I got in a facebook discussion about rude questions directed at people of color. “What are you?” “Where are you from?” I wrote:
I grew up in an environment where people asked, “What are you?” The choice was Norwegian-American or Swedish-American in most cases, but people found the answer interesting. (“You are? So am I! What part of Norway does your family come from? Have you been to the homeland yet?”) I don’t find the question rude, but many people do, so I try to keep myself from asking it. I broke down at Wiscon and asked a guy who was getting a book signed, since I really did not recognize his name at all and had to be very careful when writing it out. So I asked him about it. I could see him freeze a bit, but he told me. It is a culture I have read about and find really interesting, which I told him. I hope he has forgiven me for the question. What difference does national origin make? It’s fascinating. The world is full of all these neat different cultures. I’m not a comfortable traveler and I don’t have a lot of spare money, so I mostly stay home in Minnesota. But I read about the rest of the world, and when I meet someone who knows about a different culture, who is from the culture or has lived in it, I’m interested.
One of the other people on the thread pointed out that “this was apples and origins.” The questions I learned to ask were designed to form bonds or — at most — to discover interesting and not very very important differences. (Norwegian vs. Swedish vs. Danish vs. Icelandic.) Directed at non-whites, they become code for “what are you doing here, where you don’t belong?”
Another person on the thread (a Canadian) said she couldn’t ask a Canadian Person of Color where he or she was from, because the question came out, “you are foreign,” even though the intent of the question was to find out which Canadian province the person was from.
As the US becomes increasingly nonwhite, a lot of racism is bubbling up. I think the safest thing for me to assume is that questions about other people’s backgrounds have a hostile intent. I need to stop asking them.
The facebook discussion started with the Cherrios ad with the mixed race family. Apparently there are people who freak out when faced with a mixed race family or refuse to believe the family is a family. It’s a good idea to assume a unit that looks like a family is a family, even if the members are not identical. Asking people if they are related to their kids is rude.