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A comparatively inconsequential racist thing

In reading the “go back to where you came from!” shite being spewed lately, I’ve been thinking a bit about more-innocuous-but-still-racist versions of that. That is, the “But where are you REALLY from?” question that nonwhite people get.

First off: My perception is that that question gets thrown around more in the US than the UK where I live, but given that I’m both white AND get that question all the time for having a non-local accent, and that the question drives me bonkers*, my perception is going to be hopelessly inaccurate, so do correct me if it’s off target. Having said that, my perception of the American obsession with “where are you really from?” is that it happens quite a bit among white Americans as well as to minorities, which contributes to the notion that it is an okay question to ask of POC. White Americans in my perception seem to take an uncanny degree of interest in which bit of White Europe one’s ancestors migrated from, and it troubles me how pervasive this is across both conservative and liberal people. (In my limited experience, I think this also happens in Australia.)


Which brings me to the anecdote in question. Last year, herr honk and I played a ceilidh** dance at my sister’s wedding in California. For those that don’t know, ceilidh is a simple country social dance style from Scotland taken from the Gaelic*** word for “to visit someone socially,” similar to barn dance, square dance, line dance, etc. It’s easy to learn and do at a wedding party or a comparable gathering and it’s taught in school gym classes in the same way as I had square dancing in third grade in Massachusetts, and herr honk and I regularly perform music for it. That is to say, it’s fun but takes no great skill or study. Anyway, at this gig, several guests expressed to herr honk and I how our music and dancing “brought out their Scotch-Irish roots” or that it was “in their blood” somehow and that this made it really meaningful to them. These guests were all born and raised in America by American families who had not recently immigrated, and their references were all to migrations that had occured 100+ years previously.

That bothered me, possibly disproportionately. I think it speaks to how much identity weight white Americans give to the “where are you really from” question, and how even liberal people think that ancestry and bloodline somehow have bearing on your personhood. Why do people still think that? Why would your genetics be more important than your location of upbringing, or have any meaning for who you are now? What the hell does it tell you about someone that three generations ago, a person moved to one of the lower 48 from Ireland or Germany? The person you’re talking to in 2019 didn’t meet their ancestors and didn’t share their experiences, and in America, most white people never learned about nationally-specific experiences of their ancestors outside of a broadly generalized school curriculum. (Incidentally, on a less-consequential personal level, it’s irritating that I can perform in a given musical style but it’s somehow less meaningful because I wasn’t born in a relevant-rootsy community, but whatever, *eye roll*, different topic.)


From the POV of my anecdote, why could these people not just enjoy an experience, and why are did they trying to use their heritage to suggest that they enjoyed it or experienced it more intensely than someone else there? And from a broader point, how is this not gatekeeping or competitiveness with one another about how Scottish/Irish/German/French you are? It’s not like specificity of white heritage confers benefits; one doesn’t know another language or cuisine or anything else tangible by being Moar German Than That Dude, or acquire tangible benefits more easily. And if it’s the intangible that’s so important, how is that not racist?

Anyway, I think this is something worrying that it would behoove liberal white Americans to question, and I hope Kellyanne Conway’s recent deployment of “where are you originally from?” to a reporter will draw attention to that. “But where are you REALLY from?” is an absurd question to ask nonwhite people, and asking it and taking some kind of stand for it among white people enables that. Discuss. And sorry for all the footnotes.


*As I’ve discussed on this forum before, I think “where are you from?” is inconsiderate for anyone who isn’t fresh off the boat - that is, if someone mentions they just got to X country and don’t know their way around yet, or gives you a similar indicator, “Where are you from?” is reasonable conversation. Outside of that, who cares? Sure, it’s just small talk, but immigrants get that exact small talk question constantly, and it’s quite wearing in both its repetitiveness and in its indication that our migration is the most interesting thing about us. It’s not a taboo topic, but it’s unlikely to be the first thing a person wants to discuss with strangers on a daily basis, so maybe hold that question until you’re sure that personal discussions are welcome.

**pronounced “kaylee”

***pronounced “gallic” - not the same as Irish Gaelic, which is prounced “gaylic” outside of Ireland and “Irish” if you’re properly referring to Irish language

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