A Prairie Homo Companion: Prairie Homo Racisms

A Prairie Homo Companion is a regular column that celebrates the Canadian prairies, canola fields and big skies, and the paradoxes of being a fine-ass lady prairie homo.

Header by Rory Midhani

I spent the year 2011 in Europe, first on an exchange in France and later working in Oxford, England. In France, England, and in all of the European countries I managed to visit during that year, people often asked me where I was from. I would say Canada, and they would nod, smile, and make some remark about cold weather – an all-around pleasant and simple exchange. I didn’t mind the questions – they gave me a chance to alleviate my homesickness by talking about Canada; however, I felt differently once I was back home and the questions didn’t end. Now, they were a not-so-pleasant reminder that being home didn’t necessarily mean belonging. And unlike in Europe, the people in Edmonton on the bus, in shopping malls, and in grocery stores who would stop to inquire about my origins didn’t take a simple “I’m Canadian” as an answer. It wasn’t enough that I was born in Edmonton. They wanted a family history – where were my parents born? my grandparents? – so that my skin colour, dark eyes, and curly-frizzy hair in what they considered to be a predominantly white space would make sense to them.

via http://www.shutterstock.com

via http://www.shutterstock.com

In “Ten Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started My Transition,” Annika describes microaggressions as “the little interactions that happen every day that remind you that you are “different” in some way.” While she’s writing about the microaggressions she experiences as a trans* person, you don’t have to be trans* to be given daily reminders that you’re different. Continually being asked where I’m from is also a microaggression. And my mixed race has been the cause of microaggressions since before I was even born, when well-meaning white people would see my pregnant, blonde, green-eyed mother with my black father and ask if she was prepared to raise a black child. Once I was born, she was congratulated by strangers for adopting “one of those poor African children.” But micro-aggressions weren’t limited to coming from white people. Black women were often critical of my mom’s ability to relax (straighten) and braid my hair. Every time they asked where her little girl got her hair done, they were surprised to hear that my mom did it herself. Their surprise implied that they didn’t see a white woman as suitable to properly care for what they considered to be a black child.

My mom never told me I was black. In fact, she never really talked about race or skin colour at all, except to tell me I was half black and half white, which made me brown, and if people didn’t understand that or had a problem with it, they were stupid. My dad didn’t talk much about “blackness” either. He had spent the first twenty-five years of his life in Ghana, which were coincidentally the first 25 years Ghana was free from British rule; his identity was Ghanaian, mixed with a lingering influence of British colonization. He spoke not of blackness, but of Ghana, not of North American racism, but of African colonization. Growing up, I thought of colonization not much differently than I imagined the dark parts of fairy tales – as scary things that happened in a land far, far away. Since I easily dismissed the strange looks people gave my white mom and her three brown-skinned little kids and the questions about where I was from as just ignorant things people said, I grew up not very aware of racism and micro-aggressions. I didn’t think of myself as black or as white. I was just a cinnamon-spice-coloured, frizzy-haired little person. I was me.

Of course, I was lucky. For many people, racism isn’t so easily ignored. It doesn’t matter if your parents tell you racism’s just a stupid thing if it’s an every day, in your face, ugly institutionalized reality – an aggression with nothing micro about it. I was speaking to my younger step-cousin, who’s Native, about how grade five was going. She told me, “Whenever the Native kids need to go to the bathroom the teacher doesn’t let us cause she thinks we’re lying to get out of class but when anyone else raises their hand to go, they’re allowed.” As I’ve explained in many other Autostraddle articles, Native people face discrimination from the Canadian government, Native women in Canada are more likely to go missing and five times as likely to be murdered than other Canadian women. Over half of Canada’s Native American population lives in the prairie provinces and they have to deal with a kind of racism that I, as a half black and half white person, can’t even imagine. Of course, had I grown up in the U.S, my experience of racism would probably have been incredibly different. In American author Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand, the main character Helga comes close to having a mental breakdown from the pressures of being a mixed race person in America. She doesn’t fit with either the black community or the white one; and in Larsen’s Passing, another mixed-race woman must keep her black ancestry a secret in white communities or face losing the status she has worked so hard to gain. Though Larsen’s novels took place in the early 1900s, I believe the issues she wrote about – blackness, whiteness, and passing – are still relevant in the U.S today. Just as in the prairie provinces there is historical and institutionalized racism towards Native people, in the U.S there is historical and institutional racism towards African Americans, among other people of color.

I think it’s important to understand that not all people of colour experience racism the same way. Discrimination is hugely influenced by factors like geography and history: I’m a cinnamon-spice-coloured frizzy-haired person whose African and European racial backgrounds are not the ones most actively discriminated against in Alberta. Perhaps it was my privilege in being fairly ignorant of racism most of my life that made me all the more enraged when I started university and became increasingly aware of racist micro-aggressions. Reading about things like race and history in my classes, I started to wonder what role race and racism played in my life. In class, when the topic of race came up, an entire classroom’s worth of eyes turned to me, as if being the only person of colour in the class meant I had all the answers. I understood that sometimes people who are not people of colour feel uncomfortable talking about race because they’re worried they’ll accidentally not be politically correct and end up offending someone; but I felt angry that people assumed I was an “expert” on race just because of the colour of my skin. When I began going to queer events as a self-conscious nineteen-year-old, I was the only cinnamon-spice-coloured frizzy-haired person in many groups and I became hyper-aware of not having the right queer look, which seemed to be skinny, white, and hipster-ish. In class, online, in queer groups, and stopped by strangers on the streets of Edmonton curious about my background, I became increasingly aware of being different.

I started to see the racist micro-aggressions less as the simple ignorance I had been taught to see them as, and more as a dangerous undercurrent of racism, that although not as visible as in-your-face, outright macro-racist-aggression, still informed racist beliefs that affect Native Americans in the prairies – beliefs not unlike the colonial racism that my family in Ghana fought so hard against. These racist beliefs, which frame whiteness as normal and civilized and people of colour as exotic, lesser-than, other, “not from around here,” allow racism to happen in different ways and across different geographical boundaries. I’m lucky that because of my background and where I live, I was privileged enough to not be forced into having an early awareness of race and racism, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the comments, stares, and questions that tell me, albeit in small ways, that I don’t belong. I’m realizing that in recognizing the multiple, sometimes hidden faces of racism, I’m empowered to speak out against and fight them.

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Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

Malaika has written 84 articles for us.


  1. Living in Japan as a tall blue-eyed white girl, I’m constantly subjected to the “where are you from?” question. It doesn’t bug me too much because I’m not from here (the “when are you going home?” question, on the other hand…), but I have some coworkers who are just as obviously white as I am and have lived in Japan their entire lives. They’ve never brought it up, but I can’t imagine the experience they’ve had of constant assumptions they don’t belong. Once, I had a student who had pale skin, freckles, and red hair, but couldn’t speak a word of English–she got some of the worst grades in the class, in fact. Just extrapolating from my own experiences, I figure she’s constantly walking into stores and restaurants and having people immediately speak English to her; I can’t imagine the frustration and annoyance she must feel.

    Basically, fuck microaggressions.

    • That sounds frustrating but I’m not sure this is quite a comparable scenario. How common is it to find white people born in Japan who don’t speak English? Over 98% of Japanese people are ethnic Japanese. It’s a fairly homogenous society that has not courted massive waves of immigration and you probably don’t come across white kids who only speak Japanese in every classroom. And I would wager that very few white people in Japan are there as refugees, or moved there due to conflict or lack of economic opportunities, or had their ancestors interned and forcibly moved from their homes, as the Canadians did to the Japanese. Racialized power dynamics in Japan are not like Canada’s.

      Over 25 percent of Edmonton’s population is made up of non-First Nations people of color, so POC immigrants/their descendants are everywhere even if they’re underrepresented in positions of power. When it comes to POC under 40, a good number of them were born in Canada; there are Canadian-born kids of color at nearly every school. I would wager that when it comes to POC under 35 in Edmonton, more were born there than not. It’s ridiculous to assume someone wasn’t born here just because they’re a POC.

      Questions about the ‘origin’ of Canadian non-First Nations POC invariably trace back to white supremacist citizenship. A first generation Canadian born in Scotland is considered more Canadian than a fourth generation Canadian of Chinese ethnic descent, even if the Scottish-Canadian speaks with a thick Scottish accent and the Chinese-Canadian speaks English with a typical Canadian accent. When a white Canadian asks a non-First Nations POC who is clearly fluent in English or French and hasn’t announced that they’re a tourist, ‘where are you from?’ it is a way of saying ‘I am going to completely ignore Canadian demographics and assume you are more foreign than other Canadians, and that it’s my business to remind you of this and interrogate you about your family history.’

      • Yeah, I wasn’t trying to imply that it’s the same thing. The mention in the article about the “where are you from?” question simply reminded me of situations I’ve experienced or witnessed in my own life in which that question is still likely to result in unpleasant feelings, albeit of a different nature due to the obvious huge differences between Japan and Canada.

      • “Questions about the ‘origin’ of Canadian non-First Nations POC invariably trace back to white supremacist citizenship.” THIS. yes. absolutely.

    • Wow, way to derail the conversation. Your experiences as a white person are in no way comparable to that of POC because of the historical legacies of western imperialism and colonialism in the world. Could you not?

      • Wow, I really didn’t intend to come off as derailing at all. I wasn’t trying to say that my personal experiences were at all comparable; I was drawing a comparison to people I know who’ve grown up as minorities in this country. It’s their home, it’s what they know, but they’re viewed as outsiders because of how they look. Obviously the situations aren’t the same, there is no way they could be, but I brought it up because it seemed to me like it related. I’m sorry it seemed like I was derailing, as that’s really not my intention. I thought the article was really thought-provoking and I thought what I had to say was, while not the same thing, not unrelated to the points made in the article. I hope that clarifies my intentions at least somewhat. That being said, I should have given more thought as to how the comment would come off, and I’m sorry for the derail.

          • It is derailing because to compare being asked ‘where you are from?’ when you are visiting/living in a country for a short time and being born in a country and then fielding constant questions about ‘where are you from?!’ is totally different.

            Non-white people are constantly treated as perpetual outsiders in their birth countries. I’ve been told to fuck off where I come from by Aussie tourists in London, despite being born in London. I doubt they would have said the same to any white tourists but of course my brown skin means that I can’t possibly be from England.

            Also there’s a long history of white women derailing threads about racism so you can understand why people get so defensive. Every time an article on racism towards non-white people is posted, a number of white people will post about how much racial discrimination they face. It’s no wonder few PoC and especially WoC bother writing about their experiences on majority white websites.

          • I feel like you didn’t read the original comment? Laura seems to know that it is not at all the same experience, and I don’t believe she said she was only staying there for a short time. She did however talk about the red-headed student who lived in Japan and didn’t speak a word of English, who was probably treated as an outside.
            Now I realize that yeah, there are white people bringing in their unrelated/derailing things, and saying “oh poor me look I’m discriminated against too #whitepeopleproblems,” however, it’s my opinion that that was not her intention.
            kwijibo, I do agree with your last two paragraphs. I’ve seen the same things on posts like this.

          • I’m realizing now that my comment was really unclear. I wasn’t trying to compare my specific personal experiences to what Malaika talked about, I was using them as a jumping-off point in thinking about the experiences of people I know who look like me (“outsider”) but were born and raised in Japan. For those people, I think the “where are you from?” question can be similarly damaging.

            That being said, I didn’t think about the implications of a white person coming into this discussion and seemingly trying to make it all about white people, and though it wasn’t my intention it obviously came off that way to some people and I’m really sorry I wasn’t more thoughtful.

          • Nice derailing there Lucy. First of all it’s ‘stop being prejudiced’ not ‘prejudice’. Secondly if the worst abuse you’ve received is on this website, you must be an incredibly lucky and privileged human being. Thirdly white privilege exists so saying ‘people suck’ doesn’t negate the fact that you and other white queer women have white privilege. And fourthly the reason I told that story was to show that white visitors arriving in the UK have a sense of entitlement and use the opportunity to treat actual citizens of that country like shit. You being told to ‘fuck off’ by brown people is not the same as me being told ‘fuck off back to your country’ so please spare me your stupid comparisons. But I will thank you, Laura and Hailey for the reminder why I don’t bother talking about racism with white queers.

        • Not trying to step on anyone here, but I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of saying one person’s experience of race-based prejudice/oppression as part of a racial minority isn’t racist enough. Race and racism are obviously touchy subjects, but by many commonly accepted definitions, racism in Japan is very real. There’s a long history of racism toward ethnically Korean and Chinese people, and I have one white Japanese friend who definitely always felt like an outsider even though Japan was his only home. We’ve talked at length about his experience growing up white in Japan, and it sounded like one long racial micro-aggression to me.

          Anyways, I’m really not trying to invite people to get all mad at me for being insensitive, but I thought your original comment was relevant :)

          • I hope I didn’t give the impression that I think Japan is free of ethnic discrimination. I raised the issue of ethnic homogeneity compared to Canada to highlight how ridiculous it is for white Canadians to ask POC where they are from. Japan is wholly ethnically homogenous but it’s not as heterogeneous as Canada.

            The experience of Korean and Chinese people in Japan though is VERY different than that of western white foreigners. Japan occupied Korea and China as a colonial power, so yes, those groups’ exclusion is comparable to say, people of Indian descent in London. White people have never been subjugated by Japan that way. Perhaps today there is a white class of lower class immigrant laborers in Japan? (There are certainly lower class eastern European laborers in western Euro countries so it’s not as if pale ethnic groups don’t experience discrimination). Do white people end up in Japan because they have no economic opportunities elsewhere etc?

            I guess this comes down to how you define microaggressions. You could also say that a straight person denied entry to a gay bar experienced a microaggression, or a cis man banned from a radical feminist women’s only space, but I always thought microagressions were tied to historical relationships of power. Speaking of Canada, this is why Quebec anglophones’ comparisons of their experiences with those of POC immigrants drives me nuts.

    • Hey Laura! Thanks for this. Don’t worry, I didn’t find this comment offensive. It’s really interesting to think about different kinds of micro-aggressions in different cultural/racial context.

      • Thanks, Malaika! Now that I’ve gotten these reactions I feel like I definitely could’ve phrased my comment more clearly, but I’m glad you got what I meant by it. :) The first time I learned the term “micro-aggressions” was in an article by a white Japanese citizen, and those are the kind of racial issues I deal with in my day to day life, so my mind automatically went to the similarities without thinking about how it would come off as a white person coming into a discussion about POC. I think racial issues in Japan aren’t really talked about much because people think it’s a really homogenous country, but there’s a lot going on here and it’s both really different and really similar to what goes on elsewhere.

    • I’m glad the article applies to a broad spectrum of people because micro-aggressions are universal.

  2. Can I just take a moment to say that you write beautifully?

    “He spoke not of blackness, but of Ghana, not of North American racism, but of African colonization.”

  3. Malaika, I’m so happy to read this piece from you! I’ve been waiting to read something like this from you, since our hug after the Women of Color panel at A-Camp. You spoke about your experience so eloquently then and so eloquently now. I really love how you mentioned Nella Larsen, as I think she’s supremely underrated by the academy but her two novellas seriously pack a punch (not to mention “Passing”‘s queer subtext).


  4. It’s good to see these stories that you’ve shared with me in person appear as an essay here. Wonderful words aside, this encompasses a whole bunch of fucked-uppery. I’m so sorry for what your little cousin has to go through too :(

  5. 1) I’m super happy to see that you mentioned the struggles of First Nations in Canada. Most people who are not FN, in Canada and in the US, largely overlook the continued government-sanctioned racism against our people. It’s pretty fab.
    2) That being said, some find the term “Native” to be a little bit out of date. I am not Canadian, I am an enrolled tribal member from the US. My cousins, however, are Cree and Inuit and live in various parts of Canada. We’ve had many, many talks around the dinner table about this and there is plenty of material out there on this matter. First Nations or First Peoples is a respectful term gaining use, or if you’re speaking about a particular person, use their band or tribe. MANY find “Native” to be disrespectful due to its primitive sound and history, and similar to “Indian” (also offensive).
    Just my personal opinion/what I’ve heard and experienced.

    • Although, this: “Just as in the prairie provinces there is historical and institutionalized racism towards Native people, in the U.S there is historical and institutional racism towards African Americans, among other people of color.”
      I’m assuming you didn’t mean it to sound like the US doesn’t have a massive problem with government-sanctioned racism against people of First Nation descent. I don’t know if you think that people of the African diaspora in the US have it worse than FN peoples? I think you might be a little off there. While everything is subjective and I’m hugely against oppression olympics, I think you might want to read up on the issues the First Peoples of the US face every single day. Racism against FP is just more easily ignored because of that little thing called reservations.

      Sorry, that just struck a nerve.

      • Hello, don’t worry, I really know that racism against FN peoples in the U.S (and also in Latin & South America) is a HUGE horrible problem. What I was saying though is that the most institutional racism in Canada is towards FN people. We don’t have the same history as the U.S of historical and institutionalized racism towards African Canadians and other people of colour, not to say it doesn’t exist.

    • Hey, I didn’t mean for the term Native to be offensive to anyone. I know some people who call themselves FN and some who call themselves Native, but as a non-FN person, I’m always interested in hearing what FN people have to say about different terms, their histories, and meanings to learn more and adjust my terms accordingly.

      • Hi! I am a settler Canadian, but I have spent a lot of time hanging out with FN and Métis people in BC, the Treaty 7 area, and southern Ontario. (I used to do linguistics, studying Salish languages, and I now do Nations-side aboriginal law.) From what I’ve seen, there is a lot of variation in which terms are offensive, which can only be used in-group, and which ones are cool for everyone to use. “Native” is pretty okay, and the most common conversational term, in Calgary, but is tremendously offensive in some parts of Interior BC. FN is usually a safe bet for a settler — you might end up sounding pompous, but I haven’t met anyone yet who finds it offensive. (Although it is best used with caution, still, because it doesn’t usually include Métis or Inuit people.)

  6. This is a serious and important post, written with a very patient grace and compassion for those who force these micro-aggressions upon you. I’m a new reader to Autostraddle, but if half the content is as relevant and thoughtful as this, I’m sold. Thank you.

  7. I am a mixed race individual myself, who was born in a fairly racist area of Texas, and I wouldn’t so much say my family experienced micro-aggressions as aggressions.

    My mom is part white and part Native (and a very small part black apparently) but she has pale skin so a bunch of people assume she is white. I was born in a KKK heavy area, and often people would call her a race traitor and threaten to “find where she lived”. (As my mother doesn’t take shit she would usually dare them to and tell them she would make tea for when they did.) My brother was denied entrance into the Gifted and Talented program because “studies show mexicans just aren’t as smart as white kids.” (My mother promptly changed schools.) When we eventually moved we still featured discrimination. Highlights include a woman saying she would pray for me because I was brown, the same woman shoving my mother at a school function (have I mentioned my mom doesn’t take shit yeah that was interesting), and a boy once telling my brother “you may be smart but you’ll never be white.”

    Still, I count myself lucky. We could have experienced way worse racism.

    I can’t remember where I was going with this but I think it can be summed up as “I feel you.”

    • “studies show mexicans just aren’t as smart as white kids.”

      Whoa that is such fucked up logic. Even if that was true (which it isn’t, obvs) if your brother was smart enough to enter the program those “studies” shouldn’t matter anyways.

      Your mom sounds like such a badass.

      • Yeah it was pretty much seven different kinds of messed up because he had already exceeded all those little cognitive tests they give you to see if you qualify for the program but the principal just insisted “it just couldn’t be mexicans aren’t as smart.” This was in the 90s. You think people would be past that kind of shit by the 90s.

        PS yes my mom is a total badass it is true

  8. Thanks Maliaka for this article.

    It is SO important for people to recognize the little comments/microaggressions they make and the way these imply some kind of ‘othering’. I am trying to be aware of this myself and also calling people out on them.

    I just want to echo KJ’s comment on the use of “Native” – I am Canadian and I have been taught to use the language of ‘First Nations’ or ‘Aboriginal’ and that to say Native was offensive. Of course I believe in self-identification so I guess it would be different if that is how your cousin refers to herself?


      • Each word may come with its own baggage, but it’s not up to a non-FN person (and in that, I include people who claim FN heritage based on nothing more than family legend) to get to decide what is an acceptable term to describe us.
        And yes, First Nations and First Peoples has grown to include Métis (who are mixed, anyway) and non-Treaty peoples.

          • As someone who is First Nation, your comment DID come across to me as negating FP’s comments about words they found offensive. You didn’t get to decide what we want to be called. I don’t really care what you’ve heard.
            I mentioned the mixed heritage of the Métis peoples to point out the reasoning for the historic distinction between FPs and Métis peoples. FPs have, however, in the past thirty or so years, recognized Métis among them; Hence, First Nation and First Peoples being used as a catch-all term in recent history.
            But yes, a non-FN person does not need to be correcting someone pointing out the offensiveness of a term used to describe FPs. And yes, your comment came off that way.

          • I’ve seen POCs have this conversation with you on AS many times…and no, you can’t, a non-First Nations person, insert your opinion if a First Nations person says a word is offensive.

          • I don’t see where my opinion has been applied anywhere, but fine. I’m not disagreeing with your point about non-FP dictating what terms can be used, but never have I insinuated that I was doing just that.

            And the other attacks on me in other threads don’t have anything to do with this, thanks for keeping score.

  9. I recently had a professor making about race that I found extremely problematic. She started by making a comment about how the entire class was white so we should be constantly aware of our white privilege. While I agree wholeheartedly with her there I was appalled by what she did and said next. She then turned to me and said “well except you, but you’re acceptably ethnic.” WHAT. THE. FUCK.

    What is acceptably ethnic?! And by that logic, what then constitutes unacceptably ethnic?!

    • Sorry that should say “…had a professor talking about race in a way that…”

      In my outrage I let my fingers get ahead of my brain

  10. Lovely article on Canada’s issues with race, shit is deep.

    Thanks for letting me know it’s not all Tegan/Sara,poutine, & cupcakes up there. :)

    As for your cousin’s teacher, she sounds like a real low class piece of shit. I hope that racism clogs up her insides and she stays constipated till the end of days.

  11. I just wanted to say thanks for the article. I love reading about all of the diverse experiences of people here, but every once in a while, it just feels good to read about things that really reaffirm my own experiences.

    I didn’t even know micro-aggression was a word until I saw it in Annika’s article. I always understood why I was offended by overtly racist/sexist/etc. behavior, but I always felt a little ashamed for getting upset every time a random person at the mall thought it was appropriate to ask me where I’m from (answer: a few miles down the road). Now that I’ve moved across the country, I can answer “Indiana” and they have to deal with it if that doesn’t answer their question :D

    Also, even though I know it wasn’t the other kids’ faults, I didn’t feel comfortable when I explored queer spaces at my super white college. I ended up staying in the closet because I just didn’t feel like I fit into their version of what it meant to be gay.

    Anyways, thanks for reaffirming that racist micro-aggressions exist and it’s OK to be offended by them!

  12. Wonderful article, as a First Nation/Native/Aboriginal (all of which I find acceptable) I have experienced micro-aggressions as well. I am glad that other people acknowledge how annoying it is to be asked “What are you?” and then asked, “No, like where are your parents from?” As if saying “Canadian” isn’t sufficient..
    It’s nice to know that other people don’t think it’s trivial. I have been told that I am “too sensitive” and that I should let things go when people make comments associated to my race’s stereotypes. If I can’t be upset about these small things, what am I allowed to be upset about?

  13. While both of my parents are Caucasion as far as we know, my mother is of European descent and has a very olive comlexion, brown eyes, and dark brown hair. My father is pale Scottish. Growing up my younger brother and I had very pale skin, the kind that burns, fades and burns again, never tanning, we were both blonde, and he is blue eyed. My older brother had the olive skin, dark brown eyes and black hair. Despite the fact that his colouring matched our mother’s and me and my younger brother didn’t, we heard, more than once (to our faces, like it wouldn’t affect us),directed at our older brother “Is this one adopted? What’s his background?”

    It always struck me as so odd that people would assume that, and also that grown-ups, who should have known better, would come right out and ask that question of strangers.

  14. People actually stop you in the street to tell you that you’re not white?! What the ever loving fuck is wrong with people?

    • Dear Ali,

      I am a huge fan of all your comments that start with “Dear So-and-so” and end with “Love, Ali.”



  15. So growing up the ‘where are you from?’ question was as basic a conversation starter as ‘what’s your favorite color’? Kids would eagerly rattle off all of their various ethnic heritages. (I’m 25% Scottish, 25% Mexican, 50%
    …). Though I am white, I am often asked ‘where are you from?’ When does this question become a microagression and when is it just normal conversation? The fact that your father is from Ghana would be interesting to people, just like it would be interesting to know someone’s grandparents were from Spain or Greece. I understand it becomes problematic in context of some of the more overtly aggressive assumptions (are you adopted/good luck raising a black kid/etc.) but would it then mean a random person could never ask you what I thought was a typical conversation starter?.

    • There are other ways to begin conversations. If you are that entitled that you go up to random people demanding to know their genetic origins then you should really examine your behaviour. Also I’ve only seen this question asked to non-white people, the French girl in my office with a very heavy French accent is never asked questions about her background because her white skin makes her more of an insider in English society than me.

      • You didn’t specify when it becomes a “demand”. Does merely asking constitute a demand and/or inappropriate conversation starter? Of course there are other ways to start a conversation – I guess you’re saying it’s always inappropriate or rude to lead and/or introduce this one early on? I guess it’s interesting that you’ve never heard anyone address that to a white person. I get it quite frequently. Both in reference to birthplace/home and ethnic origin. I consider myself white but perhaps other people perceive me as not white? Additionally perhaps there are geographic/cultural differences in regards to how frequently this question is asked, and to/of whom.

        • If someone I’ve engaged with properly asks me where am I from or where my parents are from I will give a proper answer. They are getting to know me better and want more information about me which is fine. It’s also a good way to connect with other PoC. However if someone I’ve just met (and I’ve been asked this question on public transport by a stranger for fucks sake) blurts out ‘where are you from’ and then refuses to take London as a definitive answer I know that I am dealing with someone who believes that only white people live/originate from England and my hackles go up. Often I’ve seen people respond with (to me and other PoC)’but you aren’t really from there are you?’. I haven’t seen this question asked of any white people with obvious foreign accents because white people belong everywhere. It may be exciting for you to find out someone’s family history but non-white don’t owe you an explanation on their origins.

          Fuck me though, the sense of entitlement white queer women have is immense if the comments here are anything to go by.

      • If you have an accent, you get ask where you’re from a lot, even if you’re white, at least if your accent is ‘Eastern European’ and live in a country with rabid xenophobia. I’m a white Romanian immigrant living in Scotland and my accent is more RP than most other immigrants’, but I still get asked about it all the time and reactions to me replying that I’m from Romania have included, ‘do you have a lot of friends who beg on the streets then?’, ‘but you look *so* English’ (i.e. so white?), ‘wow what’s Romania like? do you have *insert basic commodity that everyone has* there?’ and ‘ooh congratulations on your English, it’s so good!’ etc – though most common is, ‘but what are you doing here (you uninvited immigrant invader who will bankrupt the NHS)?’ Of course I would get told all those things a lot more if I were read as not white – I’m not saying that immigrants are not ranked in terms of assimilatability and that I rank higher in the hierarchy than somebody who isn’t European etc etc. What I am saying is that most immigrants never belong (outside of immigrant communities) and when ‘native born’ citizens act like being associated with immigrants is just the absolute worst insult possible, we (immigrants) are going to interpret that as you saying that you think immigrants are horrible people who don’t belong, who have no right to be in your country and who should be thrown out.

    • To me, asking “Where are you from?” has always been a normal conversation starter, but it means “Where did you grow up?” or “Where were you born?” It doesn’t mean where your parents or grandparents are from, and it’s an open-ended question where the person being asked is free to choose whether to say the last place they lived, the place they where born, their favorite place they lived, whatever.
      I think the point at which people start to get angry is when they answer, and then someone says “No, where are you REALLY from?” That seems to me to be a strange thing to ask, because even if you ask everyone regardless of race, I don’t think that many people would be impressed by the question or want to talk about it or even have an answer to give. Anyway, just asking “Where are you from?” and leaving it at that seems to work perfectly fine as a conversation starter.

      • I agree Hayley, it’s not racist but “normal conversation” to ask “where are you from?” especially if you have an accent or live in a large metropolitan area where many people are immigrants. Moving to Boston, I am often asked “where are you from” because of my accent.

        It does get annoying, but people are often curious. However, it’s a completely different thing if there is a) no reason to ask the question, and/or b) after the answer you ask “I mean what’s your heritage” or something like that. How is that information helpful? Why do you need to know someone’s family origin?

        • Though a better question may be “Are you from ______?” That implies that you really want to know their personal story, not their family history.

        • Oh yes silly me, the incredibly belligerent people who ask me this question and then balk when I reply ‘London’ are clearly interested in my background and not just wondering why a brown girl has an English accent. These are the same people that never question anyone white on their ethnic background or where they come from.

          But clearly you two white women are the expert on racial microagressions and I bow down to your superior knowledge. Thank you also for reminding me why I make sure to avoid the mainstream queer scene. Between the racial ignorance and the Lena Dunham worship it’s a wonder that any non-white women bother identifying as queer.

          • I think maybe there’s a miscommunication here. Maybe it’s an American thing? I have had conversations in vastly different groups of people that started off as a polite “So are you from (current city)?” And once everyone had answered, we moved on. However, I’ve heard repeatedly from European people of color who say that the “Where are you from?” question is not a polite conversation jump-off point but indeed the gateway to a more aggressive line of questioning.

          • Uhh…effed up my formatting somehow? Sorry. That big blank space is just supposed to say “So are you from (whatever city)?”

          • I am from Europe and I have definitely been taught not to ask this question as a conversation starter (or really ever) because people could get very offended. But this is, obviously, just the experience of one person in one European country.

            That being said, there is still such a strong belief that a “real” European cannot be POC…which is very, very frustrating and sad.

          • Yeah, I mean, I’m just thinking of how freshman year of college, LITERALLY every time you met someone, you would ask each other three questions: “What’s your name?” “What’s your major?” and “Where are you from?”
            Literally everyone asked this! And not just in college, but pretty much every time I’ve met someone new, we’ve done the whole “Where are you from?” “Oh cool, I’m from —” routine. It’s been almost as normal a part of conversation as asking someone’s name.
            Maybe it is just an American thing, but that’s what I was referring to. Not that nobody would ever ask it with racist intentions or anything (that’s definitely not what I mean!), but I’ve asked so many people that question and always expected their answer to be a U.S. state, and countless people have asked me that question. But yeah I was just trying to answer the OP’s question about what is a normal conversation-starter [in America, I guess].

          • Agreed. Where are you from in the US isn’t about race (most of the time). At least from my POV.

            However, I guess one thing that’s not mentioned in these comments is maybe the way people ask “where are you from?”. I mean, I’ve definitely been asked where are you from before and had pepole ask further so what’s your background (because that’s actually what they wanted to know – not where I was from). And sometimes, those people may go even further and ask “So both your parent’s are black?”.

          • Just to clarify, I originally commented only to state the one way to ask that question that *is* definitively acceptable in the places I’ve lived (in cities in the US, where most people are from other states in the US). I was just trying to answer the OP’s question, with just what information I do actually have. I guess I wasn’t clear, but that was all I was trying to say- not that people don’t ask that question in racist way or that I understand what that’s like or what racial micro-aggressions are or anything else. I just thought that I had enough information to answer her specific question about what *is* acceptable- asking everyone and expecting the answer of a city or state. Only those circumstances, but I don’t think I detailed that well enough. And I didn’t know that people don’t do that in other countries and maybe even in places in the US. Clearly that’s useful to learn. I’m so sorry if it sounded like I was saying people were misunderstanding or lying about their experiences, that’s totally not in any way what I meant.

      • Mmm…yes, I think there are definitely two types of “where are you from?” questions and you can often tell from context which it is (whether it is a question re: home/birthplace, or ethnicity). I would hope a person would not find the former offensive but idk.

        Certainly as I live in a city with a lot of transplants and work in a job with people from all over, many times “where are you from” just means “what state (in the U.S.) did you live in beforehand” and people, regardless of the color of their skin, are not pressed further than “Idaho”. However, sometimes I will mention, say, my last name, and people will sort of look curious and interested, and then say, “Oh, where are you from?” or “Where is your family from?” In this case I assume they’re referring to my ethnic heritage. Or, they’ll ask “Are you Hispanic/Latino/Latina/etc.?” which is another way of asking about my ethnic heritage. I don’t see natural curiosity as offensive and in fact enjoy talking about what my grandparents have shared re: their immigration experience because I think they’re wonderful people and I like talking about them and what I perceive were their unique/interesting experiences. Of course the context for a person of color, who is perhaps often asked these questions in a more aggressive or judgmental way, too frequently, etc., is different. So what I’m wondering is if it’s always best to shy away from asking a person of color these things, even if you simply find it valuable and interesting to hear about all the different places people and their families have come from, and the different cultures people were raised in or observed, or if it’s about tone/approach, or what? I mean, is it ever polite to hear a cool accent or cool last name and ask a question about it?

        • If a PoC wants to share that information with you they will of their own accord. Why is your curiousness more important than their comfort of mind? I know that as soon as I’m asked that question by a white person it’s a way of them being able to stereotype and define me in their heads and I resent being made to feel uncomfortable. Also if you interact with a PoC for a while, it’s more than likely that information on their background will come out naturally. Just hearing a ‘cool’ accent doesn’t mean you should start with the inquisition.

    • “So growing up the ‘where are you from?’ question was as basic a conversation starter as ‘what’s your favorite color’?”

      But do white people in your community ask strangers where they are from? I live in a city that many people move to from all over the country, and I get asked that once in a while, but I’m white so it carries a very different meaning. White people often go up to strangers of color and ask where they’re from, for no reason. They aren’t sitting in a dinner party in New York where a bunch of people are discussing their home towns and it makes sense contextually. They are badgered by strangers at bus stops or in line at the grocery store.
      There’s also the added layer of asking a white person where they’re from and accepting whatever answer you get, and asking a POC where they’re from and not accepting a Canadian, American, Australian or Western European city as a response. No one questions a white Edmontonian who says they’re from Edmonton, whereas Malaika has described a very different experience.

  16. Awesome article.

    I agree about your point that sometimes white people don’t speak out during discussions of racism because of fear of sounding not P.C. But I really would like that to change because a lot of the times, people are just ignorant and if they could engage in a real meaningful conversation, it could clear up any racist thoughts they may have.

    I’m African American and in Asia right now. I get the “where are you from?” all the time in certain places, but not all places. When I was first in India, people would start to talk to me as if I wasn’t a foreigner and then I open my mouth and everyone’s like “No hindi, ma’am?”. I’m in Indonesia right now and the same thing’s happening here.

    It makes traveling to places w/ brown people pretty awesome for me though because no one questions why I’m there and no one stares at me. I can just blend in and enjoy the place– not the same for white people here in (South east) Asia.

  17. This article is awesome. I’m half Japanese, and when my brother and I were growing up complete strangers would tell our mom off for being such a crappy nanny, because obviously we couldn’t be hers. It’s also really frustrating how on campus everyone asks where I’m from, but when I say Chicago they usually get pretty awkward and pretend that’s what they meant. The most annoying thing, though, is how all the dudes who are into Japanese culture hit on me.

    • My favourite thing has always been to troll people when they ask where I’m from.
      Canada. “No, where are you from?” BC. “No, where are you from?” The GVRD. “No, where are you from?” This suburb. “No, where are you from?” This neighbourhood. “No, where are you froooom?” This street. “Fine, where are your parents from?” South Africa. “No, where are your grandparents from…” South Africa.

      And ugh, getting fetishized is sooo weird.

      • That reminds me of a conversation between Leslie and Tom in an episode of Parks and Recreation (Tom is a brown guy and Leslie’s a white woman). Paraphrased from memory:

        Leslie: So, where are you from?
        Tom: South Carolina.
        Leslie: No, I mean where are you from originally?
        Tom: My mother’s uterus.

  18. Thanks so much for writing this. You really do write beautifully, and I loved hearing about your experience.

  19. So, I have a question. Growing up in Toronto, I feel like “What’s your background?” (definitely not “Where are you from?”) was absolutely something that seemed socially acceptable, and people would sometimes even use it as a conversation starter (Toronto has an incredibly diverse population — more than 50% of Torontonians were born outside of Canada — so lots of people have lots to talk about regarding their background. Mine’s very complicated). This lady sitting next to me on the bus starting talking to me once that way. I feel like this doesn’t hold the stigma of implying that you’re not “supposed” to be from Canada or Toronto. How do we feel about this? Granted, now that I live in the US, if someone asked that question people would assume they meant professional background, I think. Anyway, I thought I would offer that up for discussion.

  20. Fantastic article. I’m African-American and Kansas-born but over the years I’ve gotten a range of questions, including: “Are both your parents black?” “But you speak so well, are you really black?” “You’re not really BLACK black though, right?” that last one came from another African-American coworker. Just can’t win, you know?

    One of the microaggressions that annoys me to absolutely no end, though, is how people regard my hair. I’ve been natural for about six years now and only recently broke from my typical afro style. Because people think afros are fun and clearly can’t be anything but a throwback various people always take the time to let me know I look like Macy Gray/Angela Davis/anybody who ever had an afro. And the touching! Most people will ask (to which I’ve finally started declining, unless they’re a friend), but some just cop a feel THEN say something. Not cool. Not to mention all of the “I love your hair, I wish I could do that to mine!” etc-type compliments. You do you, girl, and let me do mine thanks.

  21. Loved this article, I do my best to keep up with race relations/racism in the USA but to be honest don’t know much about the situation in Canada. I think a lot of white Americans like to think of Canada as the “land of no racism” just as much as they’re fond of threatening to move there every time their chosen candidate doesn’t win a presidential election. Unfortunately colonialism seems to have left no corner of the world untouched.

    I’m also disturbed at the level of white derailing and silencing going on in the comments…Christ you guys, if a POC is trying to share their experiences/frustrations and you demand that the conversation be turned to you and your *personal* experience of “microaggressions,” please consider that it might be (or rather, IS) your privilege talking.

      • Okay, I’ll bite…I think people who are saying “I’m white and I have also experienced microaggressions!!” are derailing, and I think people who are saying “asking someone where they’re from isn’t a microaggression [i.e. stop being so sensitive!]” is silencing. Why? Because if the conversation isn’t about you and you’re in a place of privilege, it’s extremely important not to make it about you. I am white and am definitely not claiming to speak for any person of color, I was just asking some other commenters on the thread to check their privilege.

        I’m not entirely sure why you are angry, but if you’d rather explain yourself than leave a vague snarky comment then I’d be happy to listen.

  22. Don’t worry about it, it was nice to see a comment from a white reader who got it, rather than all the derailing going on further up.

  23. Great article. “Whenever the Native kids need to go to the bathroom the teacher doesn’t let us cause she thinks we’re lying to get out of class but when anyone else raises their hand to go, they’re allowed.”

    Reading this makes me want to punch a wall. I don’t live in a region where there are many First Nations people so I don’t hear a lot about non-FN people’s ignorance, however when I was at university and met some folks from Northern Ontario, the racism against First Nations people was so thick and my brain literally could not make sense of it. Why the fuck are people STILL assholes towards First Nations people? Did history teach people ANYTHING!?

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