Anyone with an unusual (in the context in which they find themselves) name has probably had this experience a time or two. Early in a conversation, just after it moves past pleasantries, your interlocutor leans in and asks, "So - where are you from?" Involuntarily, you stiffen.
Or maybe you've been on the opposite end of the dynamic. Admiring someone's perfect skin, gorgeous hair, or polished accent, you use a word like exotic. They stiffen. Why are they upset, when you were paying them a compliment?
A Difference of Frame
Often the difficulty we encounter when trying to talk about race has to do with the lack of a shared context. In his popular column at DiversityInc, Ask the White Guy, Luke Visconti shares his thoughts on some of the cross-cultural questions it may be tough to ask (or whose answers it may be difficult to hear). This column, on the question "Where are you from?," seeks to unite the context of questioner and questioned.
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.
Framing the System of Inequity
While DiversityInc's focus is on the business world, Visconti's point of course also has applications in everyday life. By creating a space within which the seemingly innocuous nature of certain inquiries or beliefs can be questioned, Visconti opens a necessary pathway for educational dialogue that can lead to change.
That framework, of facilitated dialogue that leads to social change, is the cornerstone of World Trust's diversity training work. By defining the system of inequity that each of us were born into, we can see it clearly and work toward overcoming it together. To find out more about the ways in which we use film to generate dialogue to help understand and interrupt the system of racial inequity, please click here.