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How to ask someone's racial/ ethnic background without being sound racist?

For example, you met someone in a cosmopolitan city where most people come from different background although they were born and raised in that country and speak the same language natively, you want to learn about his/her ethnic background ?

1.Direct Question

Would you mind if I asked your ethnic background?

2.Question with referring to

Do you have any Italian kinship? You know a lot about Italy.

In case someone may be half Italian , half other ethnic or only his grandpa/ grandma may be Italian.

  • I'd probably add "about" before "your" in the first question. In the second, replace "kinship" with "roots". – Victor Bazarov Oct 14 '15 at 15:42
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    Also, we usually don't add spaces before punctuation marks. – Victor Bazarov Oct 14 '15 at 15:43
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    "Where is your family originally from?" – Joe Dark Oct 14 '15 at 18:12
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I agree with Joe Dark's comment: Where is your family originally from?

Additionally, I'll say that a lot depends on the tone of the question. I'm curious about accents, and often ask a person if I can't place his/hers. But knowing that this can be a sensitive issue for some, I often couch the question in some tentativeness:

I hope you don't mind my asking, but I'm where's your accent from?

For what you want to ask, I'd go with something like what you propose:

I hope it's not rude to ask, but you seem to know a lot about Italy; is your family from there?

Asking in advance for pardon and giving a reason to be asking will help, particularly if you're showing a genuine interest.

But in general, I think you're on the right track simply by being aware that this can be a sensitive question.

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I can suggest you start by asking their last name. The last name is usually a strong indicator of their racial background.

Asking, "What is your last name?", they might say Müller or Mohommad or Garcia (the most common last names). Then say it is a common last name and ask "Where are you from?" or "Are you [German/American/Spanish etc…]?" Once you have piqued their interest they will reveal all themselves and often you are not in a puddle!

I cannot be right all the time but showing that you are curious and not racist is important. ;)

  • @nathan: thank you for the edit. I am usually good at the language and the punctuation but I was distracted. :) – Vyasraj Vaidya Oct 14 '15 at 20:51
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Their last names are usually connected with their ethnicity or origins but that's not always the case, because of inter-race families and other factors.

But the safest way I guess would be what the others mentioned, asking where their family is from. You can already get a vague idea of their ethnic background, and if you're lucky, they'll share more things about themselves on their own.

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The safest way is to be polite, and avoid being intrusive of your answers. You may have to take extra care with the question "Would you mind if I asked your ethnic background?" especially with the casual tone. A good way to say it would probably be, as with everyone else's solutions: "I hope this won't bother you, but may I ask about your last name?", then the conversation should flow smoothly from there on.

For the second question "Do you have any Italian kinship? You know a lot about Italy.", you may use a friendly gesture, a sort of a surprised expression about the person's vast knowledge of Italy, such as "Wow, you know a lot about Italy. Are you, perhaps, Italian by blood?".

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