Kristin Booker would like everyone to stop asking her where her ancestors came from. It gets old when you get the same question every day:
“Where are you from?”
“Charleston, West Virginia.”
“No, I mean where are you FROM? What’s your racial background?”
“No, I mean which one of your parents is white/Asian/other? Because you can’t be ALL black.”
This is where the compulsive pedant in me rears its head and says something about how probably a sizable majority of African-Americans have some proportion of European ancestry, so “you can’t be ALL black” is a brainless thing to say. There’s a difference between genetics and cultural identification, and when Booker answers with, “I’m black,” she’s making a cultural identification based on the fact that all of her parents and grandparents make the same identification. I could go on talking about the one-drop rule and what I like to call the “walking down the street test,” which is an important factor in race relations. (For example: when people see me walking down the street, they see a white person without ambiguity. This is simple enough for someone who looks like me, but a person of multiracial heritage could get a more varied reaction, which is where the annoying conversation comes in.)
Anyway. The comments are peppered with “What’s your problem?” reactions; apparently some people don’t like being told they shouldn’t interrogate strangers or near-strangers about their ethnic heritage. I will get the obvious part out of the way first: if the subject comes up, and the person you’re asking tells you her racial identification, you do not EVER contradict her answer. “But—” No. When the subject is HER family background, she knows much more than you do, unless you are a geneticist she hired to explore exactly that question, which you are not. If she tells you she’s black, that should be sufficient. If she says both her parents are black, you take her word for it.
Then there’s context. The exchange that Booker has summarized for us is clearly taking place with someone who doesn’t know her very well. It’s one thing if the subject comes up between people who are well-acquainted, who do not presume to contradict one another’s answers, and are just curious because genetics is an interesting topic among Americans. It’s easiest to have this conversation between people on a roughly equal level of privilege. I remember having the ethnic heritage conversation with a handful of my classmates in elementary school. It’s not difficult for a bunch of white kids to talk about which countries in Europe and which Native American tribes their ancestors came from. (Fun factoid for my readers in other countries: white Americans like to talk about having Native ancestors, but we generally know nothing or next to nothing about who our Native ancestors actually were. This may be different for parts of the country with larger Native populations, but here in the metropolitan mid-Atlantic, we are hilariously out of touch with the First Nations in our family trees. We are, culturally, just as white as we appear.) Nobody was unilaterally forced into the conversation, no one was subjected to more scrutiny than others, and we didn’t treat each other any differently after we found out who was more English, more Irish or more German. The people asking Kristin Booker “where are you FROM?” are not operating in that context.
More important than the interpersonal context is the cultural context. No matter how strongly you feel that your “Where are you from?” question is borne strictly of innocent curiosity, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate that curiosity from the structural racism in our society. When you approach a stranger or near-stranger and demand to know her ethnic background, you are effectively asking her how you should treat her going forward. Even if you’re the most accepting, genuinely curious person in the world, and you’re totally going to treat that near-stranger the same way no matter how she answers your totally-innocent question, she doesn’t know that. She has to live in a society which continues to be shaped by racism, and she’s going to view your question through the lens of her previous experiences, which have taught her that the category which you are allowed to apply to her is going to inform the way you behave towards her in the future. See here for some examples of where this can go. This interaction does not take place in a vacuum, so if the near-stranger of ambiguous appearance tells you she’s not interested in having that conversation, you drop the subject.
Because this is my blog and I’ll do what I want, and because I haven’t yet bored you all into a collective coma by complaining about my experiences as an American living in Eastern Europe, I’ll give you all a personal anecdote from my Peace Corps experience: I went into a little grocery store one day to grab some juice and a snack. This was just a few weeks before the end of my assignment, and I couldn’t have passed for Albanian if I’d tried. I’d been living in the country for over two years, and I was well aware of how foreigners were treated differently. So, this one afternoon I went into the little grocery store, and the lady behind the counter was one I hadn’t seen before. I picked out my juice and junk food, brought it to the counter for checkout, and what was the very first thing she said to me?
“Are you English or Italian?”
No “Hello,” no “How are you?” and no “That’ll be 250 lekë, please.” Nope, first thing she wants to know is whether I’m English or Italian.
I gave her a look that was supposed to tell her the question was impertinent, but which she took to mean I didn’t understand her language very well, so she repeated the question: “Are you English or Italian?”
If she’d greeted me that way near the beginning of my assignment, I might have cheerfully told her that I was American, but by that point I was not so cheerful, so I answered, “Neither one nor the other,” paid for my shit, and walked out. Fortunately there were other, better grocery stores nearer to my house, so for the short time remaining in my assignment, I didn’t have any reason to enter that store again.
The reason why her greeting was offensive was not simply because she thought she could narrow my ethnicity down to just two possibilities. (I had a lot of Albanians assume I was English, but rarely did anyone look at me and say “Italian.”) It was offensive because before she could even ring up my purchase, she wanted to know how I should be pigeonholed, and I knew from experience that the box in which they keep people who look like me is not a very comfortable place to live. (It would have been considerably more uncomfortable if I’d been East Asian, South Asian or black, but as a blue-eyed Whitey McWhiterson, it was bad enough.)
Even if your intentions are perfectly innocent, the question of “Where are you FROM?” is not an innocent one. If you are going to treat someone the same way no matter how she answers the question, then you should be able to get to know her without first knowing which countries are represented in her family tree. If she wants you to know where her ancestors came from, she will tell you on her own time.