Summary: In the U.S. people are often asked where they are from, but Asians, Latinos and other people of color often share the distinction of being confronted with a follow up question: "No, I mean where are you really from?" It is useful to examine what this common exchange reveals about how whites draw on race as a means of navigating and reasserting symbolic boundaries between insiders and outsiders, or between substantive citizens and non-citizens. This ridiculous scenario is humorously reenacted in the above comedy sketch, which features an Asian woman sharing a casual conversation with a white man. The man asks her where she is from, but after the woman explains she is from San Diego, the man becomes confused and attempts to clarify, "No, I mean, where are you really from?" His awkward questioning about the woman's "true" origin is a symptom of what law professor Frank H. Wu refers to as the "the perpetual foreigner syndrome." As Wu points out, when a person asks, "why aren't you married?" they are clearly signaling a measure of disapproval, and similarly, the question, "Where are you really from?" communicates something more than a curiosity about one's place of birth (see also, "My, you speak English so well!"). The question constitutes an effort to catalog a person on the basis of a perceived racial difference, but the effect of asking the question is exclusion, and as such, it can be understood as a microaggression, a term that refers to the “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue, et. al. 2007). The comedy sketch also serves as a means of broaching an important discussion about how this type of symbolic exclusion is part and parcel of a much broader historical pattern. To name just one particularly vulgar example, during the Second World War, Japanese Americans living on the U.S. West Coast were forced from their homes and relocated to concentration camps. Irrespective of whether they immigrated or were born in the United States, high ranking military officials and state representatives joined media columnists in amplifying the viewpoint that Japanese Americans were perpetual foreigners who could not be trusted. Despite living in the United States their entire lives, many assumed Japanese Americans were not really Americans.
Submitted By: Lester Andrist