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Where are you (really) from? Inconspicuous question with lasting effects

Where are you (really) from? Anyone who asks people with a migration background this question is usually curious about their migration background. But is that really the case? Where is the line between curiosity and racism?

I and other people with a visible migration background regularly experience the "Where are you from?” situation. Whether at university, at work or when shopping - the question of migrant background has become a constant companion that is not without consequences.

The constant question of origin: Where are you really from?

The topic is not new and has been the subject of much discussion in recent years. The whole debate was triggered by a tweet from Malcolm Ohanwe, who posted a clip from "Das Supertalent" (RTL), in which juror Dieter Bohlen asks a five-year-old girl on stage where she comes from.

This led to an extensive discussion on Twitter, which went viral under the hashtag #vonhier. If you live in Germany and your face is not Caucasian, the question "Where are you from?" is probably the most common question that strangers ask you in everyday life. What's the problem with that? Why do many people with a migration background dislike this question?

Practicing othering and triggering microaggressions with a supposedly harmless question 

The question of origin is asked of people who do not fit the image of a “normal” German. Tupoka Ogette puts it very aptly in her book "exit RACISM: rassismuskritisch denken lernen": "If we are being honest, the question is not just based on pure curiosity. There is a desire behind the question. The desire for order. The desire to know who I am dealing with. The desire to put the other person in an (my) imaginary box. And this box is called "the others". That's where you belong. I find you interesting, exotic, exciting, funny ..., but one thing you are not (really): one of us." (Ogette, 2017, translated by IN-VISIBLE).

This differentiation goes hand in hand with negative attributions, evaluations and expectations; it is also referred to as othering, a concept used by scholars such as Said and Spivak and further developed in the 1970s to analyze Orientalism and colonial structures. With every "Where are you from?" I am reminded that I don't look like those from here.

The icing on the cake of already experienced racism

The question subtly suggests to me that I appear different, foreign or non-German to the other person. Consequently, the question can be very hurtful: many Germans with a migration background feel just as German as Germans without a migration background and would like to be seen as German. Especially for those who were born in Germany with a migrant background and have grown up with German culture, the question of origin often conveys a feeling of foreignness and exclusion based on external characteristics.

Where are you really from can generate a notion of othering.
Where are you really from can generate a notion of othering.

As people who are not affected by this feeling do not know it personally, it can easily be misunderstood.

For people who can simply answer this question with a German city and thus end the conversation, the discourse may sometimes seem strange. The way in which the violence of the question is currently being discussed in the media could give the impression that the question "Where are you from?" is perceived as a fist in the face by those affected. The opposite is the case: at the moment it is asked, the question is often small and inconspicuous. But over time, it adds up and for many it feels like "repeated mosquito bites" (Fusion Comedy, 2016; Coach Köln, 2021), "pinpricks" (Vu, 2019) or like the icing on the cake of previous experiences of racism.

This phenomenon is also known as microaggressions: Everyday comments, questions, verbal or non-verbal actions that primarily affect marginalized groups and reinforce negative stereotypes that are often not meant to be hurtful (Gender Equality & Diversity University of Cologne, 2022).

Between feelings and curiosity: For an understanding togetherness

On the one hand, people with a migrant background want to be accepted without their appearance or origin constantly taking center stage. On the other hand, there are also people who are genuinely interested in the other person's background. Perhaps they genuinely consider them German and would still like to know where their roots lie. After all, ethnic and cultural roots are also an important part of someone’s personality and shape their values, traditions and life experiences.

So should we tell the questioners: “Don't be so insensitive and stop asking this question”? Or is it legitimate to ask people with a visible history of migration to stop being so sensitive and answer a harmless question? I think in order to promote understanding and constructive discussion, it's important to find a common ground that we can all agree on.

Is "Where are you from?" okay? 

We don't know the other person's feelings

Let's take me as an example: I, 23 years old, was born in Germany and also feel German. My parents fled the Vietnam War and the oppression of communism in the 1980s. I myself had no connection to Vietnam for a long time and never visited the country until I was 19. I was always very uncomfortable with the question of ethnic origin, as I had no connection to my parents' home country, but was nevertheless reduced to it because of my appearance and reminded that I was different in my home country.

The journalist Vanessa Vu also has Vietnamese parents and has described very impressively why the question of her origins is associated with a lot of personal pain:

"It has to do with the fact that the answer is not simply 'Vietnam'. It's about war, violence, flight and trauma. These are not easy topics for me. And it has to do with the fact that the question alone makes me a stranger and that I was laughed at, ostracized and beaten up because of my supposed strangeness. For many years, I couldn't be sure whether I was allowed to live in this country at all, but was afraid of deportation night after night. I wasn't just different on the outside - my otherness threatened my existence" (Vu, 2019).

The question can therefore be emotionally stressful for those affected, so that they do not want to answer it at all, especially not with people they have only just met.

Other people with a migration background, such as journalist Düzen Tekkal, on the other hand, have no problem with the question: 

"That the simple question, where are you from, should suddenly constitute an insult, I can't and don't want to understand that. I have experienced this so often and have never felt it was racism," she says. She has no problem being asked about her roots because of her name or her appearance" (Hille, 2019).

These were three individual testimonials, all of which relate to this topic in different ways. But there are many more people with different backgrounds, stories and experiences. It is therefore also impossible to transfer personal experiences to others. A questioner cannot expect the person they’re questioning to downplay their feelings or dismiss them as overly sensitive, as it is impossible to deny another person their individual experiences and feelings.

Intention is important

Now let's turn to the other side of the dialogue. Again, there is one point we should all agree on: As explained earlier, microaggressions may not be intentionally hurtful, but they still hurt people, for example, out of ignorance of the other person's feelings. Nevertheless, it is important to know whether someone meant to hurt someone on purpose or not. There's a difference between someone asking me if I'm from Vietnam because they're excited to tell me about their Vietnam vacation and someone telling me to go back there. Equating xenophobia with awkwardness is not only unfair to awkward people, but it also diminishes the importance of hate and racism.

Education and allies are the key to respectful coexistence

I often find that the person being asked does not actively contribute to the solution even though they know the question is about ethnicity. The deliberate ping-pong game only causes confusion, especially when the person asking doesn't even know why the other person is upset. Accordingly, in the future, they will ask the next person where they are from because the misunderstanding has not been cleared up.

What would be helpful instead?

For example, the questioner could first respond to the answer given. If they are genuinely interested in the person's origins, the place where they grew up should be just as interesting as their ethnic roots. This will make it more natural to ask more in-depth questions about ethnicity as the conversation progresses. If you notice that the person is avoiding the question and does not want to answer, you should accept and respect this, as we do not know the other person's feelings, experiences and stories.

You should be aware that asking about someone’s background is not just superficial small talk, but can often be associated with emotional baggage.

To deal with this more sensitively, you could ask, for example: Can I ask you something personal? What are your roots? The person asked could respectfully point out that origins are multi-layered: What do you want to know? Where I come from or where my roots are? If the question bothers you, you can politely point it out: To be honest, this question bothers me because it makes me feel marginalized in my home country. But I know you don't mean any harm.

Education is the solution to ignorance

Educating others shouldn't just be the work of  people with a visible migrant background who have had these experiences. People without these experiences who witness such microaggressions and are aware of them should also join forces and show solidarity with those affected. This action is also referred to as allyship, an active and consistent practice of relearning and reevaluating, in which a person in a privileged and powerful position attempts to show solidarity with a marginalized group (Gender Equality & Diversity University of Cologne, 2023). Activist Raul Krauthausen has published a lot of content on how to be a better ally (Krauthausen, R. 2023, May). However, it is the responsibility of each individual to educate themselves.

Only together can we actively combat racism. This also includes being aware of the microaggressions that we commit even without malicious intent. The question "Where are you (really) from?" can be harmless, but sometimes the question is also violent. As a society, we have a duty to educate each other and thus promote intercultural dialog. It is our shared responsibility to create an understanding and respectful coexistence in society and to pull in the same direction.


This text was written as part of the seminar “Diversity im Lern- und Arbeitsumfeld“ ("Diversity in the world of learning and work"), which is led by Rea Eldem, founder and CEO of IN-VISIBLE at the Hasso Plattner Institute. The author Kien Vu is a student of IT Systems Engineering.


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