Where are you from?

Usually, the question “where are you from?” is not a “microaggression” but an honest effort to meet a new person. For either party to interpret it otherwise is foolish, selfish, and reduces the possibility of a relationship that could bless them both.

A stocky, white, middle-aged man stood behind the counter at the fencing school as I approached. “I am looking to take lessons. Do I sign up here?”

“Yes,” he said in a thick Russian accent.

I love to get to know people, the studio wasn’t very busy, and I knew nothing about “microaggressions,” so I asked, “Where are you from?”

“Minnesota,” he replied.

“No, where are you from originally?”

“Baltimore,” he answered.

“OK, where is your accent from?” I persisted, eager to learn about his big life adventure.

“Russia,” he said.

Over the next few minutes, he shared that he was a youth fencing champion from the St. Petersburg region in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s. He had emigrated to northern Virginia and owned this fencing school. The man’s face brightened as he shared his accomplishments, and I was happy to listen. I took a class from him, and we enjoyed friendly conversation at each visit. I have not seen him since, but participating in his life for a few weeks was rich.

Since then, I have had similar interactions with a waitress from Ethiopia, a woman whose father was Israeli and mother was Japanese, and many others. These people, like most people, felt blessed that someone showed an interest in them. An elderly lady told me once that she was from a southeastern region of Germany which was part of Czechoslovakia. I replied, “So you are from the Sudetenland.” She burst into tears. “No one knows about that place, my home, anymore.” We talked for a few minutes. “Thank you for bringing back something so important to me,” she concluded. I asked these people “where are you from?” and they took the question in a positive light. They chose to assume the best, not the worst.

Unfortunately, asking “where are you from” has joined the list of unacceptable questions in 21st century America. It is considered a microaggression[1] by the woke[2] or politically correct crowd.[3] They believe that such a question is an assertion of one’s superiority over others and is intended to:

  1. Suggest that the person making the comment has more right to be in the USA, or wherever they happen to be, than the person to whom the comment is made.
  2. Signal the opinion of a white person born in the USA that that non-white person born elsewhere should return to where they came from.

Balderdash! While some people use such language to slight those around them, most use such language to engage others, to learn about them, and to show them respect. As we discover the fascinating personal stories of those we encounter day to day, we learn to enjoy and sometimes even to love them. In the musical The King and I, Anna was an English schoolteacher in Siam singing to her students:

 

Getting to know all about you.

Getting to like you,

Getting to hope you like me.

 

Getting to know you,

Putting it my way,

But nicely,

You are precisely,

My cup of tea.

 

Getting to know you,

Getting to feel free and easy

When I am with you,

Getting to know what to say

 

Haven’t you noticed

Suddenly I’m bright and breezy?

Because of all the beautiful and new

Things I’m learning about you

Day by day.

“But wait,” one may object, “what matters is not the intentions of the asker but the feelings of the asked.” Such an affirmation is inconsistent with every other area of existence. In which part of life do the intentions, thoughts, feelings, and actions of all parties in a situation not matter? Do husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, workers and bosses, police officers and community members, friends and acquaintances, and pastors and parishioners not also regard the intentions, feelings, thoughts, and actions of both parties? Should not members of all races, both sexes, and all religions not treat others with such respect? Are those who automatically assume the worst not doomed to insecurity, loneliness, and despair?

Each individual can interpret any situation negatively or positively, and consequently bears responsibility for their choice.

But what about those people who intend to be hurtful in their question? Sadly, unkindness exists, and meanness hurts. However, such people never intended to have a relationship anyway. They are dooming themselves to insecurity, loneliness, and despair. The recipient may be hurt but can heal if they so choose. Again, it is each person’s choice that matters.

Shall we say, “I will interpret the words and actions of most people in the worst possible light, therefore rejecting them, and interpret the words and actions of only a few in a positive light, thereby accepting them.” The more we reject others, the more the habit of rejection is built into our hearts and minds. We become surrounded by walls of our own design, built brick by brick for every face that we reject. While it is true that we only have time for a few close friends and family members in our short lives, we must be amiable towards everyone.

Christians can neither use words and actions to harm nor assume the worst when someone asks them “where are you from?” Followers of Christ cannot assume the worst when someone does any other action that some would label a microaggression. Paul writes, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with all men (Romans 12:18).” Peace begins with expecting the best, being open, and working through misunderstandings. One day, people from every nation, race, tribe, and tongue will stand before God in awesome glory and rapturous delight. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).” God’s community will include many that we are surprised to see, and many will be surprised to see us.

We must never forget, “Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one may be overpowered, two can resist. Moreover, a cord of three strands is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:11-12).”

Conclusion

The world tells people to keep constantly on guard, to reject others, to assume the worst, and to complain at the smallest perceived slight, like the question “where are you from?” It preaches, “stay in your group, trust only those who are like you, and oppose anyone that you feel is more powerful than you are.” Such is the pathway to insecurity, loneliness, isolation, despair, and death in this world, and eternal separation from everything good in the next.

 

[1] Merriam-Webster defines microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/microaggression. Believers in this concept often argue that the recipient of the comment or action is the judge of whether the comment or action is prejudiced. The intentions of the person making the comment or doing the action are irrelevant. Such microaggressions would have been called slights in the past, but such a word is too concise and precise for the language of socialism and social control.

[2] Supporters of the slang word “woke” define it as alert to injustice. Opponents feel that everyone is alert to injustice to some degree, and “woke” is a hypersensitivity to perceived slights that do not exist. Few people are not alert to the fact that killing 10 people, including 7 children, in a drone strike in Afghanistan is unjust. Many people doubt that asking a question in an attempt to learn about someone else is unjust.

[3] Merriam-Webster defines politically correct as “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/politically%20correct. Believers in this concept often argue that the hearer of, or anyone offended by, such language or practice is the judge of whether the comment or action should be censored. The intentions of the person using the language or doing the practice are irrelevant.

Author: MD Harris Family Institute

MD, MPH, MBA, MDiv Colonel, US Army (ret)

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