Samstag, 6. Oktober 2012

Unconscious Biases and Hidden Messages in „Where are you from?“

Many of us may be contributing to the cycle of unconscious biases, prejudice, racism, inferiorization and discrimination by answering the question “Where are you from?” without further examining this question. Dr. Zuleyka Zavallos, argues that “’where are you from’ is best understood through the concept of everyday racism” and that “[e]veryday racism makes visible the ways in which racist ideas are socially reproduced in taken-for-granted ways through familiar everyday situations.” (

Before responding, one should first find out what the other person is exactly inquiring about and why. An answer should not be provided simply to satisfy the expectation of the person who is asking or because responding in a certain way is the norm.

It is common knowledge that inquiring “where someone is from” is practiced globally. The question is asked by people of the dominant culture as well as by minorities. However, it’s meaning changes, depending on who is asking who, and where. In Turkey for example, the question can have various meanings and the reasons for asking will most likely be different than in Germany. Same applies to the USA. In spite of the differences, there are also astonishing parallels how  many minorities perceive this question. An example from the USA: Since I am currently living in Germany, I will discuss this problem from my current perspective.
Let’s look at the first barrier to interpreting this question. What does “Where are you from?" mean and how does one define “where she is from”? Are we from where we consider ourselves to be from or does the society define where we are from? Would it be inaccurate to identify the place where one was born, raised and lived her entire life to be the place where “one is from”? Apparently yes. That would be inaccurate.

People of Turkish descent living in Germany, for example, no matter if they were born in Germany or not, are not considered “from Germany.” An exception would be, if one “looks German.” In that case, a person with a Turkish descent could pass for someone “from Germany.”

If the place where some of us were born or consider ourselves to be from does not equal “where we are from,” “where are we from” then?

The barrier to a logical conversation in this case is this: “Where are you from?” in most cases in fact, is a socially accepted way of inquiring about a stranger’s ethnic origin or race. For example, when people of Turkish descent in Germany are asked “Where are you from?” the inquirer usually wants to know what the other person’s ethnicity is, not where she is from. Most people in Germany know this. Therefore, the expectation is, that the person who is asked, provides the information on her ethnicity. If she provides the information on “where she is from” instead, the other party usually will continue the questioning, until she receives the information satisfying her perceptions of the other person. Rarely does anyone question this awkward and highly personal interaction between strangers. Why should a stranger care about the ethnicity of another stranger and why would someone answer this highly personal inquiry from a stranger in the first place? Dr. Zuleyka Zavallos writes that according to her studies, “[m]ost women saw the question ‘where are you from?’ as simultaneously frustrating and compelling” ( However, one answers the question even that she feels uncomfortable. She does not stand up for herself and reject answering the question because answering the question is considered a given in spite of its racial connotation. The vicious cycle of racism strengthens with each such interaction of inquiry and response.

Asking a stranger “where she is from” serves in Germany as a means to distinguish the “legitimate residents” of the country from the outsiders who “came from some place.” The question is an excellent example of everyday subtle racism; one that is deeply engrained in the society as an accepted form of interaction, and supported bilaterally. Due to its ambiguity, this type of racism is extremely difficult to detect and address. At the same time, “Where are you from?” offers one of the most significant opportunities to break the vicious cycle of racism and inferiorization of others. The target is offered an opportunity over and over to provide an unexpected answer and to challenge this culturally ingrained and socially accepted form of racism.

Are we going to take the opportunity and challenge the status-quo or do what is expected of us—provide highly personal information to satisfy strangers’ need to categorize us and safely put us in the box, designated for us by others?

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