Is It Ignorant to Ask “Where Are You REALLY From?”

Posted on Posted in communication, culture

I was once called by a survey company. I began to busily give my opinion about whatever it was that interested them. As we neared the end, the interviewer needed to know some demographic information and he asked me “Where are you from?”

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“Canada” I replied.

“But what is your background, where are you from?”

“I am Canadian.” I asserted.

He then asked where I was originally from.

I replied that I was an 8th generation Canadian (at the time, I didn’t know I was also Status Native). He was really stumped…

He told me that he needed to know my ancestry to finish the survey. I know some of my ancestors came from the British Isles, but I told him I have no idea where exactly.

After a few more questions, he eventually sighed and told me that I didn’t fit in the boxes on his form. He had to stop the survey! I found it strange that he was surveying people in Canada – and at that time he did not have a box to check for people who self-identified as Canadian.

Being ‘Canadian’ was not an option

“Where you are from?” is a common question when we meet someone new. Small talk – it is a lot like So what do you do?” that other casual question between strangers.  For the most part the question is just a way to start a conversation, but occasionally I hear people ask and I cringe. Do you know what I mean? When some people ask the question it sometimes feels wrong. I wasn’t sure why so I asked an expert on the matter.

My wife Supriya (she’s the hottie in the picture above) has been asked this question a lot. She tells me that it usually follows this progression.

Where are you from?

Victoria!

… but where were you born?

Calgary.

… where are your parents from?

Oh, my parents are from India.

Most of the time, the person is asking Supriya the question out of simple curiosity. After all, Canada is blessed with an incredible heritage of immigration and an amazingly low percentage of problems. Our cultural mosaic model means that we do not expect people to become the same as us, instead we celebrate diversity among our provinces and people. We are really good at living with differences.

When people ask the question out of curiosity you can tell. They are interested. They want to know you a bit better. What interesting foods you eat at home, what traditions you follow, what musicians and movies you like – and that is not offensive.

Ignorant people asked the question not because they want to understand who you are. They are more interested in deciding if you fit in.

The times I cringe when I hear the question is when the tone sounds an awful lot like “you obviously are not from here … where do you belong?” The question highlights our differences and becomes a barrier between people. The question itself is not necessarily offensive, but a lot depends on the intentions of the person asking.

Is there a better way to ask the question?

 Mark Crocker

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10 thoughts on “Is It Ignorant to Ask “Where Are You REALLY From?”

  1. I have to admit that I often ask people that question (Where are you from?) because my parents immigrated to Canada, and for me it is a way of making a connection. I have more recently become aware that people don’t always want to be identified with some far-off country and might even feel that my connecting question makes them feel like they don’t belong. My thought is that I may need to offer an explanation for my interest up front so that I don’t offend.

    1. Ultimately Sarah, I don’t think the question is all that offensive to most people. Most of the time. The exceptions to the rule seem to be more about the questioner rather than the responder. My further $0.02

    2. I agree, Sarah, that an explanation is important. People need to know how your question is relevant. I’m caucasian, but an immigrant to Canada. Most people assume I’m “Canadian” background, but I’m not. I use that to surprise them. And I love it when they’ve been here longer than I have. Double surprise! I’ve never had someone be offended by the questions and have had many delightful conversations as a result. Thus, in my view, the question, “Where are you from?” isn’t the problem. It’s not even the ignorance of the questioner that’s problematic. Rather, it’s when the questioner is has presumptions and prejudices that create the potential for offence. So, I continue using the more nuanced “What’s your cultural background?” “Were you born in Canada?” “Hey I love your accent…where’s it from?!” and the like.
      Sincerely,
      Enjoying Multiculturalism

  2. How about “What’s your cultural background? or What’s your family background?”. It’s not the initial “where are you from” question I find offensive. You’re right that it’s generally not out of ignorance, and purely out of curiosity. It’s the questions that follow when I say I’m from Canada. “Oh but where are you really from? You look like you’re from somewhere in Africa…” What??!!

  3. I really like this article. It’s something I’m faced with regularly, especially since my students are frequently from China, or Vietnam, or Nigeria or Camaroon or Armenia. Sometimes they’ll have little discernible accent, and might be a black or Asian student from LA or San Francisco or Boston.

    My semi-refined strategy now is: don’t ask unless it’s conversationally relevant. Then, if they have an accent, ask them where their accent is from. If not, ask if they grew up in LA. If they refer to their parents’ culture, ask “where are your parents from”.

    As for myself I always get a bit confused when people blankly ask me where I’m from. Usually I say “I’m Canadian” or say “my parents live near Halifax”. But – I’ve lived nearly half my life outside of Canada (on 3 different continents, no less), and lived in LA longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life. It’s not an easy question to answer. But it can be a nice way to start a conversation.

  4. Brad – your “Where is your accent from?” sounds like a great question to me (for people with accents at least).

    I am wondering though, do you see a difference between American and Canadian sensitivities on the issue? IE Americans say “African American” … we don’t say “African Canadian” we just say “Black”

    It doesn’t seem to be as great an issue here.

    1. In the States I think the term Black is the most common and makes the most sense. In LA people mean “Black” to mean “of African descent”, and I’ve never heard anyone object to the term. It can be confusing, if you’re talking to Australians and British, where Black might encompass everything from West Indies, Indian, and Australian Aboriginal.

      “African American” is starting to be a little confusing as a term, because there are increasing numbers of Americans from Africa – and they’re linguistically and culturally very distinct from Black culture and history. You end us saying things like “African African American”. 😛

  5. Brad – sounds confusing! “African African American” too many hyphens involved. And I didn’t know that Brits call Indians “Black” as well … that would be confusing.

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