'Where are you from?'
by Sophie L
I was sitting in a bar with two female friends, describing a pattern I’d noticed.
Recently, I’d started to take note of how solicitous men opened conversation with me. I thought back over flirtations in bars and pubs, and reread old Tinder conversations, all starting the same way. Each of these men began, by asking me where I was from. My theory was bolstered a few minutes later, when a man in the queue for drinks questioned my country of origin. Later, my friends watched wide-eyed, as I went to ask a different man for a cigarette and he spent a good five minutes bartering with me; a cigarette in exchange for my ethnicity.
I was born in London, as was my entire family two generations back. My great-grandparents on both sides were Eastern-European, Jewish immigrants who came to this country in the early 20th century. I am fairly ethnically ambiguous looking - my tanned skin and curly dark hair has been mistaken for ethnicities thousands of miles apart from each other. My first name is faintly European sounding, and my last name is totally ambiguous - it was changed from a Jewish name with that intent.
They are hoping that I’m from a background they associate with typically ‘sexy’ characteristics
The curiosity that this ambiguity sparks in men manifests itself in different ways. I was recently bartending at an office party, and four men, each trying to place my looks, perfectly demonstrated these variations:
Man Number One approaches first. He is young, tipsy, and extremely forward. He comes up to get his first drink with a playful smile. I ask him how his evening is going. It’s going great, he tells me, then asks me where I’m from. I tell him I’m from here. His eyes light up and I realise I have inadvertently initiated a game. He starts to guess. Am I Spanish? No. Latina? No. Turkish? No. Mixed race? No. He pops up at intervals throughout my shift, each time requesting a vodka lemonade and taking a new guess at my ethnicity.
This happens to me a lot. In the past I have used it to my advantage; the guessing game is an easy flirtation - it’s got me free kebabs, drinks and the occasional queue-jump. This attention used to feel flattering and I enjoyed being an object of intrigue. Lately, these interactions feel cheap, and wearying. I realise these men are projecting onto me. They are hoping that I’m from a background they associate with typically ‘sexy’ characteristics - Spanish, Brazilian, Latina. They don’t want me; they want the exotic, the exciting and uncharted, and when they see my ambiguous features they surplant their fantasy onto me. They never guess that I’m Jewish.
Man Number One comes back too many times. I quickly tire of the guessing; he is enjoying this rigmarole far too much. After a few rounds, I think he would be disappointed if I told him any ethnicity, as it would end the game and the fantastical possibilities. At the end of the shift I turn to a girl who has been working across the room and describe Man Number One. She tells me that he came up to her, at one point, and asked if she knew where I was from. I laugh incredulously. But where are you from? She wants to know.
Man Number Two is a lot like the first. Where are you from, he wants to know, as I pour him a gin and tonic. London, I say. He laughs. No, no, where are you from from? London, I say. He gets more serious. No, I mean, where is your family from? London. What, your parents were born in London? Yes. Your grandparents? Yes. Huh. He wanders off with his drink, visibly disgruntled by my stubbornness, my unwillingness to tell him what he really wants to hear.
I find this interrogation more unsettling than the guessing-game. Lots of men do this, they refuse to accept my first answer, they persist, climbing further back up my family tree, determined to get to the bottom of this ethnic mystery. It makes me uncomfortable, I feel completely exposed. They quickly get frustrated by my answers, and like Man Number Two, they seem to take personal offense to my supposedly vague answer. They want to solve the puzzle, to attach my face to a label which they recognise. Sometimes I give in. Well… I’m a tiny bit Spanish really far back… They seem relieved, and self-congratulatory - they knew I wasn’t really from here.
I don’t want to fulfill a racially-charged fantasy, to be fetishised or stereotyped.
Sometimes it seems like they are trying to figure out what they are getting themselves in for. They want to know what will be lying in wait under my clothes, if this flirtation proves successful.
Where are you from from? That loaded from, distances me from London. I realise that it puts a barrier between me and my Britishness, it implies I have another, concealed identity. Man Number Two others me when he asks this; his disbelief at my Britishness is dislocating. Man Number Two comes back once more with a friend. She won’t tell me where she’s from, he complains to the friend as they wait for their drinks. At this point Man Number One stumbles back over and spills a drink across the bar.
Man Number Three arrives late in the evening. He is pretty good looking and when he asks how I am, I smile and lean over the bar. I tell him I’m doing fine, a bit tired at this point. Where are you from, he wants to know. Hmm. Where are you from? I counter. He confidently discloses the birthplace of both his parents. Now it would look strange if I didn’t tell him. I’m from London, I say, but I’m from a family of Ashkenazi Jews who came to this country from Eastern Europe. He laughs. No you’re not! Ashkenazi Jews aren’t tanned! I’m stunned, I have no response. He realises that he has offended me and fumbles around: I guess, some are actually, yeah. He walks off with his drink.
It’s rare that I tell a stranger I’m Jewish. Anti-semitism is on the rise in this country, and I am often grateful to my ethnic ambiguity. The men who I do tell normally aren’t so incredulous as Man Number Three. They normally seem a bit disappointed, or confused. It isn’t the right kind of exotic/other perhaps? There are many perceptions and assumptions about Jews which aren’t positive, and they definitely aren’t sexy.
I have also lived my whole life as a white person in Britain. I am privy to white privilege. It feels wrong, offensive even, to adopt the identity of an ethnic minority, even if involuntarily.
"This will not be the last time that men ask me this question."
At this point in the evening I’m starting to feel pissed off. I was open with Man Number Three and he disputed my answer, as if I was joking.
I feel bad for Man Number Four; he doesn’t know that he is the fourth to put his foot in it that evening. He asks me the inevitable question and I tell him coldly that my ethnic identity is none of his business. He looks a bit shocked and takes his drink and leaves quickly, offended and confused.
I realise I am less palatable to men when I shut down the game instantly. I decide that I no longer want to respond politely, or playfully, to the question. I wonder if I will have less sex from now on.
It seems like an extreme response to refuse to answer, because it is not an outwardly rude question to ask. But it is an invasive question. And the dogged pursuit of an answer which suits the questioner, quickly becomes offensive. I recognise that the question feels different based on tone and intention. When, rarely, a woman (or a well-meaning man) asks me where I am from, it is without vested interest in the answer. There is less at stake.
When a person of colour asks me, it is also different. It’s less voyeuristic, there is a common understanding perhaps, a joint knowledge of what it means to be asked. But again, the persistence, the disbelief and the disappointment at my real identity is exhausting, and it comes from men of all backgrounds.
These men aren’t trying to offend me - the opposite in fact, they are trying to get to know me, to strike up a flirtatious rapport. But in doing so they are projecting onto me, hoping that I’ll respond in a certain way - fingers crossed she’s Brazilian!
I have dated men who have held onto their fantasy long after unveiling my true identity. An ex-boyfriend jokingly refused to acknowledge that I was white, as if reassuring himself of my exoticness, months into our relationship.
Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive - Man Number Four definitely thought so, but by the end of the evening I have resolved to keep my ethnic identity to myself. I don’t want to fulfill a racially-charged fantasy, to be fetishised or stereotyped.
I have thought a lot since that night about the best way to respond to this question. It feels masochistic to respond coldly every time, because it leaves me feeling sour, but it’s also exhausting to consistently respond with patience. I think that the most productive response would be to detach myself; to calmly try to educate these men and to not take offense. But that seems unlikely.
This will not be the last time that men ask me this question. I predict I will have many more opportunities to test out my responses, to hone them until I have perfected the art of deflecting this casual ignorance. As I sit writing this article, a Tinder message buzzes in: ‘you look exotic af senorita’.