“Where are you from?” is a loaded question. At McGill, depending on who is asking and who is being asked, the meaning of ‘where are you from?’ can range from an ambivalent, ‘where did you grow up?’ to a watered down, ‘why aren’t you white?’ As a person of colour myself, ‘where are you from?’ is at best confusing and at worst a red flag. The question, even in its amended form—where are you from originally?—has the potential to alienate and undermine a person’s place in Canada. Many people of colour, second-generation immigrants in particular, retort quickly with an indignant “I’m from Toronto! Where are you from?” causing both asker and asked to leave the interaction with a sour feeling. This is a misunderstanding that can be avoided.
Cultural and ethnic origins don’t have to be sensitive or private information. While racial identity—especially that which is visibly apparent—can be difficult to navigate in a majority white environment like McGill, the question ‘where are you from?’ has the potential to encourage understanding rather than deepening divides. By recognizing difference and talking about it, instead of striving to melt identities down in a pot, belonging becomes a very real possibility.
A university is an international meeting ground; it’s an exciting and constant reminder of the diversity in the world. Approaching the question, ‘where are you from?’ from the understanding that everybody has a complex and multifaceted background—or, in other words, nobody really belongs—is a good way to start. Once this is acknowledged, no one fits into a diverse social setting like McGill more than anyone else. Highlighting differences rather than only similarities is a reminder that there is no mold in which to fit.
There is often an affinity between people who know what it is to walk into a classroom and scan it for anyone else who sticks out as much as they do. When two people of colour ask each other the question, ‘where are you from originally?’ they mean to explore: Where are you from that isn’t here, and how did we both get here? This isn’t to say that people of colour can only be comfortable discussing their background with other non-white people—a conversation about origins between two people of colour can become defensive as well. It is to say that the reception of the question depends a lot on the intention of the asker: ‘Where are you from?’ must not be asked because the asker is fixated on the difference. The asker must approach with the intention of comparing and contrasting the answer to their own culture with a genuine interest in getting to know how the person’s background affects their experience.
It is better to see colour and it is okay to ask someone where they’re from. But the question has to be employed with sensitivity, and it must not be the first or only question asked. In my experience, being open about my religious, ethnic, and cultural background has always added dimension to the way others view me and helped me to have open conversations about race and identity; it doesn’t necessarily lead to immediate pigeonholing or stereotyping. While one identifying label can never fully encompass a person, it can add nuance to a personality made up of many intersecting identities.