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". Oct 14, 2015 at 15:42
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    Also, we usually don't add spaces before punctuation marks. Oct 14, 2015 at 15:43
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    "Where is your family originally from?"
    – Joe Dark
    Oct 14, 2015 at 18:12

4 Answers 4


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.


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. :) Oct 14, 2015 at 20:51

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.


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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