“Where Are You ‘Really’ From? Try Another Question”
Latinos, Asians and people who fall in between the black-white racial binary in the United States are those who are most likely to be asked, often in casual conversation, about their racial or ethnic roots. On the surface, the question, “Where are you from?” seems innocuous. And for many of those asking the question, it is often an expression of genuine curiosity, an effort to connect, or a way to learn more about someone. But for those on the receiving end, like me, it can be a different experience.
As someone who writes about race and relishes a good conversation about it, maybe I should be the last person saying that being asked where I’m “really from” is tiresome and predictable.
But it is.
Critics of microaggression say people like me are being too sensitive about harmless, everyday questions.
I think it’s about time we questioned the question.
“It’s like you’re driving in a car,” says one of the students in The Dialogue, “and the gas and the brakes switch.”
The Dialogue is German director Arnd Wächter’s feature documentary that follows eight college students traveling to Hong Kong and southwest China. As they interact with the world around them and interact with each other, they explore cultural differences and the way we communicate about those differences.
The students make up a rather diverse group: males, females, Americans seeing China for the first time, Chinese returning home, whites, an African American, and an Asian raised in the US . . . and their viewpoints are varied as well.
I got to watch The Dialogue at a screening held at the San Diego NAFSA conference in May. It was a great conference, and seeing the documentary and taking part in the discussion with Wachter afterward was a highlight for me.
My experience watching the film was—to borrow the student’s words—like driving in a car. But for me it was a bumper car. At several times throughout the documentary, I would identify with one of the students, but then something would happen to change my view: I look like him, but I don’t agree with what he just said. I agree with her, but then she went too far. I share her background, but what he said makes more sense. I identify with him, but I don’t think he’d identify with me.
My point of view kept bouncing from person to person, even country to country. It was jarring, but enjoyable. Thus the bumper-car ride. I liked the way it challenged me to think beyond stereotypes and easy answers. And that, getting viewers to think, is what Wachter’s Crossing Border Films and Michigan State University had in mind when they made the film. It’s what would make The Dialogue a great tool for cross-cultural training exercises.
The key to the documentary is the frank conversations that the students have on camera. And the key to these conversations is the work of facilitator Ana Rhodes Castro. She led the students through behind-the-scenes activities and debriefings that encouraged them to express their true feelings and talk about root issues. The result is on-camera interactions that get straight to the point and reveal topics and opinions that are normally skirted in everyday life.
Particularly interesting are discussions of how individual personalities, non-verbal communication, surroundings, and language affect how we offer and receive viewpoints. How often does the way people present themselves affect how we judge what they say? How do our expectations for non-verbal cues differ from culture to culture? Does the fact that the film’s discussions take place in China give the Chinese a disadvantage? And does using English as the mode of communication give an advantage to the native speakers?
There’s a partner education site at National Geographic that addresses these issues using clips from The Dialogue. The site also includes questions for discussion and additional resources for use in the classroom.
The Dialogue, along with two other Wachter productions, is part of a trilogy of cross-cultural films. The others are Crossing Borders, which follows the same model as The Dialogue, but this time with four Moroccan and four American students traveling to Morocco, and American Textures, which listens in on the discussions of six young Americans—Latino, Caucasian, and African-American—as they travel to three cities in the southeast United States and talk about race, class, and culture.
In many ways race is about difference and how those differences are codified through language, categories, boxes, segmentation, and even the implicit sorting that goes on in our heads in terms of the way we label others and even ourselves.
—Michele Norris, The Race Card Project
This month’s issue of National Geographic marks the magazine’s 125th anniversary. That’s quite an accomplishment, and it represents thousands and thousands of pages of amazing photographs and stories. But National Geographic has more to share, and last month it opened up a new avenue: Proof, a blog “launched to engage ongoing conversations about photography, art, and journalism.”
Proof‘s first post is “Visualizing Race, Identity, and Change.” It features photographic portraits by Martin Schoeller (I wouldn’t have recognized that name before writing my last post) and discusses the dilemma faced by so many multi-racial Americans who find it difficult or impossible to check only one box on the census.
The post is a companion piece to a feature article in National Geographic, entitled “Changing Faces.” It’s written by Michele Norris, host and special correspondent for NPR, and curator of The Race Card Project, a site that collects views on the topic of race, all expressed in sentences of only six words. And you thought Tweets were short and to the point.
Of course, quite a few of the boxes were checked in the 2010 Census, and the results show a multi-colored collage of racial diversity across the American landscape. You can see that collage at The Racial Dot Map, created by Dustin Cable of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. With one dot per person, the zoomed-out map shows a blending of colors representing the five categories of White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Other/Multi-Racial. But by zooming in, you can see the distinct contrasts at the neighborhood level, both intermixed and segregated.
Speaking in Code
NPR has started a new blog this year, too. It’s on race, ethnicity, and culture.
“Remember,” write the blog’s authors, “when folks used to talk about being ‘post-racial’?”
Well, we’re definitely not that. We’re a team of journalists fascinated by the overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture, how they play out in our lives and communities, and how all of this is shifting.
They call the blog Code Switching. In linguistics, code switching is when a multi-lingual speaker switches between languages within a conversation. More loosely defined, it can also include moving from one dialect, set of vocabulary, accent, or speaking style to another because of a number of factors, such as setting, relationship to the listener, and expectations.
Imagine that the doorbell rings. You answer the door and see that it’s your boss at the ad agency or your grandmother from Mexico or your childhood friend from the city or your ESL student or an acquaintance from the gym or a policeman. How might you talk differently to each of them? We all do it to one extent or another. But it’s an even bigger factor for those who move between races and cultures.
Gene Demby, host of the blog, calls this movement “hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities.” Code Switching goes well beyond just methods of expression. It also covers news, info, and opinions on race relations and cultural interaction within America’s borders.