The Problem with Asking “Where Are You From?”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 4:22 pm

The Problem with Asking “Where Are You From?”

There are some questions that I love to answer and others that make me moan.

“Where are you from?” is an OK question, and I do love to answer it.

I live in a part of North Carolina where many people move to from out of town. The combination of universities and tech companies draws people to the state from all over the world. Thirty or 40 years ago, cities like Cary and Morrisville were sleepy little towns with a handful of streets and a couple of stoplights. Today, there are major towns in North Carolina with a significant South Asian population. When my children attended public school, there were more East Asian kids than any other ethnicity, followed by white kids, then South Asian kids. This is the new North Carolina.

So in light of this (new) diversity, it’s OK and even expected to have people ask you: “Where are you from?” Even though I have lived in North Carolina for most of the last 30 years, when people ask me where I’m from, sometimes I answer: “Florida.” It’s true. I was born in Florida. I graduated from a high school in Florida. My parents and siblings all live in Florida. Florida is home.

This is part of the lovely ritual of getting to learn about one another. I am from many places. My heritage is Iranian. I was raised in Florida. My spirit soars in Turkey. My heart is in Switzerland. They are all home. Yes, I am from North Carolina and Iran and Florida. They are all home.

But that’s not what people mean when they ask me, “Where are you from?”

When I tell them “Florida,” there is an obvious look of impatience and dissatisfaction.

It is one of the only times when people feel entitled to veto your biography.

Sometimes the conversation turns into a bit of a “Who’s On First” routine:

“Where are you from?”

“Florida.”

“I mean, where were you born?”

“Florida.”

“I mean where you grew up.”

“I went to high school in Florida.”

“I mean where your parents live.”

“Still Florida.”

All too often, the other person, exasperated, finally says: “You know what I mean. Where are you really from?”

I know what they mean. They know what they mean.

They mean: Where is your brown skin from? Or, as I used to be told when I was a teenager living in Tennessee: “You ain’t from ‘round here, are you, boy?” I learned as a young immigrant kid that when someone called you “son,” it was benevolent. “Boy” had a totally different connotation steeped in the racial politics of the South and the history of infantilizing black men who were — like me — definitely not a “boy.”

Here is the thing about those of us who have to answer these questions again and again. It sounds different when a white person is asked the question. When a white person is asked, “Where are you from?” the question is actually a question. The questioner is actually asking a geographic question: “What state are you from? Where did you live before you moved here?”

When we as people of color are asked that question, it sounds different because it is different.

The assumption behind the question is that America, the South, this state is a state of people “like us.” There is an assumption that America is of, by, and for white people. You can’t really be an American, so where are you really from? Tell us what box we can put you in, because we don’t want to expand our understanding of what it means to be American to include you.

This invalidating of someone else’s biography even extends to our diction, to our vocabulary.

I can’t tell you how often I am complimented (even by academics) for “how well you speak English.” I know it sounds like a compliment, but it is not.

There is always an assumption of “We don’t expect brown people to be eloquent or funny.” I smile that painful smile, swallow the choice words that come up right to the tip of my tongue, mutter an insincere “thank you,” and move on. You’d be impressed how “eloquent” and “articulate” one can be cursing in multiple languages, each with colorful and vivid comebacks. My favorite comeback is a suggestion of what the questioner can do to himself with a prickly cactus.

There are times when we meet someone who speaks with a different accent — a New Yorker or Bostonian using a diphthongal vowel, a Texan or Georgian with a downhome or genteel drawl, a Midwesterner uttering folksy phrases, a Canadian pronouncing “PRO-cess” and “a-boat”— and people reasonably ask them where they are from.

For immigrants, for people of color, it has been a different experience. This is not about having brown skin, an Iranian accent, an Indian accent, or a Hispanic accent. It is ultimately about the American dream. Is the American dream expansive enough to include all of us — or is it ultimately a white, Anglo-Saxon dream?

In the United Kingdom, an immigrant can become British, but not English. In America, we do not have this distinction. If you become an American, you are an American. We know our history. We know that in the past citizenship was defined and confined as the realm of “free” white men. May it be that our notion of what it means to be American has expanded enough to include all of us.

The next time someone asks me where I am “really” from, I will say: Here. I am from here.

And there. I am also from there. I am from the land of love and poetry, the woods that cover every hill in North Carolina, the cosmic dust that came spinning out of nowhere. As the amazing writer and dreamer Mark Gonzales says:

There are questions this world will ask

What are you?
And
where are you from?

 On that day
tell them this:

Yo soy Muslim.
I am from Allah, angels,
and a place almost as old as time. 

 I speak Spanish, Arabic,
   and dreams.

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Contributor

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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  • Gabby

    Your piece reminded me of my father. He was short, dark, and handsome, with a very strong accent, and people always asked where he was from. He always answered, “Los Angeles,” which was not what they were asking. He loved this scenario.
    As he never melted into the “melting pot,” he also dressed differently than people expected, in his case more formally. In the mid 20th century, people who worked in retail often dressed very properly. He worked in the garment industry, like so many immigrants did, but if we went into a department store on a Saturday, he would be in a jacket and tie, always.
    As a result shoppers always mistook him for a salesperson and would ask him whether a particular shoe came in a ten or ask him advice on which of two pairs of pants was best, and so on, and this really very proper man would go right along and pretend to be the salesman. “No, I do not have that shoe in the 8 but I have the brown in an 8.” And we would run over and explain he didn’t work there. He was our Daddy.
    Thanks for the memories.

  • TheWithinBlog.com

    This is one those of questions that I’ve started pondering about too. And quite frankly, I find it difficult to answer it as well. I can also see there’s an expectation of what an answer to ‘where are you from?’ should be and what I might potentially provide when asked. I was also considering this question in one of the posts on my blog some time ago too. Such a standard and short, yet sometime a troublesome question, perhaps for both- for people who ask and those who try to answer it.

  • Pingback: Moving Beyond "Where are you from?" to Create a Conversation • English with Kim!()

  • divadarya

    I have a friend who grew up in Hawai’i; her father was of Scottish extraction, her mother of Japanese. Living in Los Angeles, “where you from” is a pretty innocent question, for the most part. She found out on a drive to meet her husband working in Atlanta that it can take a menacing edge as one moves South. She has two gorgeous young kids, and when they stopped to eat at a diner in the northern part of Alabama, she said you could cut the tension with a knife. That’s when it becomes “Where yew FRUM?”.
    She had to drive back there from LA recently and planned her stops to be minimal and strategic, even for gasoline.

  • This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing your perspective. It’s one that’s hard to ask for, because inquiring about the immigrant experience can seem abrasive.