Sunday, June 7, 2009

How to deal with sticky questions

[MRM Classic - from Tuesday, October 14, 2008]

"Why do you want to know where I'm from?"

Recently I was asked to give a talk about race and diversity, specifically to talk about my own experiences as a woman of color in higher education. So I drew upon some of the themes that I've discussed previously in this blog--about the definition of race as we know it (in terms of the "racial pentagram"), the difference between "institutional racism" versus "individual discrimination," about my own identification as an Asian American woman, and about the question that every Asian American person I know has been asked at least once (and usually many times), namely: "Where are you from?" with the implication, oftentimes, that a person isn't looking for your current home address; rather, what the questioner wants to know is what your ethnic ancestry is.

The talk was really fun--and the question and answer period, which I used more as a general discussion, was the best part, because it was an opportunity for people to talk to one another, albeit through me. In other words, I didn't want to just stand up as the "race expert" because I think everyone has their own experiences, and hence expertise, when it comes to race. And really, after one person has been talking for 40 minutes, the last thing anyone wants is to keep hearing the same voice answer questions.

However, one very good question was posed to me directly. In response to an anecdote I had told about the Staples guy (click here) who insisted I had to be from Hawaii because I looked Hawaiian and who kept wanting to know where I was from, a person in the audience asked this question:

"Is there any kind of question that you would prefer to be asked with respect to your background/ethnicity? Was there a way that the man who insisted you were Hawaiian could have asked his question without offending you?"

I thought about it for a moment and then did the teacherly thing that I sometimes do, which is to flip it around and look at it from a different perspective. Because the thing is, there's nothing wrong in asking someone where they are from or, if it is the ethnic ancestry you are interested in, there's nothing wrong in directly asking someone, "What is your ethnic ancestry?" I've done it recently with a student in my class who appears to be South Asian but had indicated through different references that he might have Indian heritage, and so during office hours I asked him directly what his ethnic heritage was because it was in relationship to a conversation we were having about people taking off their shoes before entering one's home--and it was a point of common cultural practice between Indian households and Chinese households (and I dare say a number of other cultures do this as well, like Korean and Kenyan).

So what I said to the questioner was that it wasn't so much how it was asked or what was asked but it is the motivation behind the question that I'm interested in. For example, a nurse who was inserting a needle in my arm during a blood drive once asked what my nationality was. I am not sure if it was the tone of her voice or the fact that she was about to stick a needle into my arm, but I didn't get defensive or reactionary (for example, I didn't scream I AM AN AMERICAN CITIZEN IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MY ETHNIC HERITAGE THEN JUST ASK) instead I simply said "I identify as a Chinese American." She got very excited and started to tell me about her Chinese American granddaughter--and at first I wasn't sure if her son had married a Chinese/Chinese American woman or had adopted a girl from China, but it soon came out that it was the latter and that her Chinese American grandchild was always asking her grandmother (who worked for the Red Cross) if she met any Chinese people in the largely homogenous (read white) area of Western MA where we were having this conversation.

In other words, for the white American Red Cross nurse, her motivation in asking me my nationality was very personal and rooted in finding resources for her granddaughter in discovering her ethnic heritage. For the Staples guy? It seems as if his motivation was simply to tell me I should get to know my culture better and to show off HIS expert knowledge about China and Chinese society. And quite frankly, I have all the patience in the world for the nurse and none whatsoever for the "China expert." Because the nurse seems to desire a true interaction and a conversation whereas the China expert seems to want to talk at me rather than with me.

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