09 March 2006

"The Question" - Rebuttal of sorts

Lawrence Hill thinks that, "Canadians have a favourite pastime, and they don’t even realize it. They like to ask—they absolutely have to ask—where you are from if you don’t look convincingly white."

Maybe, but, he also asks,"Do you suppose that—15,330 times in thirty-four years—strangers will ask an indisputably white Canadian with a traditional Anglo-Canadian accent where he is from, where he was born, or where his parents were born?"

This sticks in my throat. As an "an indisputably white Canadian with a traditional Anglo-Canadian accent" I get asked this fairly often. To be fair, I usually interpret the question as being in regards to "where in Canada" (it sometimes seems few residents of Victoria were actually born here) but every few years, the question is raised on the Census and I always want to declare my heritage as "Canadian" because I was born here, as was my Father, as was my maternal Grandmother. Unfortunately our multiculturally-obsessed federal government wants to crow about the blend of cultures, and so demands that I actually declare my ancestry as non-Canadian:

QUESTION 17 – Ethnic origin (from the 2001 Census guide - pdf)
This question refers to the ethnic or cultural origins of a person’s ancestors.An ancestor is someone from whom a person is descended and is usually more distant than a grandparent. Other than Aboriginal persons, most people can trace their origins to their ancestors who first came to this continent.

and here's why:

Question 17 provides information about the ethnic and cultural diversity of
Canada’s population. This information is used to administer the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. It is also used extensively by ethnic and cultural associations, as well as by agencies and researchers, for activities such as health promotion, communications and marketing.

Oh, fantastic! I have to make up or amalgamate my ancestry to help the government with their marketing! And, I see that they are hiring for the 2006 Census -- and Question 17 still exists (though I no longer have to amalgamate, and I could potentially say "Rigel 7" or perhaps "Ferengi" because the format is unstructured):

The census has collected information on the ancestral origins of the population for over 100 years to capture the composition of Canada's diverse population.

17. What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person's ancestors?

An ancestor is usually more distant than a grandparent.

For example, Canadian, English, French, Chinese, Italian, German, Scottish, East Indian, Irish, Cree, Mi'kmaq (Micmac), Métis, Inuit (Eskimo), Ukrainian, Dutch, Filipino, Polish, Portuguese, Jewish, Greek, Jamaican, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Chilean, Salvadorean, Somali, etc.

Specify as many origins as applicable using capital letters.

At any rate, I have a few months to think about a heritage. Rest assured it will be a creative one.

In the meantime, I have this to say to Mr. Hill: Yes, "Where are you from?" is a patently stupid question and, unless you have a personal friendship with the person you are asking, it's akin to asking "Are you gay?" or even asking a woman you don't know, "When is the baby due?" -- because they might just be overweight. Most often though, if you are friends, you don't have to ask, these things come out in conversation.

I can't pretend that I don't ask these and other questions in my head -- I do! And I am curious sometimes. I also think some people are just plain stupid and/or rude. My 5 year old has started to point out obvious physical features (like "That lady is bald!" or "He has girl hair!") so we have been working on "manners." Apparently, many parents don't take the time for such instruction.

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Good read !!

Cheryl said...


Mike DeWolfe said...

June Chua had a rant about "Where are you from" way back.
It angered me that she both took exception at the question and defined her questioner as a "Russian émigré" as though that changes or embellishes this matter somehow.

Tim said...

A surrebuttal, of sorts:

You make Hill's point when you say that you assume that people are asking you where in Canada you're from. They're not asking *him* where in Canada he's from -- they're asking him where *not* in Canada he's "from." The context is essential to the meaning of the question. You, they are curious to know about where you grew up, to see if maybe you might have something in common; him, they're asking what weird and wondeful mixture of alien genes makes him so different from them. They might as well walk up to him and say "Klaatu Borada Nikto."

As you point out, these people are rude, but they also have the implicit support of the silent majority in asking the question, because reasonableness demands that we not impute motives to people who have not already demonstrated them. However, there is a point where it becomes reasonable to assume that people are not asking that question quite as innocently as one might like to believe.

If I were him, I would *always* ask "why do you want to know?" because it basically cuts right to the central issue. Even so, some would argue that the damage has already been done, and the person has already had to confront a challenge of their right to be there unaccosted.

I've spoken with a number of non-white people about this issue, and I've come to understand that it is a pretty subjective experience. I can only imagine what it would be like to have my proximity to whiteness constantly noted in this fashion. It's just lazy, habitual thinking that leads us to attribute phenotype with geographical location, and the sooner people stop making those associations, the better off we'll all be. Canada is just an idea, anyway.

Mike: I can only guess that Chua made that reference (about the Russian emigre) is that it highlighted the irony of the question, and that different people have different ideas about who the "others" are. I'm reminded of a Croatian former co-worker of ours who used to make those kinds of distinctions, not realizing that, from the perspective of a WASP such as myself, he would also be technically considered an outsider. He was basing it on skin-colour; not realizing that it's a top-down, subjective system of exclusion.

Zézette said...

I don't mention this to support or refute anything that anyone's said here, but I am asked "where I'm from" regularly. I'm white as white -- Irish, British and German extraction. But so often it's, "Where are you from? You look like you've got... something in you"... whatever that means. When I mention the German bit it seems to satisfy them, but in fact that's from my Dad's side, and I take my looks from maternal branches of the family tree. ::shrug::