I read ‘“No, I meant where are you really from?” on being black and German‘ by Ella Achola the other day. It’s a post from August 2014 that did the rounds again on my Twitter feeds and that remains much relevant. She rightly points out that the question “where are you really from?” is a micro-agression.
This is an experience I have had many times whilst living in the UK. I am surprised that a fully multicultural city such as London can still be a place where this kind of attitudes are prevalent. It tends to happen to me and other Mexican friends in London that we are often asked “where are you from?” as a non-sequitur to something we asked or said.
At the airport the other day en route to a conference a white British academic I struck casual conversation with while queuing insisted on asking me where I was really from in response to a conversation about literary festivals, and insisted after I answered I lived in South London. “No, where are you really from? Colombia? Mexico?”, this person with a professorship insisted on asking me. It ended up exasperating me: “seriously, why is knowing where I was born so important for you?” “I want to place your accent”, she told me.
It’s not that I mind saying where I’m really from, I am proud of my background, of being of dual citizenship. I am also aware I do have an accent, but I am now acutely sensitive to being asked this question when it has nothing to do with the conversation one is having. It’s as if one had not been understood, as if one’s accent and appearance obliterated any possibility of meaningful engagement beyond the placement of the Other as an Other.
I have a very good friend with whom I go to gigs frequently. Last night, standing in the crowd at Koko, my friend started feeling uncomfortable as he was aware that two white guys were talking about him and making gestures about him, standing way too close to him, even for a mosh pit crowd before the gig started. The conversation that ensued was like this:
Me: “Hey, you alright? This is gonna be good, yeah?”
Bloke 1: “Where are you guys from?”
Me: “Why, I live in South London and he lives in East London. You?”
[Bloke 2 laughs]
Bloke 1: “No, really, where are you from?”
Me: [exasperated]. “We are originally from Mexico but we live here in London. And you?”
Bloke 1: “I’m from Surrey, mate”.
Me: “I see, so, do you live in London?”
[Bloke 2 laughs]
Bloke 1 [laughing]: “No…”
Me: “Well, welcome to London, mate. I hope you guys enjoy the gig”.
It is, frankly, exhausting.
It’s not the question that’s necessarly an issue. It’s the non-sequitur.
I insist it’s not about the question per se; it’s the obsession with figuring out where someone is really from, a question that makes us feel like we cannot possibly be from here, and that no matter what we may be saying, no matter what we may have in common in terms of context at a given time, it is our otherness that takes centre stage, urging a pressing need to solve the mystery of provenance, of origin. Where do these aliens come from? Anyway, that’s how it feels.
So next time you meet someone who in your opinion does not appear to be from where you come from (whatever that means), wait before you get to know them better before you drop that bomb of a question. It is loaded, and it is indeed aggressive as it emphasises difference and exclusion, even if you mean it in good faith. If you don’t know them and they ask you, say, “do you take sugar?”, or “do you work in finance?”, or “would you like another drink?”, or “what’s your reading of Kant’s categorical imperative?”, whatever, never, ever, answer that non-sequitur of a question out of the blue: “where are you from?”. Think of what people are telling you, not of where they can possibly ‘be from’. Please.
The fact I have taken the time to blog about it will tell you all you need to know about how fed up I am with being asked the same thing out of context again and again.
This is my home, mate. It’s yours too…