Sunday, June 13, 2021

Where Are You From?

At my day job, I volunteered to write a blog post inspired by an article a D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) committee member came across. It was shared on the company's intranet. I got positive feedback from the committee members and a few others, but I don't really know how many people saw it. I really wanted to share it with more people. So, here it is....

What are you? Where are you from? Where are you really from?

Sometimes I think about context. Context is important. If we've recently met, there is the potential for friendship, this is something that could be asked.

Where are you from?

When I answer, Toronto or Canada/Ontario, that should be accepted. Maybe there is a response, like, what part of Toronto (Canada/Ontario)? Or, I love Toronto! Or, are you a fan of the Raptors/Leafs/Blue Jays? Or, have you been to the ROM/AGO/Canada's Wonderland? Or even, Toronto sucks! I love Montreal/Vancouver/Halifax.

A follow up question is fine, like where is your family from? Or what I find more acceptable, what is your background?

The question I hate. HATE - Where are you really from?

I hate when I get asked that question. Deeply.

Where are you really from? Like I can't possibly be from Canada.

The question is often responded to with a look, one that makes the questioner act as though I'm being difficult. You know what? I am being difficult. I know what they want to know, what answer they want me to give. I want to be difficult. I want the person asking the question to know that I don't like it. At this point, I want them to know I don’t like them.

The question is dismissive. Of me. Of my story. Of my history. It is the search for a label. So that they can tuck me away in a box. Categorize me.

When I was young, I answered the question. I hoped to avoid conflict. Honestly, safety was a consideration. As I got older, I grew more confident (and annoyed), so my answers became snarky, sassy, rude, though not so much when the questions happened at my place of employment. I was always aware of context, but at a certain point, my answer to, "where are you really from?" became, “No, really, I'm from Toronto. Born and raised.” When I got, the look, I'd give them a look back. A look that plainly expressed what I thought of their question.

If a person wants to know about someone's background, it can be okay to ask them. It’s part of getting to know someone. I know the backgrounds of many friends and colleagues, their families are from Jamaica, Scotland, Taiwan and many other places. The questions happen naturally. Often these parts of a person are revealed through conversations about food, hobbies, and childhood. If a person is just dying to know what a person’s cultural or ethnic background is, maybe they should ask themselves, why? Why is it that one of the first questions they want to ask is “what are you?” or “were are you from?” Why not ask about where they grew up or what school they went to? Ask about what they did on the weekend or what they like to do for fun. There are so many more wonderful, kind, inclusive ways to ask about a person’s history. 

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