Think before asking “Where are you from?”

November 30, 2021 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council of Edward-Elmhurst Health: We are DRIVEN to create a culture in which all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, physical abilities and socio-economic backgrounds can meet, share, learn and flourish in an accepting environment. By creating platforms and opportunities that allow us to come together, we can begin to know and understand each other. And through better understanding, we can effectively meet the needs of our diverse patients and deliver on our mission.

Monty Bushnaq went to Iowa State University. He got married in Iowa. He spent time living in Chicago and Iowa before staying in Chicago.

He works part time as a sleep technician in the Sleep Center at Elmhurst Hospital, and full time as an accountant.

At the Sleep Center, Bushnaq usually makes small talk with patients as he prepares them for a sleep study. They’ll talk about the Bears game, the weather.

Inevitably, however, he’ll be asked a question he’s grown to dread.

“Where are you from?”

They don’t mean where in the Chicago area, either. Bushnaq, who speaks with an accent, grew up in Kuwait and Palestine with his Palestinian parents.

“Part of what triggers that question in some people is, I look mostly white,” Bushnaq says. “My family is from Bosnia originally. I don’t look like a ‘typical’ Middle Eastern person. People are curious because they see me as a white person, but they hear my accent.

“With my background, when you ask someone where they’re from, you’re basically asking their ethnicity, their race, their religion in one question,” says Bushnaq. “I wish that people would stop asking that. It builds walls.”

The people asking the question are likely curious, not malicious. Regardless of intent, it can bring someone’s feeling of belonging into question.

Then there’s the motivation that is micro-aggressive — subtle, but coming from a perspective of anti-immigrant or racism.

Bushnaq says he usually tells people who ask him he’s not allowed to discuss his personal life at work.

“I had a guy follow me to the tech room, where he’s not supposed to be, seemingly angry, saying, ‘Why can’t you tell me where you’re from?’” Bushnaq says. “One guy, a very nice guy, went home after his appointment but before he left said, ‘I’ve been thinking about it all night — where are you from?’ It puts me in an awkward position.”

Why is “where are you from?” an awkward question for some people?

It depends on the person. People who look like minorities or speak with an accent may feel awkward because it puts them in the position of saying they’re different, that they aren’t part of the American society in which they’re immersed. They’re outsiders.

The question also lends itself to stereotyping someone — their answer determines which group they belong to.

“One guy was telling me, ‘You guys …’ and he was attacking me like I was a terrorist,” Bushnaq says. “It became you and us.”

How should someone who is asked this question respond?

It depends on how you feel about sharing your background.

Some people enjoy talking about their journey, others prefer to keep it to themselves. It can also depend on who’s asking — it’s different if a close acquaintance you trust poses the question than a stranger.

For those feeling curious about someone’s background, pause next time the urge to ask strikes. Think first. Has this person mentioned their background? If so, it may be fair game to explore. If not, perhaps the person would rather not make it a topic of conversation.

“For example, say I think someone looks Hispanic. I’m not going to ask, ‘Are you Mexican?’” Bushnaq says.

Race and racial identity can be touchy conversation topics. Nobody will always get it right. Putting race aside, focus on making personal connections with people and finding common ground. The better you get to know someone, the less important their ethnic background becomes.

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