Imagine that you have traveled abroad and that you are re-entering the United States through customs. You are an American citizen, born in the United States. The customs agent looks at you suspiciously and asks you these questions:
The first two questions are reasonable. But once you have established that you are an American citizen, additional questions seem inappropriate.
For many people of color in the United States, being asked, “Where are you from?” is a common experience. On a bus full of strangers, why is the person of color singled out to be asked, “Where are you from?” It may be because the questioner thinks the person looks foreign. If the questioner thinks the person is foreign, indicating the city where one lives is not enough. The questioner may keep probing until they determine where the person’s ancestors are from.
Being asked, “Where are you from?”, under the assumption that an American is foreign-born, can be a microaggression. Microaggressions are “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group.” “Where are you from?” can be a microaggression because it makes a person feel like an alien in one’s own land.
Repeated experiences of being treated as a foreigner are like repeated interrogation by a customs agent…and not being let in to one’s home country. Microaggressions make a person feel that they don’t belong. Research indicates that microaggressions can also affect mental health. And with the recent travel ban on people from majority Muslim countries, it is not far-fetched to predict that anyone who looks foreign could have difficulty re-entering our country.
Research also indicates that for most Americans, being White is equivalent to being American. When a White person is asked “Where are you from?”, this typically is not a question about ancestry. So, White people may see this question as harmless. Those who consider this question to be a microaggression may be seen as overly sensitive. Nevertheless, skepticism about the existence of microaggressions may “unintentionally dilute, dismiss, and negate the lived experience of marginalized groups in our society.”
Perhaps the failure of White people and people of color to understand each other’s perspective is a result of quid pro quo. The Golden Rule is “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” However, the way one group wants to be treated isn’t necessarily the same as the way the other group wants to be treated.
More useful is the Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way they would like to be treated.” If people don’t want to be asked “Where are you from?”, then don’t ask them. Even if you don’t mind being asked yourself.
In a previous blog on being biracial, I offered recommendations for intergroup conversations. Starting off with “How are you?” is likely to be more productive than, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” Deeper discussions about culture and identity may come later in the context of a relationship. Remember the Platinum Rule.
Burrow, A. L., & Ong, A. D. (2010). Racial identity as a moderator of daily exposure and reactivity to racial discrimination. Self and Identity, 9, 383-402. doi: 10.1080/15298860903192496
Devos, T., & Mohamed, H. (2014). Shades of American identity: Implicit relations between ethnic and national identities. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8, 739-754. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12149
Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017). Microaggressions: Strong claims, inadequate evidence. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 138-169. doi: 10.1177/1745691616659391
Sue, D. W. (2017). Microaggressions and “evidence”: Empirical or experiential reality? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 170-172. doi: 10.1177/1745691616664437
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271-286. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271