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.