The Arrogant Rudeness of Asking Me Where I’m From
Let’s call it what it is: Your constant interrogation about my origins is racist
There’s one particular racial microaggression that really gets to me. I’d say it gets under my skin, but it’s all about my skin. It simmers exactly at skin level:
“Where are you from?”
I secretly delight in seeing discomfort on the asker’s face when I tell them that my mom is from L.A. and my dad is from Texas. But I wish that I didn’t have to deal with this question at all.
I get it. You’re not racist. I’m just interesting to you. The thing is, when White people talk about their ancestry in front of me, other White people in the conversation will say, “Oh, cool, that’s interesting,” and move on. But when the discussion comes around to me, everyone leans in close to get a good look and listen. If they didn’t already say it with words, their body language says, “He’s about to tell his story!”
All the Spanish I know is from my required high school language courses, where my Brown friends would call me ‘coco,’ meaning coconut: Brown on the outside, White on the inside.
But when you react this way with your words and eyes, all I hear is that you think I’m exotic. Different. Other. Once again, I am not the default, the standard. Not normal. Everything that I do is colored by the fact that I’m a person of color.
If my first answer doesn’t satisfy your curiosity, your questioning continues:
“But what about your family’s family?”
“Where are your ancestors from?”
Honestly, I didn’t know for most of my life. The most precise answer I ever knew was the vague “Mexican.”
“Aren’t you curious?”
“Why haven’t you asked?”
“Why didn’t your parents tell you?”
Of course, I’m curious. Who wouldn’t want to know their past? But I’m hesitant to ask because my parents never talked about it. Could it be that they’re private people, or maybe even ashamed of their past? I don’t buy it for a second. Humans love to talk about themselves and their history.
I think my parents never talked to my siblings or me about our heritage because their parents never spoke to them about their heritage. They tried to assimilate and suppress their culture. They wanted to be more White.
My parents never spoke to me in Spanish. I didn’t think anything of it until my friends (Brown and White) started to ask me why I didn’t speak Spanish and wondered if my parents ever taught me. All the Spanish I know is from my required high school language courses, where my Brown friends would call me “coco,” meaning coconut: Brown on the outside, White on the inside.
“But knowing different languages is so useful!”
Yeah, it is beneficial for White people. But when you’re trying to do everything in your power to give your kids the brighter future you never had, you might rethink teaching them something that might give them an accent — what some would only consider an affliction that instantly identifies them as different, even lesser. At least this is what I imagine my grandma might have thought when she decided not to teach my dad Nahuatl, a Native American language.
I recently learned that my grandmother Micaela knew Nahuatl, and would secretly sing Nahuatl songs when she thought no one else was around to hear them. She wasn’t ashamed of her heritage; she loved it. When I learned this, it instantly made sense to me why I was never taught Spanish. Purging our culture wasn’t just my parents’ decision to try to give me a better future — it was Micaela’s too. She chose to downplay the culture she loved for a chance at the American dream.
I would love to believe that suppressing my family’s culture didn’t affect my socioeconomic status. But my siblings and I all sought and received degrees in computing at well-regarded universities. I have a big house and a fancy car, and I never have to worry about whether I’ve got enough money to make sure my baby daughter has anything and everything she could need.
Is it possible for a person of color to achieve these things without giving up their culture? Absolutely. Did my parents make the wrong call in their decision to raise me speaking only English? No. I’m sure it was a difficult choice, but at the time of my childhood in the ’90s, it was an entirely understandable one to make.
“Why don’t you just take a DNA test? All you have to do is spit in a tube. What is there to lose?”
The real question is: What is there to gain? You, White person, would gain a lot. You would get to know my story. You would get to know more about me because you’d know more about my past. You could make even more assumptions about me based on not just the color of my skin but the makeup of my DNA.
I, however, would gain nothing. I don’t care whether I’m 32% this or 0.8% that. I care about the languages my family never passed down to me. I care about the songs my grandmother used to sing in secret. I care about the culture your ancestors stole from my ancestors. Show me a DNA test that can give me that, and I’ll give you every cent I have.
I can only speak for myself, but for starters, stop asking questions due to my skin color. If I want to tell you absolutely anything about what little I know about my ancestors, I will do so of my own accord.
Don’t act surprised when I don’t know something that you feel entitled to know about my family or me. And don’t forget that being passively “not racist” is not enough anymore. Recognize that racism is so ingrained in American culture that it’s shameful to pretend you’ve never said a racist thing when you probably have.
Lastly, celebrate our differences without the unsaid implication that yours is “normal,” and mine is “different.” If you can do this, I may feel comfortable enough to finally break the cycle — and let my daughter Micaela sing her own songs.