On ethnicity, curiosity, and idiocy

I’m a member of the website Quora, which I’ve been told is now used primarily by stoner college students who want to get “deep” and ponder life, man, but is actually sometimes also used by lame, non-stoner, old people like me. The premise of the site is that people ask questions and other people answer them, and then the best/most popular answers get voted up the chain. So it’s like a smarter version of Ask.com and a less weird version of Ask Metafilter.

I don’t go on Quora often — I have asked a total of one question, and it was about whether earthquakes can cause headaches, and only one person answered it, and the answer was no — but sometimes I see a question that strikes my fancy and I decide to answer it.

The other day, I saw this question: “Is it racist for someone to ask ‘where are you from originally?'”

My original answer was the following:

Not racist, necessarily, but perhaps (probably) ignorant. I’m a vaguely ethnic looking lady from Michigan. I’ve been asked COUNTLESS times where I’m from “originally.” Um. Michigan. (Well, I was born in Baltimore…) Another one I get asked is, “Where are your parents from?” California and Pennsylvania. Is that what you really want to know? No. What people who ask these questions really want to know is, “What ethnicity are you?” And these people don’t tend to take my honest answers to their questions — Michigan, California, Pennsylvania — at face value. They don’t believe that someone with my looks could NOT have immigrant parents. It’s bizarre. Like, hi, welcome to America: lots of us have brown hair and brown eyes, turns out.

Anyway, if you’re so curious about my ethnicity, go ahead and ask about it: that doesn’t bother me. (For the record: Irish-Mexican-Italian). But asking where I’m from “originally,” as if that’s a more subtle or polite way to get at my race or ethnicity, is just stupid. So stop doing it and just ask the question you want to ask.

This face confuses people.
This face confuses people.

My answer sparked a bit of a debate on Facebook, with some of my friends arguing that it is, in fact, inherently racist to ask where someone’s from originally, because it implies that an Asian American person, for instance, is not actually American, and with other friends arguing that it’s a harmless, if stupid, question, and just shows curiosity and an intent to strike up a conversation about the wonderful melting pot that is these United States.

I’ve thought about it a bit more and I’m sticking with my original answer, which is that the question itself is not racist, necessarily, but it is ignorant and should go the way of the dodo. Here’s the thing: in today’s America, do people really not recognize that someone belonging to a minority racial or ethnic group can actually be FROM America? How is that news? Take my dearly departed grandfather, Mark Rivero, as an example. He was born in San Francisco in 1920. He was Mexican-American (and his father was born in Mexico), but Pop, my grandfather, was originally from San Francisco, which is located in America, contrary to what some might think.

This man is from San Francisco, originally. But is that what you wanted to know?
This man was from San Francisco, originally, despite being ethnic.

So if a person were to ask Pop, “Where are you from originally?”, he would say, “San Francisco, California.” And then if this person kept questioning him, like, “No, but originally, where are you from?”, Pop might smack him upside the head. And he’d deserve it, because that’s a stupid way to get at someone’s ethnicity.

People still try to tiptoe around the question of race and ethnicity by asking this question. I, myself, have been asked many times where I’m from “originally,” and even when I know what the question-asker is driving at, I won’t volunteer my ethnicity. Just ask what my ethnic background is if you really want to know.

To be fair, the “where are you from” conversation has happened to me more in Latin America than it has in the United States. Whenever I’m in Argentina, or Brazil, or anywhere else south of Tallahassee, people are always asking me where I’m from originally. If I say the United States, they ask where my parents are from. If I answer that both my parents are from the United States, they ask where my grandparents are from. Finally, when I say that my grandfather was Mexican-American, they go, “Aaaah, I knew you had some Latin blood in you.” A trip to Latin America never feels complete until my sangre latina is brought up at least once by a cab driver.

Normally, I am not offended by someone asking me about my ethnic background, because most of the time, people are just curious. Most people, especially Americans, myself included, find ethnicity and racial background interesting. It’s fun to find out where people’s grandparents were from, and how people of different backgrounds found each other to produce the DNA cocktails we’re walking around with. Like, how many other Mexican-Irish-Italian-Americans do you know, besides me? Don’t you kind of want to know how that mess happened? (Answer: long story, but mostly, strict Catholicism brings people together in surprising ways). I find these types of conversations fun and innocent, for the most part. Once in a while, though, you do get the creepster who is interested in fetishizing a certain race or ethnicity, and that is no good. No good, at all. [Note: I am only speaking for myself, here, by the way, when I say “once in a while.” I’m sure that ladies (and gents) of other, more immediately recognizable ethnic groups may get the creepsters on a much more regular basis (looking at you, Asian ladies).]

And sometimes, you get people who are just plain ignorant. I was at a party in Boston once where this girl was going on about, among other things, how Mexicans typically have “heavy brows” and “slicked back, greasy hair.” I was with Al, and we looked at each other in horror/delight, because this woman was so terrible/ridiculous, but I didn’t feel like jumping into the spray of her ignorance fire-hose to let her know that she was being offensive. This same woman, shockingly, was very interested in my ethnic background, and so, being the evil person I am, when she asked me about it, I told her to guess. She guessed Persian because, apparently, I have “Persian eyebrows.” (Believe it or not, this is not the only time someone has guessed I was Persian. Years ago, a hot-dog seller in Paris asked Al, right in front of me, “Where’s she from?” Al said I was American, and then the hot-dog lady insisted that I looked like a Persian Jew, which is both very wrong and very specific.)

The point of all of this is that people can be dumb. But the secondary point is that it’s just easier to ask someone in a straightforward way what his or her ethnic or racial background is, if you’re dying to know, rather than trying to get at it in some roundabout way, such as asking where he or she is from “originally.” I mean, originally, we’re all from Africa, right? Maybe I should just start saying that.

Idiot: “Where are you from, like, originally?”

Me: “Oh, originally? East Africa. Near modern-day Ethiopia.”

That might just create more problems, now that I think about it.

Anyway. Can we put the “where are you from originally” question to bed, once and for all? Please? I’m tired of people guessing where my eyebrows are from.


  • I really enjoyed your post (once again!). I’m being asked that question very often but only in Finland where I’m originally from (and so are my parents and grand-parents too). And it doesn’t help that my parents decided to give me a name that isn’t traditional or common in Finland.

    I used to get annoyed about these questions but I guess I’ve gained confidence and don’t really care anymore what others think or try to insunuate. However, I can’t forget that one time when an angry man yelled at me on the streets of Helsinki to “go back where you came from”. I still can’t figure out if I’m amused or insulted about that comment.

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