

But I can’t tell you how many times someone has felt it was appropriate for this to be the first question they ask me (not my name, not how I was doing) and then look confused when I answer this way.

No, but where were you born?

Virginia.

Oh….well are you Indian?

My parents grew up in India. I can recommend some books if you’d like to know more about India. By the way, you look white. What’s that like?

Since when is it appropriate to express no interest in someone besides their ethnicity?

I share this because I’ve found throughout my life and even in my current workplace that people’s understanding of what is racially acceptable in America is so undeveloped when it comes to non-Black people of color. You would never walk up to someone black or white (that you have never even met before) and say, hey, so what’s it like being black or white? The point is that regardless of your race, it’s not your sole identity and you are not a representative for your race…and no one should ever be treated like they are.

Moreover, I can’t tell you how many times people who are barely acquaintances have felt the need to tell me about their Indian friends/boyfriends/etc as though I would care simply because they’re Indian. A coworker (who I am not friends with and share nothing personal with) spent a solid week or so catching me up on the goings on in her Indian ex-boyfriend’s life. I was incredibly annoyed and insulted at the use of this insensitive tactic as way to relate to me. By this method I should automatically be able to relate to every single white person on earth since I’m dating a white boy.

Frankly, it shocks me how people will often do this right off the bat with Asian people as though racial sensitivity doesn’t need to extend to us since we’re all doctors and engineers, right? The truth is virtually every Asian person I know has been touched by racial insensitivity and direct discrimination, whether it’s verbal abuse, being passed up for promotions, or the kind I’m talking about here. Interestingly, I encountered the most frequent and mind-numbing insensitivity while living in Berkeley, CA. Men trying to hit on me would first start talking to me about India. I would often walk away without saying a word. It was as though they thought they were so culturally sensitive that they could do it because they couldn’t possibly be racist.

The thing is I love talking about India because I love most things about the country. But India is not my identity, I do not represent it and I am not someone’s personal reference book on the subject. Especially when I don’t know the person.

I may sound angry about this, and, shocker, I am. I’m always amazed at how people that think they’re culturally sensitive and worldly will do this and I just want to scream RACIST in their face. Because while none of us are colorblind, it’s sobering and disappointing when it’s perfectly clear that your ethnicity and color of your skin are the only things someone sees–when they can’t possibly see that you’re a whole person with experiences and interests and that they could have tried to relate to you like they would with a person of their own race.

This all came to me when hearing about a series of articles about this exact topic on NPR.

People always talk about how diversity trainings are a waste of time…but I think everyone could stand to learn a little.

EDIT: I forgot to add one of my favorite related stories.  My friend was flying somewhere and a lovely young Indian woman was a row or so in front of her.  A young white man, presumably trying to hit on the Indian woman, turned to her and right off the bat asked her where she was from.  She turned to him and in a thick, thick southern accent and an obvious twinge of annoyance said, “Georgia.” and turned back without another word.  My friend called me immediately.

End rant here.

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13 Responses to “Where are you from?”

  1. Shweta Says:

    I totally agree with you on everything.

    I had an incident in the local central park near my house the other day when a bunch of kids were playing football in the tennis court and everyone who wanted to play tennis was waiting outside. A couple of guys went in to ask the kids to leave and one of the kids just started swearing and using all kinds of language specially for the Indians present there. Surprisingly I was the only one who got angry and confronted them. The rest were all smiling. One of them even told me what do you want to do… the cops will only listen to the kids. Does that mean we cannot do anything.

    Even today when I think of that incident I am filled with rage.

    There was another one when I was an middle aged woman for directions to the nearest path station. She was clearly faking not being able to understand me when everyone around her could. Finally one of her family members had to stop her from acting that way. It is clearly sad and annoying at the same time.

    However, I have also met some very wonderful people here in USA and make it a point to remember them too whenever such a thing occurs.

  2. mmmona Says:

    Your story reminded me of something that happened to me that is sort of on the other end of your directions-giving experience. At a BART station in Berkeley, before a woman asked me for directions she looked at me and asked if I spoke English.
    I looked her dead in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, but, no, maam. i sure don’t.” and walked away.

  3. Grace Says:

    I completely agree with you on everything and I think you have written it very well.

    The only thing I can add to the dialog is that it annoys ME when people refer to me as “white” and in the same conversation themselves as “Indian” or “African” or “Puerto Rican” or whatever. Since when do I have to be a color (white) and everyone else gets to be a country, continent, or island?

  4. Grace Says:

    Usually the people saying that I am white are american citizens just like me.

  5. mmmona Says:

    I totally agree…it goes both ways where I often try and ask where the person asking me where I’m from is from…but I usually get the answer that they’re a little bit of tons of stuff and the conversation just ends. On the other hand, I like being grouped into “brown”…I love the unity I feel with latinas, east asians, and others.

  6. Magalie Says:

    I bet when you meet new non-Indians they always have to mention how they used to know a friend that was Indian, or somebody’s brother’s, sister’s, cousins’, doctor or whomever they are referring to with at least 4 degrees of seperation was Indian. As though that makes them a little less clueless and a bit more warm and hospitable to the Indian.

    I always got a crack out of how people would do that to my husband who is Indian, born in India. I am Latina, but everyone thinks I am white until they hear my name. And no one ever says to me, “Oh, I used to know a Mexican that worked in such and such place or was a friend of so and so’s.”

    Why only Indians though? I have lots of Phillipino, Cambodian, Thai, or Vietnamese friends and NO ONE does that to them. “Oh…I used to know a filipino once!”

  7. lolly Says:

    Great post, and so eloquently written.

  8. Nadine Fawell Says:

    Hi Monica!

    I am so glad to be sort of connected to the internet again – I missed blogland, and your posts.

    Great post; I think you are right, people tend to think they can take more liberties with non-black people of colour. There are still limits and basic human respect. And quite frankly, just because you are of Indian extraction doesn’t mean you would ever have been to India or be willing to share your experiences with a complete stranger!

    xxx
    Nadine

  9. gwadzilla Says:

    people often try to carry on conversations beyond the surface

    it is understood that people like talking about themselves

    such line of questioning may just be an ice breaker

    put people on trial for their intentions as well as their actions

    it is just conversation

    it gets exhausting to talk about the weather
    and that “what do you do?” question can be so drab
    although it is usually in the top five questions that people ask

  10. Owen Says:

    Owen says : I absolutely agree with this !

  11. tara Says:

    I dated a Canadian-born person of Japanese descent when I was working in the Middle East. He hated it when someone would say, “No, where are you really from?” when he replied “Canada” to the first instance. I remember thinking he could cut people a little slack as we were travelling in some pretty rural areas, and we were communicating through a weak mix of Arabic and English, but he explained that he heard the same question everywhere he had been, decided not to put up with it. No real moral of the story, but some of us white people are learning.

  12. mmmona Says:

    Some of the comments above and a comment on another post about this post led me to realize that people get a little confused when it comes to the difference between race/ethnicity and nationality (where you are from)–and this is really confusing with Indians, since our race/ethnicity is Indian…but that’s also a nationality for over 1 billion people. When I call myself Indian or South Asian, I am referring to my race/ethnicity…it’s the box I check. East Indian is often one of the boxes. That is what I check. When you ask me where I’m from, my nationality is US. Period. I can should and will refer to myself as Indian, and if anyone believes I shouldn’t then they themselves should stop referring to themselves as white or start saying they’re from some land of white people that is not America.

  13. Loremor Says:

    oooh I know exactly what you mean! and I’m always at a loss as to how to answer…from California…even though I know they’re referring to me being of Mexican decent.

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