A few months back, I was at a party and was introduced to a random, white girl (let's call her Tammy). We hit it off relatively okay and began that boring, yet inevitable, game of "tell me about yourself." Like typical college students, we talked about our majors, our extracurricular activities and played a quick round of: "Do you know this person?" to find other commonalities between the two of us. Everything was going fine until she asked me: "So, where are you from?" The conversation went as follows:
Tammy: So, where are you from?
Me: I'm from California.
T: But where are you really from?
M: I'm from the Bay Area.
T: But, like, actually. Where are you really from?
T: Okay, what I mean is your face is not an "American" face.
M: Excuse me?
T: Like, your eyes...
At this point, I simply fell silent and walked away from the conversation.
Here's the thing. I get that I'm Asian. I have black hair and almond shaped eyes. I also have an American passport. And, as a second generation American, born and raised in California, I find it fascinating that my initial answer to where I'm "from" is not sufficient.
In Tammy's case, I understood what she was trying to get at and was willing to answer her racially-loaded question as soon as she changed her word choice. I am much more receptive to, "What is your ethnic background?" or even, "Where are you from, racially?" However, I draw the line when people, especially strangers conflate questions about my individual origin (i.e. "Where are you from?") with either of the two.
But, regardless of semantics, I believe the question itself is highly charged as it brings in so many implications about origin, nationality and identity; and more often than not, it is flung at people of color, particularly Asian-Americans, by complete strangers that are making it an unfair and often offensive inquiry.
I am of the belief that in normal, respectful and adult human interactions, asking strangers unsolicited questions about personal facets of their identity, is usually considered an inappropriate practice. Race and ethnicity, like gender, socio-economic class and sexual orientation, are personal elements of an individual's constituent self. So asking someone, "Where are you from? Like, really from?" as a way to find out their race, would be like asking someone, "What are you into? Like, sexually into?" as a way to find out if they're gay. It's personal, unnecessary and usually inappropriate.
Sure, sometimes you are genuinely interested and really want to know, in which case, please see paragraph three about appropriate wording. But in my experience, as was the case with Tammy, it's usually used as a filler question -- something to pad the awkward small talk and help people like Tammy better stereotype the stranger they just met. If this is the underlying motivation, please re-read the last paragraph.
But beyond all that, the question, "Where are you really from?" also carries a second, more insidious element. The interrogative itself is about origin. Where are you from? Where do you call home?
I get that I look like I should be from a certain part of the world, centuries ago, before people started traveling and settling outside of their ancestral homes. However, I identify as being from the place where I was born, grew up and lived for my entire life. The fact that these two may not match up is out of my control. So, for my answer, "America" or "California" to be questioned and qualified with a "really" not only invalidates my self-identity, but also assumes that I am not "really" from where I think I'm from.
Frank H. Wu summarizes it succinctly in his book, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.
I know what the question 'where are you really from?' means, even if the person asking it is oblivious and regardless of whether they are aggressive about it. Once again, I have been mistaken for a foreigner or told I cannot be a real American.
While it may not have been Tammy's intent, posing this seemingly innocuous question is a poorly disguised microaggression that perpetuates the belief that Asian-Americans are cultural and racial outsider within the American context. The question whispers, "You are not really an American. You are at best, a guest, at worst, an intruder, and you will always be the perpetual foreigner here." And while there's nothing wrong with being a foreigner, there is when you are treated like a foreigner -- an outsider -- in your own home.
So here's my solution. Like class, gender and sexual orientation, race is and should be treated like any other personal facet of an individual's identity. If you're genuinely interested, by all means, proceed with tact. But, as a general rule of thumb, unless it comes up organically, is volunteered by the person, or somehow critically affects your life, survival and/or well being, then don't ask. Why? Because it's rude and invasive. And guess what? It's none of your business.