Where are you 'really' from? Try another question

Story highlights

  • Tanzina Vega: Being asked, "Where are you really from?" is always about so much more than the question, which is itself a microaggression
  • Critics of microaggressions say people like me are being too sensitive about harmless, everyday questions -- but I think it's about time we questioned the question, writes Vega

Tanzina Vega covers race and inequality for CNN Money. Follow her on Twitter @tanzinavega. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)For many Americans, making small talk usually means avoiding any discussion about politics, religion or money. But asking about a person's race or ethnicity, it seems, is still fair game.

"Where are you from?" asked a taxi driver recently as we crawled through snarled traffic in Manhattan.
    "New York," I told him.
    He looked at me in his rearview mirror and asked again.
    Tanzina Vega
    "No, where are you from?" he persisted. "Where are your parents from?"
    I understood the question was about my race. Despite being born in New York City, I get asked where I'm "from" often.
    I have light skin, a broad nose, full lips, thick dark wavy hair and dark brown eyes. I am a Latina of Puerto Rican descent, which means I could have European, Native American and African ancestry. To many, I'm racially ambiguous. So I am often asked a version of this question.
    It's exhausting.
    Have you been asked "where are you really from?" Share your experience with #whereimreallyfrom or text/whatsapp us at +1-347-322-0415.
    Some social scientists consider the question a "microaggression," which Merriam Webster defines as comments or actions that "unconsciously or unintentionally express a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group." The word was first used by Harvard professor Dr. Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s, and in the past few years has reemerged as part of the American racial justice lexicon.
    Latinos, Asians and people who fall in between the black-white racial binary in the United States are those who are most likely to be asked, often in casual conversation, about their racial or ethnic roots. On the surface, the question, "Where are you from?" seems innocuous. And for many of those asking the question, it is often an expression of genuine curiosity, an effort to connect, or a way to learn more about someone. But for those on the receiving end, like me, it can be a different experience.
    As someone who writes about race and relishes a good conversation about it, maybe I should be the last person saying that being asked where I'm "really from" is tiresome and predictable.
    But it is.
    Critics of microaggression say people like me are being too sensitive about harmless, everyday questions.
    I disagree.
    I think it's about time we questioned the question.
    Because it wasn't just my cab driver, but the esthetician who asked, repeatedly, whether I spoke Spanish, what my ethnicity was and then -- my Latinidad uncovered -- began to talk about how her Mexican neighbors are "family-oriented and hard working."
    Then there are the men I go out with, who want to know my ethnic background before they want to know anything else about me. And of course, the constant barrage of questions that follow my name: "What kind of name is that? Where is Tanzina from?" The truth is, most people don't want to know the history of my name. They want to know what box they should put me into.
    "The impact to the person receiving that persistent questioning is that you are not a true American, you are a perpetual foreigner in your own country," Columbia Professor Derald Sue told me. The people asking those questions generally don't have bad intentions, said Sue, but "they are not in contact with their unconscious world view that only true Americans look a certain way: blond hair, blue eyes."
    If a person of color challenges the question or refuses to answer will they be seen as difficult? I am sure many people reading this column will say, "Sheesh, it was just an innocent question."
    Except it isn't always.
    British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge recently wrote about the discomfort even seemingly progressive whites have when it comes to racial issues. "Amid every conversation about Nice White People feeling silenced by conversations about race, there is a sort of ironic and glaring lack of understanding or empathy for those of us who have been visibly marked out as different for our entire lives, and live the consequences," she said.
    There's a fine line between asking someone where they are from out of curiosity and asking them out of suspicion or fear, especially now in a cultural and political environment where simply being nonwhite can lead to assault, harassment or even death.
    Of the nearly 1,400 hate crimes and bias incidents the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked since the 2016 presidential election, anti-immigrant incidents were the most reported, followed by anti-black incidents. Children of color are dealing with increased anxiety and harassment as the Trump administration's rhetoric about "extreme vetting" of Muslims and building a wall on the Mexico-US border and mass deportations of undocumented immigrants slowly becomes normalized and, potentially, real.
    A 2016 study by the American Psychological Association found that 81% of Native Americans, 76% of blacks, 74% of Asians and 72% of Hispanics reported having experienced discrimination, such as being treated with less courtesy, being treated as if they are not smart or receiving poorer service than others, as a routine occurrence. That type of discrimination -- which can be considered microaggressive -- has profound psychological consequences, researchers found.
    These findings resonate with how exhausted I feel. Sometimes, I don't want to talk about my race or whether I speak Spanish. Sometimes I don't want to feel like a group representative. Sometimes I don't want to have the "I have Latino friends, too" conversation. Sometimes I just want to make small talk and leave without feeling like an object on display.
    The next time you want to inquire about someone's race, ethnicity or national origin, ask yourself why. If the answer is just for curiosity or as a conversation starter, think about something else you can ask about: work, pets, the weather, sports, or traffic?
    Most of us would consider it rude to ask a stranger how much money they make, what religion they follow or who they voted for. Asking about race or ethnicity is a personal question that could be reserved for more intimate conversations -- a real, not a surface, way to get to know each other. Right now, many people in our country are struggling to find ways to have difficult conversations about race, conversations that need to happen so we can move forward. In the meantime, let's check our intentions and give people some breathing room.
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    The next time you want to inquire about someone's race, ethnicity or national origin, ask yourself: Why do I want to know? Or better yet, rather than asking anyone "where are you really from?" try listening -- or letting that person ask you a question -- instead.