“Where are you from?” About two years
ago I would have thought that was a great question to ask – a great way to make
conversation and get to know someone. Over my lifetime, I’ve asked it dozens of
times. Probably over a hundred. And even that might be conservative.
It turns out, though, that those four little words can be quite loaded – and
I had no idea.
To me where I am originally from (the island of Newfoundland, on the very
east end of Canada) is a huge part of the person I am. There are vast linguistic
and cultural differences there from even other parts of Canada. Where I live
(Ottawa, Ontario) is very different from where I am from. Ottawa is part of my
current life; Newfoundland is my cultural heritage.
I’ve always been interested in cultures and love learning about them. It’s
not what’s the same about us that makes people interesting to me – it’s what’s
different. It’s in the differences that I learn and grow and come to appreciate
so many things.
So for me, asking someone where they are from has always come from a place
of wanting to respect a person’s heritage enough to ask about it and wanting to
increase my own understanding of places around the world.
I have learned, though, that to the person on the receiving end of that
question, it might not come across that way.
One of my friends here is of African descent, by way of Barbados. She grew
up in Manitoba, one of Canada’s prairie provinces. She’s the one who opened my
eyes to the potentially darker side of this question.
For her and, I have learned since, many people who don’t sound or look like
they “belong” in Canada, that question can make them really feel like they don’t,
in fact, belong. She explained to me that when she answers that she’s from
Manitoba, there is frequently a follow-up of, “No…but where are you really from?” Because a person of her
colour, obviously, couldn’t possibly be “from” Manitoba.
We had a really good conversation about it that day and it made me
uncomfortable. I wanted to resist it. I even thought to myself, “That’s
ridiculous. She’s being over-sensitive.”
I realized later that I thought those things simply because of how
uncomfortable I felt. I had flashbacks of times I had asked that question over
the years. I didn’t like the thought that when I thought I was showing interest
in them, I may actually have been insulting them. I didn’t want that to be the
case, so I resisted the idea.
We often do that, don’t we? In so many situations it’s easier to put the “fault”
of something back onto someone else. And my initial, defensive reaction was to
do just that.
Since that conversation about two years ago, I have thought a lot about this
idea. In fact, I’ve tried to write this post a bunch of times already and have
never really been able to get it to where I’m comfortable with it or to write
it in a way that readers would be comfortable with it.
Today I realized that making people (myself or others) comfortable with it shouldn’t
be part of the equation.
That’s not to say I’m intentionally dismissing your feelings. What I mean is
that it’s normal for this to be an uncomfortable subject, especially when it’s
new to you and if you are an asker of that question.
Plus, sometimes it’s good to be made uncomfortable and if you are uncomfortable right now, please
In today’s world, I think we need to be uncomfortable more often. Reading
only things that already match our thoughts and ideas – things that we are
comfortable with – only serves to more firmly ensconce us on that particular “side”
of an issue. We will only learn and progress – as individuals and as
communities – when we allow ourselves to learn about and try to see the other
side of things. Frequently that means we will be uncomfortable. And, seriously,
that’s OK – even more than OK.
Before I go further, let me explain that for me this is not a question of “political
correctness”. I don’t even like that term. It might just be a question of
semantics, but to me it implies that something should be changed solely to
appease one group or another because politicians are afraid of that particular
group. I get that laws need to be changed sometimes in order for changes to
happen and particularly for rights to be given, but changing individual
attitudes and behaviours is more than that.
For me when we change how we act, what we say and what we accept from those
around us – it shouldn’t be because it’s the “politically correct” thing to do,
but because it’s the right thing to do, out of simple human decency and respect.
This is one of those situations. Just because I’m curious about someone’s
background and I don’t have any ill-will or malicious intent in my question
doesn’t mean I have carte blanche to ask it whenever the urge strikes me. If I’m
genuinely interested in that individual – and not just satisfying my own
curiosity – then the first thing I should consider is whether or not my
question would be welcome in the first place. (Another one of those reminders
from the universe that it’s not, for some reason, all about me. 😉 )
Interestingly, I have even realized that I have not always enjoyed being
asked that question myself.
As I said, I grew up in Newfoundland. European settlement of Newfoundland,
which began in the 1500s, was primarily by English and Irish settlers, with
some pockets of French communities depending on what was happening between
Britain and France at any given moment. There are almost as many variations of
English spoken in Newfoundland as there are communities. It is, I’m sure, a
linquistic academic’s dream. (For more information about that, see the
Wikipedia articles Newfoundland
Newfoundland English.) In my “natural state”, I have an accent.
I lived almost 14 years in Calgary, Alberta. More often than not, as soon as
someone heard me speak, they invariably asked either the general “Where are you
from?” or the specific “Are you from Newfoundland?”
When I confirmed that I was, indeed from Newfoundland, the reactions were generally
(in the other person’s mind, no doubt) very positive: “Oh! I love Newfies!” or “Newfies
are the hardest workers!” There were also the comments about us being the
biggest drinkers, too, which always came up when people found out that I was
from Newfoundland and didn’t drink. “How is that possible???” they would ask
with sincere incredulity. Happily, I never ran into the stereotype of “stupid
I either had to learn to just laugh it all off and take a 10-minute detour
to every conversation when I first met someone or I had to learn to hide my
accent and stop using those colourful expressions. Luckily, I have a knack for
languages and accents and could hide that pretty easily. I also learned fairly
quickly to avoid expressions that non-Newfoundlanders wouldn’t understand. (I
should be clear: I never did this because of any sense of shame of being from
Newfoundland; it was strictly because of how annoying and bothersome the
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t equate those experiences with the experiences
that people of colour or who have immigrated to Canada deal with. Hardly. For
one thing, I at least had a choice to be able to hide my linguistic identity.
That choice is not available to people of a different colour or who aren’t able
to blend in with the language so easily.
But thinking of my own experiences with that question has given me a bit of
a different perspective into what it might be like for others on the receiving
end of it. It also helped me realize that, even if there isn’t a sense of being
made to feel like you don’t belong or perhaps of being “less than”, not
everybody even wants to talk about where they are “from”. So I try to be
respectful of that now.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”Maya Angelou
If you’d like to learn a bit more about this, please check out this TED
talk by Taiye Selasi and this Huffington
Post article by Isabelle Khoo.
Click to share with your friends!