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If you’re Black, Asian, Latinx, or racially ambiguous in the slightest, but were born in a first world country, it’s likely that you’ve been on the receiving end of this question: “but where are you REALLY from?”
And I’m not referring to the friendly small talk where this question springs up from genuine curiosity. I’ve been mistaken for Brazilian, Colombian, Jamaican, South African, and more — from people trying to figure out what box to put me in.
The pervasive implication that if we don’t fit the whitewashed version the media has created around what the average first world person should look like, then c’mon…
…tell me the full truth you ethnic-looking, exotic creature.
While traveling, I’ve found that saying “I’m from America” doesn’t quite satisfy the curiosity of locals who are hoping for the name of some exotic foreign land to grace my lips.
No, I mean before that. Like originally? Where are you parents from?
To be honest, my parents were both born and raised in Nigeria, while I was born and raised in the Bay Area of California.It's a beautiful thing to be able to know exactly where my heritage is from, but due to the transatlantic slave trade, many Black Americans don't have that luxury. Click To Tweet
But before I confess this, I like to play around with them and tell them that yes, they [my parents] were born in America too!
Okay… and your grandparents???
They always pry for more information. Because their curiosity simply won’t take “America” for an answer. They must know what poverty-stricken, war-torn-wasteland I’ve washed up from, because it’s so much easier for our brains to comprehend the archaic stereotypes we silently compartmentalize whenever we interact with someone different than the mold we’ve created for their country.
This HILARIOUS BBC comedy sketch pretty much sums up what people are really wondering when they ask…
And though Black people have lived and existed in America for 400 years since the first slave ship arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, the idea that sixth, seventh, and eighth generation Black Americans could exist, still boggles people’s minds.
Because people tend to be simple-minded when it comes to global views. And when they can learn where you’re from, they’re able to take all previous opinions, experiences, and interactions they’ve had with people of similar background, in my case, Nigerian descent, and use that to form an immediate opinion about me.
A [white] taxi driver in London was giving me a ride from the airport, and on our 1-hour commute, he of course, inched his way into my background, asking where I was from when America didn’t satisfy his curiosity.
When I spoke of my Nigerian background, he proceeded to tell me about all the negative experiences and scams he’s had with Nigerians in London.
And he proved yet again, why people ask this question — because their minds can’t view ethnic people as individuals.
His negative experiences with Nigerians in the past had absolutely nothing to do with me — yet here I was, listening to story after story, as if I needed to apologize on their behalf?
But instead, I told him he oughta be smarter in general, as scammers have no race and exist everywhere, historically preying on those they deem weak.
But I can’t imagine how much more annoying this question must be for the person who has a heavy accent, or chooses to dress in their cultural attire, or has a visibly religious background.
I’m aware that making small talk is sometimes hard when there’s awkward silence to fill. So asking where a person is from is the only way someone feels they can make a connection.But most people aren't just curious - they want to know what box to put you into, drawing from the stereotypes ingrained in their heads of X culture and country. Click To Tweet
I’m going to confess though — I’m also guilty of asking people where they’re from. But in my questioning, I add how beautiful of an accent they have, to let them know my intentions behind the question come from a pure place, and secondary to their humanity, I’m simply in awe of their existence.
Because there’s a way to engage with people of different backgrounds that dignifies them. But using stereotypes and making assumptions should NOT be one of them.
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So the next time you’re traveling somewhere and your skin color
burdens intrigues someone and they ask this question, try responding with a country completely opposite of what they’d expect.
Me, for example, I sometimes say Russia or China. Because their facial expressions in response are always worth it.
The world is more of a salad bowl than ever, and while some people ask this question with the purest of intentions, it doesn’t take away from the fact that brown and black people have deep lineage in many first world countries, and the assumption that there must always be an “OTHER” land involved, is getting tired.
So allow us to stir up their idea of what it means to look “American” or “British” or “Australian” and let’s simply co-exist without the slightly overplayed heritage small talk.
I’m blessed that my background is bi-continental, equal parts forming the hustle in my blood and the liberation of my lifestyle.