|It's not a picture of me, but it's from this campaign by Oxford students of color about racist microaggressions. Photo: Young person outdoors making incredulous face, holding whiteboard that says, "Then... why do you speak such good English?"
Have you ever wondered why non-white people seem to get so upset / offended / angry / annoyed / etc. when you ("you" here usually meaning white people [and yes, Not All White People TM do this], but not always) ask "Where are you from?" or "Where are you really from?" or "So what's your native tongue?" or in general, any question along these lines?
Have you ever been that person? (Maybe, maybe not.) Well, I've been the person it happens to. All. The. Time.
It's okay to want to know what someone's nationality or ethnicity is. It can also be totally okay to ask, sometimes. Curiosity is normal and especially if someone looks or sounds different from you, you might think you're just learning more about them or showing that you're interested in them if you ask about these things. But here's the catch -- for those of us always on the receiving end of these seemingly innocent queries, it's not so innocent or innocuous or random. It happens all the time.
I'm a Chinese American and I'm constantly being stopped on the street by total strangers demanding to know where I'm really from, or whether I speak Korean or Japanese or Chinese, or how long ago I came to the U.S.
Taken individually, these strangers probably don't intend to be malicious or rude or offensive -- or, god forbid, racist -- but taken collectively, the constant stream of messages that I must not belong, that I can't possibly be from the U.S., that I am a public object for other people to examine and interrogate, basically, that I'm something exotic and other-than-normal-human, are deeply rooted in racism. They don't have to be individually targeted or malicious or cruel or specifically intended; they just have to be based in a hidden set of ideas about whiteness being normal and default (and therefore invisible and unquestionable) and Black, Indigenous, Latin@, Mixed, and Asian people as "different [from the unnamed norm of whiteness]" and therefore public spectacle.
Lots of words. (Sorry, I'm working on that.)
What I'm trying to say is, yes, I get that you're probably not trying to be a meanypants bastard if you ask me where I'm really from or what my native language is. BUT, and this is an enormous BUT, that doesn't mean that it's okay. I get these questions all the time, and it's like wind and rain and shit slowly eroding a rock, except the rock is me and the wind and rain and shit are casual racism. (I say casual, not because it's flippant or irrelevant, but because these little things don't fit neatly into a conventional, mainstream understanding of what "racism" is.) Once or twice, maybe it hurts a little. Thousands of times a year, it constantly rubs raw.
So here are some handy Do's and Don'ts for not making a total ass out of yourself, but still being able to ask and learn about other people's cultural identities and communities. (Because yes, actually, learning about and appreciating cultures that aren't yours is a good and desirable thing. Just there are so many wrong ways that people go about thinking they're appreciating and learning, and really, aren't at all.)
Don't say, "So how many languages do you speak, including your native tongue?" when what you're really trying to ask is what the person's native tongue is -- and especially if the only reason you're asking this (and assuming their native tongue isn't English) is because they're not white. (Even if the reason you're asking is because you think or know the person has an accent, it's still rude out of context leading up to it.) Power dynamics also mean that this tends to happen way more to visibly non-white people (whether or not we have an accent) than to white and white-passing people who do have accents.
Do ask, "Do you happen to know languages besides English?" if you're having a getting-to-know-each-other kind of conversation, and you've been asking similar types of questions already (like, what cities have you lived in, do you have siblings, what kind of work do you do if any, etc.). This doesn't single out someone automatically as a person you're assuming isn't "really" from here, or rest on the presumption that the person must know a language other than English.
Don't open a conversation (especially with a total stranger) by asking what someone's nationality/heritage/ethnicity/race is. Especially if you didn't even say "hi" or "how are you" or "what's your name" first. You're probably neither doing demographic research nor taking the census nor booking us into jail. And when you do this, even if this is not how you meant it or thought about it in your head, it sounds like you think we're exotic fascinations, not people.
Do ask about someone's nationality/heritage/ethnicity/race after getting to know them, and after asking if it's okay to broach the topic. (Example: "Hey Saaliha, would it be okay to ask you about your ethnic background?") That gives the person an out ("Sorry, I don't feel comfortable talking about this right now") or an opportunity ("Sure, I don't mind"). This shows that you respect and care about the person you're talking to, and you don't just think of them as an exotic potentially foreign object that exists only to entertain your curiosity.
Don't say, "What are you?" when you want to find out what my ethnicity or nationality are. I'm a who, not a what.
Don't say, "So what's your real name?" if a non-white person introduces themself with a Western-sounding name. Whatever name someone has told you to call them, call them by that name. Period. That is their "real" name.
Do say, "Can you tell me how to pronounce/spell that?" if you're not sure how to pronounce or spell someone's name, especially if knowing how to pronounce or spell the name will help you remember it.
Don't say, "But where are you from?" or "No, but seriously, where are you REALLY from?" when you're trying to find out my ethnicity or nationality. Again, especially if the only reason you're asking this question is because I'm not white and you're assuming that because of that, I must definitely not be from here.
Do say, "Have you lived around here for awhile?" or "So where did you grow up?" or "Have you always lived in [city/town/state/region]?", especially if you're just getting to know someone or you're making small talk at a networking event or a random awkward social situation like waiting at a bus stop. These questions don't assume "otherness" of the person you're talking to, and they let the person share information about themself on their own terms. They're also questions that can apply to everyone, and not only to people already pegged out as "exotic" or "other."
Don't crash cultural events that seem geared mostly/only to people from a specific culture that you're not from, or try to host an event about a culture that you're not from. You may think this is appreciation; it's not. Especially if you're white, white people have always been able to demand space -- from setter colonialism to gentrification to micro-interactions -- and it's incredibly important for marginal cultures and communities to have spaces for ourselves. Also, if you're not from a specific cultural background, you don't get to claim ownership of our culture by running any kind of event supposedly about appreciating or celebrating us -- that's not appreciation or celebration; it's theft and misappropriation.
Do go to cultural events that are open to the general public (or that someone from that cultural community has specifically invited you to) to learn more about cultures that aren't your own. (Do wear culturally-specific clothes if invited. If you're not sure, ask first.) This shows that you appreciate the people from this culture AND that you respect boundaries and different types of spaces.
Don't assume that learning or knowing a language not from your own culture or ethnic background automatically gives you authority to talk about the culture of the people who speak that language, or makes you an expert, or means that you're "basically one of them." It doesn't.
Do learn languages that aren't your own or part of your own ethnic background. Do ask people you have a pre-existing relationship with (i.e. not a random stranger on the street) who speak the language you're learning if it's okay to practice with them. This is a major way to show that you appreciate other people's languages and cultures.
Don't walk up to a random non-white person and start suddenly talking to them in a language you assume they speak based on their appearance/actions. (Examples: Going up to a brown person wearing hijab and then speaking Arabic to them, or going up to a brown person mopping the floor and then speaking Spanish to them.) You have no idea what race or ethnicity the person actually is, and even if you did, that information still doesn't automatically match up with which languages a person speaks, and even if you did guess correctly, it's still a racist assumption.
Do speak to a non-white person in their own language if you can tell for sure that they actually speak that language, and especially if you're doing so because it could be helpful. (Examples: You try to ask someone for directions, and they reply in broken English with a lot of Swahili mixed in, so you switch to Swahili; or, you're calling someone for work and a person answers in Vietnamese, so you start speaking Vietnamese to them.)
Remember, in some contexts, many things can become okay to say that wouldn't be okay to say in others.
For example, if someone tells you that they were born and raised in a country where English isn't a main language, and especially if they say they're trying to practice English or they think they're not that good at it, complimenting them on their English is much more okay. On the other hand, if you see me and notice that I'm not white, and then decide out of the blue to compliment my English right after we started talking, that sends the message that you don't think I could possibly be from here or that I don't belong -- and while that could be true, since you don't know me, there's a power dynamic here that means this really only happens to people of color, not white people.
If a lot of this sounds like hypersensitive politically correct horseshit, let me be first up to tell you that a) it's not, b) you're fantastically missing the point, and c) I don't give a flying fuck about political correctness.
This is about basic human respect and decency. It's about treating me as a person, not an object. It's about not being a douchebag to strangers who did nothing to deserve random douchebaggery. It's about making the people around you feel like it's okay to be around you. Those people might even be folks you care about a helluva lot, so yes, this actually matters.
You have the power to be aware of how you deal with other people. Maybe try rethinking initial reactions of defensiveness or hostility or accusations, and consider that what seems harmless to you is actually very harmful to the other people involved. And yes, I mean harmful. Not "offensive." Harmful.
If you truly believe that all people should be respected or should be "equal" and that differences should be respected, now you have a lifetime of future opportunities to demonstrate it. Every person of color -- born here or not, native English speaker or not, called by a Western name or not -- constantly subjected to these minor degradations will appreciate the one person not doing it.
And that has been your public service announcement for the night.
(*Note: This is very U.S.-specific, but could possibly apply to some other Western or European contexts where English is the dominant language -- or with a substitution replacing English with the actual dominant language in said other context.
**Note: Also, suggestions on trying to rephrase things are not meant to imply that anyone who cannot, for whatever reason, consistently or significantly change their language is automatically a bad, evil, terrible person. There are a lot of reasons, including not being fluent in a language, being disabled, being uneducated, etc. that someone might not be able to change their wording part or all of the time. That being said, for those who can change their language I really mean it, language can be an incredibly important vehicle for expressing hidden ideas and attitudes and for changing them.
***Note: Some examples in here assume that the person doing them is sighted. These do apply to sighted people. This isn't to say that blind and low vision people can't do the same things, but also is specifically recognizing how many sighted people use visual cues to make assumptions about race, language, identity, etc.)