“Where are you actually from?” is not a harmless question

– Hi I’m Suzana.
– Hi Suzana, where are you from?
– I am from Brazil.
– Right, but where are you actually from?
-What do you mean?
– You don’t look Brazilian.
– Are you asking where are my parents from?

The year was 2009 and I was working as an Intern in Karachi, Pakistan through the AIESEC program. I shared an apartment with other university students from China, Rwanda, Australia, Sri Lanka, Lithuania, Slovakia and Egypt, besides receiving daily visits from local students and other foreign interns. I would often be referred to as the third Chinese intern because I went as a representative of an university in China, but when I was given the opportunity to introduce myself, I would say I was Brazilian. To my surprise, given that I was surrounded by an international community, many people did not believe me and once I was even asked to show my passport to prove my nationality. Some had called me defensive on that occasion.

It is funny how the situation I described above came to my mind first despite having happened more than a decade ago. That was not the first time I faced a microaggression and I am afraid it is far from being the last one. This a question I get often, everywhere I go. At first I believed it was a “break the ice” interaction in which the other party was curious about my origin, specially when I was traveling outside Brazil. However, the more I listened to it over and over again, I started to feel uncomfortable and blamed myself for such short temper.

If the picture above was removed from this context, one could easily assume it is from a Chinese tourist in Rio. Although I am from São Paulo and was indeed a tourist in Rio, I consider myself Brazilian and get offended when hotel staff, taxi drivers or street vendors approach me in English. Why can’t an Asian looking person be treated as a local?

Why is it so hard for people to understand that Brazil is a diverse nation, mainly formed by native Brazilians and immigrants from Africa, Europe and Asia? I was born and raised in Brazil and pay the same duties as any contributor. Does my looks make me deserve less or more than a Brazilian whose grandparents immigrated from Italy?

I have encountered situations where teachers and clients complimented my “perfect Portuguese”. Why do people assume I would speak broken Portuguese? Or, when I am traveling for business and say I am from Brazil, I get comments that my English is good. One would take it as a compliment, but the reality is that Brazilians are perceived to be uneducated or unable to speak fluent English. I doubt Europeans who speak English as a second language receive such comments…

If you have not dealt with such kind of comments, you might wonder if I am being too sensitive, and this is where the danger lies. Because microaggressions are exercised by ordinary people who are not necessarily racist. Everyone has unconscious biases* and because it is common, it is considered “less offensive”. However, common does not mean correct and only because the majority practices it, it does not make is acceptable.

Why should microaggressions be addressed and why do we need to think before we express a comment? Receiving questions and comments such as “where are you actually from?”, “you don’t look your age because you are Asian”, “I never thought you were gay”, etc implies that a person doesn’t truly belong in their country/community just because of their appearance.

I could go on and on with this topic and list every microaggression I hear almost on a daily basis, and to my despair, I receive it from friends and colleagues “at the best of their intentions” despite the fact that I have addressed some of them. This means that there is still tons of room for the debate and perhaps I am not being incisive enough. I suspect that to some extent I feel intimidated in certain circumstances or people, which makes it easier to express it in my personal blog instead of discussing directly with the parties involved. I am aware of the long path ahead and I am glad many media outlets are still covering this topic.

If you are interested in this topic, the below articles might interest you:

Vox: What exactly is a microaggression?

NPR: Microaggressions Are A Big Deal: How to Talk Them Out And When To Walk Away

NY Time: How to Respond to Microaggressions

Business Insider: What is a microaggression? 14 things people think are fine to say at work — but are actually racist, sexist, or offensive

*Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing. (Office of Diversity and Outreach, University of California, San Francisco)