Invisible Identities: Why Asking “Where You’re From”​ Can Have Negative Emotional Connotations

This article was originally published on my LinkedIn Pulse, 10/10/2019.

I just attended the Inclusion and Diversity Workshop with Fern Mandelbaum at G2, and I wanted to expand upon an experience I shared within my small group. 

This topic is something Fern emphasized happens in workplaces too often – asking someone “where they’re from,” and then being shocked when their answer differs from the answer you assume they’ll give you. 

People often see the question “where are you from” as a harmless form of smalltalk, but don’t usually acknowledge how their response to said question can affect somebody. When someone asks this question, they often have an assumption of the answer, or an unconscious bias about the person’s response, and subsequently, identity.

Why does this matter? Because responding in a shocked, stunned, or “can’t believe it!” manner may very well negatively affect the person to whom your seemingly innocent question is posed.

But why do I care?

Well, for those of you who don’t know: I’m Latina. I am half Mexican. 

I’m sure some of you are scratching your heads because “I don’t look Mexican”. I know some of you probably even said it in your head. But what does that even mean? That all people of a certain ethnic background look identical to one another? That Mexicans are supposed to LOOK a certain way to fit a stereotype you’ve drawn up in your mind?

Let’s talk about it.

You might think that your initial question is harmless, but in my experience, whenever I’m asked where am I from or my what my ethnicity is, I freeze. I have, unfortunately, had multiple people tell me “you don’t look Mexican” and ask “but can you speak Spanish?” like either of those things will solidify, in their eyes, my ethnicity. 

I feel I have to justify my ethnic background and overemphasize that I am Mexican, but no, I cannot speak Spanish fluently, and YES, I know I don’t look like I am.

But that’s just the thing. Why should I have to defend my cultural identity to someone who is in “disbelief” that I actually am the ethnicity I say I am?

When you say, “Omg, but you don’t look like you’re Mexican!” or “Oh I thought you were Irish/Polish/Italian, etc.,” you diminish my cultural identity with your dismissal of my response.

Not all Latinx people look, act, or speak the same language(s). And when you discover that someone like me IS Latinx, don’t respond with, “Omg, I can’t believe that! No you’re not!” Because I am. And it’s not for you to decide whether I look the part.

I wrote a short article in 2017 about this exact thing: being a light-skinned, mixed race Latina. And honestly, I was shocked reading the comments, learning that SO many other people have experienced the same thing as I have.

If you’re realizing now that you’ve done this before – been shocked when someone told you where they’re from (country, ethnicity, or something similar) – you might be wondering what you can do to be better and make more conscious, less biased responses in the future.

The easiest way to go about a situation like this is respectfully posing your question: “I was wondering what your ethnic background is, if you’re comfortable telling me. I’m X ethnicity, but both of my parents were born in the US.” is a really good way to broach this sensitive topic.

During Hispanic Heritage Month (and always), things like this resonate more with me than normal. Going about my day-to-day, I struggle with my identity knowing that, unless you know me personally, you don’t know I am Mexican. And while that might not be a concern to you, it is for me. I want my ethnicity and cultural identity known because it makes me part of who I am. Just as being a woman, a first-generation college graduate, and an editor/writer do.

The point of this is: as you go through your days and encounter new people, step back before asking a question and assuming you know the answer. Ask questions, be respectful, and when someone answers your question, accept their response with an open mind.

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