Ilene C. Wasserman
ICW Consulting Group
Think about this … how many times a week do you find yourself asking someone: Where are you from? This question seems innocuous. And it may be — in some contexts. In other contexts, it might land as a bit offensive — or as some might say, a micro-aggression.
As we desire to connect with others in our every day interactions, the rules for what creates connections and what may disrupt connection are not clear. Just this week, we were hosting a family for a Friday night dinner. In our tradition, Friday night dinners are a ritual we observe to pause from the routines of the work week. to welcome the Sabbath. At the last minute, an old friend of theirs wrote to say he was visiting from out of town. We were happy to include him.
David, the visitor from out of town, arrived a few minutes before our friends. Our conversation took off without pause. It began with the question: Where are you from? I knew he lived in Austin, Texas, but I detected a different region from his accent. In a flash, he was sharing his genealogy. He was born and raised in Colombia. His parents settled there after escaping the pogroms in Russia. Short of sharing all the details of our conversation, I noted the familiar pattern that often takes place among Jews of a certain age. We locate each other. Were your parents holocaust survivors? Or were your grandparents immigrants from somewhere in eastern Europe? What historical tragedy were they escaping? Ah… you are from South America. Ashkenazim or Sephardim? Do you trace your family tree to the Inquisition?
In these contexts, the question: Where are you from? is one that forms connections. It locates us in a shared narrative that dates back 50 years; 100 years; 500 years; 3000 years. It fosters a sense of belonging.
In another context, however, not so much! For people who are non-white, (and that may include people who have some ancestors who came from Africa, Asia) or who have a non-US sounding accent, that question is a statement that places you as “the other” or an outsider. Recently, I heard Amand Girioharadas, the New York Times journalist, speak about this question. The question may be asked with the best of intentions. But when the answer doesn’t satisfy the person posing the question… when the response is a repetition of the question with the addition of the word really (as in where are you really from), the intention of connection becomes anything but.
Derald Sue writes about microaggressions as: “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”? He describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. Different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, people who enact episodes of microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm.?
So imagine his response when he encountered this very question from someone following one of his lectures. A person attending the lecture approached his with great enthusiasm and appreciation for what he had learned. And this person then asked: “Where are you from?” “Berkeley”, Dr. Sue responded. “No, I mean where are you really from?”
When I began working with organizations who were interested in looking at issues of diversity and Inclusion at the workplace, nearly 30 years ago, we talked about intent versus effect. Good intentions were important to acknowledge, particularly because the idea that people of ‘good will’ were not aware that they were participating in episodes that had an impact far different from their intent was painful to swallow. In todays social interactions, intent and effect are more apparent partners in defining the narratives we are weaving together.
So, sometimes asking people where they’re from is connecting, and sometimes it does the opposite. And sometimes even with the same person it could be different depending on how you ask and how you respond to their answer. I am reminded that it is not about getting it right; it is about paying attention to what we are making together to make the next moment better.
Next time I feel inclined to ask someone where they are from, I think I am going to try this:
“I am interested in knowing more about you. What is important to you? Tell me your story.”