Where are you from?

The debate over this line of questioning and whether or not it is appropriate or inappropriate hit the headlines at the end of 2022 in the encounter between Lady Susan Hussey and Ngozi Fulani.

For people who are socially classified as racialized, this is not a new phenomenon and it is one that has been flagged for it’s exclusionary impact, regardless of whether the questioner meant well, in contexts where social power dynamics are inherent. Whether it was Asian-Americans using the hashtag #thisis2016 to talk about it; or the story of a 7th generation Black Canadian family in a 2017 short documentary sharing how they still get asked the question; or the BBC three where are you from? game skit from 2018; or a 2019 CBC national feature of newer Canadians debating the impact and implications of being asked where are you from?… this is only a sampling to illustrate that a lot has been said about why questions like where are you from? can be racially and culturally insensitive at best. Hence, this public debate again feels like one of those that surprised the mainstream, while racialized communities raise eyebrows and question what it takes before our voices are fully heard. Personally, I did a where are you from? conference talk in 2016; which led to naming the first story in my 2017 short story collection, Identities, by the same title; followed by a journal article in 2018 (this is an open access article so do download it at the link); and at least 2 years in which where are you from? was my most requested talk/keynote/workshop. I even featured it in my Tedx Talk as an illustration of the everyday awkward interactions that keep reinforcing systemic oppression patterns.

So in follow-up to the current conversations in which I find myself repeating the same ideas and lessons I have learned over the past few years of engaging in where are you from? debates and dialogues, I thought I would summarize some key points here, all well covered already in the resource links in this post, above and below:


In general, the issue with asking racialized, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic peoples, the question where are you from? and related questions is that it can create an experience of Identity Interrogation, even where the intent of the questioner was an attempt to build connection. This is because at its core, where are you from? is a question about identity. However, in today’s world, identity is no longer a simple construct. Where any of us is from can be imbued with national/multi-national/transnational influences, a variety of multicultural experiences, as well as racial, ethnic, ancestral/historical lineage and other factors. In addition, for many racialized peoples with disrupted and colonized histories, a complete response may in fact open up deeper wounds or surface truths that would only serve to increase the awkwardness of the moment, given the question is often asked in casual encounters.

Furthermore, the escalation of further questioning when initial responses to where are you from? are unsatisfactory to the questioner is the dead giveaway sign that a where are you from? interaction is about to get problematic.

Where are you really from?

Where are you originally from?

Where were you born?

Where were your parents born?

 An escalation of these questions indicates the questioner is looking for a particular answer, rather than open to the responders sense of self-identification. I have called these interactions Identity Interrogation experiences.  Identity Interrogation is distinctly different from equivalent experiences where a questioner might ask one of the same questions, but the context, reception and interaction that follows indicates the question was an opening to relationship-building, not an attempt to essentialize or socially classify the responder. Therefore, the issue here is not that we must never ask each other identity questions like where are you from?, but that the relationship that exists or is possible to be cultivated, and the context of the interaction, matters to the impact that will be created. It was interesting that Ngozi Fulani specifically noted that the interaction with Lady Hussey was “like an interrogation” about where her “people” came from. On the other hand, my experience has been that if you engage from the intention of building a relational connection, you will find yourself learning about others without ever having had to ask these identity questions.

Identity Interrogation – experience of being asked biographical questions by relative strangersRelational connection – experience of being asked biographical questions in relationship and context
Stranger interactionRelationship exists or is cultivated
Question out-of-contextQuestion asked in-context
Leading questionsOpen questions
Implies and reinforces assumptionsSets aside assumptions
Satisfies asker’s curiosityMutual exchange and learning
Asker defines the other’s storyReceiver defines own story
Creates disorientation and disconnectionBuilds connection
Triggers a negative affective (disconnecting) responseTriggers a positive affective (connecting) response
Table from: Gilpin-Jackson, Y. (2018). Where are you from? Building relational intelligence across identity differences. Practising Social Change: A Journal of The NTL Institute of Applied Behavioural Sciences.

In short, it matters to fundamentally be attentive to: Why am I asking? What’s my motivation? And if your response is that you are just curious and trying to education yourself as I’ve heard from many, then consider the implications and costs of doing so and consider the alternatives.


The implication for recipients of Identity Interrogation includes:

  • The experience of constant interrogation amounts to microagressions, unintentional or intentional slights, invalidations or insults that invalidate one’s identity. You may see your question as innocent and isolated to that interaction moment. However, for those who have been asked the question constantly, the impact is far from small but has far-reaching physical and psychological health impacts over time.
  • It creates experiences of social exclusion instead of inclusion. The implication of an escalated interrogation of one’s identity is the implication that the individual does not belong in the context from which they are being questioned. It is interesting to observe as well, who gets asked and who doesn’t, as an indication of who is deemed to belong and who isn’t.
  • It reinforces racial and intersecting social power dynamics, especially when questioners are those considered dominate in the social power structure when engaging across difference. It is interesting to note that when people from like-groups ask this question of each other, it usually creates an immediate doorway to affinities and connection (a natural human tendency to like-group affinity). It can still however create disconnection when the intent of the questioner is to locate social positioning of the person they are asking.


So how might we now engage across difference without causing unwanted negative impacts?

As we decolonize our thinking and change how we engage across difference at individual/interpersonal, group and systemic levels, developing skills for relationship-building are essential. Therefore, if you are committed to being anti-racist and to contributing to inclusive communities, building skills for relational connection across our social differences for all of us is not option, it is essential.

Here are some alternatives and options to consider as we all take this journey:

Let natural rapport unfold and put relationship-building ahead of curiosity about another’s visible differences.Walk up to a relative stranger and ask personal questions.
Ask: What is your story? Where do you call home? Where is home for you?Ask: Where are you from?, Where are you really from? Where are your parents from? etc…of a complete stranger
Go first to share about yourself, before inviting others to share about themselvesInterrogate other’s identity before revealing yourself and modeling reciprocity/interest in relationship-building
Let people self-identify and self-disclose their identities and accept their responsesAssume a singular identity on behalf of another
Apologize and ask for a fresh start if your curiosity gets the best of you and you inadvertently find yourself engaging in Identity interrogationIgnore unintended impacts created by  your line of questioning
Educate yourself on issues of race, equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonizationAsk equity-groups to educate you on the issues, concerns, dos, don’ts and oppressive impacts they face at your convenience…but if they offer or indicate they don’t mind doing so, do, engage (as per left column).

Overall, remember, every human has a story, which is theirs to own and tell on their terms. Giving everyone the space to do so honors our sense of belonging and our collective dignity and shared humanity.


Related Tedx Videos for further consideration:

How to get past disconnection to social change Yabome Gilpin-Jackson

The Danger of a Single Story Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Where is home? Pico Iyer

Don’t ask where I am from, ask where I am local Taiye Selasi

Who am I? Think again Hetain Patel and Yuyu Rau