“Where are you from?”

I am a European Philosophy graduate student at a US institution. I was teaching an undergraduate class where we were discussing a case study about the education system of a Nordic country. After I answered a couple of questions of clarification regarding said country (economy, demographics, etc…) one female student raised her arm and asked “Where are you from?”. The students suddenly became more attentive; they seemed more interested in this question than in the philosophical material.

I have been asked the same question before by undergraduate students and I have answered. That happened in informal settings, outside class time and mostly during one-on-one interaction. This time I was being asked in front of my entire class and there was no accompanying qualification (“if you don’t mind me asking”). Just a lot of staring. I replied “not from this country, if that’s what you’re asking” but I continued to receive intense stares by virtually everyone in the room. I ended up saying the name of my country of origin and calling an intermission right away. I found both the casual way in which the student thought she was entitled to know more about me and the timing of the question really undermining of my authority as a teacher.

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