Journalist. Mother. Bunny enthusiast. Pop culture junkie.

Journalist. Mother. Bunny enthusiast. Pop culture junkie.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Where are you from?"

People in the United States are obsessed with color.

Yeah, we're a melting pot. Our pedigrees are like recipes. One-fourth cup of Ireland. One-eighth cup of Puerto Rico. Half cup of Germany.

But that doesn't mean anything.

If you're white, you're American. If you're black, you're American. But if you're not white or black...well, you must be something else then, right?

My father immigrated here from India 43 years ago. My mother's ancestors immigrated here from Sweden more than 100 years ago.

And my entire life, there is one question I have been asked more than any other: "Where are you from?".

Never mind I have an American accent. Never mind I'm living in the Midwest. Never mind my name is JENNIFER.

No, no. I simply must be from somewhere else. Because I'm brown.

Some of you may not really understand why it upsets me so much. After all, people are dumb and it's just a question. But to constantly be asked where I'm from in a country that is my home is insulting, frustrating, and sad. When I was a kid, it almost felt like I didn't really belong here, which was a very scary and lonely feeling.

What hurt even more is that my childhood best friend was a Polish immigrant. She had only been in the country for a few years. Her name was ridiculously foreign. People always fucked it up. But nobody ever asked where she was from. The girl named Jennifer got asked all the time. It was like Katarina was the American and I was the immigrant. Being around her caused a lot of resentment and bitterness for me. Why was she treated like the insider and I was treated like the outsider?

I hated being a mixed race kid. It was embarrassing always having to explain to everyone that the blonde haired, blue-eyed woman standing next to me was my mom. Always. Nobody ever assumed she was related to me. I was always unsure what to checkmark in that box when we took standardized tests. Was I Caucasian? Or Asian? Seriously, what the fuck was I? (This problem was eventually solved 20 years later when I was arrested and the police officer wrote down 'Caucasian female' in his report. I was thankful to finally know the answer, despite being in handcuffs).

Growing up, the world idolized Heather Locklear and Britney Spears. I so badly wanted to be a beautiful blonde American like my mother. No one ever asked her where she was from. I was determined that one day I was going to marry a white man so my kids and descendants would NEVER be treated like a foreigner in their own country.

(My first serious boyfriend ended up being half-Egyptian and half-Irish. So much for that.)

When I grew up, the world started changing and I started maturing.

There are now Indian immigrants everywhere in this country. There are gorgeous women all around me named Anika and Ridhi and Navya. There are so many that now when people learn my name is "Jennifer" I don't get asked where I'm from as often. I've become less exotic.

And I no longer have the desire to marry a white guy. I simply want to marry someone who makes me happy, whether he's black or Chinese or a global mix.

I love that Rian is a quarter Sioux. The stories that run through his blood are inspiring and heartbreaking. His grandmother, who grew up on a reservation, is one of the most fascinating people I've ever met. And even though I'm not super close to Rian's mom, I feel a bond with her that I don't share with many others. She is also half-Indian (the other kind) and from what Rian tells me, it wasn't easy for her either.

I've learned that to be a part of the melting pot, I need to embrace it. I need to respect it.

But I'm only one person.

The United States as a whole is still obsessed with color. My name could change to Jennifer Smith tomorrow and I would still have people curiously asking me, "where are you from?".

And no matter who knocks me up, my kids will be multi-racial. They will have color in their skin. When I was a child, I hated that fact. Now, I adore it. They'll be just like me!

Except there is one major difference. They will be far removed from India. They will be far removed from Sweden. They will be far removed from the Native American reservation, perhaps.

And when someone asks them, "where are you from?" they will have to just shrug, with a smile, and say

"the world."


Kim Alston said...

Jennifer, I bet that was frustrating! I would've been frustrated too. Diversity has come a long way here in the States. I remember my mom buying dark-skinned Barbie dolls because that was the only representation of black that they had. Now there's an assortment of ethnicities. I've always been very worldly cultural wise. I think that reflects in my blog. I take to readers from all over. What I hate are narrow-minded individuals unwilling to open up to new people and things. They're stuck believing one thing. So many misconceptions can occur by thinking like that. Glad it all worked out for you. You're super cool doll.

Tanvi said...

That sucks. I feel for you. I am glad things have changed now (not enough though!)

I always felt mixed-race kinds were so beautiful. Having a mix of so many things, cultures and skin of course. i think we all should say a pledge and refer to ourself as 'world citizen' and refuse to disclose our nationality.

Once an Indian lady (at my gym) was hell bent on knowing which Indian state I was from so that she could put me in a box ... and I refused to answer. I told her I am from India. Just Indian. No state! *personal. proud.moment* - :D

Oh to Be a Muse said...

Such a good read. No matter what people say, people will always see color, especially here in the states. And not just black, but brown as well. I feel like my future kids might have a bit of a hard time considering they'll be Jamaican, Dutch and Jewish. But I do think it's getting better, because of the people like you who are biracial. You help to open up the eyes of narrow minded people, and maybe some day everyone will be some sort of brown.

Oh to Be a Muse
Shop Layered Muse

ravenlocks said...

OMG Jennifer! I want to hug you right now. I thought about writing a blog post on this topic countless times and I never did. Ya know why? Because I thought, "no one would understand." I'm really really glad I read this post today. I honestly thought that nobody else went through this. Although I did read about a similar experience in the book "Caucasia." It's a good read :) The main character is half black and half white, but she doesn't resemble either ethnicity.

Anyway...I would always get frustrated when people would ask me where I was from. They would never ask anyone else that same question. When I used to work at my uncle's winery (who is a Mexican migrant, mind you) people would ask me where I was from. LOL!!!!!!!! Once a man asked me where I was from because he claimed I had an accent. WTF. I was confused and said, "you mean, like a California accent?" I thought he meant I spoke like a valley girl. But no...he was convinced that even though I worked for my MEXICAN uncle, I must have been born somewhere else. And even though my english is perfect (I can't even speak spanish very well), I still have people thinking I have a fucking accent.

I actually think I may steal that line next time someone asks me where I'm from. I'll say, "the world." :) With a smile, of course!



Jade | JadeFungBlog said...

I'm sorry you felt like you didn't belong as a kid. Call me crazy but sometimes I wish I were mixed race! I'm still yet to mature and my mindset is that I'm determined to marry someone white because mixed race people are gorgeous!!

But I share your frustration with the "where are from?" thing. I am so, SO bored of being asked this by people as random as the postman when I'm signing for a package. I could not look more obviously Chinese. And when I answer "Liverpool" because DUH I have the accent, they always reply "no but where are you originally from?" LIVERPOOL!!! If they're curious, I'd so much rather they ask straight up if I'm Chinese or Korean or what, even though it is odd enough that a complete stranger is asking!

Jade | JadeFungBlog

French Girl in Seattle said...

And she is BAAAACCCKKKK!!! Wonderful post, Jenny. The research part was easy (it comes with the territory,) but still involved some soul-searching. Good for you. Well written, and heart-felt. And you are right about every single thing. I am Caucasian. I still get the curious looks and probing question: "where are you from?," but that's because of my French accent. Go figure. I guess there is no real melting pot. Not even in the United States. Difference still puzzles (and scares) some people. You won't change that. But you get to decide what you tell your kids and how to raise them. Citizen of the world is as good a nationality on a passport as any, if you ask me. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

David Macaulay said...

I feel your pain Jen. I am white and am always being asked where I am from. To be fair I'm not really offended when people suggest I am not American - just when they assume I am Australian...

The Dainty Dolls House said...

Ahh...I understand exactly what you mean :) I'm brown myself...I'm mixed race and people have been nasty all my life about it. I'm not this or that. People ask where I'm from. My mother is white and my sisters are lighter than me, my youngest has blue eyes and blonde hair, though we're all mixed. I'm just the only one with brown skin. They assume otherwise and ask stupid questions. I was never white enough for the white people and never black enough for the black people, so I got teased a lot. Although, no one one ever asked what my background is, they just assumed I was a lighter shade of black. I do have African background, but I also have Irish, Scottish and I'm part Cherokee Native American. But, no one would ever ask that, they just assumed I came from another country all together..and didn't know exactly what I was. People would tease me and say I wanted to be a white girl because I had great grades and I talked properly. It was shit. I've been to different countries and I have found America to be the worst for race. The looks and the questions, there a lot of ignorance in America that still needs fixed. I remember as a child never seeing anyone with my skin tone on anything, so it was hard to relate to people. I see more now, but it still has a long way to go. I can remember all kinds of nasty names people would call me. Hopefully with people like you and I, we can change this stupid shite ;) xx

Shannon said...


Great post. I found that I was much more ignorant to race and culture and color before moving into the city (city = Buffalo, NY). Growing up in a rural town, I would have been one of those people asking "where are you from". I really wish more people were educated that it doesn't matter what color you are or if your name is Jennifer or Naveena, if you were born here, you're from here.

Sherin said...

I feel your pain. I get this all the time. 'Where are you from?'. And I'm always like 'England' - because this is where I was born and raised, and hence from. And then this is followed by 'no, but really. Where?'. That's when I roll my eyes.

I used to hate that as a child, but I've grown a lot more comfortable in my skin the past few years and love my foreign ancestry.

Life's a shoe said...

that sounds really frustrating, but I love the end part where it might come to a time where we all answer "the world"..we are all citizens of this world regardless of color and race and people shouldnt make other people eel about their color and where they're from

Fashion art and other fancies said...

When asked "Where are you from?" - My reply: Forgive me. I don't quite understand what you mean.

cricketfreak said...

It's a question I used to ask people a lot, actually. being in an international school,there were many mixed race kids. I didn't think it was offensive. Maybe nowill be a bit more careful. For me, at least, I was just curious. You don't become any less americanjust because you have brown skin.

Dina's Days said...

I get this all.the.time. Although I'm not bi-racial I completely understand. Someone asked me today "what are you?" Um, human...the last time I checked. Usually I don't mind, because we've all been curious before but it's funny because I've been here for 15 years, hardly associate with the Arab community (simply because there isn't a large one), date an American, and have no accent, I sometimes forget that I'm the only person in the room that's "different". So when someone asks me out of the blue sometimes I'm taken aback.

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Wiola said...

It sucks that people ask you that. Up until 2003 I was classified as a second-generation immigrant here in Sweden. Yet people have never asked me "where are you from?". Since I have fair skin and blonde hair, I guess I look like an ethnic Sweden. People get surprised when I tell them about my Slavic roots. People are weird.

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