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Where are you from?

March 17, 2017

In a recent round of podcast listens, specifically Codeswitch and About Race, I began to hear a common thread: Perception. Yes, I know that people perceive situations and conversations in different ways depending on backgrounds. But, I had never heard the perception of people who find the, “Where are you from?” question offensive. As a person who had to learn small talk at a very young age (as the daughter of two ministers) I always have my ‘go to’ question.

Where are you from? This was sometimes followed by, where did you grow up? (My goal was normally to hear the name of a state or town).

For me this question was a way to find something in common with the person I was speaking to quickly. Have I visited where you are from? Do I have questions about where you are from? Do I have some little bit of knowledge I can say to keep you talking? This question usually gets a long conversation started.

Recently on a flight to Orlando I sat next to a gentleman who talked to me the entire flight. I started with, “Oh, where you going? Is Illinois home?” (We were flying from Illinois). He stated he was actually from North Carolina and was on a work trip. I asked a few questions about North Carolina reminiscing about childhood vacations. I asked a few questions about his job. And the conversation took off. However, it all started from a variation of “Where are you from?” Two and a half hours later we were landing in North Carolina (my layover) The man I was talking to on this flight was a man in his late 30s, he had three kids at home and told me the story of each child’s birth (in detail). He worked as a salesman for engineering equipment, loved to travel, had just returned home from Japan, and worked a lot. Also, he was white.

On my next flight from North Carolina to Orlando I sat down next to another gentlemen. I had my book out ready to read, because I actually really don’t like talking to people on planes. The book I was reading was Born a Criminal by Trevor Noah. I wanted to finish the book because I was learning a lot about the South African Apartheid.  Well, I sat down and the man next to me saw my book and asked me if I liked it. We talked about the book a little bit, which then got us into the politics discussion that is often happening now-a-days. In a lull in the conversation, before the plane took off, I asked him the same question without thinking. “Where are you from?” He was from New York, he had to change flights due to a snowstorm, and was on a work trip to Orlando. He worked in the hospital management field and had interesting stories about health care and his future plans. The difference this time? The man I was talking to had brown skin, he was Indian, which arose during our conversation about why he went into healthcare. When I asked, “Where are you from?” I did not expect a specific place in India, I expected something like he told me, “New York.” His family being from India came out in another part of the conversation that was not directed from my questions.

But, then I listened to podcasts led and hosted predominately by people of color. Overwhelming, through the discussions in these podcasts, hosts and guests find that question, “Where are you from?,” offensive and inappropriate.  When I first heard this I was shocked. First, I didn’t know why it was offensive. And second, I wondered who I had offended in all my years of starting conversations that way. I did not understand where the offense came from. Then I continued listening. It is all about perception. Growing up in the Midwest, growing up as someone who has had to make small talk my whole life, this question is an easy question to quickly start a conversation and find connections.  However, what I learned from these podcasts and perspectives, is that hearing that question as a person of color can be offensive. It is as if someone is saying, “You don’t belong here. You obviously aren’t from here. So, where are you from? Like, where are you froooooooom?” I can see it. I can see how offensive that question can be.

Then comes the question in my own household. My son, who is biracial, has been asking, “Who am I?” lately. Like where am I from? He is not asking for the answer Chicago, where he was born. He wants to know where he is froooooooom. Where is he from? I know that on my side he is from Ireland, Spain, Scandinavia, Germany, and even a little Neanderthal. But from his biological father’s side, I have no idea. We have decided to 23 and Me his genetic ancestry. He wants to know where he is froooooom, which is different than where he is from—Illinois. We have decided to go on this journey. The “Where am I from?” question now has different meanings in my own house—perceptions change, make sure to stay awake and be aware of that change. And next time, I will definitely read a situation before asking, “Where are you from?” or even start to think of a new question that can get a conversation started.

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