The Race Card Project Talks About How and Whether to Discuss Ethnicity

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“No, but where are you REALLY from?”

“But where are you from... originally?”

“‘Where are YOU from?’ A: ‘Here’”

The above sentences are submissions to the Race Card Project, an initiative begun in 2010 by NPR host Michele Norris, which asks people to condense their experience of race into six words. The resulting responses — coming from tens of thousands of people in 63 countries — are honest, unfiltered, and direct. Interestingly, variations on “where are you originally from?” are among the most commonly submitted phrases, Norris recently told The Atlantic.

Where are you really from? When read in print form, it’s unclear whether the speaker intends this question to be inquisitive or outright offensive. But perhaps —and here’s where we enter into tough territory — perhaps that’s not even the point. One could easily argue that the desire to learn of someone’s ethnicity is problematic regardless of context. As researchers Virginia Mapedzahama and Kwamena Kwansah-Aido explained in a 2010 paper on African identity in Australia: in spite of the curiosity that may drive this question, the question is laden with implications. It can be interpreted by the receiver as exclusionary, and a means of acknowledging that a certain person is a minority or is noticeably different. It could also, they acknowledge, create unfair feelings of ambiguity about one’s true place or home. One woman expressed her anger about this in a testimony to the Race Card Project where she explained that, even after more than thirty years of living in Sweden, people still demand to know of her Asian origins as if that is some missing puzzle piece.

So, what if you’re genuinely curious about someone’s personal history? Can you ask the question then? Testimonies on the Race Card Project website suggest people are divided on the issue. Some people embrace the question and use it to show their pride in their ethnicity. Others resent it and others still merely tolerate it. Some people expressed the sentiment that the question would provoke a different reaction depending on the situation.

This discussion is not to suggest we should tip-toe around the question of race when numerous harmful stereotypes are being bandied about each day on a range of different platforms. We just need to find the right stage for this discussion. For Norris, the correct stage may be a literal stage. As she told The Atlantic: “I have always thought that the most honest conversation about race in America takes place on a comedy stage … where people can say things that are impolitic almost everywhere else. Where you're allowed to laugh." As long as the laugher is benevolent, I think this could be a valid solution.

As for asking where someone is from, I suggest you visit the Race Card Project website to get a feel for how this question can affect different people before you do so. Then, should you choose to proceed, make sure you place the emphasis on the right syllable. Really.