The Hidden Aggression Of Asking Someone ‘Where Are You (Really) From?’

via Flickr - Brendan
via Flickr – Brendan

At a work brunch last winter, I was telling a story to four colleagues about how at a park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that morning, a man had said to me immediately upon seeing me, “Hey, where are you from, Japan?” I told my coworkers that I couldn’t believe that people were still asking, “Where are you from?” to ask about ethnicity. (For the record, of my four colleagues, all of whom were male, two were white, both from New Jersey and in their early-to-mid 30s. One was Indian and in his late 20s and in town visiting from Delhi and one was Taiwanese American and in his early 40s.) 

One of my white colleagues was surprised and said that he himself asks the same thing to Asians to find out their ethnicity. I explained that, yes, the question can be offensive because its connotations are alienating, so, therefore, perhaps he shouldn’t ask it anymore unless he’s trying to find out which city the person he’s asking is from.  He replied that he didn’t think he was being offensive because he wasn’t “meaning to be” and that, therefore, he was just going to have to disagree with me.  I added that strictly concerning communication, it’s ineffective because someone may actually be asking that question to find out in what city the person they’re speaking to was raised.  I also pointed out that in regards to his comment about my being wrong and how he was just going to have to disagree with me, that the term “white fragility” had recently emerged from academia into the mainstream that explains how white people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress, sheltering them from experiencing racial microaggressions that people of color continually experience.

You may already have come across this term, coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, on Huffington Post, Alternet, or another site.  Dr. DiAngelo’s research states that because “whites live primarily segregated lives in a white-dominated society, they receive little or no authentic information about racism and are thus unprepared to think about it critically or with complexity.  Growing up in segregated environments (schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, media images and historical perspectives), white interests and perspectives are almost always central.  An inability to see or consider significance in the perspectives of people of color results.”  My coworker responded with, “White…fragility?”, insinuating that he’d never heard of this term/concept. 

I also brought up how the system we live in operates in such a way that white people are often the shoo-in over people of color, a point made by the National Bureau of Economic Research study that found job applicants with “black”-sounding names were less likely than their “white”-sounding counterparts to get called in for interviews.  He responded that “Data can be manipulated.”  The other white coworker, a data scientist, turned to him and said, “No, this is true. There’s been extensive research done on it,” to which the first coworker just shrugged in resignation.

As I was trying to wrap my head around my coworker’s comment that he didn’t think he was being offensive and, therefore, was going to have to disagree with me, I came across this conversation between Civil Rights pioneer Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first female African-American student to enroll in 1961 at the University of Georgia, and Dr. Derald Wing Sue, Professor of Psychology at Teachers College Columbia University and scholar of race relations in the U.S.  In their conversation, Dr. Sue explains, “Microaggressions for people of color are constant, continual, and cumulative.  They occur to people of color from the moment of birth to when they die, and as a result, any one microaggression in isolation may represent the feather that breaks the camel’s back.  And people who don’t see the lived experience of people of color and the daily onslaught that they experience tend not to believe that it’s a major event.”

Later that day I recounted my morning interaction from the park as well as the conversation with my coworkers on my Facebook status.  Surprisingly to me, two of my white male friends asked what I found to be two interesting questions. One said, “Are you saying this question should be off-limits?  I’m usually very curious about people’s origins, including white people, and I like to find out about people’s ancestral roots and where people come from.  Isn’t asking where someone is from just an innocent attempt to make a connection by finding out more about their cultural identity?  What’s wrong with that if we are appreciative of our diverse backgrounds?  Can you explain how we’re supposed to have open honest dialogue about race when harmless questions like ‘Where are you from?’ have become too politically charged to utter? Is that really the way forward to promoting real dialogue about race?”  The other said, “Frequently I’ll be out somewhere with my Dad, and he is a naturally curious person so he sometimes asks people (waiters, check-out people at the grocery store): ‘Where is your home?’ in an effort to answer the question about their ethnic background.  He’s a nice old man so people don’t get offended, but it can be a bit embarrassing for me.  I wonder if you have a suggestion for a way to ask that question without offense.  Or is it off-limits?“

First off, I’m not saying that asking the question “Where are you from?” is absolutely always off-limits.  If someone has made it clear whether by insinuation or directly explaining that they moved to your city recently or that they were born and/or raised in another country, then, sure, it might be natural to ask, “Where are you from?”  However, especially for someone like me who was born and raised in the States and sounds so American when I speak, it’s particularly strange and makes me feel alienated when a stranger or acquaintance says, “Where are you from?” and they’re waiting for me to say, “China,” “Korea,” “Japan,” or another country in Asia that I was not born and/or raised in and, therefore, am not actually from.  Since I was born and raised in Atlanta, moved to Seoul for several years at the beginning of my adult life, and have been living in New York City for the last few years, if someone asks me, “Where are you from?”, the answer they’ll get is “Atlanta, Seoul, New York.”   

And with that said, there have been many times when I thought the person asking me meant my ethnicity, so I answered with, “I’m Korean,” only to be met with, “No, I mean, what city are you from?”  I’ve also answered the question with, “Atlanta,” and they say, “No, I mean, are you [insert Asian ethnicity]?”  In fact, because it’s become exhausting to play the guessing game of what people mean, I myself have adapted, and, nowadays, I say something in the ballpark of, “I’m sorry, are you asking about my ethnicity, or what town I grew up in?” and that seems to keep things moving along fluidly without having to deal with a communication fail.

In any case, I found the situation unsettling enough that the following day, I told my coworker so.  At first, his response was to tell me how “interesting” it was to see everyone’s different perspectives on the issue at the work brunch.  I told him that I felt like he was missing the point by simply thinking it’s “interesting” as though it’s some type of entertainment for him while it’s a very frustrating and painful reality for Asian Americans on a regular basis.  He, finally, honestly seemed to understand when I explained that the reason it’s alienating is because it’s not a question that can be asked across the board to every single person of different ethnicities here in America while expecting the same type of response.  I explained that no matter how many people ask him where he’s from, he always gets to say “New Jersey” without being made to feel like he’s an outsider/not a real American/a perpetual foreigner.  I also showed him Ken Tanaka’s viral “What kind of Asian are you?” video as well as this bit by comedian Hari Kondabalu.  He found them both funny; I suppose that’s how we made up. 

I was curious to get the opinion of the very person who coined the phrase “white fragility” on the interaction with my coworker.  Dr. DiAngelo has worked for over 20 years doing workplace diversity training and leading primarily white groups in discussions of race and racism.  She takes the so-called “anti-racist” approach, which acknowledges and challenges the historic and current power differentials between people of color and white people in the U.S., addressing patterns that develop due to the dynamics of internalized racism and internalized dominance.

She explained that what’s being done when you’re asked where you’re from “is that white people get to be individuals, but you’re always being racialized.  So every moment of that, [some will call it] ‘curiosity,’ but I’m racializing you—I’m reminding you that you’re never going to be seen as an individual, and you will be a perpetual outsider or foreigner.  And, also…if you’re the ‘other’ then I [as a white person] am the norm.  I get some deep psychological capital from making you the ‘other’.  But I also get to do it in a way that has me feeling open and friendly to you, so I’m like, ‘Look how not racist I am’.”

Ah, yes, the “other.” The philosophical idea of the “other” can be found as far back as in Plato’s Sophist, which is thought to be written around 360 BC.  In more recent history, “otherness” was also discussed in the 18th century writings of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; was later developed in the 20th century by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, German philosopher Edmund Husserl, and others; was then written about by such philosophers as Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Paul Sartre; and was extensively covered by the late philosophers Michel Foucault and Edward Said.  The verb “othering” was born out of postcolonial studies and coined in the ‘80s by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—Indian literary theorist, feminist critic, postcolonial theorist, and a University Professor at Columbia University—and is defined as “a process by which the empire can define itself against those it colonizes, excludes, and marginalizes. […] The business of creating the enemy … in order that the empire might define itself by its geographical and racial others.”

Genocide scholars study how othering leads to genocide in the most extreme cases. In this piece for UC-Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, Stephen Menendian writes about how “It’s not going too far to assert that the problem of the 21st Century is the problem of ‘Othering.’ … Although genocide may be the most extreme form of Othering, too many conflicts or instances of violence across the globe seem organized around one or more dimension of human difference, ethnic, religious, racial, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, and more.  Othering is what ultimately led to the Armenian genocide in 1915 during which the Ottoman government systematically murdered 1.5 million Armenians.  It’s also what led to over a million Rwandans being murdered in 1994 by their fellow citizens over a three-month period while another million died in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the next few years.  And, of course, how can anyone forget about The Holocaust, the systematic murder of six million Jewish people by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, not to mention the mass slaughter of Bengalis, Cambodians, Bosnians, Kosovars, and Darfuris, among others?

No one believes they’re being racist: the good/bad binary

I also asked Dr. DiAngelo why she thinks some people get defensive and are unwilling to even engage in a deeper discussion about racism as a structured, institutionalized system.  She said, “I think the most brilliant adaptation of racism post-Civil Rights is…that [we] correlate racism with a profound immorality so that no white person can connect to it.  So it seems like a positive change post-Civil Rights so now it’s bad to be racist.  But, no, how does it actually function?  It makes it virtually impossible [to be racist] because to be a good person and to be complicit with racism is mutually exclusive in [society’s] dominant frame.  And so what someone thinks is, ‘I couldn’t possibly be a racist because a racist is very, very bad.  A racist doesn’t like people of color and knows it.’  It’s also a deep lack of understanding about implicit bias.  So you basically just said I was the worst possible kind of person that you could ever be. [It’s] like if you told me, ‘Robin, you’re a murderer,’ I would just laugh and be like, ‘Right, whatever.’  And to say I’m a racist, I’m going to lose my mind.  So there’s what I call the good/bad binary.

“There’s also this belief that our intentions trump our impact, so as long as I didn’t mean it to be racism, it doesn’t count as racism, so move on and get off my back, basically.  But if I’m standing on your foot, and you’re like, ‘Ow, you’re on my foot,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I didn’t mean to be on your foot,’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah, but you are,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I didn’t mean to,’ it would be like, ‘No, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry that I hurt you.’  So [there’s a]…virtual impossibility in the white mind to connect ourselves with racism because we fundamentally don’t understand what it is.  And arrogance.  I think that’s profound arrogance on the part of your friend to categorically dismiss the research [about the black- and white-sounding names on resumes] when he doesn’t even know about it.  See, even when you prove racism—because, by god, you’re going to have to prove it—even then, no.  We just won’t grant it because we’re deeply invested in it.  He wants to be able to ask what he wants to ask.  He doesn’t want to have to think about what his position is.  It’s that deep entitlement to dominate, basically, and not to have to be inconvenienced in the slightest way…  And that’s also part of dominance: never having to grapple with power and positionality.  I try to help white people see that basically from the moment we opened our eyes we’ve been reinforced in white as superior.  There’s never been a space outside of it, and those messages come at us 24/7.  Racism is always at play in any situation. Even as you and I are having this conversation, racism is in this conversation.  How?  That’s for us to figure out and try our best to minimize.”

“Where are you (really) from?” as a colloquialism: the legacy of racist immigration and citizenship laws from 1790 to 1965

The alienation I feel when I’m asked “Where are you from?” when being probed for my ethnicity also got me thinking about the history of immigration and citizenship laws in our country.  I reached out to Hiroshi Motomura, a teacher and scholar of immigration and citizenship law and Susan Westerberg Prager Professor of Law at UCLA.

What I discovered is that the history of our country’s citizenship laws is, well, a racist one.  Motomura explained that when this nation was new, the Naturalization Law of 1790 “restricted naturalization to ‘free white persons’.  This Congress…decided to restrict on the basis of race, and [considering] the context at the time”—ie, being in the midst of slavery and subjugating Native Americans—“I think that probably was unsurprising.”

The law stayed this way, limiting citizenship eligibility to white people for about 70 years until, of course, the Civil War in the 1860s.  Motomura explained that in 1868, “The 14th Amendment comes in and says that African Americans born in the United States are U.S. citizens, and…[with the Naturalization Act of] 1870, Congress expanded naturalization eligibility to persons of African descent.  And it kind of opened the question to what happens to Asians.”  So at that point, anyone who was neither white nor black was ineligible for citizenship, which meant they could be deported and couldn’t vote, serve on juries, bring suit, testify in court, or sponsor their relatives for immigration, among other basic legal protections that were granted to white people from the very beginning of our nation’s history.

The first wave of significant Asian immigration to the U.S. took place during the Gold Rush period in the mid-19th century, around 1849.  It consisted of Chinese immigrants, who—like many who flee their homelands due to life-threatening oppression—were fleeing political unrest in China due to the Taiping Rebellion, which claimed an unbelievable 20 million lives and is still considered one of the bloodiest civil wars in history.

As a result, the Asian population in the U.S. grew quickly.  In 1850, the Chinese-American population was around 4,000 out of a total U.S. population of 23.2 million.  By 1860, the Chinese-American population had increased to almost 35,000 out of 31.4 million Americans altogether.

As the number of Chinese immigrants soared, so did economic fears due to a nationwide recession.  White Americans attributed declining wages and unemployment to Chinese workers; they also viewed these new immigrants as racially inferior.  In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, halting Chinese immigration for 10 years and prohibiting Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens.  The Geary Act of 1892 extended the law for another 10 years before it became permanent in 1902. 

In 1905, the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League was founded in San Francisco and in 1908 changed its name to the Asiatic Exclusion League.  The league sought to exclude Asian immigrants through legislation, and its constitution’s preamble stated that the “Caucasian and Asiatic races are unassimilable.  Contact between these races must result, under the conditions of industrial life obtaining in North America, in injury to the former, proportioned to the extent to which such contact prevails.”  The league worked to “create a sentiment which will prove to the Congress of our country the necessity of the enactment of a law for the preservation of our race.”  Donations from approximately 200 organizations financed the league, which successfully lobbied city and state governments to pass discriminatory laws against Asians and restrict Asian immigration.

The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 barred the entry of new laborers from Japan and Korea.  (At the time, the U.S. recognized Korea as part of Japan due to its colonization of Korea at the time.)  A year earlier, in 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education had directed school principals to segregate Japanese and Koreans from other public school students and send them to the Oriental Public School for Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans (formerly named the Chinese Primary School as San Francisco had been segregating its Chinese students since 1859.)  The education board’s order sparked a diplomatic crisis between Japan and the U.S., and President Roosevelt dispatched his Commerce and Labor Secretary to convince the board to reverse its decision.  It refused to do so unless the government curtailed immigration, and the Gentlemen’s Agreement was the outcome.

That same year, the Expatriation Act of 1907 was passed, which meant that women who married non-U.S. citizens would take the citizenship of their husbands.  As a result, according to Dr. Rachel Buff, Professor of History at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “female citizens who married men ineligible to naturalize, like Asian immigrants, would actually lose their citizenship rights.”

As xenophobic sentiment continued to spread, California enacted the Alien Land Law of 1913, prohibiting “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning property or entering into leases for more than three years.  According to Motomura, “This was a move that was directed against Asian farmers, principally, and that was very significant because so much of Asian immigration in that part of American history was built on having an agricultural presence, especially for Japanese immigrants.  There’s a famous case, Torao Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission et al [from 1948], that involved [keeping] the Japanese from [obtaining] fishing licenses in California. … It was driven by local resentment by white farmers against the relative success of Asian farmers; especially in that period, Japanese farmers.  You [also] had Indian-American farmers, Chinese farmers…  There are multiple Asian groups that were successful, especially in California, Washington, and Oregon agriculture, and there was a lot of resentment of that success.  That led to localized pressures leading to…state laws [that] fall into the category of so-called ‘alien land laws.’ [Eventually,] the laws restricting access to fishing licenses gets struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court [in 1948]” because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which says that states cannot deny any persons “the equal protection of the laws.” 

Historians agree that “aliens ineligible to citizenship” was a thinly-veiled way to target Asians.  For example, according to Dr. Roger Daniels, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Cincinnati, “In 1870, Congress rewrote the statute [for naturalization].  A few radical Republicans, led by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, sought to make this new law color-blind, but the majority, aware of the anti-Chinese furor on the West Coast and of a few well-publicized incidents involving the use of Chinese labor in the East, refused to do so. … Asians—and only Asians—were what later statutes would refer to as aliens ‘ineligible to citizenship.’  Although many statutes would single out Chinese for special treatment, most subsequent statutory anti-Asian discrimination for the next 92 years was carried out under the ‘aliens ineligible to citizenship’ formula.”

Asians have not been the only target of using thinly-veiled wording to disenfranchise a specific racial group.  If you’ve watched Ava Duvernay’s documentary “13th,” or perhaps through other means, you’ve heard the audio from 1981 of Reagan’s campaign strategist Lee Atwater explaining their Southern strategy of using particular wording to pander to racist whites who feel threatened by African Americans: “You start out in 1954 by saying ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’  By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger.’  That hurts you.  That backfires. So you say stuff like ‘forced-bussing,’ ‘state’s rights,’ and all that stuff.  You’re getting so abstract now.  You’re talking about ‘cutting taxes,’ and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things.  And the byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

Getting back to the alien land laws that made it illegal to sell or lease land long-term to “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” the way Japanese immigrants got around them was that if their children were born in the U.S., then the children as U.S. citizens were able to hold the property.  Motomura broke it down further: “That’s why it’s really important that Asian immigrants were recognized as being born citizens if they were born in this country after the 1890s.”  This is because of United States v. Wong Kim Ark (decided in 1898) in which Asian citizenship by birth was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court when Wong Kim Ark, who was born in San Francisco—and whose Chinese parents, since the time of his birth up until the time of the court case and beyond, were domiciled residents of the United States—had returned to San Francisco from a trip to China.  Even though he had secured the correct papers for re-entry, the authorities would not let him back in and returned him to the ship on which he’d arrived.  This case focused on the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment, which states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”  Justice Horace Gray delivered the opinion of the Court, saying that the Chinese Exclusion Act “must be construed and executed in subordination to” the 14th Amendment because the 14th Amendment was passed first, 14 years earlier to be exact.  The court held that the government cannot deny citizenship to anyone born in the United States, including Wong Kim Ark.  Gray added that, therefore, if Wong was an American citizen, then the Chinese Exclusion Act, “do(es) not and cannot apply to him.”  Motomura explained, “If it weren’t for that, there would’ve been complete exclusion of Asian immigrants, but the fact that the children of Asian immigrants born in the United States were able to become citizens is absolutely crucial in developing Asian-American agriculture before World War II.  Of course, this gets all upset by internment [from the early-to-mid 1940s], but you have strong use of the birth citizenship to get around the restrictions imposed by the virtue of naturalization bars.”

By the way, speaking of internment, if my 23andMe DNA test is correct and I am actually 20% Japanese, that means if my family had been in the States in the early 1940s, even though we’re Korean, we could have been rounded up along with the 120,000 ethnically Japanese.  This is because if you had as little as one-sixteenth Japanese blood, you were considered Japanese enough to be sent to an internment camp.  When the internees were finally released in early 1945, many had to start over with nothing, such as actor George Takei and his family, who were interned when he five to eight years old.  In an attempt to make reparations, in 1948, President Truman signed the Japanese-American Evacuation Claims Act and paid out $38 million to settle 23,000 claims for damages that totaled $131 million (which is a rate of about 10 cents on the dollar).  Then, in the ‘80s, over 100,000 survivors from the internment camps were compensated an additional $20,000 each when Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act.  In its final report, the commission that Congress had set up to investigate the legacy of the camps admitted that the decision to issue Executive Order 9066 had been shaped by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Continuing our walk down Memory Lane: Xenophobia Edition, born from the national security concerns of World War I came the passing of the Immigration Act of 1917.  This established the “Asiatic Barred Zone” (or “Asiatic Triangle”) a region designated by specified longitudes and latitudes that included most of Asia from which immigration was completely banned.  According to Dr. John Cheng, Assistant Professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at Binghamton University, this region was created using information from a 1911 report created by the Dillingham Commission on Immigration as a response to the growing number of Asian Indians in western states.  Specifically, according to Nayan Shah, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at University of Southern California, Congressmen Denver S. Church of California and Ellison Smith of South Carolina introduced hearings and legislation to exclude South Asian laborers, which they homogeneously labeled as “Hindu.”  Shah says, “Church testified about the clannish, dishonest, and immoral behavior of Hindu laborers in Fresno as an illustration of their unsuitability for permanent settlement and assimilation to American society.”  (There had also been the Bellingham Riots in 1907 in which 500 white working men used violence to break windows and pull men out of their workplaces and homes, which resulted in the entire South Asian population departing town within 10 days.) 

In a conversation between NPR’s Audie Cornish, host of “All Things Considered,” and Richard Alba, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at The Graduate Center at City University New York, who has spent decades studying the immigrant experience, Alba says that the ideas presented in the Dillingham report “were overtly racist.  I mean, there can be little question about…the importance of scientific racism in the early 20th century and the degree to which it shaped the thinking that went into the Dillingham Commission report.”

In the ‘20s, there were even two court cases brought against the U.S. in regards to the definition of “free white persons.”  Takao Ozawa v. United States (decided in 1922) involved Takao Ozawa, a Japanese American who was born in Japan but had lived in the U.S. for 20 years; graduated from high school in Berkeley, CA, and attended University of California for three years; raised his children here in the U.S.; and attended American churches; yet, since he was Asian, found himself ineligible for naturalization.  In 1914, Ozawa had filed for U.S. citizenship in Hawaii and was denied.  In 1922, he petitioned the Supreme Court.  In regards to whiteness, Ozawa claimed that he was “whiter” than many white people, stating that, “In the typical Japanese city of Kyoto, those not exposed to the heat of summer are particularly white-skinned.  They are whiter than the average Italian, Spaniard or Portuguese.”  Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice George Sutherland held that “the words ‘white person’ were meant to indicate only a person of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race.”

In the case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (decided in 1923), Thind, who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1913 to attend UC-Berkeley and fought in the U.S. Army in World War I, also claimed the right to citizenship by trying to convince the Supreme Court that “high-caste Hindus” should qualify as “free white persons.”  Singh had originally been granted citizenship by the state of Oregon, but the state’s Naturalization Examiner objected and sought cancellation of the certificate because Thind was not white.  The Court concluded that “It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white.” The Supreme Court revoked Thind’s citizenship as well as the citizenship of some 50 other Indians who had also applied for naturalized status by being categorized as “Caucasian.”  (At least one person, Vaishno das Bagai—who had fled British tyranny in India to raise his family here in the U.S.—committed suicide after his citizenship was revoked.)  Thind later reapplied for his citizenship in New York State and received it.

These were just two cases out of 52 for which judges were called upon to define the boundaries of whiteness as a precondition for naturalization between 1790 and 1952.  According to Cybelle Fox, Assistant Professor of Sociology, and Irene Bloemraad, Professor of Sociology, both at University of California, Berkeley, “The courts ultimately found that Asian immigrants were non-white.  By contrast, European immigrants were judged to be white and eligible for citizenship.  In fact, aside from immigrants from the borderlands between Asia and Europe—especially Syrians and Armenians—the color status of European immigrants was rarely litigated.”

And let’s not forget about our country’s history with eugenics, the “scientific racism” that, according to Dr. Ruth Engs of Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public Health, was the lens through which “immigration restriction policies were enacted to prevent ‘degenerative’ Asians and eastern-and southern-European immigrants from degrading the health, heredity, intelligence and traditional values of the Anglo-American culture.”  Eugenics was influential in shaping the Immigration Act of 1924, which led to the creation of the National Origins Formula under which the number of immigration visas was restricted to 2% of the number of each existing nationality of people in the country according to the 1890 national census.  In other words, according to U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian, the point of the National Origins Formula “was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.”

Technically, Asian immigrants were not eligible to naturalize fully until 1952—with the exception of Chinese immigrants who were allowed to start naturalizing again in 1943 (albeit with very low quota numbers when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed) and Filipinos, who have a much more complicated story because of the history between the U.S. and the Philippines—when the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act finally eliminated racial bars as a prerequisite to naturalization.  However, it really only eliminated these racial bars in theory because it still upheld the racist National Origins Formula in place since the ‘20s, which meant that the immigration quotas for those from Asian countries were kept very low.  This, in conjunction with, according to the Office of the Historian, “a uniquely racial construction for how to apply [the quotas] ensured that total Asian immigration after 1952 would remain very limited.”  The quota for Asian immigrants was set at 2000 altogether, with just 100 immigrants allowed from each Asian country.  The “uniquely racial construction for how to apply to quotas” part meant that, for example, a person of Chinese descent who was born in, say, France, would be counted toward the overall 2000-person quota, adding to the restrictiveness.

So, in actuality, on the ground level, it wasn’t until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 dismantled the racist National Origins Formula and changed the way immigration quotas were allocated that immigration was truly, finally extended to Asians.  To sum it up in Motomura’s words: “From the 1890s until 1952, Asian children born in the United States were considered citizens, but in that period, their parents, who immigrated, could not become citizens.  I mean, there are some exceptions….but what I said is generally true. This reinforces your bottom line, which is that until 1952, the rules of U.S. citizenship acquisition had a very strong racial—and I suppose you would say racist—element.”

As a result, since 1965, the ethnic portrait of the U.S. has changed considerably with the Asian population having grown at an incredible rate.  This brings me to my main point of why we Asians in America continually deal with the, “Ay! Where ya from?” colloquialism—and, yes, I’m being very nice here when I refer to this as a colloquialism—meant to peg a particular Asian ethnicity.  Taking a look at the numbers, in 1965 in the U.S., there were an estimated 161 million whites, 20 million blacks, 8 million Hispanics, and 1.3 million Asians.  Ten years later in 1975, while the white population had increased by 6.5% to 173 million, the Asian population had nearly doubled to 2.5 million.  As of 2015, there were 200 million whites, 40 million blacks, almost 57 million Hispanics, and 18 million Asians.

Motomura personally remembers the racial makeup of the population changing around him as policy took effect in the ‘60s.  He recalled, “My own family came to this country in the late ‘50s through a loophole… I remember I was in high school in the late ‘60s in San Francisco, and all of a sudden, I could literally see the school becoming more Asian every year.  And then when I moved back to California after being away for many years, it was a completely different place.  One can imagine if there had been a continuous path of robust Asian immigration unrestricted by law from the 19th century from the Gold Rush period to the present, that ‘Where are you from?’ question would have lost its meaning, it’s kind of negative aspect by now. But in the scheme of things, 1965 is about 50 years ago, so it’s not that long ago.”

Thoughts on asking about ethnicity

If you want to ask someone about their ethnicity, Dr. DiAngelo advises, “[As a white person,] if I want to know someone’s racial identity then…I would lead with ‘My racial identity is white.  What’s your racial identity?’  I would put myself in it, too, so that I’m also exposing myself.  If I’m going to ask, I’m going to ask correctly, and I’m going to ask with some kind of relationship because it matters.”

I personally wouldn’t mind a simple, “May I ask what your ethnicity is?”  But to take it even further, why even ask about ethnicity right off the bat?  It would make more sense to me to ask about neighborhood goings-on, the weather, current events, arts and culture, etc., or to make commentary on something happening in real time that everyone involved in the conversation is witnessing together…  There are so many things you can converse about to find out what someone is like, what they’re into, how their psyche works rather than trying to superficially pin them down to their ethnicity/nationality by rattling off things that, in my case, are Korean and how much you like those things.  Asking about ethnicity is what you do after you’ve been chatting for some time, not the very first thing you do.    

When I think of what my coworker said to me, my thoughts are that not knowing the history of those who’ve been historically disenfranchised is not an excuse to deny that there actually may be a painful history behind a particular choice of words.  Specifically, if you’re coming from a place of never having sat down and read through the historical facts and related legal cases that prove that our country was initially only for “free white persons” and all the litigation that ensued to change this over the next 175 years, and then just to claim, “Oh, I’m going to have to disagree with you,” during a conversation about institutional, systemic racism, to me, you’re living in a perverse reality.  Not knowing the history doesn’t mean it never happened. 

There’s this thing I do in my head where I imagine a social interaction I’ve had and imagine how it would’ve been different if I’d been a different person.  So I’ve imagined being white and having a friend who’s a person of color telling me about a situation involving a racial microaggression that made them feel othered.  I couldn’t imagine simply disagreeing because I would know all too well that my whiteness lends itself to being treated a certain way.  What I could imagine in this hypothetical scenario is asking my friend questions to try to both understand them as well as my own privilege and how it operates; I couldn’t imagine just shutting down and refusing to talk about things in more detail. 

So, again, I’m not saying that asking about ethnicity is off-limits, and I’m certainly not condoning censorship of speech.  But if you’re going to ask, just as when you or I or anyone else uses words when speaking, we should all take responsibility for the words we choose to use and for the interaction that ensues.  We also have a responsibility to accept the fact that U.S. immigration and citizenship laws have been discriminatory based on race since the very founding of our country.  The examples I’ve shared make up just a portion of everything that Asians in America have had to go through to gain citizenship and, therefore, rights.  Entire books have been written on the discriminatory history of American immigration and citizenship policy; there’s only so much that can be shared in one article. 

The thing is we’ve all uttered racial microaggressions at one point or another; I’ve definitely done it, and I made the decision to apologize and to engage in a deeper discussion about it.  So let’s keep talking. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Keep up with Sara on Twitter

More From Thought Catalog