Last week I posted up my thoughts on the question: “Where are you from?” and I had some pretty interesting responses. There were two distinct voices that came out of the ensuing discussion. A number of people believed that most uses of that question are genuinely curious. With the right tone and intent, the conversation is a great way of learning about each other’s cultural history. On the other hand, some believe that it is intrusive and rude. The question to them is like a reworded and nice way of profiling you.
Let’s follow-up and stretch it out by asking “So where are you reallllly from?” If you think that’s cringe worthy, how about asking a person point blank “what are you?” or “who are you?” Knowing that this form of query would always bother me, I have decided to put a little positive spin to it. From now on I am slowly building up a series of silly responses. I am going to reply with light (and potentially lame) humour and say, “I’m from Iceland,” or “From way up there.”
My most recent answer was when a taxi driver picked me up and in typical fashion he asked, “Where are you from?” I promptly pointed my finger upwards and drily said, “I just came from the moon and back.”
Question like “Where are you from” needs context. “What’s your cultural background?” “What state are you from?” or “What area are you a part of?” are far better questions. Or step it up and say, “Your accent is amazing! Do you speak more than one language?”
There were a few who doubt what I said as racially valid. Whether you like it or not, there is a slight racial undertone to it. We fail to recognise that a question like this can be mundane and racist. Such racial and nonchalant comments do exist. Our view of a racist is so strongly connected with the image of a Neo-Nazi skinhead or a dude who like to wear a big white hood. In a way, we are ill equipped to see what’s happening in front of us. That’s a scary thought – Most of us are not even aware of what we say or when we do it.
I was ordering a coffee when a barista positively welcomed me by saying “Hey, when do you start working?” I stared at him with confusion until he realised his mistake and said “Oh sorry, you look like our new staff. You Asians really do look alike”.
Looking back, I realised this is a form of everyday racism, that he was unaware of his action. The disturbing part was the way I reacted. At that time, I was not willfully aware of it myself, because I lacked understanding, I didn’t ask “what do you mean by that?” or brought it to his attention. I just let it go. I am still kicking myself. Moment like this are very common. They are becoming so normal that they are often overlooked and unacknowledged. Sometimes, the remarks come out so fast and so unintentional that you may feel like you’re being overly sensitive and wonder if you’re a touch paranoid. A new and unsettling world has open up to me and I don’t want to be remain ignorant or blind anymore. Knowledge is power too.
Am I being extreme? I don’t think so, especially when I slowly beginning to understand that it’s not the obvious racism that we should look out for. It’s the causal and everyday ones. They are far more detrimental and poisonous. With one simple and offhanded comment, the victim is left with the deep gashes. Dealing with deliberate and obvious racism is much easier to figure out than dealing with unconscious or casual racism. With the overt ones, you can quickly point it out or have a screaming banshee match with the offender (not that I recommend you to do that).
As for me, I’m going to continue to point out what’s invisible and hidden and make them visible. I’m going to keep bring it as a point of discussion. Racism comes in all forms and in today’s society, there are more subtle, hidden and most of the time unintentional types. Unfortunately, we cannot always pretend that these types of behaviour are non-existent. For a country that wants to promote itself as a culturally diverse, we do need to work hard to acknowledge and become more aware.
If you have (hidden) stories to share, or want to get off your chest, feel free to get in touch.
Suzanne Nguyen is an artist and story collector. She is the founder and part of The Two Chairs initiative, a creative and antiracist group. She found a stamp that exposes a hidden and racial legacy; she decided that more should be done to expose racism, especially causal racism. She has become somewhat a surrogate psychologist (though she forewarns that she only has a design degree and isn’t pro to give proper advice). Other then that, she loves to listen to your story, join her and share your story.