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No, Really! Where Are You From? Race vs. Nationality

180669710“So, where are you from?” While this has been my go-to pick-up line while living overseas, it has also been the start of many an awkward and cringe inducing conversation when asked by some people whose views on what it means to be from a certain place either consciously or subconsciously includes ridged racial qualifications. People who subconsciously add a racial component to their view of citizenry say stupid things as a follow up to where are you from like, “No, really. Where are you from?” which is essentially telling the person being asked that they aren’t allowed to be from where they are from and/or don’t really belong. People who consciously use race to define nationality do things like take to Twitter after an American of Indian descent wins the Miss America Pageant and say things like, “She’s not even American,” or “How the f*#@ does a foreigner win miss America!? #idiots” (one of the most ironic hashtags ever, I dare say).

Speaking for myself, as an American – and especially as a black American – growing up, I always had a very black & white view of what it means to be American.  (Yes, I do think I’m very clever for coming up with that). In the small southern city I lived, these two groups accounted for probably 97% of the people I saw any given day for years of my life, and the majority of people I saw outside of these groups were typically first generation immigrants. And while I know Asians and Hispanics have been part of America for many generations, I also have some sympathy for people who still have the tendency to think of America or being American as a white thing with perhaps an acceptance of blacks. That has been, for some people, their reality, but this has to end. Places like America, Australia and England have been undergoing rapid racial integration over the last few decades that is truly starting to change the makeup of their populations.

backpackinglifeFor me, my view on this stuff started to change after moving to bigger cities in the US and, traveling around the world. I started meeting people of all kinds of racial and ethnic backgrounds who rightfully identified themselves as Americans and who fit the part perfectly, regardless of where their family originated from. Since my shortcoming in terms of my ignorant view of who was American was one of subconscious conditioning and lack of exposure, I readily accepted the idea that anyone can be American. Furthermore, traveling internationally taught me early on that culture, vis-a-vis nationality, was infinitely more informative about what I would have in common with a person than race. Going weeks on end without encountering any Americans and then running into one tends to make a person realize how many cultural characteristics they share with their fellow countrymen and that those things, for better or worse, go far beyond a shared language and effortlessly overcome racial differences and prejudices. I like to say these days that I don’t see race anymore, I only hear accents.

But this subconscious conditioning that to be American or Western is to be white runs deep. It is something I see all the time here in the expat community in Korea when Westerners refer to the Western foreigner community as “white.” Many people, seemingly without realizing the exclusionary meaning of what they’re saying, will use the word “white” when referring to Westerners as a whole because to them, at least subconsciously, being Western means being white. But just like the demographic changes occurring throughout the Western world, the demographics of Korea’s expat community have been changing dramatically in just the five years I’ve been here (partially because of the fact Korea is becoming more open to the concept of non-white Westerners). Every racial group from every Western country is here in dramatically larger numbers than they were just five years ago.

loadgame_tippingpoint_logoWith all this being said, the idea that people from Western countries are white didn’t come from nowhere. Historically it was statistically pretty accurate, but even more importantly it was portrayed to be true with the whitewashing of history. However, those days are over. New Zealand is set to become the first Western country to become majority nonwhite any day now, America is becoming a majority minority country faster than thought and every Western country is becoming more diverse by the day. It is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, to define a nationality in the West by race. And this is a good thing. Our racial diversity is a huge asset and integration is something every country in the world will have to go through, eventually, because of the changing economic realities being brought about with economic development. Even places as homogeneous as Japan are starting to seriously consider changing their immigration policies as they start to realize the only way to offset their aging population and declining birth rate is to allow in new people.

So as this crazy world of ours continues to spread diversity all around, I have one rule to share on how to interact with someone of a racial or ethnic group you do not usually associate with a particular nationality: listen to what they say. If someone says they’re from a certain place, there is a reason for it and that reason is because that is where they consider their home to be. I don’t care if the guy has the heaviest Middle Eastern accent in world. If he says he’s from Tennessee, he’s from Tennessee, and you have no right to tell him otherwise or question it in any way, shape or form.

116198_1That said, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to know more about this man from Tennessee, but it’s important to go about this in a way that doesn’t make it sound like you’re calling them an “outsider,” or implying he doesn’t belong.  What I have always found that works is, after engaging in typical chit-chat and if, and only if, it seems to be going well and I can work it in as a natural part of the conversation, I’ll ask, “What’s your ethnic background?” It doesn’t question the person’s claimed nationality and will get the information you want in regards to racial mix and/or national origin. I understand some people will still find this question annoying, especially if the person asking hasn’t built up any kind of rapport  and because they get asked it all the time, but that’s the price you pay for having coco-skin, green eyes, blond, curly hair and an Aussie accent. Don’t blame us curious folk. Blame your parents for making your sexy ass. Also, feel free to ask me the same question back, and I’ll share with you one of the saddest parts of being a black American. We don’t know what our ethnic background is, so be glad you do and deal with a few annoying questions asked out of sincere curiosity.

Sidebar: For an example of how asking “Where are you from” can go wrong, check out this awesomely funny clip.

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

6 thoughts on “No, Really! Where Are You From? Race vs. Nationality

  1. When you see a beautiful girl that has very unique features (for example: darker skin, blue eyes, curly hair) what would you say is the appropriate question to ask how it is she got those sexy features? What colors are your parents doesn’t work for me usually.

      1. “What’s your ethnic background?” That seems a little too sensitive if you ask me. Almost like I was doing ethnographic research for my anthropology degree.

    1. Dan, “What’s your ethnicity?” is really low-level game. Making racially offensive comments and seeing which ones hit the nerve and then pointing out the deductive reasons behind your actions is much more impressive to the ladies.

  2. Brain,
    This reminded me of the first night I met you. We were having Thanksgiving dinner at a Brazilian place(miss those holidays in Korea) and I said something about us whiteys, including you. As soon as I said it, I thought, “Wait, Brain isn’t white.” and not feeling embarrassed at all(Because we were drunk) I immediately said, “I mean Westerners.” Not sure what my point was here, but it did remind me of a good night with good folks in Korea.

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