Regardless of birthplace or current residence, the phrase “Where are you really from?” can be belittling of an individual’s intersectional identity. How do you respond when you’re positioned as an “outsider” in the conversation?
To help us unpack this phrase, Brave Conversations with LCW Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by Go Beyond Co-Founder Greg Sloan (he/him), who shares his lived experience as a multi-racial business owner dedicated to helping organizations integrate purpose into their culture and strategy.
Meet Our Guest
With over 25+ years of experience in financial services, Greg (he/him) discovered the benefits of activating personal purpose in the workplace and seeks to share this knowledge with other leaders. Believing that everyone has a unique purpose that can improve the status quo, Greg founded Go Beyond, a talent development company that leverages behavioral science and technology to help companies attract, engage, and grow their people. He is a thought-leader who centers his time and energy on purpose and people, with focus on purpose in the workplace, future of work, and financial wellness.
Show Notes & Highlights
2:19 Greg describes his experience as a multi-racial American
4:25 Greg reflects on the issue of putting people in boxes
6:18 Greg advocates for bringing your authentic self and lived experiences to the workplace
8:12 Greg explains adding diversity of purpose to the concept of DEIB
10:30 Greg and Larry discuss using a problematic question to turn the conversation positively on the asker
14:24 Greg defines allyship in terms of acknowledging “hurt people hurt people”
16:59 Larry gives advice to allies trying to start a conversation
20:10 Greg shares his experience with triggering language based on lived experience
22:28 Greg describes how in the future, multi-racial identities will become the norm based on population
Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns.
For those of you unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DEI training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to the develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.
This season we’re unpacking coded language in the workplace. “Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias, or quips that may have unintended negative impact. Each episode we’ll discuss the real meaning and implications of a new coded phrase, how it connects to larger systemic issues, and hear personal stories and tips to help us notice and call in bias.
Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with L C W. Today. we’re going to talk about the phrase “Where are you really from?” So regardless of your birthplace or your current residence, this phrase “Where are you really from?” can be belittling of an individual’s intersectional identity. So how do you respond when you’re positioned as an outsider in the conversation?
To help us unpack this phrase, I am joined today by Go Beyond co-founder Greg Sloan, and I’m going to have him talk about his experiences when it comes to this particular phrase. And Greg, in your introduction, can you do us a little bit of a favor and dig into that concept just a little bit? Greg, I’m gonna yield the floor to you and tell me a little bit about yourself.
Greg Sloan: Well, thanks Larry. Thank you for having me on the show. I look forward to this conversation. You know, when I was first asked to join this and looked at this comment of “Where you’re really from?,” it kind of hit home. I live here in Atlanta, Georgia, but I am originally from Hawaii and grew up there—born and raised—and moved to Atlanta, Georgia in… let’s see, about 19 years old.
I’m currently as you mentioned the co-founder of Go Beyond. We’re an employee experience software platform, and we really are part of the conversation to help the workplace and the workforce work better together.
So in my career, particularly after arriving here in Atlanta, I had to hear this a few times because I grew up in the era of Sesame Street, where “one of these things doesn’t belong. I clearly didn’t look like I belonged in Atlanta, Georgia. And I have some of those features that most people can’t really tell where I’m originally from. And so just for the audience—I know most of this is just audio—I’m half-Asian and half-Caucasian, so I’ve been identified from a racial perspective as everything from Hispanic to Asian to Hawaiian to Black to everything in between.
So this has come up in my career more than once. And particularly when you’re somebody that recognizes you look different. Yeah. It really—what did you say—addresses or hits home to that identity. No question I experienced that in my career.
Larry Baker: Yeah. So Greg, thank you for that introduction and a little bit of background on some of your experiences. But I do wanna ask you some specific questions.
Greg Sloan: Sure.
Larry Baker: When you think of this phrase, Greg, how do you think that it connects to larger systemic issues that we face in our society?
Greg Sloan: I think that the reality is we’re taught to sort of identify people and to sort of look at others based on what our parents taught us or our grandparents taught us. And again, I’m speaking from experience growing up in Hawaii and somebody from a Japanese culture. We really were taught to identify other members in Hawaii of where their parents were originally from and where their nationality was from. And I’m not saying that this was the right thing, I’m just saying this is the way it happened in Hawaii.
But when you bring that into the workplace, I think it’s sort of been natural for individuals in the workplace to really think of other individuals. We don’t wanna be put in a box, yet a lot of us were raised by putting people into a box—sometimes based on national origin. I know for myself, it’s something that I’ve had to experience on the receiving end, and I’ve tried hard not to put others in the box in a negative way. I’m very fascinated about different nationalities and very attracted to people from around the world. So I think there’s a way to do it in a positive way, but unfortunately I don’t think that that’s the norm.
Larry Baker: Yeah, and I appreciate giving that insight and tying it to the workplace. So when you think about this whole concept of this phrase “Where are you from?,” what are some examples or some ways that your organization works in regards to eliminate some of the stigma that this phrase might have in the workplace?
Greg Sloan: When we started building what we were building, no question that what helps organizations is really understanding individual strengths and their experiences. Because when someone comes into the workplace, we really—in addition to their education and their skills—we do want them to bring their unique self into that role, or in some cases into the project. It could be a project within an organization. And there are individuals that have gone through life experiences in the past—partly because of where they’re from—that is going to benefit a particular project or in some cases a particular client that we can leverage this in a positive way, not necessarily a negative way.
So again we’re a software platform that has some assessments, and within our assessments, some of the questions that are asked focus definitely more on life experiences versus national origin or nationality. We don’t really get into those questions, but we did talk about life experiences: life experiences being tied to origin. We really do have the ability to pull out from those individuals unique things that they have gone through that will help in the existing project or role that they potentially can be a part of.
Larry Baker: So it sounds essentially that you’re using this phrase in a way for individuals to see it as a benefit to their overall business as opposed to an eliminator to classify you as not really belonging.
Greg Sloan: No question. In fact, the way we look at DEIB and particularly focused on the belonging piece, when you ask questions around belonging, we fully recognize that we are a diverse society and that we are better when we have diversity.
We don’t necessarily focus on the racial side of diversity. We focus on the experiential side of diversity, what we call that diversity of purpose. So when we talk about diversity and what you’re bringing uniquely to the marketplace—those life experiences that you’ve gone through—there’s a phrase that you’ve heard: there’s purpose in the pain.”
I’ll use a really simple example, which is in the healthcare space. A lot of individuals get into healthcare, nursing, physicians, caregiving partly because of what they experienced watching a loved one go through some life experience. And so when you’re able to bring that out of your workers to say, “Can you bring some of that passion? Can you bring some of that life experience into what we’re working on here?,” you’re gonna have a unique perspective, and you’ll even bring something that someone else may not have thought about of how we solve this particular issue.
Larry Baker: Yeah. You know what, Greg? I really love that philosophy, that mindset, because when someone is asking you that question “Where are you really from?” or “Where are you from?” and when you elaborate on those types of experiences and influences, you can provide them with such an eye-opening revelation that they never really intended with that question. So I definitely appreciate you sharing that specific insight.
Greg, I do wanna get into asking questions about what advice might you have for individuals that might be targeted when they hear this phrase “But where are you really from?” What kind of advice can you give for those individuals?
Greg Sloan: Well again, I’m gonna use my personal experience cuz going back to, gosh, it’s been 30-some odd years, 35 years I guess now when I arrived in Atlanta, Georgia. And at first I was taking aback: it was obvious that I didn’t look like everyone else, and I didn’t know how to respond, to be candid with you. I just knew that people were looking at me differently.
Now, what I didn’t know was that many people in the South didn’t realize Hawaii was a state, and I’d hear those questions “Well, when did you come to the United States?” Guess what?
Larry Baker: (laughs) Forever.
Greg Sloan: Hawaii is a state, right? I know that’s crazy for people not to realize it, but nonetheless, what I learned through this process—and it took me a few years—was that once you get over the fact that sometimes people are trying to be offensive, right?
Larry Baker: Oh yes.
Greg Sloan: Sometimes people are just ugly. That’s just the way it is. But how can turn that? How can you spin that in a way that is positive? And I was able to learn how to do that. I did realize at some point people did see Hawaii as kind of a paradise, and I was able to start to tell stories or hear stories whether they visited or grandparents visited or parents visited.
And I started to use it as an example of where we’re kind of similar, but we’re different. And there’s experiences and there’s things that I can bring to the table and you might find intriguing because I’m not from here. So I actually started to turn it on them, to be honest with you. I’ll start asking them questions about “What do you know about Hawaii? What island have you visited? What experiences did you have?”
And it did take me a while, no question, but then I eventually started to learn how to be proud. Not that I wasn’t proud already from where I was from—the islands. But I really started to become proud of how I was different and then I think was able to even turn it on the question-asker. Like even if they were from Ohio, well tell me something different about the part of Ohio you were from. So I did learn how to do that, and I think that that’s one of the things that we have to recognize is there is a way to put a positive spin on things.
Larry Baker: Yeah. Greg, what really resonated with me is when you said you were using it as a way to be proud of how you overcame because I have a similar experience when people ask that question of me. Because in most cases being from the Black or African American community, your zip code has this tendency to determine your destiny. And for me to explain how I overcame those challenges and those obstacles that were in my way but still I had resilience to overcome that to reach this specific level within my life as well.
So I absolutely love that advice for individuals that may feel targeted by this phrase: look for opportunities to flip that around and show how you’re proud of the things that you overcame. So I absolutely appreciate that.
Now my second question on that line is… if you have someone that wants to be an ally who may witness this phrase being used to someone that is considered an outsider, what type of advice would you have for that ally in regards to some things that they should do?
Greg Sloan: Well first of all, we have to be honest in recognizing that some people are just going gonna be ugly, right?
Larry Baker: Absolutely.
Greg Sloan: And some people are… how do I say this? They have a lot of pain in their lives that they’ve not worked through and you’ve heard that phrase: “hurt people hurt people.” And I think one of the first things you have to realize is sometimes you are the current target, but you’re not really the global target of their pain.
So from an ally perspective, I think one of the first things to realize is it may not necessarily be about you. It seems like it’s about you for that particular day. Maybe even they’re bullying you or they’ve, they’ve targeted you, but that person has gone through something that they haven’t overcome. Now, I do believe there’s a Bible scripture that says, “Live peaceably with all men, if you can.” And I’d like to follow that first part, but there is that second part that says, “If you can.” (laughs)
Larry Baker: “If you can.” Right, right. (laughs) There are limits.
Greg Sloan: There are. There are some individuals that it’s not gonna be for you to kind of help them through that. So I think the first thing is just to recognize a reality is you’re not gonna necessarily be there to help everyone come to this place, but be gracious to them and even for your ally.
Your question reminds me of another situation that we were a part of in a friend of ours. The son was getting divorced and the daughter—future ex-daughter-in-law—was kind of being vilified in the situation. And no question she was doing things that I feel like probably were beyond what maybe should have been done, but we also recognize that she had her own pain that she may not have overcome. And so bring it to this situation, it did partly do not necessarily the geography that she came from, but from the household that she came from… She experienced some things that didn’t allow her to move beyond that, and so you do have to recognize other people going through pain themselves.
Larry Baker: Yeah, I appreciate that insight as well, that you are not necessarily the target of this type of exclusionary behavior. And for me personally, when I teach our sessions around microaggressions and I bring up this statement as an example of a microaggression, almost in every session I have the comment or the the statement where someone says, “But Larry, I struggle with how this is a microaggression because I’m truly trying to strike up a conversation with someone that I don’t know.”
And what I tend to offer them is a couple of different questions, and I’m just gonna chime in to the questions that I use. I recommend that they say one of three things: you can ask them “How long have you lived in Georgia, or how long have you lived in Atlanta?” or whatever the case may be. Or you can even ask them “So where did you grow up?” Right? The same type of question can get the same response, but following them, if you don’t relate to those two, maybe you can even ask them “Hey, where else have you lived?”
Because you have to understand that when you are asking that question, the context is everything, right? We’re not saying that everybody is going to react negatively to this phrase, but having that awareness that that phrase can trigger some people to let them make the association with “you really don’t belong here,” “you’re really not a part of the team,” or you know “where do you come off telling us what to do?” We don’t do that down here. What are your thoughts?
Greg Sloan: Well first of all, you used a really critical word, I think, which is “trigger.” And when I first started looking about even the work that LCW is doing and leading in a culturally diverse world, for whatever reason, every time I looked at that “L” I also thought about the other L-word, which is “language,” right? And when we’re communicating, we’re communicating through language, and it’s better if we recognize that language has different meaning to different people in a large part based on where they’re from.
Again, I grew up in a culture that didn’t necessarily speak good English. You know, in Hawaii we speak Pidjin English. It’s very similar to the way in New Orleans they speak Creole English. And yes, and the reality is the language that we use, the words that we use do sometime create those triggers that you may have no idea what that other person is processing.
One thing I wanted to share, coming back to the original phrase… to me it’s more than just geography. It’s also about the racial component of it. Cuz as I mentioned, I am multiracial, right? Half-Japanese and half-Caucasian. And to be candid with you, growing up in Hawaii the part that I was put down for was the Caucasian.
I grew up in a mostly non-white environment, and I was actually more embarrassed of being white. I really wished I was more a hundred percent Japanese or I had much greater Asian features. And so one of the things is you use this language to try to sound more like the culture or the group that you want to be accepted by.
Larry Baker: Yeah, yeah. Right.
Greg Sloan: You wanna get that sense of belonging. But going back to what you were saying about triggers… I think it’s so beneficial when we understand that other people have certain triggers that—you may not have been doing it intentionally—but it may be a trigger.
Larry Baker: Yeah. And Greg, that whole statement that you made about being multiracial and that struggle that you have with “Which identity do I gravitate towards?” That is an internal struggle as well. It’s almost as if you’re saying, “But where am I really from? Am I really from my Asian background, or am I really from my Caucasian background? And which one is more salient to me in this situation as opposed to this situation?”
So again, “Where are you really from?”—those can be some internal struggles as well, dealing with that intersectionality that you have within your identity that can play out when someone is really just asking that question in a way to shut you out. But they may not even realize that “Look, I’ve already been shut out. I’ve been going through this my entire life. I’ve been trying to figure this path out for a long time now.” And I appreciate you sharing that depth of insight. Go ahead, you had something.
Greg Sloan: One thing that I do really appreciate, I read this study once—and I don’t remember what the date was—but there is a date in the future where that checkbox when you apply for a job or start a company that says, “What is your, your nationality?” …there’s that one checkbox now that’s multiracial. At some point in the future, that is gonna be the largest population of people checking that box because our society’s becoming so integrated.
For me, I’m gonna have grandchildren that are also Filipino cuz my son-in-law’s Filipino. And we’re gonna have this like United Nations, melting pot home, and I think that that’s a beautiful thing. Of course, I’m of that type of ancestry, so I think that I’m already attracted to that.
But I know this is gonna be more the norm because just statistically that’s gonna happen, so I think that’s a beautiful thing that. And we’re talking about here in America for the most part that that is gonna continue to happen. I think it’s a wonderful.
Larry Baker: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you anymore, Greg. And I just wanted to first and foremost thank you so much for your willingness to be a part of this conversation. I think that you’ve given us such an interesting perspective on this phrase, and I believe that we have taken it to a totally different level that I just don’t think a lot of people really take the time to consider. So Greg, I absolutely appreciate you and all of your insight.
Can I give you an opportunity to have some of our listeners know how they can get in touch with you, how to get in touch with the work that you’re doing within your organization?
Greg Sloan: Yeah, absolutely First of all, Larry and the LCW team, thank you for having me and allowing me to be part of this really important conversation.
Our company’s go beyond, and—as I mentioned—we help the workforce and the workplace work better together by activating purpose, and purpose is really about each person’s unique design to improve. That’s our definition: your unique design to improve the status quo for others in the workplace. This really helps companies align the right people amd bring on their ideal workforce. And then of course, make sure they’re in the right seats as Jim Collins described in his book Good to Great.
So you can find us at GoBeyond.work. If you wanna send us a message firstname.lastname@example.org, great way to reach out directly to us. And then we’re also on all of the social media, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.
Larry Baker: Greg, thank you so much for this conversation. We could have done this for hours. I just appreciate you being so transparent, being so vulnerable, and talking about your experiences. So thank you all for another incredible episode of Decoded. Thank you.
Greg Sloan: Thank, thank you, Larry.
Larry Baker: Thank you all so much for joining us for another episode of Decoded.
And to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? What coded language do you want us to unpack next? Please share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.
Until next time, I’m Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.