Stereotypes And The Catch 22 Of “Where Are You From?”

March 14th, 2012 | Categories: Race

“Where are you from?” is a loaded question.

This is because two expectations precede it.

First, expectations about what the answer is. Typically the answer involves an expectation about continent (e.g., Asia, European), and perhaps less often, country of origin (e.g., South Africa, New Zealand).

Second, expectations about the judgment that will be made once the question is answered. The person asking the question knows which answer is valued and which is not.

The combination of these two expectations make the question a precarious one to answer. Those who find themselves on the other end of this question should be cautious. This post explains why.

These expectations provide the opportunity for you to be embraced or dismissed. If you do not provide the expected and presumably valued answer, then you can easily be dismissed with a simple “oh” and a polite nod. There that conversation would end and the two people would be able to part ways knowing that the inquiry has been satisfied and the answer and by extension the person who spoke that answer do not warrant further attention. This may leave the person who provided the answer feeling rejected.

Of course that person did not know this feeling of having been dismissed would be the outcome when choosing to answer the question. To the contrary, any of us might instead presume that the inquiry “Where are you from?” is a sincere request at some level intended to establish connection with the other person. It would be reasonable, then, to think the potential to be embraced because you have provided a valued answer (e.g., “your from Gloucester, so am I!”) would make answering the question worth the risk of being dismissed. Think again.

Regardless of whether the question results in being embraced or dismissed, the question seeks to pigeonhole, to categorize you in order to make sense of who you are in terms of some easily understood and familiar construct (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age to name a few). Two examples demonstrate the importance of this categorization process.

First, consider the question, “Is it a boy or a girl?” The ambiguity of a baby (or of any person) makes people uncomfortable until they are able to find a category in which to place the person. After we know the answer to this question, then we can buy the infant gender relevant toys and clothes. Once we categorize, we can then act upon that categorization. This example demonstrates that a desire for categorization is so fundamental and, in many ways necessary, that we even impose it on infants.

Second, I recall a recent example of a waitress at a restaurant I frequent. She has waited on me innumerable times over the last year or so and never showed much love for me. Then one day she saw me grading papers while I dined. She asked whether I was a teacher or a student, essentially another version of the “where are you from?” question. After she received the answer and from then on her attitude and her treatment of me changed for the better. I was complimented that she mistook me for a student but less happy to realize that her expectation of where I came from was the reason for her previous behavior. Before she knew my answer to this question she assumed, it would seem, that I was a student.

Although I was embraced after I answered her question, I couldn’t help but think she still didn’t know ME any better than she did before. She changed her expectation and in doing so embraced me but not ME just the group she now knew I belonged to. My point with this story is to illustrate that sometimes being embraced isn’t as comforting as it sounds. Certainly had I been embraced for being ME I would have found comfort in this embrace. But, alas, I was embraced for being “me” the teacher that is not one of “them” the students. This example demonstrates the the ability for categorizations to be consequential both in that it changed how this waitress treats me as well as my perception of myself and my perception of the waitress.

Considering the importance of categorization, it should not be surprising that it is the primary reason people ask the question, “Where are you from?” Of course this is not necessarily within a person’s awareness so there are other reasons people ask this question as well.

More often than not, “Where do you come from?” is sincere question. This further places the person on the other end of the question into a quandary. If any given answer will result in categorization into some group, valued or not, that person may prefer simply not to answer it but to do that would be to violate a conversational norm. So if the question must be answered despite the catch 22 involved, how might be best to do so?

This post has argued that there is a catch 22 involved in answering the question “where are you from?” If your answer does not mach the expected and valued answer then you can be easily dismissed. If your answer does match then you may be embraced, but it is not really YOU being embraced but rather your group membership. Either way you become an embodiment of the group you belong to, stereotypes an all. It would seem that no matter what you answer, you promote stereotypes. In part two of this post I will discuss some answers to the question “Where are you from?” and address the pros and cons for each option.

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