All my life, I’ve been asked ethnically probing questions, and often times people aren’t even correct in how they pose them. They’ll often ask things like, “Where are you from?” I often ask my own question for clarity sake. You mean, which state was I born in? You mean, how long have I lived in California? Or do you really mean, since I’m a Person of Color, what ethnic origin made me a brown person?
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. It’s a month where I reflect on my own experience as a multi-ethnic Person of Color that doesn’t call herself a “Latinx” or an “Asian.” Where are you from?—is a question I’ve been asked at least a million times. What the real question is: What is your ethnicity? Ethnicity is different than nationality. People can be ethnically from a different country than their nationality. My nationality is American. My ethnicity and the ethnicity of other People of Color are no one else’s business. Our ethnicity isn’t relevant to our qualifications for being the right job candidate, and it shouldn’t be a subject of casual conversation. So, why is our ethnicity constantly asked on every single job application? On many applications, they ask if you’re Hispanic or not. I am forced to answer this question with a “No” because I identify with more than one ethnicity. Once I answer “No” on many forms, I’m prompted to pick from other groups of ethnicities. I’ve often seen this option: “Two or More ethnicities (not Hispanic.) See the screenshot below from an actual LinkedIn application.
The U.S. Census asks about Hispanic origin to plan and evaluate government programs and policies. But when companies ask these same questions, I don’t understand why the answer can’t simply be two or more ethnicities, period. Why the specification “Not Hispanic?” Is being Hispanic such a bad thing? Despite the recent populous diversity push by many companies now, it often seems to be nothing more than a diversity marketing ploy. This is especially true when despite wanting diversification, there’s such a strong desire to determine if someone is or is not Hispanic on job applications. Why is that unless the Hispanic race is considered the lowest form according to American ethnic stratification? In fact, Hispanic women are paid the lowest out of all ethnicities. Check out this 2021 article by americanprogression.org on Women of Color and the Wage Gap or look at their chart below and see for yourself.
So why do companies need our ethnic identity? Why do they even need to know our gender? Do either make a difference in how qualified we are to do a job? During casual conversations, unless you’re a cultural anthropologist or a researcher conducting a study that entails specific data, what purpose does knowing someone’s ethnicity serve unless it’s to further service our natural bias to subjugate, divide, and segregate people into racial categories.
Multi-Cultured Individuals Are Chameleons
My appearance confuses many people who want so badly to box me in. The biggest reason for such confusion lies in the fact that I look like I’m a mixture of a few different types of ethnicities. I sometimes look Asian. I sometimes look Hispanic. I often resemble a Filipino. My name and features have even made me seem Italian. When vacationing, I’ve certainly been thought of as Hawaiian on more than one occasion by the locals—who were so convinced that they began speaking to me in their native tongue. The fact that I was born in Dallas, Texas, can only speak English, and don’t have an accent makes most non-POC even more confused. They seem to ask, without asking: Which category can we put you in? Because I don’t fit into one ethnic box, but so many people want to place me in one.
There’s a cute name for people like me. In lifting up AAPI Heritage this month, those that identify as half Asian can relate to some of the slang terms used to categorize people like us. Sometimes islanders, especially those culturally and ethnically Hawaiian, call us mixed breeds “Hapa,” which Google defines as the following:
noun: hapa; plural noun: hapas
- a person who is partially of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.
“Some academics theorized that by the turn of the century, Asian America would be comprised mostly of hapas.”
Asking People Of Color Where They’re From Can Be Interpreted As Microaggression
An NPR article even explores Who Gets To Be ‘Hapa’? In the article, scholars argue different points of view regarding whether or not the term has derogatory roots. It points out that the term “Hapa” can be considered a racist slur. Regardless, I’ve had my fair share of conversations where microaggression played an indirect role in unintentional discrimination. Unless you’re a minority, those of us who make up America’s marginalized society aren’t always experiencing overt racist remarks.
In most cases, the simple question of “where are you from” is a form of microaggression, and many aren’t even aware of it. This is especially true when asking a Person of Color. However, context is key. Let’s say, for example, you’re attending a national seminar to which people from all over the United States either fly or drive in. Asking any person where they flew or drove in from is contextually logical and harbors no racial or ethnic undertones. You’re simply asking which state they drove in from, but randomly asking a POC the same question offers a different subtext. The subtext isn’t for curiosity, although that’s what it might appear to be on the surface. While you might be some world traveler, the root behind the need to know where someone is from is to unveil their racial identity, native tongue, or even religious beliefs in a cultural stratification of societal ethnic ranking.
What’s the reason you need to know where someone is from?
In most cases, fair-skinned, fair-haired, blue-eyed white folks aren’t the ones being asked to divulge where they’re from because it seems to be less important knowledge. This is due to their white privilege. In fact, a magazine article by yes! unpacks this beautifully, explaining the 10 forms of being privileged. Some of the points included non-POC individuals partaking in the privilege of having more positive relations with the police. Wealthy white students tended historically to be favored. An article in The Atlantic sheds light on how Elite-College Admissions Were Built to Protect Privilege.
Statistically, white applicants preferentially obtained higher-paid salaries and get selected for a position quicker than a POC candidate with equivalent qualifications and education. In fact, a Northwest study showed that white job applicants are 2.5 times more likely to get hired than POC. As a WOC and an aspiring author, I also related to the yes! article and that it made sure to not exclude books being a form of white privilege. Many books overwhelmingly represent the white race perspective, and the publishing world continues to publish almost all-white authors. A Publishers Weekly explores this in ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing’ Revisited, which discusses marginalized authors or the lack of POC published along with the lack of diversity in those who work in the publishing world. One non-profit organization, We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), campaigns to include more diversification.
Most importantly, non-POC get to escape and are insulated from violent stereotypes associated with POC.
Ethnocentrism & The Ugly Reality Of Modern Racism
#StopAsianHate has become more than a popular hashtag for content creators, but a movement to protect those identifying as either part or full Asian against hate crimes. Like the AAPI Heritage Month of May, #StopAsianHate began as a crusade to help educate and inform people on discrimination and harassment reported by Asians since the pandemic. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Covid-19 has fueled anti-Asian racism and xenophobia worldwide! Still, AAPI Heritage Month is more than invoking high-brow discussions on blatant racism.
The subtle nuances of modern racism can be so disguised that many non-POC individuals are subconsciously unaware of how a simple question can be debasing, not to mention psychologically and emotionally draining on POC who’ve been asked the same question hundreds of times. Asking a Person of Color where they’re from is a perfect example of cultural and ethnic bias that segregates people further into inclusion/exclusion stratification. It’s a form of dehumanization of both grade and rank. It’s a superficial powerplay by those audaciously insisting you tell them: What exactly are you, anyway? Tell me what you are so that I can prejudicially categorize you.
In the guise of innocent exploration, it becomes an exploitation of one’s brownness. Where are you from?—to a POC—is like asking anyone, regardless of gender or ethnic origin, during an interview: How old are you? Would you divulge your age in a job interview? Absolutely not. It is highly unethical. You’re also not to answer unethical interview questions related to marital or family status, disability, sexual orientation, financial situation, and especially questions about your race, place of origin, or ethnicity. However, it still happens. I’ve had brazen interviewers ask me what it’s like to be brown, and I’ve even been asked to divulge my age. Both questions are highly unethical. It’s the same reason why job candidates should never answer the question: What year did you complete your college degree? Yes, I’ve been asked this, too, in which I informed the recruiter that I would not answer such age-probing questions.
The year you or I completed our bachelor’s or master’s degree is irrelevant. The question is specifically designed to indirectly calculate someone’s age and thus disqualify them based on age discrimination. Asking someone where they’re from is the same exact thing.
The Bottom Line
Are you a cultural anthropologist doing a longitudinal study into American culture? Are you a sociology professor teaching a class about ethnicity and race, thus having an in-class discussion? Are you a scientist, researcher, or psychologist conducting ethnocentric research to perhaps better improve racial relations as we know them?
The general public is most likely none of the above.
Unless you’re some cultural scholar conducting such a study, the general public and modern society as a whole must learn to eradicate the need to unearth and get to the bottom of a Person of Color’s ethnicity. If the person wishes to bring up their own culture in casual conversation, then let them volunteer this information. But, trying to figure out where someone is from is none of anyone’s business. As we bring #StopAsianHate to the forefront of racial awareness for the betterment of racial relations, we must honor Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) beyond May. The first step in doing this is to admit that both modern and old-fashioned racism continues to exist on a global scale for all POC.
As a POC, I’ve even been guilty of asking someone this question despite being asked myself millions of times. Because of the connotations associated and its prejudicial ethnic stratification implications, I’ve stopped asking, “Where are you from?” You should, too, regardless of innocent motives. Stop yourself from the temptation of asking a POC where they’re from and start finding more relevant topics of discussion. Someone’s ethnicity shouldn’t be a subjugated talking point, nor should it be relevant for career qualifications on a professional level or a qualification for friendship.