Don’t ask me where I’m from

Guest post by C.

(This article was written in response to the author’s experiences at a recent feminist gathering in Australia.)

Don’t ask me where I’m from

(or what my origins are/what my background is/where my parents are from/where my name is from/etc.)

  • Don’t use the fact that I speak a particular language/attended the launch of a book by an Indian author/mentioned a Lebanese restaurant in passing/etc., as an excuse to ask me where I am from, and don’t assume I am from these places. Just like white people, brown people can be interested in cultures other than our own; sometimes these cultures have been imposed on us.
  • Don’t make a comment about some aspect of my physical appearance or tell me I’m beautiful in conjunction with asking me where I’m from. This makes me feel exoticised and objectified.
  • Don’t invent me an accent I don’t have in order to have an excuse to ask where I’m from. This is just crazy and I will lose respect for you.
  • If for whatever reason I do tell you where I’m “from”, don’t reduce my country of origin to a tourist destination (or a war zone). While this may be the only context in which you have heard of it, for me and everyone else “from” there it is a complex place which we have a complex relationship with, and we do not like to hear it reduced to a few beaches, a resort and some of our co-nationals forced into subservience by globalised patriarchal white supremacist capitalism.
  • If for whatever reason I do tell you where I’m “from”, don’t respond with further questions that pry into my family history. This information is personal and I do not want to be pressured into telling it to you just to be polite. 

I’m a woman of colour who attended your white-dominated feminist event, an event at which I hoped to feel safe and in which I hoped to participate on an equal level to everyone else.

At this event, you may have asked me where I’m from – a lot of women did. In response, I might have answered truthfully, I might have lied, or I might have refused to answer. I might have seemed uncomfortable or I might have seemed relaxed. You probably don’t know which of these was actually the case.

In fact, every single time you ask me this question it causes me significant pain.

You probably asked out of idle curiosity. For you it was probably just a minute or two of vaguely interesting conversation. You got to find out which box to put me in so that, even if nothing about your behaviour towards me changed, in your head I am safely categorised.

For me, it was probably the fifth – or the fiftieth – time I had been asked that question that day. It is a question I am asked and have been asked almost every time I have met a new white person throughout my entire life. The cumulative effect of being constantly faced with this question has been to make me feel unwelcome in the country in which I was born, whose culture I share, with whose accent I speak. It has fundamentally undermined my sense of identity and my sense of belonging, creating deep insecurities that I struggle with every day.

Every time you ask me this question, it reminds me that I am not white. It brings with it a flood of recollections of every racist aggression I have suffered or have seen inflicted on friends, family, acquaintances, and total strangers. It reminds me of the inter-generational trauma I have spent years understanding and trying to heal from. It reminds me of everything I know about the globalised patriarchal capitalist white supremacist system of colonialism and imperialism and invasion and rape and the sheer magnitude of it all and what it has done to me and to everyone else. So, when you ask me this question, I am thrown into turmoil. I feel angry and hurt. Sometimes I also feel nauseous, enraged, or sad. Sometimes I start shaking, sometimes crying. You probably won’t see this, though, as I am practiced at hiding it.

In the few milliseconds I have to decide how to answer you, I have to weigh up how much I value our relationship and what effects my answer will have on it. I am angry and upset that you have asked me this monumentally insensitive question, but I know your intentions were probably not bad. Do I want to tell you the truth because I like and respect you? If so, how do I retain my sense of pride? Is there some way I can communicate to you that this hurt me? Does my hurt and anger mean I want to lie to you? Can I get away with lying? If so, which lie? What will you do if you happen to find out the truth later? If I tell you that I hate this question, how will you respond? Do I have the time and energy to have the discussion that you will probably want to have directly afterwards? Will you still take me seriously if I start crying, or yelling? Do I want to put myself in a situation where I might start crying, or yelling, in front of you? Do I have the strength to simply walk away if I don’t want to have this discussion? If I do choose to have it, will you be able to understand? If not, will this anger and hurt me even more? What if you respond negatively? Will you be angry at me and can I cope with this? Will you talk to other women about me behind my back? How will I be labelled, by you and by others, as a result?

You cannot fix racism. What you can do is make it possible for me to participate in your event on as equal a basis as possible. This means not reminding me that I have been made structurally inferior to you and almost everyone else present by the global system of white supremacy. Reminding me of this affects my self-confidence and makes it harder for me to contribute as I usually would. It may also mean plunging me into a state of trauma in which I cannot function normally. This does not mean denying or ignoring the existence of race and of white supremacy, but it does mean not bringing it up at times when it is not relevant.

My origins are important to me and have had a huge effect on my life. If I feel safe and comfortable enough, or if I feel it is important that you know, I will probably spontaneously tell you where I am “from” at some point during the course of our acquaintance. You will find it out exactly as you would find out any other significant piece of information about me, but without making me feel terrible and preventing me from participating.

If you do ask me this question or have done so in the past and later realise you should not have, don’t apologise to me. In fact, don’t even come talk to me about it. This puts pressure on me to forgive you, which may not be what I want to do. It also puts pressure on me to help make you feel better, when in fact it is you who have hurt me. I do not owe you my forgiveness or my emotional support. If you feel bad, go talk to a white person about it instead.

You want to ask me this question because you are and have always been immersed in white supremacist patriarchy. This makes race a crucial lens through which you understand the world and allows you to unquestioningly reproduce the male behaviour of not respecting boundaries on women of colour. This is not your fault. But, please just think for a minute about where your curiosity comes from and the effects it has on others.