Unconscious Bias: Think Before Asking “Where Are You From?”

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(Courtesy of S.K. Gupta)
Neeta and S.K. Gupta have often been made to feel less ”American” by unthinking people.

    I knew something was wrong when my wife entered the house. Everything was a little louder than normal. The banging of the doors. The dropping of the keys. The tossing of the handbag. The closing of the drawers. Lessons have been learned! After 44 years, one knows the signals. So, I quietly disappeared to my home office.
    After giving her sufficient time to cool down, I found her chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Very therapeutic. I asked her “How was golf?” And the floodgates of her frustrations opened up!
    “I have lived here for 40 years, and I will never be accepted here!”
    “What happened?” I asked.
    A fourth golfer had joined their regular threesome that day. A Caucasian woman. After playing a few holes, she asked my wife, “Where are you from?”
    My wife knew what she was asking. Her other two friends are also Indian Americans and look it. But my wife doesn’t have the obvious Indian American look. She also adapts easily and doesn’t have a pronounced accent. Like I do. And her friends.
    So, I suspect, the new golfer was curious. Not realizing that this is a perfect example of “Unconscious bias”!
    My wife replied, “Orinda.” That’s where our home is, and they were playing in another nearby Bay Area city.
    Her new “friend”, said, “No, no, what nationality are you?”
    Now I realized my bride’s frustration. After 40 years of living in the U.S., 33 years as a    citizen, to be asked her nationality was not something she was going to digest easily.
    So, she replied, “I am American, where are you from?”
    The new friend said, “Oh, I was born and brought up here.” Implicit in her answer was that she was an American. She didn’t need to say that. And yet, she had the audacity to ask someone else their nationality.
    “Where are you originally from,” she continued at the next hole.
    “I was born in India,” my bride replied, and added, “where did your ancestors come from?” And so, it continued.
    I could relate to her frustrations as I have lived them too. I have often been told “You speak English very well!” Surprised? Why? Just because I don’t look like a white person? I love telling folks that I didn’t have an accent till I came to this country.
    It has been a while since someone asked me “Do you go back home often?” I loved telling them: “I go home every night!” I knew the intent of the question, but I also knew it revealed a stereotypical mind set.
    People don’t realize questions like these manifest implicit bias, also referred to as unconscious bias.
    Our kids who were born and brought up here, are still asked similar questions. For me, I get it. I look very Indian, and still have a very pronounced Indian accent. But not our kids. Graduates of excellent universities and very successful in their professional careers, they still get asked, “Where are you from?”
    We have a couple in our neighborhood that we are getting to know. He was born in Belgium and grew up speaking Dutch and French, and he has an accent when he speaks English. She was born in California of Vietnamese immigrant parents and has no accent. Their kids look very Caucasian. She told us that she is often asked if she is the nanny of her own kids.
    Another couple in our neighborhood had to put out a Public Service Announcement, requesting not to ask her kids, if they live here. Why would people ask them that, you ask? Because they are one of the few African Americans in this upscale community.
    What folks don’t realize is that such questions make us feel less than a “full” American citizen.
    Some of our Indian American friends have lived here for much longer than us and many were born and brought up here. And yet, the recent call to “Go back to your country” has been galling for all of us. We conveniently forget that nearly all of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Okay, maybe not the Indigenous Americans, but there is a distinct possibility that they too originally came from somewhere else, no?
    So, how does one satisfy one’s curiosity? Over the years, I have used, “What’s your heritage?” to ask the same question.
    So, ask me about my favorite movie, my restaurant of choice. Talk to me about your kids, our grandkids. Let’s discuss the weather, the commute traffic. The World Series. The next Super Bowl.
    But please. Don’t ask, “Where are you from?”

S. K. Gupta can be reached at sk.gupta.us@gmail.com.

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