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Thread: Asking a person about their family history

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    Senior Member RobJohnson's Avatar
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    Default Asking a person about their family history

    I would be interested in your collective opinions.

    Is it unacceptable to ask a person about their family history?

    This interests me and I ask persons of all races as to their origins and how they came to live where they now live, even their use of the English language and accent.

    There is a current news item on a person who has Royal connections and pressed home the question on where a person of colour had their roots, I would hope that this question was based on interest because the questioner had lived in Africa as opposed to any racist slur, but the media is going to town on this.

    Given that the vast majority of Americans are the product of immigration would it be regarded as racist to ask a person 'where are your family from' if that was a topic that interested you.
    Last edited by RobJohnson; December 1st, 2022 at 11:05 AM.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Quote Originally Posted by RobJohnson View Post

    Given that the vast majority of Americans are the product of immigration would it be regarded as racist to ask a person 'where are your family from' if that was a topic that interested you.
    Since the vast majority of persons who get asked this (in the US) are persons with "foreign" accents and/or darker complexions, then, yes, it is a form of cultural or racial bias. This is often perceived in the same way that Donald Trump meant the phrase when he told the outspoken women of color in Congress to "go back" to the contries where they were from (they are all American, of course, and only one was born outside the US). Whites tend not to be nearly as curious about where other midland-accent whites with anglo/irish names "are from." Our bias simply accepts us as American first, English second. Outside of this Anglo-centric view, we tend to see persons as foreign first, and then recently-American second. This is of course not true for every request of a person's background, but this is the foundation of the dynamic when persons other than in the dominant race/religion/culture get asked about it (especially when the question has no immediate relevance). Simple "curiosity" may also reflect our biases, and should be reflected on and kept in check from time to time. And this dynamic can be in play when a person of any race/nationality/or religion asks the question of another. It is likely best to wait for the other person to volunteer the information once they feel the details are relevant and warranted.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Clearly not racist with your stated intention/interest.
    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Thank you both for your opinions, it is useful to have a fresh perspective.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    I'm going to have to disagree with TSherbs, mainly because they're overgeneralizations that appear to have motive nested.

    If I (white midwesterner) encounter a person of color, I'm unlikely to ask where they're from simply because they are of color. I don't believe I'm an outlier.

    If anyone has an accent, and the opportunity presents itself, I am likely to ask. My reasons are simply that I'm curious about people and culture, and language. Even if I assume they're American, if their accent stands out I tend to try to identify it and see if I'm right. Southern accents vary, as do New England, etc...

    The smaller the community, or the more diverging the accent from local norm; the more likely "where are you from" is to occur. It has become a trope with "you ain't from around here...", but that's still the case. Were I, with a Missouri "twang"; to travel to a small town in Maine; I wouldn't be surprised if I get asked where I'm from. For some reason, many people assume Texas; which I find entertaining.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Quote Originally Posted by dneal View Post
    I'm going to have to disagree with TSherbs, mainly because they're overgeneralizations that appear to have motive nested.

    If I (white midwesterner) encounter a person of color, I'm unlikely to ask where they're from simply because they are of color. I don't believe I'm an outlier.

    If anyone has an accent, and the opportunity presents itself, I am likely to ask. My reasons are simply that I'm curious about people and culture, and language. Even if I assume they're American, if their accent stands out I tend to try to identify it and see if I'm right. Southern accents vary, as do New England, etc...

    The smaller the community, or the more diverging the accent from local norm; the more likely "where are you from" is to occur. It has become a trope with "you ain't from around here...", but that's still the case. Were I, with a Missouri "twang"; to travel to a small town in Maine; I wouldn't be surprised if I get asked where I'm from. For some reason, many people assume Texas; which I find entertaining.
    I agree 100%.
    There are a large number of Americans who have chosen to look at everything from the perspective that "it is racist, I just need to figure out a reason why........"
    Most are left leaning, are Democrats and are proud to carry the label "woke."
    Don't get me wrong, they are certainly allowed to view things this way; where it becomes onerous is when they view everything in this manner, tend to become very righteous and offensive if someone dares to disagree and force their point of view on others.

    I, too, am fascinated by accents and have an "ear" for some dialects which represent special places or areas in my life's journey. And, so, when I hear someone speak with what I believe to be one of those accents I feel compelled to ask about that person's background.

    I have asked people of all walks of life and have never had someone act or claim to be offended. I don't need someone who sees everything painted in the broad strokes they favor to tell me otherwise.

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    Senior Member Chip's Avatar
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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    If you read an account of the conversation, it seems clear that Lady Susan Hussey (the former queen's lady-in-waiting) was looking down her nose at a person she felt was of lesser standing: unwelcome in such august company. Ironic, considering the origins of the new PM.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Quote Originally Posted by Chip View Post
    If you read an account of the conversation, it seems clear that Lady Susan Hussey (the former queen's lady-in-waiting) was looking down her nose at a person she felt was of lesser standing: unwelcome in such august company. Ironic, considering the origins of the new PM.
    Thank you for this.....I really do need to clarify!!
    I agree 100% that such a line of questioning can very much be racist, elitist, etc., etc.

    It happens every day.

    BUT it is not racist every time it occurs. There are plenty of other good reasons why one might make such an inquiry.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    While race is a factor, it basically snobbery, one-upping, an assertion of superiority.



    There's a game I play with obnoxious wannabe cowboys in bars. I was born thirty miles from where I live (Wyoming) but don't have a "rural" manner of speaking. So when a RWW in a big hat gets crosswise with my opinions, they usually ask: So– Where the hell are you from, anyway?

    I say: Guess.

    Most often, it's California or maybe Seattle. So it's fun to see their dismay at the answer: Laramie.

    When I ask the same question, the answer isn't Wyoming, but Indiana or Iowa or some other flat-ass state where kids grow up hoping to be really, truly cowboys.

    Even Dick Cheney was born in Nebraska. It's not something you get to choose.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    A post begins with this:

    it basically snobbery, one-upping, an assertion of superiority.
    and concludes with this:

    There's a game I play with obnoxious wannabe cowboys in bars. I was born thirty miles from where I live (Wyoming) but don't have a "rural" manner of speaking. So when a RWW in a big hat gets crosswise with my opinions, they usually ask: So– Where the hell are you from, anyway?

    I say: Guess.

    Most often, it's California or maybe Seattle. So it's fun to see their dismay at the answer: Laramie.

    When I ask the same question, the answer isn't Wyoming, but Indiana or Iowa or some other flat-ass state where kids grow up hoping to be really, truly cowboys.

    Even Dick Cheney was born in Nebraska. It's not something you get to choose.
    In an effort to make this place a little better, I ask genuinely: Chip, do you think this sort of language is abrasive? You seem like a smart guy. Many of the things you write about interest me, but I don't think this fosters conversation - mainly that it appears completely lacking in any sort of common courtesy or respect.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Yeah, it's abrasive. Intended.

    Remember all the cheap mockery you hurled at me for posting a photo of myself in a cowboy hat with a horse?

    Can't have it both ways. Respect is something you earn.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Let's hold off for a moment before we start playing the who started it game.

    You weren't replying to a post of mine. You weren't replying to a thread I started.

    It nothing to do with anything I posted, and appears just to be unnecessary slurs about people in your area that you don't like.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Quote Originally Posted by 724Seney View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Chip View Post
    If you read an account of the conversation, it seems clear that Lady Susan Hussey (the former queen's lady-in-waiting) was looking down her nose at a person she felt was of lesser standing: unwelcome in such august company. Ironic, considering the origins of the new PM.
    Thank you for this.....I really do need to clarify!!
    I agree 100% that such a line of questioning can very much be racist, elitist, etc., etc.

    It happens every day.

    BUT it is not racist every time it occurs. There are plenty of other good reasons why one might make such an inquiry.
    As chip points out, it was from an 80-something year old member of the aristocracy. I'm not sure that's a large class of people one should be generalizing from, or that their arrogance and prejudice is reserved for non-whites.

    It's amazing how much panic one honest man can spread among a multitude of hypocrites.
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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Quote Originally Posted by RobJohnson View Post
    Thank you both for your opinions, it is useful to have a fresh perspective.
    I meant to say, too, that you asked it in an open and polite way.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Quote Originally Posted by TSherbs View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by RobJohnson View Post
    Thank you both for your opinions, it is useful to have a fresh perspective.
    I meant to say, too, that you asked it in an open and polite way.
    Agreed. The intent of the heart is the deciding factor but impossible for others to know (fortunately or unfortunately).
    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Thank you to all for your thoughts.

    Having seen the transcript of the conversation between the two parties it is clear the interrogation should have have stopped, my thought is that this Lady would not have persued the line of questioning on family history had the other been white.

    It is a lesson that I have learned. I have a coffee shop close to my home where people sit outside and talk, both strangers and friends and being interested in family history, especially the triggers that lead to emigration, I could imagine myself asking someone how their family came to live in this country, even if that emigration, as in my case, took place 600 years ago.

    Once again, I appreciate the time that you have all given to this matter the news of which I understand has gone global.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Quote Originally Posted by dneal View Post
    I don't think this fosters conversation - mainly that it appears completely lacking in any sort of common courtesy or respect.
    You posted this in reaction to my post, right?

    For one such as yourself, invoking common courtesy or respect is at best ironic. At worst, simply stupid.

    Nod if you understand.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Quote Originally Posted by Chip View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by dneal View Post
    I don't think this fosters conversation - mainly that it appears completely lacking in any sort of common courtesy or respect.
    You posted this in reaction to my post, right?

    For one such as yourself, invoking common courtesy or respect is at best ironic. At worst, simply stupid.

    Nod if you understand.
    Yes Chip. I asked about the language in post #9. You made some point about who started it, and cowboy pictures as a response.

    But nothing prompted it in this thread, you weren’t attacked or insulted. If there’s some loose correlation between my saying midwesterner and your reference to Iowa or Indiana as an attempt at insult, I don’t know why you would begin that here in Rob Johnson’s thread. There are plenty others to do that in.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    Considering you dneal never require an invitation to push your nastiness in this subforum your statement actually made me laugh out loud... then fall silent when I realised you may actually believe your own bullshit. If there has ever been a more insincere member here than you I struggle to name them.

    As for the OP, while the questioner may have innocent motives in asking about cultural backgrounds - and that sort of information is always interesting to me because I find cultures fascinating - whether the interviewee feels it is racist or otherwise is up to them. In my experience of this I have always prefaced the question with a request for permission to ask along those lines. Something like 'Would you mind if I asked you about your culture? If it would be uncomfortable for you, please say no'.

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    Default Re: Asking a person about their family history

    "Since the vast majority of persons who get asked this (in the US) are persons with "foreign" accents and/or darker complexions, then, yes, it is a form of cultural or racial bias. " (emphasis added)


    I have a 12 letter surname of obvious Eastern European origin. Throughout my entire life I've been asked "Is that _____?" Some questions from people with non-ethnic names, some with names originating in other Eastern European countries as we try to figure out where our people came here from. Great conversations, including the historical fact that my family's home country was literally erased from maps of Europe, and how my grandfather came from far enough East in his country that he incorporated Russian words into his vocabulary.

    In the overwhelming number of instances the question is out of curiosity. My wife's maiden name had 4 letters, and she often comments that she gets far more attention and conversation now with a 12 letter name.

    Whites tend not to be nearly as curious about where other midland-accent whites with anglo/irish names "are from." Our bias simply accepts us as American first, English second.

    Again, this is not my experience. Putting aside who "whites" are, I have lived my life in an area where substantial portions of the population are not Anglo, and we don't think someone is English second, or third, or.... We currently live in an area that historically was settled by _____ immigrants. Now there is a significant influx of retirees, like ourselves, which generates lots of "Where are you from?" Meaning, where did you live (when you were working, and by the way what did you do?) before moving here (to retire, and when/why did you pick here?). And there is also a significant recent influx of a different ethnic group, commonly speaking the language of their land of origin, just as my grandparents did.

    We've been asked in different NYC boroughs where we're from, based on our accents. [Of course, as Midwesterners, we have no accents.] The Brooklyn waiter had a long pause when my wife replied, in response to his question "Where are you from?" that she was from Brooklyn too. Her family, on her mother's side, is from another, distinct ethnic group, with its own fascinating stories.

    I'm not so naive to claim that origin questions can't be demeaning, and attempts to put us into our places. I understood at an early age that those comments/questions are "tells," revealing the speakers attitudes, prejudices, and weaknesses, and not an accurate assessment of my own worth. If you're so inclined to play the game, it also is a tell, revealing the area of an effective riposte. I commonly escalate my own ethnicity in comparison to their blandness, comparing them to "whitebread." My work environment is populated with graduates of top-tier colleges, and grad degrees from prestigious European universities. When the prestige signalling gets a little thick I describe myself as being the barbarian, with no-taste. We all have a laugh and carry on.

    This is far too long a rambling post trying to say, Rob, I'd be happy to sit at one a sidewalk cafe and discuss our origin stories, and the history of our families since arriving in our current homes. And if I may ask, where are you living now?
    [/SIZE][/FONT]

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