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TOPIC TUESDAY: Ethnicity--What is OK to ask?


My family is pretty diverse (Norway, Ireland, El Salvador, Spain, Iran). I grew up in Los Angeles, surrounded by neighbors and school friends from all over the world. I'm super interested in everyone's culture--and always have been. My parents insisted we grow up multi-lingual, so we were educated in French, spoke Spanish at home, and spoke English in the neighborhood. As a kid, I was invited to my friends' and neighbors' homes for all kinds of meals and to various religious houses of worship. I'm a professionally trained chef who learned French technique, apprenticed with an Italian, and focused in my studies on Asian cuisine.

I've always enjoyed learning about others' cultures--and sharing my own (Irish wakes are a celebration--unlike most funerals here in the states). These days I hear a lot about how rude people are when they inquire about someone's ethnicity, which I can understand considering the anti-immigrant fervor here in the states.

My question is this--what is OK to ask? I'm ethnically as white as can be (Norwegian/Scotch-Irish), so I imagine I seem rude, but my intentions are good.


Mary Ramirez Community Leader May 07, 2019

Right. This can be a tricky situation. I feel like I want to just learn about a person but I don't want to offend them. 🤷‍♀️ These days, I'm scared to even open my mouth. 



Don't be afraid. If you truly want to learn about the person, start off by talking about yourself and an experience you find memorable. It will take off positively from there if it's a person you should get to know or even want to. :-)

Mary Ramirez Community Leader May 08, 2019

Hey @Darlene Ashleigh Jeter ,

My name is @Mary Ramireznot Maria. It's important to make sure you're addressing people correctly. This happens to me often and I don't know why, but I'd like to point it out. 


Like Karen O'Keefe likes this

You know what's funny? People often address me as Kathy for some unknown reason. Or sometimes Sharon. I've never understood that either. I answer to all of them at this point.

Like Darlene Ashleigh Jeter likes this

I apologize as auto correct is not always a good thing. And if you knew me, you would definitely know that I am all about correct spellings, annunciations, and people's actual name (what is listed on their birth certificates. So again, I apologize. 

Side note, my brother's name is Stanley and his employer moved to wearing shirts with their first names listed. He got his shirts and they read "Stan". He had them for about a week before we met for lunch. I saw him and asked, "Who is Stan?".Long story short he returned the shirts because he knows how I am about names. 

Second side note, my sister's name is Almanda (yes spelled correctly) and people are always calling her Amanda and spelling her name wrong. 

Again, my apologies.

Darlene (people always spelling it Darleen) :-)

Like Karen O'Keefe likes this

@Karen O'Keefe I also put your name in and it autocorrected to Kathy. :-(

Like Karen O'Keefe likes this
Kat Marketplace Partner May 07, 2019

I often say that when I offend someone I want it to be on purpose not by accident - so I understand your caution around a socially-charged subject.

Context is important. If you ask where someone's grandparents were born after you just talked abut your heritage it is completely different than asking the same question during a job interview or during a heated conversation during a retail transaction.

Culture is often about drawing very broad strokes, where there is often greater variation within a culture than between different cultures. An individual's experience of their own culture can be very different someone else from the same culture.

I find the term "white" or "of European decent" to be more about socio-political things than cultural things. I grew up telling people I was from Irish and Scottish decent not English decent, a distinction not significant or understood by many.


As usual in this group I have shared some mental meanderings with no specific purpose.

Like # people like this
BiancaE Atlassian Team May 08, 2019

"when I offend someone I want it to be on purpose not by accident" lol 🤣🤣🤣

Like Karen O'Keefe likes this


This is most Americans (If they are honest with themselves)

Like Karen O'Keefe likes this

Sad, but true for many. I wouldn't say most though. I sure hope not.

Good question, @Karen O'Keefe !

Lately I've been either waiting for a person's "origin story" to come up in conversation. If they are from another part of the world it usually will naturally.  Usually it begins around an accent or style of dress, and focuses on shared experience or knowledge or when "in my home country" is mentioned.

That sounds too textbook-y,,,here's an example:

While contracting at Progressive Insurance I was paired with a guy that was obviously not born in the US. He had very dark skin and spoke with a rolling deep voice. His words were very precisely pronounced and had a sing-song quality.  To me it sounded like a central African accent, so I asked him about it; I told him he had a great sounding voice, and that it sounded like he was from central Africa, maybe Kenya or the DRC and that I've always wanted to go on a photo safari to the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya. It turns out he was from Kenya and was surprised I knew of the reserve, and we chatted about it and animal conservation in Africa for a while. 

I guess the short version is this: If someone's culture comes up naturally in a conversation or there is a way to bring it up through a shared interest or then it won't offend. But...if asked "Where are you from?" simply because someone looks different they will likely say "Topeka, Kansas" and walk away. 



Like # people like this

I studied English and linguistics. My interest in language, accents, and vocabulary is epic. I can generally figure out where in the states someone is from (not just the south, but Southern Virginia, or Georgia or Tennessee) and where in England or Scotland someone is from. Differences in language are just fascinating. As fascinating as differences in religion, customs, etc. I pretty much like everyone, and I don't want to be a prototypical ugly American.

Kat Marketplace Partner May 08, 2019

I wonder where you would place my accent. A lot of people are surprised when I say I am a multi-generational Kiwi (New Zealander).

I wonder. I asked a co-worker recently if she was from London. She was surprised I identified a city--as opposed to asking if she was Australian or English. Apparently she was originally from some other part of England, but had lived the most recent 20 years in London. I told her that was why it took me so long to identify a place. I could hear a lot of London and a lot of something else. Couldn't identify the something else. I can usually spot the difference between Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, but it takes me a bit.

When I go visit family, apparently I return with just the slightest accent. I think it comes from the cadence of speech more than anything in my case. Most of my family are cockney (south London). When I am unimpeded, people can't tell where I am from (other than America). My father worked in TV and I grew up with an unaccented, generic type of speech. I do use the word y'all though, which make some suspect I'm from the south. I adopted it as a missing part of speech (akin to vosotros in Spanish). We need an informal word for you all. Occasionally, a southern California-ism will pop up unexpectedly, but it's rare.

Like Kat likes this
Howard Eberhart Community Leader May 08, 2019

I agree that context is always important.  One way to set the tone is to share first.  State your family background before asking the other person. That will give them an indication of where you are coming from. 

Karen, you have an advantage here since you can lead with how white you look but you really have a diverse family background.  I can not say the same.  Instead, I tell people that while I live in New York City now, I actually grew up in Ohio surrounded by woods.

Like # people like this

It is always ok to ask. It is the "way" you ask that can send the whole conversation sideways. Example:

DON'T DO: What part of Africa are you from? (All black people don't hail from Africa)

DO: What nationality do you identify with?

It really isn't rocket science. Say it out loud to yourself first and if it sounds crazy or you question it, don't say it.

Like # people like this

Ooo, I love this @Darlene Ashleigh Jeter!! I often get "what are you?" and it is SO infuriating - I have so many labels I identify with, usually I just respond with "annoyed" or then "female" 🤣 I love this take on it.

Like Karen O'Keefe likes this

@BiancaE And they sad thing is, there are so many shades of all colors, not just brown.

Like Karen O'Keefe likes this
Kat Marketplace Partner May 08, 2019

I often get asked how I pronounce my surname (I use my maiden name for work related things). My standard answer is "Usually incorrectly" - which is likely true.

My husband's standard response is "Carefully". 

Like # people like this

@Kat I am over here screaming with laughter. You AND your hubby are hilarious!!! I always here "Jetter" as in rhymes with better. If I don't ignore them, I normally respond with the French version jeté :-)

Like Karen O'Keefe likes this

Funnily enough, people mispronounce my name all the time. O-KEFF-ee. OWE-kuh-fee. O-KEEF-er. @Darlene Ashleigh Jeter I might have pronounced yours as JEE-ter, Like Derek Jeter.

@Karen O'Keefe Your pronunciation would have been correct!!

Like Karen O'Keefe likes this

As a person who gets this question all the time, I would agree with a lot of comments above and say it's all about context. The reason why most non-white people are iffy about this question is because the person asking the question might be well-intentioned, but being constantly asked where you are from is an indication that you don't look/sound like you belong. On the long term, this can often feel alienating.

I'd recommend asking yourself these questions before you have that conversation:
- How comfortable is this person with you?
- Do they share details about their life/origins with you or are they fairly reserved?
- Is your question based solely on their colour/accent or is it based on something they said that might indicate they are not from wherever you currently are? 

Let me illustrate with an example:

I was once asked by a white man where I was from and told him I was from Ethiopia, and immediately, he said 'Cool! My mom worked in Mali for a long time!' Cue a very long eye roll. Those countries are both African, but they are on opposite sides of the continent and don't necessarily share many similarities. Now, had he followed up his question with 'Oh to be honest, I don't know a lot about Ethiopia - did you grow up there?', we could have had an open conversation where I would have shared how lovely and unique my culture is and he would have learned something new about the world. A great cultural exchange! 

There's a difference between being curious and being presumptuous. Don't attempt to show off random factoids or your knowledge, but be open to learning and I guarantee most people on the other end of that question will enjoy the conversation too. But again, this is solely my two cents and everyone will react differently.

Like # people like this

Thank you for this. It never occurred to me to think that I was making someone feel as if he/she didn't belong. Funnily enough, I was born in the US but I often feel like I don't belong. I suspect it is because most of my family doesn't live here--and my parents were European. I spent a lot of time living with various relatives in England--and was raised like European kids are raised. So much so in fact that when I went for a security clearance I was grilled about my loyalty to the US! "Too many foreign contacts" was the reasoning. 

Like # people like this
Kat Marketplace Partner May 08, 2019


"Too many foreign contacts"

Hmmm, the US is a fascinating place.

Like # people like this

@Kat  I think it was the German boyfriend that was the last straw. Lots of foreign travel (to visit family) and to go on vacation. That is apparently highly suspicious. Interestingly enough, I used to get pulled out of security lines all the time when I traveled via air for search and questioning. The TSA claimed it was "random," but I think there must have been some kind of a alert on me for awhile. One time I was at an airport in England, helping an elderly lady who was traveling alone to America.

I carried her bag and warned her that I would have to give it to her when we got to security. I warned her that when we got there, they would pull me out of line and I would catch up with her on the plane. She didn't believe me--and pointed to some rowdy young men and said if anyone would be searched, it was them. I bet her a pound--and she agreed.

She paid up on the plane. Funnily enough, TSA doesn't bother me any more...and probably hasn't for about 10 years now.

I'm as honest as they come. In fact, I was such a goody two-shoes in high school, my friends thought I was a police plant to spy on other students. I learned that at my 10 year reunion when I made some silly comment about no one smoking, drinking, or using drugs at our school.. Apparently all of that happened, but I never knew. I'm no danger to anyone...and am immune to bribery--would absolutely report any such attempt immediately.  

Our system is crazy.

Like Kat likes this


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