Is it OK to ask, ‘Where are you from?’

December 8, 2017

Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun |

A seemingly innocuous question has become contentious.

“Where are you from?” has turned into a multicultural minefield. What some used to consider a basic curiosity has become politicized.

Activists and a number of scholars have added “Where are you from?” to the list of phrases they judge as “micro-aggressions,” which they define as inadvertent slights that can do lasting psychological damage.

Asking someone about their place of origin seems to be especially loaded in Metro Vancouver and Toronto, where a minority of the population is white and almost half is born in another country.

Given such cosmopolitan contexts, one would think asking “Where are you from?” could be a helpful way to get to know a fellow human being. But things are not that straightforward.

I recently conducted informal surveys of friends, family and colleagues and found roughly half, regardless of ethnicity or migration history, are OK with the question. Another half are wary of it.

One white person suggested that inquiring about origins “others” someone.

However, one woman, a recent immigrant, cheerfully said she quickly tells people where she’s from, so people can get to know her. Another said she used to like it when people asked why she had a red dot in the middle of her forehead, but these days most North Americans pretend they don’t notice.

“Where are you from?” is even the focus of a viral YouTube video, in which a stereotypically buffoonish white male actor asks variations of the question of an Asian-American women, who explodes with sarcasm. The “educational” video has been watched by 9.2 million people.

Some of the domestic and immigrant North Americans I have interviewed believe asking “where are you from?” can imply someone is not a bona fide Canadian or American. They usually clarify that it depends on exactly how the question is asked.

Read more