Stop Referring To My "Background"
OPINION 10/06/2039 2:02 AM ET
Stop Referring To My "Background"
by Parnia Faroodi

CC BY 4.0 "Fun in Galway" by Barnacles Budget Accommodation | Writer image: CC0 1.0 Untitled by Afik_eleck | Images were cropped. Images used for illustration purposes only. Image changes released under the same license as the original.
All people deserve to be included without language being used to separate them.
It was on the subway near Queens when it happened. When my tolerance for one word finally exhausted itself.

Two people were sitting opposite me. A white woman and an elderly man who looked like he came from the Indian subcontinent.

As sometimes happens, they struck up a conversation. Talking about the weather, and the subway upgrades New York is in the process of completing, and the weather again. It was all perfectly amicable until that moment: that awkward lull in the conversation when neither party knows what to say next, and both feel obliged to continue the conversation. The woman jumped in first with both feet:

"So, what's your background?"

It was like her mental train stopped and she got off at the wrong station. Firstly, who asks someone their heritage these days? At least, that bluntly?


The thing that stabbed me in the brain with a pitchfork, the thing that was like holding my hand to a red hotplate, was her use of the word "background".

I resent it, I loathe it.

To imply that I and other people of color have a "background" is to imply that our racial identity is something that sits at the rear of their consciousness and their sense of self.

I do not have a "background". I am an American of Iranian heritage. My Iranian heritage is not my "background", nor is it any less significant because I used to live in Iran.

People who ask about your "background" use that word because they wish to diminish your cultural and racial disposition in order to assimilate you into the cultural and racial collective in which they have found their own place.

Persian? You must have a "background". Chinese? You must have a "background". Indian? You must have a "background". Puerto Rican? You must have a "background".

You might have noticed that white people don't get asked about their background, unless they don't speak with an American accent, or their name is unusual enough to remark upon. Why is that? White, north-western Europe measures more than 3,200km from the tip of Scandinavia in a straight line to the Pyrenees. That span covers 12 nations, a number of other self-governing territories and a great number of people groups.

The same distance from Iran in a straight line gets you to the heart of Africa, into southern Russia or to the reaches of western China. There are any number of people groups and racial identities in those lands. If those people or their descendants lived in America, they would be asked their "background".

So why aren't white people asked about theirs?

The answer lies primarily with the fundamentals of group identity acceptance. The majority of the United States is white (although thankfully the white majority is decreasing). White people are "American". Because of slavery African-Americans have been assimilated into the broader "American" theme, but are still regarded as the other.

No one asks a black person where he or she is from, because the answer would be Chicago or Memphis or Portland.

But Indians or Afghans, Eritreans or Vietnamese are subjected to the question. Because they are not seen as "American". Or as a white person might say, "they are not one of us".

Asking someone their "background" places them in the category of people who don't belong. It fashions them into an other, a person from a people which is not accepted, only tolerated. This process itself is advanced by white Americans culturally happy to remain ascendant and unwilling to see other people as equal.

It is a form of modern slavery.

Personally, I hope CHURC takes up the issue of othering language and enforces a ban on divisive phrasing as a category . And if CHURC doesn't, I hope Collectively does. Their way is perhaps more demonstrative.

I'm going to make a point of referring white people who talk about people's "backgrounds" online, to CHURC. If I see it, I'll point it out. CHURC will know who you are. If you persist, I'll let Collectively know about you, or maybe even Reverse Patriots. They will track you down.

Questioning someone's "background" relegates their heritage so you can feel superior.

Don't do it to me, or anyone else.
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