"Where are you from?"
Someone at the hotel I work at has been staying with us for a while. I've gotten to know her well and have helped her a ton over the last two weeks. As I said "good morning" to her today, she greeted me back before commenting, "Your English is really good." Appalled, I had a moment where I didn't know what to say, processing what she had spoken, I said
"Thanks," then, "I mean, I was born in America so..." She then asked me
"Are you related to them...?" referring to the housekeepers bustling around the hotel, currently down the hall from us, who happened to be Asian.
"No," I said with a laugh. (Might I point out the housekeepers look nothing like me and are Indian, not Korean.) She looked at me expectantly. "My mom was born in Korea." Suddenly it made sense and she left. I was not mad nor did her assumptions make me like her less. She was a very kind woman, but I was disappointed that she had made an assumption of me, racially influenced, and fell into the trap of racial micro-aggressions.
It might not seem like much, but when someone asks "Where are you from" or comments "Your English is good" it gives the impression that 'I am foreign', 'I am not American simply because my skin is not the same as hers. Like I am an alien in my own homeland.'
It's Not That Hard
The thing is, it's not that hard to not be racist. It's really easy.
1. You make an assumption about someone based on their race.
2. a) You question that assumption with evidence. Why do I think that? If the only evidence you have is that they look like they are not white then your assumption is not accurate and should be scrapped.
b) If you can't rewire the way your brain is or don't care to try, then remember the saying "If you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything at all."? That applies here. DON'T say it just because you thought it.
What Is a Micro-Aggression
Some of you may be wondering what even is a micro-aggression?
As defined in Oxford;
a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.
Here is a chart I found from the University of Minnesota website that explains it well.
When Is It Okay To Ask "Where Are You From?"
Don't assume someone is foreign just because they look different from you. Don't assume someone is foreign just because they are not white. When is it okay to ask where someone is from? When you are trying to get to know someone. It shouldn't be the first thing you ask. And definitely not if you are asking because you think they are from another country (without any clues to that except their skin color). It is okay to ask where someone is from, but not with the underlying assumption that they are foreign when the only clue to that was that they are not white.
You may have just asked as a way to start a conversation, but there are other ways to start one.
Here's an example of an appropriate conversation:
You: Hi, I'm Jeff.
Them: Hi, I'm Sara.
You: Are you from the area?
Them: No, I'm visiting family here.
You: Where are you from?
Them: Well I grew up here, but I moved to Tennesee about five years ago.
You: What prompted you to move to Tennesee?
Them: I've always wanted to live there. The landscape is so beautiful.
Notice how the question "where are you from" was asked but not in a way that makes the individual feel like an alien in their own homeland. It's okay to ask the question, just not in a way that is implied or assumed they are not American.
Now here's an example of a conversation that is not appropriate and makes the individual feel like an alien in their own homeland:
You: Your English is good.
Them: Yea, well I'd hope so considering I'm American.
You: Where are you from?
You: No I mean, where are you from?
You: But where are your parents from?
You: Where are they originally from?
You: I mean, like, what are you ethnically
Them: I'm Korean
You: Oh, okay. You know my sister adopted a Chinese girl.
I know not all conversations are that blatant, some are less charged, but that is a good example of how a conversation may go with some committing a micro-aggression. I don't mean to target anyone or make anyone feel attacked. I just want to bring awareness to the fact that these phrases used in the wrong context are not okay. I know that the majority of people who have this kind of conversation with me don't mean any harm, but I want them to realize that their assumptions are a racial micro-aggression. To stop racism, we need to stop it at the roots. Even the smallest racist comment can cause harm or dysphoria, so please stop and think before you comment "your English is good" and ask yourself "Am I making a flawed assumption, or is there good reason to think English is not their native language?"