Why “Where Are You From — Originally?” Is An Offensive Question
Maybe “offensive” is too strong a word, but the question is definitely annoying.
When I first meet someone, there are two questions that instantly disqualify them in my mind:
· “Were you named after the car?” Shows you’re not a bright conversationalist.
· “Where are you from — originally?” Is just irritating, and requires more explanation.
This isn’t about proving immigrants are just as American as anyone. That’s not my issue. My identity is clear, and it is nobody’s business. The offensive part of the question is that it reveals more about the person asking than about the “other” being singled out.
If the first words out of your mouth when I finish speaking are: “Where are you from, originally?” I can tell you were not paying attention. You were too busy trying to place my accent to listen to what I have to say.
The question becomes a verbal speed bump. It deflates you. You are rolling along, getting your point across, and then you realize the other person was too busy playing “Where in the World” inside their head. The question underlines that you are an “other” that must be classified before being considered. When it comes up in a job interview, I figure I won’t get the hired. (But more on that later)
And those are the friendly interactions. I’ve had a number of arguments cut off by people asking about my background, a none too subtle way to telling me I have no right to argue, because I don’t belong here. Singling out the “other” is an attack line as old as the hills. I’ve had it happen to me more times than I can count.
Anglo whites can do what they will and if you call them on it, sooner or later, that question comes up: “Where’s that accent from?”
Yes, I have an accent — because I speak multiple languages. I will not be questioned by people who can barely articulate their thoughts in a single one.
All of this is not to say people should not want to know the origins of the people around them. To celebrate diversity, you first have to acknowledge it. Saying “I don’t see race” is both a lie and counterproductive. That is part of getting to know someone, knowing the culture that shaped them. But it should not be the first thing that comes to mind.
You want to know about the backgrounds of the people you interact with, but do you need to ask during a job interview or a fender bender? What does that say about you?
We are a lot more than the places where we were born. To make that the first step to seeing another human as a person in full denies them that status a complete person. It makes them a token of some kind.
If you take the time to know someone, that question will be answered naturally, in the course of conversation. The person may volunteer it, or you will get a chance to ask in the give-and-take of chatting, without sounding like a census taker.
Some may argue that in today’s climate, you want to avoid saying something that may offend someone. That’s admirable, but if you need to know someone’s ethnicity up front to avoid stepping on a verbal landmine, maybe you need to examine your vocabulary, not your acquaintances.
A deeper question is: Why look for markers of “otherness” in a person? That’s where it all gets more complicated, and a bit suspicious.
Katherine Kinzler, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has studied language and how the way people speak can often affect how their words are perceived. Not surprisingly, she finds “race is wrapped up in that.” She cites a number of studies that show what people claim to understand (or not), or their judgement of who’s a credible speaker (or not) can all be affected by the speaker’s accent, and their perception of that accent has to do with race.
“It’s sort of this sneaky way that racism can impact people’s judgements of somebody’s credibility,” Kinzler said in an interview for a university podcast. She cited a study where students listened to a lecture by a teaching assistant and then were shown pictures supposed to show the speaker. Students who saw a picture of an Asian person were more likely to say they didn’t understand the speaker’s accent than those who saw a picture of a white person, even though they listened to the same speech.
What’s worse, it opens the door to discrimination, said Kinzler, author of How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do — And What It Says About You (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020). “Now, if I say, ‘It’s not that I don’t like people who share your national origin. It’s just that I don’t think you’re a very good communicator’ … that’s where employment law starts to get really complicated,” she said. If a person’s accent “just doesn’t feel right to me in some way, I might … shut down and stop listening.”
No one wants to think of themselves as racist, but Kinzler cites research that shows children as young as eight months old are already tuning their ears to accents. Earlier research with children that led to her book found it isn’t much later in life that they start attaching value to those speech differences. As Kinzler says, this is a good place to start teaching kids about diversity.
So maybe it’s time for everyone to confront the voice in their heads that keeps asking “Uhhh, where is that accent from?” and tell it to shut up. Then maybe you’ll be able to really listen.