Why you shouldn’t ask a person of colour ‘where they are from’
By Roshni Riar, Staff Writer
“Hey, where are you from?” an ignorant yet curious stranger asks me.
I respond as I always do, saying, “Thompson, Manitoba.”
“No, but really…” is the reply I’m faced with.
“Yeah, really,” I confirm my initial answer, awaiting inevitable confusion.
At least once a week, I find myself in a situation like the one I’ve just played out above. I have to admit, it is pretty amusing to see the panic in the asker’s eye when they don’t know how to process what I’ve just told them. Not expecting such a plain, meat-and-potatoes backstory, the reaction that I often get is a set of quizzical eyes scanning my face, lingering on my brown skin, trying to place my apparently “racially ambiguous” features.
Asking a person of colour where they’re from is insensitive for a number of reasons. It’s incredibly assumptive to think that the person being asked even knows “where they’re from,” in the context of how that question is generally framed.
What if they don’t know? Will they still be challenged then, just because it’s hard to comprehend a person of colour not knowing the history behind their skin? What about someone who grew up in foster care, or whose family has someone adopted in—will their answers not prove sufficient? Is unearthing some kind of unresolved trauma or conflict worth quelling someone else’s curiosity? I certainly don’t think so, and what’s worse is that people often don’t even consider these critical and valid concerns when broaching the topic.
It’s even harder to handle these kinds of interactions when the inquiring party comes into the conversation with a preconceived idea of the response they’re going to get, expecting nothing less than an exotic tale of a faraway land where monkeys work cash registers and everyone rides an elephant to school. Your race shouldn’t need to live up to someone else’s expectation. It’s okay to challenge a stereotype. In fact, I encourage it. I’m never sorry to disappoint others with my Manitoban origin story.
I—as well as many other people of colour—was born somewhere that isn’t where my race originates from. Shocking, I know. Thompson is my hometown, and I identify with it because I spent half my life there. That is where I’m from, yet my answer is something that people have a hard time understanding. People think I’m joking or trying to be smart when I tell them I’m from Manitoba. They laugh too loudly, then look at me expectantly, waiting for the nostalgic storytelling to begin. My skin colour shouldn’t automatically predetermine where I might consider my home, and while my answer shouldn’t need to prove that, it does.
More than anything, I often wonder why the question is even asked of people of colour. What benefit does it serve the person asking? Will the answer change anything? If it does, does that make them racist? It’s hard to say, but the implicit racism that fuels this type of inquiry is undeniable. It’s only ever asked of people of colour, and their answers are never good enough if they don’t meet a pre-set quota of foreignness.
Some people will go out of their way to prove their race, which they shouldn’t need to do. Others like myself will try to avoid the topic altogether, which can come off as detached. It feels like people of colour can’t just be; they have to reject their race if they’re told it’s not good enough or lean into it with everything they’ve got, creating a suitable caricature for those around them.
“Where are you from?” It isn’t anyone’s business. If I don’t want to provide you with a full breakdown of my racial identity, then I won’t. I shouldn’t need to give you details because it’s my identity being examined.
“But what if the person I’m talking to wants to share their background?” You know how you’ll know if they want to share? They’ll actually go ahead and tell you, rather than waiting for you to pry.