“Where are you from?”
Who’d think that question could be so loaded? At a conference I attended last weekend, one of the presenters discussed this very question, a question that I believe ALL people of colour living in the West have been asked at one time or another. It made sense for me to be asked this question 12 years ago when I was new in Canada; I had an interesting accent, a mango smoothie of different flavours as my aunt called it, a bit of Scottish, a bit of English, bits and pieces from my international school experience. However, over the years I’ve become fully acculturated into Canadian culture and you can barely hear the undertones of British unless you listen closely. So why am I STILL asked this question?
Of course I know why, it’s very obvious to me now though it took me a long time to figure out why that question was so triggering for me. Several years ago while listening to an Indo-Canadian politician discuss diversity and multiculturalism, something he said struck me. He is still asked where he’s from, although he’s been in Canada for over 4 decades. And his son-in-law who immigrated to Canada a few years back? He isn’t ever asked that question. I bet you can guess why.
One of the participants at the conference took umbrage at the question being construed as negative. She said that the question is often asked out of good intentions. I can agree that the question depends on the context, and sometimes it is asked out of curiosity but that begs the question, why the curiosity? Is it because of my skin colour? This question is linked to skin colour and it also illustrates the power-privilege dynamic; I am being racialized by the “default human”, one who is not racialized. The question to me says “I see your foreignness, your black skin, you’re obviously not one of us. Satisfy my curiosity and tell me which tropical and exotic climes you call home.”
Asking the “Where are you from?” question is not always “Othering” but it so often is. Sometimes the question is valid. I’d say if I suddenly talk to someone in my mother tongue, people may ask me that question. Or if I’ve been friendly with someone for a while and we are trying to get to know each other it makes sense to ask what my background is. There needs to be mutual interest of getting to know each other, it can’t be the first question you ask me when you meet me.
When people ask me that question it seems to me that they are so eager to tick me off in a box. “I’ve talked to an African person from such and such a country, yay diversity!” But I see the intent and I’d go further and say that most people of colour see the motivation behind that question. It doesn’t help that the majority of times I’m asked that question the speaker talks in a condescending tone and speaks slowly and clearly to me to make sure I understand what they’re saying.
According to the presenter, curiosity has to be multi-directional. If someone is genuine about getting to know me, it really is fine to ask me questions about myself. However, most of the times that follow that question being asked, I feel like I’ve just exposed myself and have been discarded like a crumpled piece of paper. The person who’s asked me that question has gotten what they wanted out of me and they are on to the next person. It’s all fun and games to them. Not to me.
Another thing I learned from the workshop was to LISTEN when others voice concerns! I do tend to cut people a lot of slack because like I’ve said on previous occasions, we’ve all had different upbringings, and we all have colonial mindsets to different degrees so I don’t expect perfection. I’ve had friends who’ve said things to me that were insulting or slightly racist, though they didn’t realize it, and I’ve probably done the same thing. However, it is important to acknowledge our ignorance and learn how to rid ourselves of our faulty and erroneous ways of thinking and acting. It is important to respect people’s opinions and not accuse them of being overly-sensitive. Speaking for myself, it hasn’t always been easy for me to discuss race, and it still isn’t, truth be told, so the fact that I am willing to write down my thoughts and share them with people should illustrate how pressing of an issue this is to me. I would like to have my opinion respected and not devalued.
So I challenge people to ask themselves the next time they feel like asking people this question, what’s the reasoning behind it?
To end things on a light note:)