‘Where are you from?’ isn’t just a question; it’s a racial minefield

May be a not-so-subtle statement: ‘You don’t belong’

Marisol Arguelles was not born on the planet Vulcan. Her family hails from Cuba, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. But if you ask her, “Where are you from?” she might claim extraterrestrial roots.

» Examples of microaggressions, the daily indignities

Like a lot of people whose ethnicity isn’t immediately apparent, Arguelles gets this question from grocery clerks, Uber drivers and strangers on the street. Her answer is simple: Miami. But strangers, she says, always seem to feel the need to quiz her further, as if she is wrong, and her brown skin is proof that she couldn’t possibly be American.

So, where you from?

It can be a touchy question in a nation of immigrants, especially for people who look neither black nor white. Too often, those asking the question have trouble believing they're American. Nevertheless, the AJC asked these metro Atlanta residents to tell us where they are from. Click on each face to learn the answer.

It makes Arguelles feel like a foreigner in her own country — or an alien — and she’s tired of it. Sassing back with a Star Trek reference seems like as good a response as any.

“The only reason they’re asking is because of the way I look, and that’s not OK,” Arguelles said.

In an instant, the question “Where are you from?” can twist from a simple greeting into a minefield of grievances across races and ethnicities. Even when the questioner means well, the inquiry can turn into a cutting reminder for a person of color of what centuries of history and countless pages of scholarship have proven: In this country, if you have dark skin, you’re often seen and treated as something less than a true citizen.

Psychologists frequently call this kind of brief, day-to-day indignity a racial or ethnic microaggression. Often, the slight is unintentional, such as when a white woman reflexively clutches her purse when she passes a black man on the street. Some conservatives ridicule the concept of microaggressions as a product of liberal over-sensitivity — Tim Allen’s character on “Last Man Standing” calls them the “latest liberal attack at free speech. And a lot of fun if you do ’em right.”

But psychologists agree these indignities and their impacts are real. Years of studies show unconscious biases that we cannot control govern our actions, whether over something as serious as people of another race or as trivial as fans of an opposing sports team.

‘They see you as a foreigner’

It’s often perfectly fine question to ask a person, “Where are you from?” said Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia University psychologist whose work on microaggressions led to a decade-long research boom on the subject. For Sue, who is Chinese-American, the answer is Portland, Ore., the city where he was born.

The question only becomes an insult when the speaker follows with, “No, where are you really from?” or “No, what country are you from?” Sue said, as if they cannot accept that he is an American.

“Unbeknownst to them, they do see you — because you look physically different — as a foreigner, an alien, or not a true American,” Sue said.

Years of fielding this question and studying race and psychology have led Georgia State University psychology professor Wing Yi Chan to conclude that people who ask her where she’s from often don’t want to learn her story.

» Share your experience of race in Georgia

They have already assumed that she is a foreigner, she said. They’re checking to see whether they’re right and feel entitled to an answer.

“It’s not about getting to know me, it’s about confirming the stereotypes they have, reinforcing the way they see themselves in this world, and reinforcing racial hierarchy in this country,” said Chan, who is Asian American. “The idea that they [minorities] are foreign, they’re not from here.”

In the face of such bias, no claim to being American seems good enough. Snellville resident Leslie Mobley was adopted from Athabascan Alaskans, a group of native people who settled there thousands of years before this country was founded. Yet when Mobley was raised in Augusta, her dark skin, dark hair and dark eyes seemed to invite questions.

“People would say, ‘What are you, Chinese?’ like it was a bad thing,” Mobley said.

Generally, she said, she takes the questions as curiosity — and an opportunity to educate people who may have never met an Alaska native. For her, the question becomes a conversation starter.

Where is ‘her country?’ Right here

Emily Cruz Eng said she is routinely asked whether she wants to go back to “her country” of Peru, even though she was adopted from there as an infant and raised in Atlanta by a white mother. She doesn’t even speak Spanish.

“I’m insulted by it, I’m confused,” said Eng, who attends therapy sessions to cope with the impact of these constant slights. “Do I belong, do I not belong, in this family, in this country?”

» The AJC covers racial change in Georgia

Eng said she will often turn the question around, asking whether her interrogators want to go back to the country their relatives hail from. She’ll suggest a different question that she would prefer: “Are you originally from Georgia?” Or she’ll instruct people in the right way to engage with someone they don’t know — like commenting on the weather.

It’s exhausting, being the object of racial curiosity, said Naazneen Bandukwala, an India-born Marietta resident. She has found that the question “Where are you from?” tends to divide people far more than it brings them together.

“You are not finding common ground. The first thing you’re telling me is, ‘You’re not from here,’” Bandukwala said.

‘Make an effort every day to fit in’

What’s worse are the rude follow-ups. People have asked her whether she’s in the country legally, why she speaks English so well, and whether she can recommend a good Indian restaurant.

“You’re tired and alert, angry and alert,” Bandukwala said. “I have to make an effort every single day to fit in.”

Bandukwala, who moved to Georgia after living in North Carolina and upstate New York, said she gets the question more here than elsewhere. In the South, she posits, people assume that the simple act of talking to a stranger makes asking about them a friendly gesture.

Arguelles said she only became accustomed to getting the question once she left Miami.

“That’s one of the reasons it takes me aback,” she said. “It didn’t happen where I was from.”

GSU professor Chan said she decided years ago that she wouldn’t satisfy the curiosity of strangers by telling them she was born in Hong Kong. Instead, Chan tells them she’s from Seattle, which is where she moved with her family at the age of 15.

This answer doesn’t stop some strangers from hounding her. At the airport recently, one man drilled her with questions about her parents and grandparents.

Chan had to walk away to get him to stop.

“Everybody has a story,” Chan said. “And my story is for me to share, it’s not for you to inquire.”

Note: Commenting for this article is being moderated by AJC editors.

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