Microagressions In The Workplace
I’m a full-time freelance writer who grew up in Huntington Park, California, where Latinxs and immigrants made up the majority. I feel lucky to have a career that allows me to travel and write stories that open doors for other women of color seeking representation and opportunity. However, I’ve also learned that no degree, education, or accomplishment can shield anyone from xenophobia, racism, and inappropriate comments.
As any freelancer knows, networking, professional events, and conferences are a great way to find clients, meet new colleagues, and find resources that could sharpen our skills. But, I’m often one of the few women of color at these events—and sometimes the only person of color. Most people are kind, eager to discuss their businesses or experiences, or even make friends, but as any person of color in a majority white space can attest, not everyone is courteous or cognizant of their privilege.
I’m okay with answering questions pertaining to my business, skills, travel experiences, and other relevant details about my writing, but there’s one question I’m often asked that white people rarely have to answer: “where are you from?”
The Problem With “Where Are You Really From?”
When people ask where I’m from, I say I’m from Los Angeles or the United States. After all, it’s easier for me to say I’m from the country that emitted my passport. But I was born in El Salvador and raised in Huntington Park, in Los Angeles county. I’ve also spent 4.5 years living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Mexico City, and Washington, DC, and now I’m based in Mississippi until I can travel again.
People who’ve traveled and moved a lot have a hard time saying where they’re from, and I’m not alone in this. Thanks to efforts to bring awareness of white privilege in professional and social spaces, many forward-thinking people tend to take my answer at face value and carry on. The problem is, not everyone is satisfied with my answer.
A 2005 Wesleyan University paper looked at identity denial in Asian American communities. The paper mentions that identity denial occurs when we deny someone their authentic identity because they don’t fit our preconceived notions of who belongs in a given group. I’ve learned that in many cases, people ask where I’m really from because I, a brown-skinned Salvadoran-American who speaks four languages and works as a writer, don’t fit the notion that people from the United States are white.
How Implicit Bias Affects Professionals—Especially Freelancers
Thankfully, freelancing means that I have a bit more say over who I work with than people who work in the corporate world. I would say that I answer this question far less now that I work for myself than I did when I worked for someone else.
I believe in maintaining a professional attitude while also voicing my opinion, but I still don’t know how I’ll handle future situations. What I can do is offer an explanation as to why “where are you really from?” bothers me so much.
White people rarely have to answer this question. There are certainly nuances, but thus far I haven’t heard white Americans ask this of each other.
In professional settings, freelancers and job candidates are often at the mercy of a potential client or employee. Generally, people of color have to answer this question in situations where we don’t expect to encounter an interrogation about our identity. Even worse, not answering, or displaying discomfort over being treated differently, can harm our opportunities for advancement. The onus is often on people of color to seem as if we’re team players and we may be perceived as selfish or uncooperative for trying to level the playing field for ourselves. Using this question as a metric to judge us, when white people don’t have to deal with it at all, creates an extra hurdle.
There’s an inherent power imbalance in asking someone to share details about their identity without offering something in return.
There are a myriad of reasons why minorities still earn less than their white counterparts, but reducing implicit bias and additional obstacles in workplace settings can go a long way in closing wage and opportunity gaps.
How I’m Pushing Back Against This Question
Over the years I’ve learned to push back by simply sticking to my answer or changing the topic. My relationship to “home” and where I’m from is complicated. Professional settings certainly aren’t the place for me to try to work this out with a stranger or potential future client.
Sometimes, I politely turn the question back on the asker. Some people are kind enough to get the point or even answer the question in detail, which makes our interaction an even exchange. If things go well, we can bond over why this question can rub someone the wrong way. But there are still people who grow hostile at not having a full-on explanation about who I am. To them I say: You don’t need to know where I’m really from.
Studies show that implicit bias against Latinxs and immigrants is real. Many people don’t differentiate between people who are immigrants and those who were born in the US. I suspect that people who get angry when they dislike my answer also harbor innate biases.
My only tip to people who feel tempted to ask someone “where are you really from?” is that seemingly harmless questions have a profound psychological impact on people of color. Microaggressions are known to be harmful, even when they’re unintentional.
At best, we can all work to check our own biases and ensure our workplace environments are inclusive and open to change.