Ask the White Guy: Where Are You From? How to Deal With Racist Remarks, Intentional or Not

What do you say when people make ostensibly polite comments that really are racial digs?

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Ask the White Guy: Where Are You From?, racist remarks

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I’m really light skinned, with hazel eyes. My father is Black, so I usually have to tell people I’m Black. Some Black people and some biracial people see it in me and ask. But most don’t. How do people deal with ignorant comments from white coworkers and colleagues and the public in general, including so called “anti-racist” whites?


I think it’s a matter of context. I’m not biracial or considered a “minority” in today’s society, but being half Italian-American and half Greek-American, I’m relatively dark skinned for a “white” person (especially in the summer). I remember a birthday party, when I was in kindergarten, where I was the only white child at the party. Some of the Black kids told me, “You’re passing,” in an accusatory tone of voice. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, nor did my mother—when she asked my friend’s mom, I remember her whispering in my mom’s ear and they both laughed out loud. My mom explained it to me and I recall thinking, “So what?” But today I understand the resentment and conflict in that loaded term (and think about the context of 1965 when this experience happened).

Now I’m 53 and have had experience mixing in worlds in which (wealthy or elitist) white people expressed some consternation over my being in places where it was unusual to find someone who looks less white than expected. The question that always catches my attention is, “Where are you from?” It happened most recently at a fund-raiser for the Princeton Symphony. In cocktail conversation, I introduced myself to a kind-looking older white woman with twinkly blue eyes whom I found myself standing next to. She asked me that key question. I knew what she was asking, but I played along and said, “Princeton.” That wasn’t the answer she was looking for. She narrowed her eyebrows and asked, “When did you move here,” and I said eight years ago—which resulted in her telling me her family’s history of living in Princeton since the Indians were displaced.

The message: You may live here, but you don’t belong here and I have no idea how you got in the room, but something must have gone wrong.

SLIDESHOW: 10 Things NEVER to Say to a Black Coworker

Here’s my advice: Push back, gently but firmly, by answering in as nonspecific terms as possible. You’ll very quickly see if the intent of the comment was benign curiosity or malignant curiosity. In my experience, benign curiosity is usually an expression of white privilege—the imprimatur of the dominant culture. I don’t think “benign” is equivalent to “innocent”—anyone with normal socialization skills knows that asking questions about race or religion of people you don’t know isn’t polite. “Where are you from?” isn’t an innocent question—it’s a loaded question typically asked by people who feel you are included inside their boundaries and/or because they feel superior to  you. It’s oppressive and rude. Treat it as a game; keep it lighthearted and polite. Let people extend themselves. In doing so, they’re bound to reveal their intent. Then, if you’re gracious, you will leave the person unsettled and unsatisfied in their quest to put you in a place where he or she can define you.

The woman at that reception thought of Princeton as “her town,” and “her people” have ownership of it. And they did: Princeton was officially segregated until the 1970s and is still segregated in many ways today. Now it’s a wealth-driven, cultural segregation more than a purely racial segregation, but segregated Princeton still is, especially at Princeton University.

Malignant curiosity is another situation. You have to be very careful as violence is always a possibility. I back out of those situations quickly—and lash back through official channels where possible. Keep in mind, however, that the official channels may be condoning and abetting bigotry, which is why it’s always important to look at the official-channel organization’s website. Don’t see anything about diversity? Don’t see anything clearly enunciating policy around standards, values or ethics? Be very careful. Again, being gracious is a good way to back  yourself out of a tight spot.

I realize my advice may sound ridiculous to white people who have not taken the time to think about white privilege, but just about everyone is involved in something that they get “elite” status from. Social media and forum boards are a great way to see this in real time—we humans like rank. In business, this concept of social rank must be managed because rank is the basis of discrimination, and that is antithetical to good business. It thwarts the rise of talent to where it could go and is a direct result of the pessimistic hunter/gatherer nature of people: Our inner primitive person thinks that resources are scarce and finite, and a good way to control that is to kick the other tribe down. When that “tribe” excludes, business suffers. The true nature of a modern economy is that we all benefit when we facilitate the productivity of all people. This is what “diversity and inclusion” is all about.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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  • So, it would be helpful to understand what is the appropriate way to ask about someone’s ethnicity if you’re truly interested and make sure it’s not interpreted the wrong way. I’m fascinated by culture and heritage and love to learn about people’s background and history. How do I ask that without being offensive?

    • Luke Visconti

      In my opinion, you’re much better off waiting to develop a relationship before asking questions about ethnicity. It’s even a good idea to wait in a business situation—if someone has cultural expertise, they will volunteer it if they’re willing to share. Keep in mind that “willing to share” is a personal decision—and related to how comfortable people are made to feel. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Jorge Hernandez

      Brian, the workplace is really not the ideal place to inquire about the ethnicity (or any other non-work, personal life matter) of a coworker you’ve just met, especially if the issue could potentially put that person in any kind of non-occupational spotlight.

  • @Brian – A very good way to start the conversation is to offer YOUR ethnicity first. For example, “I’m Swedish and Irish – what is your family background?” It helps to place the other person on equal footing with you, and can show that you’re asking out of general curiosity. Of course, you still run the risk of making the other person feel less than, but I think this approach makes your question less threatening.

    It also helps clarify what you’re asking. Once I got asked where I was from, so I gave the long-winded answer about being born in Korea but adopted by an American family. The asker, a Latino colleague, replied, “Oh, that’s interesting, but I was just wondering if you grew up here (Central CT).” The scope of his question was much narrower than I thought. We had a good laugh about it.

    • Luke Visconti

      It doesn’t work that way. If you’re white and the other person is not, then you’re in the majority culture and the other person is not. On the other hand, I think your clarity response is good. In my opinion, I answer in the most simple and indirect way: For example, if someone said, “I’m Swedish and Irish—what is your family background?” I’d say American. Or perhaps New Jersey. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I believe it’s about priming before asking. I just asked this very question to a sharp individual that one of my direct reports hired. I was clear up front about my intentions, proceeded to tell her about myself, and then asked the question. But I’ll be honest, the environment that I work in, at least the one that I helped to establish, is fairly diverse so the question was more around getting to know the individual on a personal level.
    Sometimes, it’s not appropriate to ask.

  • Great article. I think as ethnic people we get tired of our ethnicity as being part of the conversation. We’d like to fit in, but as you mentioned, as humans we like to size each other up and the obvious is usually the first on the pecking order. For example, I’m a NY’er living in Texas and the #1 question I get is “Where are you from?”. I say “NYC”, they say “oh really? what part?”, I say “the Bronx”, they say “oh”. Happens all the time, but i’m proud of where I’m from! Have confidence in who you are and why you are there, chances are you worked harder to be where they don’t think you are supposed to be than they are.

    • Luke Visconti

      You’re making a very important point—questions about ethnicity almost always flow from people who are in the majority to people who are not. It is almost always an imposition. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Delorme McKee-Stovall

        I have always associated the inquiry about race and ethnic identities, regional or national origins to have less to do with minority/majority status than the power play of in-groups and out-groups. Especially when who is in the majority and who is in the minority is in flux. And I not that these types of questions also focus on age, gender identity, disabilities, education and vocation.

        For me, my initial response is “why are you asking me this question?” The second response is “how should I respond and retain my sense of equity as a human being in the introductory, tentative or long standing relationship?”

        i perceive this interrogatory byplay is another form of micro aggression that is anticipated, undesirable and therefore another factor in the unnecessary stress absorbed by the targets of such questions.

        So I find myself always asking that initial question in immediate response. I want those who ask to be compelled to respond until I feel that I have reached the true reason and determined that it worth my revealing more about who I am, which is something that I can control. Curiosity has never been the right answer and neither is “I was just interested.” These questions about identity are conversational tools that we have all learned and applied to “place someone in the context we desire” rather than the context they deserve, which is a human being of value and worth regardless of origins.

        We all have the right to ask questions, but if we strive to be fully conscious beings in our interactions with one another we should be mindful of why we are asking and what the potential impact of such questions are on those we question.

  • Will Saunders

    This is great advice Luke. I think if we are offended by someone’s comments, we are obliged to let the offender know. Some people are purposeful with their offensive words, but many people are just ignorant and do not possess a diverse-based mindset. So, letting someone know they are offensive is essential.

    In this situation, I think it has a lot to do with how well I know someone (or how friendly I am with them). Some things I’d never consider bringing up with a casual acquaintance or someone I barely know, but if we have known one another for a while and feel comfortable conversing, I might bring it up. It’s just like the advice you gave to the person up there who said he’s fascinated by culture and would want to ask because it’s interesting to him. You telling him to wait until he knows them better is exactly what I advocate for as well.

    If I were offending someone, I’d expect them to let me know, because we all operate out of different mindsets. It’s unfair to expect everyone to know that they are being offensive.

    I remember about 20 plus years ago, I was in my early 20s, I described someone by using a set of adjectives about their hair type, not realizing my choice of words would bother anybody. But the person to whom I was speaking politely explained to me how and why my words were offensive, and I was quite embarrassed and ashamed of myself. I am black and the other person was not. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that those words that seemed so innocent and benign to me would offend someone.

    • Luke Visconti

      I take it as a compliment when someone kindly lets me know when I can use better language, particularly in business situations. That said, I don’t extend myself in social situations to people I don’t know because I’m not the “offensive language police”—I might make an exception if I like the person and am confident it wasn’t intended to be offensive. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Ciel Benedetto

      Isn’t your description of the woman wrought with implicit stereotypes? (“kind-looking older white woman with twinkly blue eyes”)

      • Luke Visconti

        Yes, and that’s exactly why I wrote it that way. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • For every person who is comfortable to let you know you’ve offended, there are twenty who never would. Sometimes they don’t feel safe to do so (and they may be right!). Sometimes their culture–including the culture of many WASP women–forbids it. It is a compliment when someone trusts you enough to tell you you blew it, but in this diverse world, you cannot rely on that happening–many people have many reasons they would feel the sting but would not educate you.

  • Questions about race, ethnicity, nationality have no place in the workplace. There is no good reason for them. Satisfying one’s “curiosity” is not important. However, as Luke wrote, if you have a good relationship with someone, maybe it comes up but then why should it. I was asked in a church was I black or white. I responded, “It doesn’t matter does it.” The questioner said, “So, you’re not going to tell me?” And I said, “It’s not important.” They walked away.

  • I am so glad this was raised. I too am a white skinned, green eyed AA and am always encountering this question. My mood will drive how I answer – and sometimes when pushed, I say what I overheard my ancestors say to address this inquiry (who are also light/green eyed) … “My grandmother was found on a doorstep – and I am from NJ.” which is partially true. Race is a fluid, social construct and I resent the need for another to put me in a category in order to relate to me, but recognize it has psychological roots too. Sometimes I use it as a teaching moment, careful to point out that yes, Anglos have african blood too … they just don’t know or acknowledge it. Southern Italians are dark from Hannibals invasion (African mix). The name White and Black polarize all and just isn’t relevant. I do identify with my ancestors, as “Black” since the struggles they endured and do endure today … out of love the love and respect for ALL I purposely identify with what ever makes you the least comfortable. :)

  • This is a great article. I get this question a ton, especially living here in Miami. And sometimes i am at a loss to how to answer it – I was born in New York, grew up in Texas, parents are Colombian, lived 5 years in England and now live in Miami. If I say I was born in the USA, they wonder why I know how to speak Spanish. If I say I am Colombian, they wonder why i know english so “well”. If I say i am from New York, they comment that I dont have an accent and If I say I am from Texas, they automatically assume I am of Mexican decent.

    However, the other day my five year old got this question and he answered quickly and to the point… “I am American”. Simple and honest. That is now my answer as well.


  • This was indeed a great article especially the explanation about tribal terrotorialism. It helps explain why majority groups behave the way they do. It will help me to not feel angry the next time I hear or witness the behavior. Instead,…I can recognize that it is just either ignorant and/or instinctive behavior and move on…

  • Luke,

    Welcome back – have not seen a White Guy column in a while so hope you have had an enjoyable vacation.

    I agree with much of what you said, but also think that sometimes people are just trying to get to know us better and we should give them the benefit of the doubt. That is, after all, what how we are taught to deal with others who are not like us in diversity training.

    One thing that troubles me about the original questioner is that he/she wants to know how to respond to the “so-called anti-racist whites.” This to me reflects a person who has already formed opinions about the motives of certain people and is unlikely to ever give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Also, I think that your conversation with the Princeton native is interesting. I wasn’t there and you were, but reading about the conversation did not lead me to believe she was saying that you don’t belong there. Maybe she was indeed a racist, but your story suggests a woman making small talk at a party with a new person in the room.

    Thanks for the article.

    • Luke Visconti

      In my opinion, certain questions do not deserve the “benefit of the doubt.” What the original questioner was referring to are white people who have good intentions but aren’t well thought out. This happens due to white privilege, which creates blind spots where ignorance is not recognized by the ignorant. It would be as if someone with an associate degree in mathematics could blithely stroll into a meeting of scientists at the Fermi Lab and opine on the mathematics of particle physics.

      Regarding my conversation in Princeton, I don’t think the woman was a racist, but she wasn’t particularly interested in diversity either.

      Questions like hers are often intended to make people uncomfortable. In a nonethnic/cultural way, you might hear someone say, “That’s an interesting tie,” or, “That color red is very challenging to wear, isn’t it?” In this case, the sequence of questioning made it clear to me what her intent was (and it wasn’t about hospitality). Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • So a “so called non-racist white” is a white person who has good intentions but is not well thought out? Is there a dictionary you went to for this information? That seems like a very kind translation – good thing you know when to give people the benefit of the doubt.

        • Luke Visconti

          It is an individual decision when to give someone the benefit of the doubt. For example, I think you have ill intent. I deduce that from the tone of your comment and your fake email address (I know that because we also collect IP address—enough said). Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Luke, I like your response to the reader (as well as the readers take–which was also mine to some extent–AA woman in 40s). I will add only here that this person did not ‘enter’ into a room in which she was dealing with a professional on race and ethnicity matters–or at least, I do believe she was not AWARE of it. If she were, she would not perhaps have been so frank in her ruse to make one uncomfortable.

        What I believe people like the Princeton lady was doing, was trying (desperately?) to place herself ‘on top.’ These are the people who may feel the most worthless or rejected (believe it or not). People of real comfort and confidence in themselves need not be aided in this by way of others (in this sense, making it clear that she belonged).

        Why not a lesson? [“Oh so it was YOUR ancestors who diseased the Native population in the New World? How does that feel to you?” I digress.] “Oh, how interesting. Thanks for sharing.” This (if not said in a condescending way) is truth AND justice. i.e. I had no idea AND now that I know, I know who you are. It also would deflate the negative intentions of the sharer.

        Where can she go from there? Exactly.

  • Do you think it would be different if you were from Italy and had an accent and the women merely wanted to talk about Italy because she had been there several times and loved the country? How could she ask without offending?

    • Luke Visconti

      Yes, it would be different, because it would be a majority person in this country asking someone from Europe. I’d assume if she liked Italy and had been there, she could ask, “Come stai?” (How are you?). Or she could say, “I visited Rome last year.” It would be different again if the person was from Ethiopia. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Robert Kunkle

        The place where someone grows up has a huge role in shaping them. I learn so much about people from stories of wherever home is for them.

  • Very good answers, Luke, and as always you are right on target. When someone approaches me and tells me about themselves, just so they can ask me a personal question, I get that right away and I don’t like it. They are not fooling me. So when Luke says get to know the person, get to *really* know them.
    If you know someone well enough, those personal things will more than likely be offered at some point in the relationship, but if the information is not readily proffered then you have not achieved the level of closeness that you may think you have. Whites often think they have a closeness that they do not have (they fake a closeness that you do not have). If your heart is in the right place, they will let you know when you have been accepted. Unlike whites, they will not tell you it’s because they don’t even think of you as being [white] (ha ha). Oh, other ones to avoid: I never think of you as (fill in the blank) or you are so articulate. We hate that. It’s insulting. It is not a compliment. I’m pretty sure they’re on the list of 10 things not to say.
    Oh, and even when you think the opportunity is just ripe for you to ask that question – it’s not. We can tell that you have been waiting, just dying to ask. And if you find yourself dying to ask, ask yourself why that is so important to you. And, yes, sometimes I want to ask, as I am genuinely interested in other cultures and that is the only reason I’m curious. Sometimes, I believe, I can ask more readily because I’m not a member of the power group or maybe because I’ve been on the receiving end and I know how and when to ask. As far as I know, I’ve never insulted anyone by asking and I believe because the sincerity and the reason behind the question are genuine and the person gets that. If it’s not, trust me, we will pick up on it and you will have ruined a potentially really nice relationship (our hearts sink when you ask).

  • As a person of color, I do not always take offense by that question. Generally, I can tell by the context and tone of voice if there is underlying hostility, racism, etc. People of various races have often asked me where I’m from. I am very dark; however, people have pointed out that my features look “exotic” (e.g., some say Ethiopian, some say Somalian). Whenever I answer with “Georgia,” the response is often, “No, I mean where are you from originally?”

    My son is half Armenian, and he gets asked where he’s from and “What are you?” all the time by his peers. As a 19-year-old, he says that it’s not offensive to his generation to openly talk about and ask about each other’s race, ethnicity, or religion. He would never volunteer that information without being asked because that might just seem kinda weird.

    I guess it’s all just a matter of context.

  • I can’t control what other people do, think, say. I can control myself though. I am proud of my ethnicity and proudly give that information when asked. If the asker has ill-intent, so be it; I will know soon enough. If they are trying to get to know me better to build a relationship, great; that’s what life’s all about. By being distrustful one give up control to the asker.

    • i’m with you on that one Malcolm. I lived in South America a good portion of my life, and i do a lot of international travel. I constantly get the question of “where are you from”…and love to share! I am a consulting trainer for my company and find that most people are excited and proud to share thier background. It is a shame that there are people out there that try to use that question as a way of putting people down.

    • I am a white woman. I have to say that after reading Luke’s response I feel bad because I ask anyone with an accent that is different than mine, where they are from. I am genuinely interested. And I don’t discriminate…I ask EVERYONE I encounter no matter what the setting and definitely regardless of their race. In business, at a restaurant, in line at the grocery store. And being from New Orleans, I get asked where I am from as well. People initially think I’m from New York then when I say New Orleans we have a whole conversation. Everyone has a story about New Orleans or say they want to visit. I see it as an ice-breaker. Also, I find that most people like to talk about themselves. When I am extablishing a relationship, it’s just part of the conversation.
      I admit that I am guilty of always trying to be PC. I never intentionally say anything to offend. Is asking people their country of origin really that offensive?

  • Hi Luke,

    I agree with the overall message you are trying to convey with this article but I don’t agree with need to remove the ubiquitous “where are you from?” from social situations.

    I’ve traveled to a fair amount of countries all over and am fascinated by a culture’s food more than anything. It’s actually my passion – international cuisine. Having said that, whenever I meet anyone there is a high probability that I have been to their country of origin, and this immediately makes a conversational base. It’s an icebreaker that, I feel, is pretty non-confrontational and surprisingly keeps people talking. If anything it allows you to make a connection with a stranger that the majority of society cannot.

    The last thing on my mind is to “classify” people. Rather, I want to get to know them based on my experiences with their native cultures. I myself am of mixed race and enjoy when people have an interest in my heritage.

    My two cents,

    • Luke Visconti

      “Classifying” may not be on your mind, but I assure you it is likely to be on the minds of people you’re talking to. You’re assuming the person from another culture is interested in or even thoughtful about what they eat. If people were thoughtful about what they eat, McDonald’s wouldn’t be an international company. Taken from that perspective, your curiosity could read like brow-beating. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Luke, your point noted. But how are you so confident that they are not interested? This is clearly your generalization for most people.

        “If people were thoughtful about what they eat, McDonald’s wouldn’t be an international company.” That’s a nice assumption. Let’s forget about the economic oppression this corporation pushes on the lower class and just say that the customers don’t care about what they eat.

        In any case, there’s nothing wrong with embracing people’s differences. That’s how a culture is defined. The ultimate sin is to be ashamed of your skin; we all came from different lands and ultimately may live in a close proximity but it doesn’t mean we have to avoid such natural curiosity.

        Maybe your curiosity while having a white background has made you feel that the “where are you from” question is a subtle way to undermine another race, but know that plenty of other cultures are not hesitant to ask each other the same question. It’s not about trying to belittle someone (or maybe for you it was).

        • Luke Visconti

          You may want to go back and re-read the column, especially the last paragraph. Keep in mind that I used “white privilege” in this column because it was directed at an American audience. Depending on where you are, it could be “caste privilege” or “religious privilege or “royal-family privilege”—ultimately, it’s “majority privilege,” and majority is culture/location specific. I don’t assume a question about one’s provenance is belittling and I give a very good way to determine the motivation of the person asking a personal question to a person he or she doesn’t know. In the scenario I presented, it was clearly belittling, however.

          When I wrote “If people were thoughtful about what they eat, McDonald’s wouldn’t be an international company,” I wasn’t referring to economic oppression or “the lower class”; there are plenty of McDonald’s consumers throughout the economic spectrum. “Not thoughtful” and “don’t care” are two very different things—if people were thoughtful, McDonald’s would have a healthier menu. The company preys on the base instincts of our common desire (as a species) to like salt, fat and sugar. It takes a thoughtful approach to push beyond those base instincts. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Chris,
      How funny that you and I are saying the same thing about asking about country of origin. :) I hadn’t read your response until after I had posted mine.

  • I concur with Malcolm and several other responders to this excellent article. (Thanks, Luke.)

    I caution others who ‘would wait until one is ready.’ It is belief in self that is conscious of another’s actions and how it is taken.

    A true sign of confidence? A clear statement if your ‘origination’ (as it were) that is intentional, though not derogatory or insensitive. Devise one NOW!

    For example, ‘Oh, I see why you may ask…. I’m proud to be…. from….. with ethnic roots deriving from….. I hope I helped you in your curiosity. [Again, be genuine!]

    So, you can’t respond in such a way? Perhaps, it is YOU who may need to be knowledgeable of your true intent on this Earth. We are here to help others…and the best way? To help ourselves.

    Choose to believe that every question of your heritage is a powerful way to entreat others to the very amazing and wondrousness of YOU!

    • Thank you Kimberly! I get frustrated that race discussions turn negative so often. I think that makes good intended ‘askers’ not want to have a friendships with others outside their race (majority or not).

  • Great article Luke. Thanks for reminding me how fragile, sensitive, and on-edge everyone is, and how delicately and judiciously I must always speak and act. Thanks for explaining how saying nothing to anyone about anything is often the best policy.

    You remind me of a “third of four” rule I’ve heard applied to skin color/ethnicity at work. Goes like this: “You know Mary, in accounting, taxis here instead of driving? She’s black, and about 33 years old…” Or, “looking for JenQuai? He’s a tall guy, brown bags his lunch, Asian, in the corner cubicle.”

    • Luke Visconti

      Interesting how you’ve been posting here for years, Al. You must be fragile, sensitive and on-edge sometimes as well. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Do you describe white employees in this fashion? “Oh, that’s John, he’s short, with brown hair, and he’s white; right now he’s in the corner office.” And why would you share that much personal information about someone else, anyway?

      • I was in a supermarket yesterday and a customer grilled a cashier about her country of origin. He named a few countries asking she was from this place or that place. I could tell it made her very uncomfortable. Shoot, I was uncomfortable for her. She finally told him she was from El Salvador. That man came across as such a jerk. I realize he probably thought he was being friendly and conversational while the cashier was ringing up his order, but he presented a bit of annoying behavior.

  • I’m of middle eastern descent, but was born and raised in the west. Not too long ago, my cousin and I were standing in line at a fast food restaurant when this white guy who appeared to be in his early-mid 20’s turned to me and seemed to somewhat hesitate before asking me where I’m from. I replied, where do you think? When he answered Greek, I said no, I’m Canadian. Then I asked him where he was from, and he didn’t seem to be too comfortable with the question, but in spite of this, he revealed that his heritage was Turkish. Upon learning that, the way I felt about his question slightly changed when I learned that he was middle easterner; a minority (although not visible) like me. However, like I said, my feelings towards his question only slightly changed. My cousin thought that this guy was maybe interested in me and that I needed to lighten up and not take it so personally, but even if I knew for sure that this guy was into me, I still would have preferred if he at least said hello and asked my name and introduced himself before inquiring about my ethnic/racial background. Whenever people do that, I feel that they mostly only see me as a color, and not a real person. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of my heritage but I prefer to share it on my own terms and only when and if I feel comfortable doing so-not with people who feel entitled to know because they think it will give them some kind of weird and delusional sense of power over me. Any advice? Do some men and women really feel that inquiring about another person’s racial/ethnic background is really a good approach with the opposite sex? Or there are other reasons they do this? I know this isn’t a dating advice column, but if I the person being asked is mutually interested but uncomfortable with the question, should they directly express this? Or just move on to someone who will not call attention to race?

    • Turkey and Greece have been sporadically going to war for hundreds of years. There have been atrocities committed by both sides. Yet another reason why talking about ethnicity to strangers is not a good idea. I’d think it’s a particularly poor play when trying to chat someone up who you’re attracted to. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Luke: After highschool in 1972 I started working at General Motor’s Fisher Body. I am also “light-skinned”, with green eyes – both parents are black, with my dad light and my mom brown. I can never forget all of the questions I got when I first started there at the age of 17. From, I didn’t know “colored” people had green eyes to who in your family has green eyes? My reply was always “have’nt you heard of slavery days when the master would rape the black women and keep the kids in the big house?” That would usually shut them right up! But my most interesting exchange back then was going to a gas station and a young 16-17ish white kid saying to me, “you sure are pretty for a colored lady”. How do you respond to something as foolish as that!!!

  • I think it’s sometimes worse when people just go ahead and assume they already know everything about you. It seems in Europe that most Black people are African, and not African-American/Afro-Latina (Honduras) like me. So many people have assumed I’m from Senegal or another country in Africa, and I’ve rocked quite a few people’s worlds by being an African-American/Honduran in Milan who speaks fluent Italian with an excellent accent. (I’m a shameless horn tooter.)

    I have healed a lot around issues of race and ethnicity and I am now at a place where mostly I just laugh it off. That way when a guy thinks asking me if the weather is the same in Africa works as a line I can be gentle with him. I think responding in love, regardless of others’ intent, is the best way to go. It’s not up to me to change anyone but at the very least I’ll know my conscience is clear.

  • This is great advice. And I think it can apply not just for inappropriate/racial comments but comments regarding gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any of the other group members that are part of a protected class. People can forget that when you get past that one thing, we’re all just alike. I’m sometimes overly sensitive and careful with my comments, and I often cringe when I hear the things some people say, even if the people they say it to don’t seem offended.

  • Very recently (two months ago) I had a physician ask me what my race was. I do not think that I am racially ambiguous; I told her I was African-American. She still seemed puzzled, so I asked her if she was curious about my ethnic background. This was what she meant by her question, and since I’ve had DNA/genetic tests done, I was able to give her a comprehensive account. But to this day I still don’t know what prompted her to ask.

  • Thank you for bringing up this subject. In our workplace I set up several social gatherings during the year. A couple years back our dept had a pot luck and people could bring in anything they wanted pertaining to their ethnic heritage background. I brought in Hungarian goulash. Someone brought in German sausage and sauerkraut. Another made Mexican tomales. It was very festive with different varieties of food and we all enjoyed it. If bringing up heritage socially, this is the way to do it. It shows pride, social conversation, and inclusion.

  • My sister and I were always asked if we were Ethiopian. My father (deceased) was asked the same question as well. As far as we know, we are Black with roots based in South Carolina. At this point, we just deal with it and answer no.

  • I took great comfort in reading this article as I too think it is not anyone’s business to know my origins. Why IS that so important ?! A friend of mine and I often joke about how white people ask the question “Where are you from ?” and then “No, really where is your family from?” It makes me sick because I am American. I remember at university, one of my professors addressed a classroom with the question “What’s it like to be black?” Like all of the other students in my class, I turned around to see to whom she was speaking. I was flabbergasted to think that she was talking to me. I hadn’t grown up to see myself (or others) as a colour and I certainly don’t wish for others to see me as one. My skin colour says nothing about my character, my beliefs, my talents…all that is in my brain, which arguably looks no different to any other.
    It’s a shame that readers of your response are defensive. Not everyone has ill intent when posing such a question, but again, why is it important ? Does it really add any value when your aim is to know a person ? I don’t think that it does.

    • Luke Visconti

      I think you make a very important point—it’s not the intent of the person asking the question, it’s how the question is received that determines if you’re insulting people (and/or making them uncomfortable). Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Albert Brayboy

    Help me with this one!!!

    I’m an African American professional that’s occasionally asked in business settings if my wife is white. Initially I was baffled by the question but now believe that because I’m articulate they are inferring I “qualify” for a white wife. Any thoughts?

    • Will Saunders

      Just tell them you choose not to speak on that part of your life. It’s none of their business anyhow. That’s how I handle it when I get that question.

    • You should respond with yes/no, and then ask if their wife is black. If they are confused by your question tell them that you asked because you assumed they were asking due to their own mixed marriage

  • what if such a question, regardless of the environment or context, was followed with another question: why do you ask? granted, depending (again on context, how it’s delivered and received), it refers the question back to the person asking. when they answer, the person being asked can follow with a response or another question like: is it really important? my general response has always been: my mother’s womb. and I usually respond in a way to intimate directly that further questions on the matter are not only not relevant but intrusive.

  • Michael Tierney

    I am still stuck on you in kindergarten and being asked by fellow students if you are “passing” – talk about progressive education…

    Maybe because I am 67 and have seen a lot for a white guy – I am also having problems understanding why some of these questions are coming up – especially in the work place. I have held a lot of different positions from Janitor, to mid level management back down to Cashier at a grocery store. There are questions that you just don’t ask – for a lot of reasons, but primarily because it is none of your business and has nothing to do with how the job is completed.

    For the last 4 years I have lived in the Philippines and have been the minority race. The questions I have been asked most often is my religion – I point out to my friends in the US that the Philippines is more Catholic then Vatican City. The other question I am most asked is where I am from – I am from Minnesota and when I tell people that I get a blank stare back. If you are not from Hawaii, California, Nevada, or Florida you might as well be from the moon.

    I feel bad for my friends that are from Australia – if someone says they are from Sidney, most Filipinos will reply “…is that in California…?”

  • I think it’s very rude to ask someone where they’re from. If I have the same accent as you, what makes you think I’m going to say some faraway country? And then when the person asks where my family is from the truth of the matter comes out, you want to know my race. From a person that you hardly know, it’s just the height of rudeness, someone is basically saying you look different, you don’t belong, so where do you actually belong? Not cool. You can ask about race when you are close enough for you to not even need to wonder first if they will be offended, and most likely by this point you’ll already know, so pretty much don’t ask! Now, if the person has an accent I do feel differently, example I was in London and asked where I was from. I said Texas, and the guy said, I knew it! That’s an accent question, and not based on the color of skin, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable. The accent means I’m obviously from a different place. When asked in Texas, while speaking with a Texas accent where I’m from, to someone who’s known me 5 minutes? I respond with Texas, and ask where they’re from. Most won’t press it….in fact I once did this to a 9 year old, who knew what he was doing, and his friends ‘ooohed’ at him as they could tell he’d been put in his place. Even children need to be taught when they’re being rude, otherwise they become adults who do it!

  • I am white and have a slight accent. I struggle with how to deal with strangers questioning me about my origins. I know they are being friendly and mean no ill, however I feel it is extremely rude in most situations to ask a stranger these questions! Not just because of the personal nature of the questions themselves, but also the context. Example: the other day at a home improvement store, after waiting my turn and with several other customers standing next to me, I start to place my paint order with the young man at the counter. I’m specifying details such as level of sheen, etc etc until the clerk interrupts me “do you have an accent? Where are you from?” .. I really am in a hurry and have no desire to divulge personal information to an audience at the paint counter. There’s no quick way out of this question because inevitably if I just say “Australia” and try to get back on track with whatever I’m trying to accomplish (ordering paint, or whatever)
    they will then often go into a long winded discussion about the differences in Australia vs South Africa vs New Zealand vs England vs Scottish accents. Exhausting. And then more frequently than not, they launch into a critique of the strength and consistency of my accent and applaud themselves for their abilities in detecting it. Ok how is that paint coming along? Oh, you didn’t get any of the details because you were not listening to what I was saying? great. Not only have I shared way TMI with a bunch of random people at a store, but you are also making me late.

    It never ceases to amaze me that people do not realize that it is rude!

  • Great conversation! Too bad I just now read it . . . I often get offended when people of (different ethnicity) ask me where do I work or what do I do? And I have often answered this question (to myself) please if you are going to judge me then judge me by my personality not my place of employment. Get to know me first. I get this question asked often like at the grocery store, at my church, in a women’s group setting . . . I don’t know what it is about me that makes people want to ask this question or feel that it is even appropriate to ask this question– maybe it is because I’m outspoken and others feel I should not be because they feel (superior). Many times I feel people ask this question to get a sense of how much money I make (which is totally no ones business) Luke I can so identify with people asking personal questions because they are a part of the majority and just like a pack of dogs they are positioning their status because I am a minority but my position places me with the majority.

    Even the question of “where are you from/live?” can be a loaded question because the suburb where I live is greatly segregated so when I tell someone the city I live — they want to know which “part” of the city.

    I also have a “dark-skinned” daughter who is gorgeous! She is often asked “where are you from?” Many people think she is from one of the islands or somewhere — she doesn’t “look” American? My daughter is 1/4 white if that is possible but she has that “dark” complexion which just doesn’t “go” with her facial features!

    It was nice to read something that I have experienced for many years and now I can direct my daughter to this site to gain insight and understanding.

  • Luke, I just want to say that after reading all of your comments, I like you. You seem to have the right idea of things. It’s simply a matter of not hurting others. The dichotomy between the intentions vs circumstances. Say I step on your sneakers. I didn’t mean to, it was an accident. But that does not change the fact that I have injured your toes, dirtied your sneakers. Damage has been done.

    Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels Of Our Nature” helps shed light on understanding the psychology behind this. You’re doing great!

  • I am an Arab fro Iran and exactly have same feeling. I remember at the very early age when I faced the racism issues and thought no sense to me at that time. But know I suffer more and more from all that racism words against us in Iran, from the street to the university, Most Persians hate Arab people even you are Iranian and they show it on everyday language and media. You have to hide your identity unless you should expect to most racist behavior. Really today I dont know what should I do and how treat them

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