Sketches from London: “Where are you from?” as Microaggression

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Walk Away: The Aporetics of Information in the Age of Twitter Overload

“The Oxford English Dictionary includes two forms of the word: the adjective “aporetic”, which it defines as “to be at a loss”, “impassable”, and “inclined to doubt, or to raise objections”; and the noun form “aporia”, which it defines as the “state of the aporetic” and “a perplexity or difficulty”.”

– from the Wikipedia entry for ‘Aporia’

Like you, I’ve read the news today.

One immediately wants to write something. One also feels lost for words. We used to be, as humanity, ‘lost for words’ when facing something unspeakable, because it had not been said before. There were no words for it because it exceeded the limits of our understanding, of current and previous systems of belief. That for which we had no words for was unknown and unknowable. And now, words flow. Please bear with me.

Tragically, incidents like the Manchester Arena attack are no longer ‘new’. Steadily, mostly thanks to the almost immediate global mass dissemination of information, we already have a discourse and therefore a vocabulary of reaction. Online and on print, everyone feeds from incidents ‘like this’ (language is a minefield). Organizations, communities and individuals struggle to make sense of our own being in the world by becoming present through utterances. We say/write/post, therefore we exist. There should be no doubt that many of the reactions are in good faith, as an expression of humanity. Extending one’s hand for a handshake or an embrace.

There is also, however, a negative side. It is the ongoing feeding of fear, the promotion of the terror that through loopy repetition gets ingrained in our minds. The effects are double: the terror is widely known, in detail, and impossible to ignore, changing society at its core, but the terror also gets normalised, and therefore muted. Multiplicity of sources, angles, opinions create confusion. So better to look away, focus on what keeps our lives ‘normal’. Just another day on Planet Earth. Carry on, nothing to see here. This is the effect we should try more actively to avoid, but how? As usual when I write, I am aware that this very post is contributing to the problematic phenomenon I am trying to make sense of by writing. This is why I think we have in front of us an aporia, a perplexing problem which is or seems impossible for us to crack.

The world today avoids problematic situations. The term ‘problematic’ is indeed now every sociologist’s and academic’s cliché. In the English-speaking tradition, practical solutions through practicable methods and measurable solutions are preferred to the Romance languages’ preference for the essay that by definition attempts or rehearses an approach around a problem. Essaying is ‘problematising’, but this is incredibly frustrating when there is a pressing need to just get on with things and face what cannot be avoided and requires a ‘solution‘. As soon as we use that word, however, echoes of the unspeakable come back to haunt us, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

In times of alarm and pain, there is a responsibility in saying as much as there is a responsibility in not saying. Knowing when and how to participate online is a skill to be developed, individually, as communities, societies and cultures. I am motivated to write by the following questions/writing this has made me think of these questions:

  • When everyone with a social media account contributes to the infosphere in which we are immersed in, how do we balance the need to say, to participate in society, while being aware of how each of us may be contributing to the steady deterioration and erosion of public discourse?
  • What are the effects that our postings have on others, and can we ever fully have control over these possible effects?
  • How do we build ‘healthy’ networks of support, online and offline, without alienating others who are also at the producing-and-receiving end of the information flow?

Obviously I have no answers to these questions.

Many respectable folk have written about the ethics of storytelling and the need to actively resist the horror through art and documentation.*  This documentation will one day be the testament of our era, an immense archive of humanity’s consciousness, spoken out loud. Social media today replicates many of the bad practices of the mainstream media (in the UK, the tabloid press has a lot to answer for), and we must look into the role that the pervasive broadcasting of information has on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Victims and affected communities are vulnerable and in pain, and constant semi-immersive and excessive broadcasting can contribute and exacerbate the pain, as well as the social divisions that make extremism thrive.

At present, however, the way we live rarely allows us to stop and reflect, and more importantly, to listen to each other. Issues on international mainstream news that affect us all are constantly considered outside the limits of professional practice, regardless of what we may do for a living, and the pragmatism of everyday survival trumps more considered attempts to prioritise the building of relationships, a commons of solidarity and understanding (and also respectful disagreement) seeking to build and maintain the public good. We mute accounts tweeting and retweeting the hashtag or event du jour. We lament not more young people even register to vote, but we have embraced politics (and the social consequences of politics) as a form of entertainment. At most, we have allowed most political ‘engagement’ to become a version of Gogglebox. In our everyday lives, we walk away from all the chatter to remain sane and to focus. We cannot deal with so much and get back to our work, and the clamour ‘outside’ overshadows the individual tragedies and issues, becoming pure noise and fury. In the age in which methods of production of information have been made widely available to the masses, actual resistance, we know well, has been almost completely deactivated.

And so we ‘carry on’, we tell ourselves, but the problems remain, and the need to share, to make sense of it all still somehow remains as well. Whether it is murdered journalists in Mexico or teenagers in a pop concert in Manchester, the terror is real. People are suffering right now. Attacks, victims are not mere metrics, nor ‘content’, nor objects of study. Incidents like the Manchester Arena attack are no longer ‘new’, we said, but each death and the pain of each parent, relative, friend, fellow citizen, human being is absolutely unique. The tragedy is never repeatable, it is absolute uniqueness, and this is what makes it so utterly painful, shocking, and perplexing.

As the crowds pour their thoughts and pain online, this is paradoxically a crucial moment to reconsider our understanding of the meaning of ‘engagement’. As algorithmic relevance defines concrete realities and the attention economy becomes so fierce that most people are seen but not heard, the temptation is to back off and walk away in silence. This seems to me to be exactly what those seeking to terrorise want. For us to hide, to close up, to not go out, to not be together. For us to forget who we are and what makes us human.

As I worked on this interview, and once it was published as I shared it, I was visited by fears that it did not matter, that it made no difference. Friends ironically, jokingly, said they would share it with friends who couldn’t care less. Friends and family directly affected by the situation documented in the article reacted to it with distance. I could literally touch the fear. I was aware that in my ability to translate it into English I was already exercising a privilege not altogether disconnected from the inequality that is one of the causes of the horrors I was trying to document. I was also aware of my distance from the events, even if I feel very close to them. The alternative, not to do anything, not to at least try to contribute to avoiding the complicitous silence denounced by the interviewee did not seem to me like an option. I had to face the contradictions.

There is the feeling that there is already enough information out there, and that therefore we don’t need anyone else’s contribution. So much information is perceived as an ‘excess’, and its effect is to alienate us and disempower us. The point is precisely to make us feel like nothing we can do really matters – and if it matters it does for different reasons to the message conveyed- because it brings some kind of capital to the author, or because it provides authors with a sense of identity, of singularity or importance in a world where it is harder and harder to stand out. Black Mirror stuff.

This is an important part of this aporetic nature of being online and being a citizen: how to balance the rights of individual expression with the need to consider the effects it has on others given the current infrastructures for communication and the discourse they enable, encourage and actively produce. Terrorism and mass social media have something in common: one of their side effects is to make individuals and communities feel like there’s nothing they can do to make a difference, that no resistance is likely to make a difference, that no awareness or documentation of the terror will stop the pain.

I said I felt lost for words, and now I’ve written more than 1500 words. The irony is painful and awareness has its limitations.

To be honest I don’t know how to end this post. I just want to resist repressing the grief and the concern. I want to think there are still ways we can share our feelings, report on what we believe deserves to be known, and be active part of our communities.

The logic of Terrorism and the commodification of all human communication, of human pain, packaged as ‘content’,  cannot triumph, even if our humble means to resist it are always-already the same tools used to advance it. It’s perhaps a question of remembering the precious singularity, the absolute uniqueness of each human being in this world.

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*Not just people like Paul Ricoeur and Dominick LaCapra, just look at this 2015 conference programme for more recent work.