Is “Where are you from” offensive

Time to pick on my post-1980s liberal allies again about the neo-liberal reflex to take offense too easily and limit the chaotic scope of free speech that we post-1960s liberals so love. I don’t mean “free speech” in the first amendment sense, which is not at issue here, but rather open speech in the public sphere.

It started with reading a Huffington Post opinion piece by Melody Moezzi, an Iranian-American who was offended when people asked where she was from. For that matter, I’m a New Orleanean of European descent, and when I open my mouth in New York or California (not to mention abroad), people often ask me the same question. Maybe it’s partly true that I take no offense because I’m not in an ethnic group that has historically suffered discrimination, but the fact is that I love interacting with people from different places, learning about their roots and sharing my own. Of the friends I still stay in touch with in a dozen or so countries, many of those friendships (as well as some domestic friendships) began with that very question. If I were afraid to ask (or were offended when asked), as some contemporary liberals would have me be, my emotional life would be less rich, my cultural awareness less deep, and my circle of friends more narrowly circumscribed to those who are like me and thus less prone to offense.

I understand this is not a proper opening line based on someone’s ethnic look alone, and know it could get old to one who is repeatedly asked, but it can be part of a first conversation (with a modicum of common sense), especially if there are other indicators that you or your interlocutor are traveling. I say let’s bust open all the boundaries and all share our ethnic stories freely. Indeed, let’s be grateful for any small talk that might wedge open a little cultural interchange.

At the very least, my neo-liberal friends might grant that there’s a “good” way and a “bad” way to broach the subject. I’ve met my share of rednecks and intolerants who might ask as a way of marginalizing the “other.” But many, like me, are simply fascinated with the idea of sharing histories and backgrounds. It’s easy to be offended. But it’s also easy to say, “I was born here but my family is from x,” or “My family has been here for 10 generations,” or whatever is the case. Consider that if everyone you met shied away from the question, how sparse our cross-cultural connections would become. If to avoid offense, we check our speech and stifle our curiosity about one another and shrink away from sharing, it is true that less offense will be given, but I say the cost is too high. Better to let a few ignorant jerks make fools of themselves than to tamp down the human contact that comes with openness.

So if someone asks where you are from, give the questioner the benefit of the doubt. Your open frankness will most likely humble the ill-natured interlocutor and might make of the good-natured interlocutor a lifelong friend.

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10 thoughts on “Is “Where are you from” offensive

  1. Hi Gary! Nice topic.
    Personally, I don´t get offended with the question “where are you from?” as they indicate interest, and it is a good way to start a conversation, in case someone is still interested after answering that question.
    What I find offensive is when as Colombian, people start making jokes about guns, drugs or “the jungle”. It is like making jokes about terrorism, dead soldiers or Osama in the US; that is not fun at all. But beyond any moral or ethical issue, what immediately comes to my mind with that kind of questions is the ignorance and limited knowledge of other cultures of that person. Probably that person thinks that all the nationals from x country are the same stuff or who knows, maybe that person finds guns and drugs fun, so jokes about those topisc are funny too.
    But making gun of other cultures happens everywhere, even between two people from the same country, which is ridiculous and a shame.

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  2. Nice one. But DL, honestly, doesn’t your “fashion-anarchy” invite more questions than your New Orleanean accent? 🙂

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  3. An interesting issue to be sure; I didn’t see the article you mentioned, but I have felt uncomfortable being in the vicinity of a co-worker who asked the question of clients, and so have wondered if it was politically correct. To be honest, the clients never seemed offended by the question, but perhaps my neo-liberal tendency is to be offended for those who aren’t themselves. Perhaps the real issue is the setting in which the conversation occurs. I envision you being fine with the question in a social environment, or perhaps even a transit hub. But it does seem inappropriate to ask the question in a business environment, does it not? There it seems to marginalize them in such a way that suggests an assumption of unworthiness. Perhaps the way around this is to just be more blunt: if the questioner is curious as to the ethnicity of the person, ask what their ethnicity is, as where someone is from is ambiguous as to ancestry or individual history. But if it seems worse to ask ‘what is your ethnicity’ then what should we think about the more ambiguous question?

    (Very much enjoying looking around your blog.)

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    • Yes, setting and tone are important. I would be more likely to ask when riding a train than when in the office, and yet I am capable of asking in the office if it seems comfortable for the individuals in question. I suppose for me, “Where are you from?” is usually triggered by an accent (individual history), not by physical traits. “What’s your ethnic background?” (ancestry) is more rare for me and usually comes later in an acquaintance. In any event, the other person never seems offended – maybe because my tone is clearly friendly, maybe because they also are curious about different people’s backgrounds, or maybe because they haven’t been trained by the academic left to find offense wherever there is significant human interaction. Having studied and taught in English Departments, I understand the “neo-liberal tendency to be offended for those who aren’t” … and I think that is perhaps the single greatest problem with post-1980s liberalism. (This is not an attack on you, for I too have felt the pull of that tendency before finally rejecting it.) If no offense was intended, don’t take offense, however ignorant or untutored your interlocutor might be in the latest trends of political correctness. If you’re not sure, don’t take offense. I’m in favor of opening up channels of communication, even where we might unintentionally hit some bumps, rather than closing channels of communications, and I find that neo-liberal tendency works the opposite way. (Link to my “1960s vs 1980s Liberals” for full discussion – https://shakemyheadhollow.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/1960s-vs-1980s-liberals/) And thanks for your recent interesting comments.

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