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?

Photo by Shutterstock

Photo by Shutterstock


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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