Douglas Todd: Is it OK to ask, ‘Where are you from?’

I remember my mother always bristled when asked “where are you from,” as for her, as a former refugee, it somehow placed her as an “other” rather than Canadian.

That being said, if the question emerged later in a conversation, and was framed as a matter of interest in the person, it was less objectionable.

I often ask as I am curious about the life stories of people that I meet but leave it to later in a conversation and usual preface it with some words to minimize the risk of it being perceived as a micro-aggression. Asking about origins or ancestry generally works better:

One of the many troubles with the movement to eradicate micro-aggressions is it’s based on an “open concept” characterized by intrinsically fuzzy boundaries, says clinical psychologist Scott Lillienfeld of Emory University.

Microaggressions are distinct from explicit acts of racial discrimination and superiority. They are said to represent implicit prejudice, under-the-radar acts purported to damage their victims.

But, as Lillienfeld writes in the magazine, Aeon, there is no scientific evidence they harm anyone. And, perhaps worse, they put everyone in a double bind. People can be charged with being micro-aggressors, Lillienfeld says, for both showing interest (“Where are you from?) and for not showing interest (“I don’t see colour”).

In other words, a micro-aggression is entirely subjective, requiring what cognitive behavioural therapists term “negative mind-reading,” which they encourage clients to avoid.

I took the “where are you from?” issue to University of B.C. social psychologist Ara Norenzayan, a Lebanon-raised specialist in global diversity studies.

“As you can imagine, I’ve had my fair share of being asked this question! I guess I look and sound ambiguous, so people can’t easily place me,” Norenzayan said.

“It all depends on how it’s done. I’ve had experiences that were a wonderful opportunity to share different cultural experiences and backgrounds: When the question comes from a place of empathy and genuine curiosity.

“And I’ve had experiences that were quite annoying and the conversation hit a brick wall, when it was out of context and I sensed a lack of openness and curiosity. I think in a place like Vancouver, where half the population was born outside Canada, the question could be an excellent invitation to learn about and celebrate Canada’s diversity, if it’s … non-judgmental.”

So, somewhat like Norenzayan, I urge North Americans, and especially Metro Vancouverites, to err on the side of asking about national, ancestral or ethnic origins. It involves a social risk, of course, because whether one is being judgmental is in the eye of the person being asked.

But it’s probably better than succumbing to silence, not to mention mutual suspicion. We have to step up our social game to counter the slow death of community that appears to be occurring across question-phobic Metro Vancouver.

Even though it might be easy for me to say — since I’m a journalist and it’s our job to come up with questions — I’d urge residents to start asking about a whole variety of things.

Would it be so bad if we relaxed a little bit, and biased ourselves to getting to know one another? You never know, we might meet someone we like.

via Douglas Todd: Is it OK to ask, ‘Where are you from?’ | Vancouver Sun

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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