¡hola papi!

‘Is It Ever Okay to Ask Someone Where They’re From?’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

I was in a Zoom class discussing a short story. There is one person in the group who is visibly Asian. I made the incorrect assumption that she belonged to a specific Asian ethnicity and I was wrong. I felt like the biggest moron and apologized. But that still leaves me wondering if there is any way to ask (maybe not in the middle of a Zoom class) what nationality someone is, if it’s relevant to the discussion. 

For example, if you’re discussing a book or a movie with a Guatemalan creator, is it okay to ask anyone with a Spanish surname or accent a question that relates to that work, even if you don’t know where they’re from? Or to ask if they come from a Guatemalan background? Is it racist to even ask the question? 

In my specific case, the author was Chinese and the student in the class was Korean. What would have been the way to ask a question relating to information in the story, or should the question not be asked at all?

Inquiring Mind

Hey there, IM!


I’ve seen the vicious rumor pop up once or twice on Twitter that I’m fabricating my letters, and questions like these are not helping me beat those allegations. Advice columnists thrive on unforced errors. It makes us look smarter than we are.

In any case, if I embarrassed myself by vocally assuming someone’s ethnicity and getting it wrong, I would probably decide to take a break from the whole “figuring out where someone is from” business. Maybe the issue isn’t that I guessed wrong, but that I was trying to guess at all, you know what I mean? “Visibly Asian.” Listen to yourself!

Before you go shopping for calipers on Amazon or the Duolingo app arms you with “¿Eres de Guatemala?”, I think we should look at the root of your issue, an issue many seem to share. As cringe-inducing as your faux pas was, my Grindr inbox can attest that you’re far from the only one itching to ask, “Where are you from?”

I have some hot takes on the subject.

I don’t really care when someone straight up asks me the question, even when I can tell they’ll be disappointed to hear “Oklahoma.” They were doubtlessly hoping for “mi abuelita was in Pixar’s Coco.” Who am I kidding? They probably wanted “Puerto Rico.” I’m not particularly sensitive about it, but it’s definitely one of those questions that someone might be justifiably annoyed by, and you should be ready to accept that. We’re all from somewhere, sure, but there’s something to be said about tact and discretion.

If it comes up naturally, or if you’re exchanging histories, then it’s fine. But people who are frequently othered in our culture will definitely know when you’re just trying to sniff out their ethnicity because they’ve been asked that question thousands of times in thousands of different ways.

People who speak English as a second language, for example, might be more sensitive to such questions. It’s like you’re saying they stick out or don’t quite belong. This won’t be true of everyone, of course. But from your letter, and please don’t take this the wrong way, you’re coming off less like someone with a friendly curiosity and more like La Migra.

That’s one side of it. The other side is the assumption that race or ethnicity will inherently bring someone closer to understanding a work of art or literature. I think this is an example of well-intentioned people wrapping all the way back around and arriving at racism.

Too much time online has led some to believe that cultural specificity is this sacred thing we should seek to establish at all times. God forbid we attempt to engage with another person as a human being before peeking at their passport and phenotype to better understand how we’re supposed to talk to them and how to approach their art.

This impulse feels like an overcorrection to people pretending to “not see color” and such. People want granular identity markers in order to attach individuals to nebulously defined communities, either to make themselves feel like they’re doing activism or for marketing purposes.

This has led to a lot of goofiness, in my view. I’m proud to be Chicano and all, but I do not think running an advice column puts me in conversation with Cesar Chavez, even if our books will sit on the same shelf during Hispanic Heritage Month. Not evil, mind you, but definitely goofy.

It’s that context collapse that feels a bit condescending to me, like people would rather be handed a preapproved list of talking points to use on me than to actually engage with my work or with me as a human being.

To come back to your scenario: When discussing a book or movie by a Guatemalan creator, would knowing the background of the person you’re talking to radically change your perception of their opinion? If so, why? And do you not feel weird scanning the room for Guatemalans like that’s a normal thing to do?

Sure, a Guatemalan person would likely have some relevant context to share, but — and I don’t know how to break this to you — people from all backgrounds are perfectly capable of having terrible opinions, and no group will have a uniform position on anything. It’s not like that person will be able to speak on behalf of an entire country, culture, or ethnicity.

I know people mean well, but it feels like in the process of shouting, “Listen to [insert group of people here],” we have imagined those groups as monolithic and pushed them into another box. A box with one of those “IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE LOVE IS LOVE” signs in front of it, but a box nonetheless. It reduces artists and creatives down to their identity rather than giving them parity to explore the themes and horizons afforded to their peers.

I am not a fan of such essentialism. I think there has to be more to the human spirit than fictional borders and manmade racial structures. I don’t really think knowing exactly where someone is from will make their art any better or worse, or their opinions on art any better or worse. Interrogating them about where they’re from (with the implied follow-up of “Where you really from?”) reeks of intellectual insecurity to me.

Sorry. I know that was something of a tangent, so in short: Stop that. Be normal.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published on March 21, 2023.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘Is It Ever Okay to Ask Someone Where They’re From?’