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'Where Are You From?' Is Clumsy, but Not Racist

10/09/2015 08:06 EDT | Updated 10/09/2016 05:12 EDT
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People, you're allowed to say "black." I have it on good word.

I say this because, when I asked a colleague to identify a woman I was looking for, the response I got included "red jacket," "shortish hair" and "not very tall." Finally, not having noted the colour of jackets that day, I had to ask -- "is she black?"

We've become quite sensitive, but not more thoughtful. It's our prejudices -- not our vision -- that need tempering.

(And yes, I would have mentioned whiteness, too, if it was useful.)

Another anecdote: My husband and I watched politicians announcing a trade deal by opening a large fortune cookie. "That's racist," he said, before realizing the Chinese had sent the cookie.

The most progressive amongst us have a knee-jerk reaction to all references to race and ethnicity. Basically, one is not to refer to either unless it's followed by an injustice.

Maybe that's one reason we've deemed offensive the once-innocuous, "Where are you from?" (Someone inform the parents!) Sure, the question is clumsy and imprecise, but do we genuinely think people are asking about our immigration status?

I too am asked where I'm from, but I'm not offended if someone recognizes that I may live a culture that coexists with our shared one. Why conclude they think I'm "less Canadian" than Stephen Harper's "old-stock" variety? I can't help but think there's an inherent defensiveness about such a response. I'm not Canadian minus Egyptian. I'm Canadian plus Egyptian.

In my case, my background does add layers of language, tradition and religion. And as a poor small-talker, layers of conversation as well.

I understand the concerns. Why should it matter? Why single out "ethnic-looking" minorities?

To the first question, I would say -- well, I would say I don't understand the question. Certainly it shouldn't matter to an interview or an officer or a judge or a headline. But it does matter. My parents left the comfort of their family, language and community for an unknown far away. That shapes me. Wary and protective, I wasn't allowed to spend the night out as a kid -- or as a teen. That also shaped me.

If there were no common -- never universal -- distinctions, then "Signs you were raised by (insert ethnicity) parents" posts wouldn't make us laugh.

I'm certain there are minorities who've lived no culture but Canadian culture, but I know many more who do indeed visit "back home," take pride in passed-down recipes and bond over shared childhood embarrassments.

There are a range of reasons people have asked me about my background and reasons I'm curious about yours. Maybe I've traveled to your country of heritage and would like to share my experience; I'd like to visit one day and would welcome your insights; you have questions about Egypt's politics and (correctly) assume I've paid more attention; my husband is the same ethnicity and I'd like to share an anecdote. And maybe next time you hear about terrorist Arabs you'll remember, because you asked, that I am at least one example of a peace-loving Arab in your life.

We shouldn't have to pretend not to see skin colour, hear accents, or recognize features. No, we're not all the same -- but why is that the goal?

An edited version first appeared inMetro.

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