“Where are you Really From?” Is Curiosity about Ethnicity Racism?

Many rush to say that inquiring into someone’s ethnicity is inherently racist? Why is that so? Is curiosity regarding background a bad thing?

A lot of people seem to feel that simply asking a question regarding someone’s ethnicity is inherently racist or prejudiced. I strongly disagree and I feel I might be a bit of an expert on this topic, since it is a question I get in Buenos Aires, where I live, on an almost daily basis.

Obviously, I don’t condone rudeness, but when people ask me regarding my ethnicity “Where are you originally from?” they don’t usually mean “you don’t belong here.” What they mean is “I am curious about you.” I know this for certain because I always answer politely and calmly and it has always led to a really pleasant interaction, 100% of the time. No one has ever made me feel I don’t belong there; no one has ever insulted me in any way. On the contrary, when I tell people I live there and am actually an Argentine citizen, they are usually delighted to hear it.

It’s natural to take an interest in our fellow human beings. It’s natural to notice the differences between us in appearance, skin colour, facial features or accent. The local custom there of talking to strangers and being curious about them, and their ethnicity, is something I actually really appreciate about living there. Well, most of the time. Occasionally, I do respond rather grumpily, but if I do it’s because I’m feeling anti-social, not because I think they are bigots. Also, when I ask people in return, “how about you? Are your family originally from Buenos Aires?” I sometimes get really interesting and unexpected answers.

“It’s natural to take an interest in our fellow human beings”

It’s natural for people to express curiosity. It’s natural to want to make connections with our fellow human beings. Please don’t stifle this urge. We need to connect with each other more, not less, especially when we live in a multicultural, multi-ethnic society.

Many of these questions regarding ethnicity and background are simply an innocent way of making small talk and beginning a conversation. If I answer with “Scottish” then, naturally, everyone mentions kilts and the film Braveheart — which may not be original, but it’s clearly a way of saying “Hey, I find something about your culture fun or amusing” and is pretty analogous to remarking “I like your sweater.” When I add in the Pakistani part, I have more interesting conversations, but never, so far, hostile ones.

Of course, it’s everyone’s perfect right to refuse to talk to or engage with strangers. But I think talking to each more can enrich our society. Asking questions, trying to find out more about ethnicity is the opposition of racism. Racism is a knee-jerk response; racists already think they have all the answers they need. And taking an interest in your specific history as an individual is the opposite of bigotry – bigotry is about generalising, stereotyping, grouping people together.

“…bigotry is about generalising, stereotyping, grouping people together.”

If your story is complicated, that makes it all the more interesting. For those who seem really engaged, I sometimes indulge in the longer version of my answer, which begins something like this:

All life is a happy accident, the result of a million fortunate coincidences, but mine especially. My mother was a year younger than I am now, towards the end of her reproductive life. Looking chubby, but not pregnant, she flew halfway across the globe & I was born in an industrial Scottish town, making me British, as well as Pakistani, ungrateful little shrimp me, refusing to turn in the comfort of the womb, torturing her surely as I was tugged feet first into the world, umbilical cord a hangman’s noose, but loosely slung. A healthy wailing baby. What were the odds that an ageing Parsi bachelor would meet a Scottish divorcee at a Wagner concert in Amsterdam and together, behind the lowered blinds of a Karachi bedroom, a determined little tadpole would gently pierce the lovely moon of her ovum. And that meant I would be here, amid the faded grandeur of a South American city, in the desirable suburban real estate of the Milky Way.

A former academic, Iona now works as a freelance writer, editor, translator and general wordsmith.

Article Discussion

  • Posted by Mark Warschauer

    20 October, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    I lived in Hawaii for four years. It's the most diverse state in the U.S., and one where everybody loves to ask and talk about people's ethnic backgrounds. It's seen as a point of pride, respect, and community building, nothing negative about it.

  • Posted by Anonymous

    3 August, 2017 at 7:02 am

    You have a very interesting background, and a beautiful name. Great article as it places the enquiry in context. If it is written down, and free of context, it will look very different. Perhaps that is the problem?

  • Posted by Anonymous

    1 August, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    Thank you so much for this. It needs to be said, a lot. Everyone's ethnicity is a rich and glamorous history. Everyone's ancestors have had both shining and reprehensible moments. How can we know each other and value each other and appreciate each other if we can't talk about where we come from?

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