"The impact to the person receiving that persistent questioning is that you are not a true American, you are a perpetual foreigner in your own country," [Columbia Professor Derald Sue said]. The people asking those questions generally don't have bad intentions, said Sue, but "they are not in contact with their unconscious world view that only true Americans look a certain way: blond hair, blue eyes."
Presumably there are some people out there having a knee-jerk reaction to reading this. After all, this is a time where everyone’s sensitivities are heightened and with good reason. Since Trump’s election, hate crimes are on the rise. According to CNN, “of the nearly 1,400 hate crimes and bias incidents the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked since the 2016 presidential election, anti-immigrant incidents were the most reported, followed by anti-black incidents.” Trump has incited violence because of his xenophobic, racist rhetoric. People of color are terrified for their physical safety and mental/emotional well-being. Asking someone “where they are really from” may be triggering and scary, in addition to annoying. It is a question that strangers don’t have a right to ask and shouldn’t feel entitled to.
But this also brings up many feelings about talking about race. As a country, we don’t do this well—at all. And well-meaning white people who often ask this question (though its a question that is certainly not limited to whites), may feel attacked because telling them that they engage in racist, microaggressive behavior evokes discomfort and denial.
British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge recently wrote about the discomfort even seemingly progressive whites have when it comes to racial issues. "Amid every conversation about Nice White People feeling silenced by conversations about race, there is a sort of ironic and glaring lack of understanding or empathy for those of us who have been visibly marked out as different for our entire lives, and live the consequences," she said.
There are lots of ways to connect with people that don’t have to do with race or ethnicity. Ask yourself why you feel the need to ask this kind of question of a stranger in the first place. Besides satisfying your curiosity, what purpose does this serve? Then challenge yourself to ask something else. Something far less personal and invasive. Or as Tanzina Vega writes, “Or better yet, rather than asking anyone "where are you really from?" try listening—or letting that person ask you a question—instead.”