“No, I mean where are you really from?”
This is a line that makes me cringe in discomfort every time someone says it, which is far too often. Why? It is such a seemingly innocent question; it suggests that the person asking it is interested in the heritage and culture of the person being asked. However, it is important to note that the phrasing of this question implies that the person being asked has already given an answer: Pennsylvania, California, Indiana, or some other unmemorable place in the United States. The person asking must have used stereotypes, ethnicity, race, etc. to decide that the answer given is unsatisfactory.
So what, right? Why should it matter that someone used context clues to assume that another person’s family recently migrated to America? For one, it implies an “American race”. More specifically, it implies that Americans should be white. It implies that the “correct” American is a distant descendant of a western European. This is problematic on two accounts: it disregards the fact that white Americans are themselves migrants (or descendants of migrants), and it also perpetuates Native American erasure. It is also important to take a closer look at the racial tension and xenophobia that is active in America and, therefore, the way that racial profiling in this way is loaded.
We, as a country, have just emerged from the presidency of Donald Trump. Regardless, of anyone’s opinion of him, he is very clearly one of the most internationally xenophobic presidents of modern America. He tweeted constantly about the “criminals” crossing the US-Mexico border. He incited fear that Americans will lose their jobs to these migrants. He developed a large part of his campaign on “building a wall” to protect Americans from illegal immigrants. While I wish that this sentiment could fall into the idea of a “single story”, that Trump was the only person who felt this way, he gained a large following based on this ideology and, thus, this mindset of xenophobia resonated with many Americans.
Many Americans also harbor an international xenophobia towards middle easterners. I, personally, grew up hearing a lot of hate directed towards middle easterners. I vividly remember in third grade, after Osama Bin Laden was killed, that my teacher held a celebration. She read the newspapers out loud, and let students sing songs about his death. While Bin Laden was an awful man, and his actions were irredeemable, hatred towards him quickly turned into hatred towards middle easterners in general. People around me had a difficult time separating fundamentalist violence from the general Islamic population, and I hear cries to ban the religion and prohibit immigration from Islamic countries. Once I was talking to a man and he referred to Muslims as “dirty people”. He described them as “barely human”. It was then, when I was in eighth grade, that I realized just how alive xenophobia is in America. I also would like to note that this man aspired to become a cop, someone responsible for protecting the public who hated a group of Americans based solely on their religion.
A third group of people who have suffered an increase in hate crimes recently are Asian Americans. Former president Trump referred to coronavirus as the “Chinese disease”, and there has been an increase in violence targeted towards Asian Americans. This increase in violence reflects the growing sense of xenophobia in America, as well as an increase in racial tension.
But all of this may seem off topic from my original claim: what does any of this have to do with an innocently asked question? When someone introduces themselves as an American, claims that they are from Ohio, or Pennsylvania or wherever, they have defined their identity. If they wish to share information about their ethnicity or race then they will do so, separately, when they feel it is appropriate or relevant. The other person should never demand that some other, more “satisfactory” answer be given, as this is a form of “othering” that brings negative attention to the difference between the two individuals.
By negative attention, I am referring to the way that a statement like this uses stereotypes, race, and ethnicity to highlight an assumption that the other person must not be American. Furthermore, as has been demonstrated, there is a certain xenophobic weight carried within the statement as there is a large hateful and internationally xenophobic movement in America. By bringing attention to someone’s race, religion, ethnicity, etc. without them initiating the conversation and wanting to talk about it can make a person very uncomfortable, especially given the current negative ideology that many Americans currently hold regarding migrants.
Next I think that it is important to analyze the irony in the statement, specifically in the way that it is primarily asked to people of color. White people did not inhabit the Americas until the 1400s, and it took much longer for there to be a significant white population in the United States. So, who was here before the white man? Native Americans. I find it unnerving how the white population moved in and claimed the continent as their own. “Manifest Destiny” and “Ancient Right to the Land” are explicitly racist ideas that describe the white population as divinely enhanced, with an unspoken claim to what is now the United States.
The way that this population claimed their “Ancient Right” is somehow even more disturbing than the mindset itself. The Native Americans that were not killed by the disease and infection that was imported from Europe were forced from their territory by this new population. The most deadly and devastating migration of anyone into the United States thus far was the original wave of white elitists who ravaged the Natives and took the land for their own. This original migration was one of terror, disease, and brutality, yet these original migrants are implicitly still held to some high esteem.
American history fails to improve after this original sin; the American South began a forced migration of Africans and turned them into slaved. As is commonly understood in the United States, these slaves were brutally mistreated, and the effects of slavery continue to be felt. After the abolishment of slavery, which was obtained at the cost of a bloody civil war, the United States remained legally segregated until the mid-twentieth century. However, even though it is no longer legal, the scaffolding of this segregation remains in place today. Take Columbus public schooling for instance, Columbus City Schools is the only predominantly black school district in the area, and it is grossly overpopulated and underfunded in comparison to the white, suburban school districts mere blocks away. So why are black Americans, Americans who have suffered endlessly at the hand of the United States, not considered the image of an American?
All of this lays the backdrop for why I find the question, “Where are you really from” so distasteful. It implies some image of a native-born American, which is very ironically a white person. This question implicitly reinforces this idea, and exalts the single most destructive group of migrants, the white population, as the “natural” American. Furthermore, it neglects the to acknowledge that if anyone should be tagged with the title of “natural” American, it should be the Native American who was dismissed as a voiceless subaltern of sorts. Or, perhaps, the title should be given the black American population, who have faced countless challenges posed by the white American population, and still struggle to achieve some form of equality.
In addition, asking the question in this way, expectantly demanding some “satisfying” answer, contributes to the “othering” currently afflicting migrants in this country. This question takes the power away from the individual to define themselves in whatever way they see appropriate. It implies that the individual could not possible be American, there must be something in their identity that differentiates them from the white population. I find it important to note here that in saying this it is not my intention to take the power away from an individual’s culture and identity, in fact my intention is the opposite. The power of one’s identity should be reliant only on themselves. If they wish to identify themselves as American, that identity should not be questioned. If they wish to identify themselves in some other way, that should be equally respected. The important idea here is that the individual retains power over their own identity, and that the image of a “true” American should not be though of as exclusively white. The United States has a diverse history, some of it incredibly shameful and disturbing. The disturbing parts should be acknowledged and amended, and the beautiful parts should be celebrated.
I have once heard of America as being the melting pot. In many ways, this metaphor is problematic as it implies that migration to America requires the ‘shedding’ of one’s other identities. Perhaps a better metaphor is like the sand, countless individuals with their own story and identity that make up the image of America. Do not be the person asking, “where are you really from?” Do not be the person implying that white Americans are true Americans. Fully respect that one’s identity is determined solely by themselves.