Benjamin Maiangwa asks: Has white supremacy permeated every place on earth and created a world view that favours whiteness so that the question – where are you really from? – is asked to determine your state of being? Being African, Maiangwa argues, you are always idenitifed as the exotic, noble, disease-infected, and chronically misgoverned “other” – traits or images that outsiders confer on the continent.
By Benjamin Maiangwa
When I’d visit the village as a child to celebrate our religious and cultural festivities, I’d have some adults come up to me at those events, inquiring: “whose child are you?” It’s not uncommon to have other unsolicited adults who were well intimated of my parentage answer in my stead. These custodians of my lineage would respond to the question as follows: “Oh, you don’t know? He’s the son of so and so.” “I see,” the interrogators would accede. “I can even see the resemblance,” some would claim. Or they would say something like, “but he doesn’t look anything like his father.”
I remember traveling to the village with my father a few years ago, and we visited with an elderly couple. The woman greeted and waved us to a chair, her eyes flashing confusion. She then looked intently at me, at my father, back at me, and then asked my father: “Whose child is this?” It wasn’t my father’s response—when he told her I was his son—that was at issue (for he was visibly flustered that for the first time in his life, he had had to prove that he fathered me), it was the surprising disgust on the face of the woman, who made a comment about me not looking like my father or anyone she knew in the village for that matter. At the time, her response felt like a searing rejection or degradation of the authenticity of my place in the family.
As the years wore on, it wasn’t the whose child are you question that tormented my life, but the where are you from ororiginally from question which, if you come to think of it, both contain similar assumptions about one’s sense of (un)belonging. The where are you from question became like an agonizing migraine I had had to contend with, as benign as some would like to think it is, a mere curiosity or ice breaker. Although I had initially bought the idea of the question’s innocuousness, it would create a nervous condition for me during my various peregrinations. In Nigeria, I never thought the question was of significant import, considering the lack of a strong national consciousness I felt was palpable among Nigerians. This near absence of national belonging that I thought so many in the country feel, makes the where are you originally from question for me a banal invocation of our colonially distorted sense of self or community, revealing an obsession to stamp our legitimacy as authentic “peoples of the soil”; a subdued form of resistance to the (post)colonial arrangement.
When I left the shores of Nigeria to study in South Africa, I landed with the most cheering prospect ahead. But the where are you from question was put before me right at the airport, without it being stated. It was my passport that gave me away at the point of entry at the OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg. The immigration officer only had to take a glance at my passport before posing the most chilling question I had ever heard: “Did you come with any cocaine today?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” was my ready reply. But my response didn’t stop the officer from whisking me into a special room for a special treatment (rummaging through my bags) reserved for people that came from special places.
When I was searching for an apartment in South Africa, a houseowner (a police officer), having inquired “where I came from” said to me in no uncertain terms, “I do not rent to Nigerians.” His response was hardly discouraging. I persisted under his rather strong warning that if he ever had to deal with me bringing drugs into his house, I would be locked up. This is not to say that my experience in South Africa left me with a heart overborne with sadness due to my constant effort to situate myself against the perceived odds of my nationality or race: a burdensome inherence? Quite the contrary, South Africa conjures up images of home for me. It was there that I expanded my limited sense of home, not as a place of birth or consanguineous relationships, but a relational space for shared human and spiritual experience.
My next destination was Japan. I had been forewarned that Japan would be the opposite of South Africa, devoid of a rainbow. But I was excited about this pasture new, partly because my application to extend my study permit in South Africa had been denied as at the time I was out of the country. I had the realization of being far gone when I first landed in Japan. First, the flight was long; 17hrs, excluding a layover in Cairo, Egypt. In Japan, I didn’t need to tell any Japanese where I came from; I was naturally different. Kids would point fingers at me to draw the attention of their parents to what probably was their first sight of an African or a Black man. A few friends in Japan, who could speak Japanese well, shared stories of Japanese kids asking their parents what had happened to their (my Black friends’) colour. “Were they playing too much in the dirt?” The kids would ask. Kids!
The paradoxical reality I encountered in Japan was that the non-Japanese community often stuck together, regardless of race. I was once approached by a man who said “hi” to me, then accompanied it with a big hug, like he had just met his long-lost brother. With his hands still encircled around me, he inquired, “where are you from?” “Nigeria,” I said unhesitatingly because it seemed he had a story to tell. “Do you also get stopped by the goddamn police every now and then?” he ranted. “Don’t even get me started on the police,” I quipped. I could write a whole piece about the Japanese police who, by the way, were not of infernal character or fiendish barbarity as their counterparts elsewhere. Not to say they were entirely free from those degrading vices. I must do them the justice to say that the same policemen on bicycles who would stop to ask me of my alien card on a given day in Japan, would be the same ones who would stop me on a different day to ask of the same card, not minding my usual protest: “You were the same guys who stopped me yesterday,” remember? If I could recall who they were, I thought, they had no right not to recognize me. Their excuse was always, “sorry, no English.” Of course, I didn’t buy it.
But to my tale, the man who hugged me, introduced himself as an English man and called me his brother. Whether he said it due to our colonial history or shared experience of police interrogations in Japan or to remedy colonial injustices, I couldn’t tell. But the experience was telling in some respects. For one, it indicates how the where are you from question could be a source of solidarity, resistance, and homemaking. And probably that was what my English brother meant when he asked the question. Like him, I also embarked on saying “hi” to my other brothers and sisters in Japan without embellishing it with a hug (though with infrequent handshakes). My “hi” was almost always reciprocated with the implicit understanding that we were all connected somehow, experiencing a collective sense of struggle, purpose, and hope in a foreign land.
Then I moved to Canada. My first education was to drop the “hi” that glued me to my brothers and sisters in Japan. I had to drop it because my Canadian brothers and sisters couldn’t care one bit to reciprocate the gesture. Some complemented me with head nods, while others gave me a certain look as if to suggest that something was wrong with me. I got an awkward smile from a few, but that was that.
In my early days in Canada, I felt the horrid dread of being approached by well-wishers with the where are you really (originally) from question. Whenever I’d mention Nigeria, it would prompt a piteous or pseudo empathetic response. “Oh, you must be feeling safe here, I saw what Boko Haram did on TV the other day,” someone once told me. In truth, the year I came to Canada was when Boko Haram decided to internationalize its image by kidnapping 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, a village in Borno State, Nigeria. Those who showered me with this grandiose empathy for having escaped Boko Haram and found sanctuary in Canada, withheld from me the chance to explain that I, in fact, didn’t come to Canada directly from Nigeria, but Tokyo. And that even if I did come from Nigeria, my home in Nigeria wasn’t a fortress of Boko Haram, and my family were quite safe from the group’s mayhem, except for the audacious kidnapping that has now become a lucrative enterprise in the country. So, the where are you really from question in this instance, rendered me a subject of misplaced pity and empathy, foreclosing any potential pathway of knowing my benevolent interlocutors.
At some point, I thought it had become universally understood that I could also pose the same question to others as an outcome of my own benign curiosity to know them better. Thus, I asked a certain gentleman with whom I was exchanging warm pleasantries at a dinner party: “Where are you from?” He looked disgustfully at me before responding with another question, which I thought was only a Nigerian thing (answering a question with a question): “When did you come to Canada?” “Three months ago,” I retorted with much earnestness. After a deep sigh, he told me with great solemnity, “okay, I forgive you. You see, my parents came from Pakistan, but I was born in Canada.” It was the one experience I needed to nip the where are you from or originally from question in the ash tray of social taboo topics such as politics and religion. But I knew that not many would purge themselves of it. So I manufactured a defence mechanism. “If anyone should want to know where I came from,” I thought, “I would say heaven.”
When I first exultingly employed what I thought was an ingenious response to the forbidden question, the man I was talking to said, “that is a good one; I’ve not heard it before. But where are you really from?” My hope was the ‘heavenly’ response would enable us to dig into the depths of our true nature which transcends melanin, extends beyond the corporeal, past geographical origin or political ideologies, and seeks to extract that which we rarely have the time or the courage to explore further than is asked of us in our everyday, material lives.
The best rendition of the question was from a lady who asked me, “where were you before you came to Canada?” I thought that was clever, and I ignored the undercurrents in the question and decided to have fun with it: “I was in japan.” The silence was eloquent, and her looks suggested, “well, go on, you sure aren’t Japanese, are you?” I managed a wry smile. Then she continued, “and before Japan?” “I was in South Africa,” I quickly responded, allowing my smile and silence to linger. I got the sense that she wanted me to keep going, and I decided to put both of us out of the misery of another silent meditation: “How far can we push this question,” I finally asked. She smiled. It registered.
And maybe this is the whole point of this essay. How far can we push this question? Why didn’t the lady above stopped asking when I was clearly not making it simple to access the information? Is her social awareness that different that she was unable to pick up on cues that would indicate someone does not want to be pushed further? Or is the assumption of expecting an answer so overt that she feels she has the right to keep pushing until she gets what she’s looking for? Debra Thompson seems to have a response in her book The Long Road Home where she states that the where are you really from question is by no means innocuous.
Where are really from because you don’t seem to fit in here. Where are you really from, because how long you’ve been here will tell me something about your place in this country. Where are you really from, because my whiteness means that I am entitled to your time, your benevolence, your patience, your attention, and your respect. Where are you really from, because my curiosity is more important than your comfort or safety. Where are you really from, because you can’t possibly be from here.
The micro-aggressive insinuations that could be gleaned from this question are limitless. What’s interesting from my limited experiences, is that the most overt and violent instances of this question seem to come from places whose white supremacy would be assumedly less pronounced, such as in South Africa, Japan, and Nigeria. Whereas the more insidious forms seem to come from “the west”. Why is that? Has white supremacy permeated every place on earth and created a world view in every person’s mind that favours whiteness above all else to the point where whether you are in Japan, Nigeria, South Africa, or Timbuktu, the where are you really (originally) from question seeks to determine your state of being compared to whiteness? Would the elder in Nigeria, or the police officer in Japan agree, or are they similarly ignorant to their own white supremacy?
In certain instances, the where are you really from question may create some transient form of bonding and pseudo-solidarity such as it did between me and my fellow aliens or brothers and sisters in Japan. But not all the relationships were ephemeral. Some stood the acid test of times. I still meet up with a Japanese NGO once a month on Zoom to discuss global issues because its members took genuine interest in what I do and “where I actually came from.” Our subject matter in this forum is almost invariably about Nigeria and my state of origin, Kaduna. Our topics, despite my effort to change them, would always circle back to the exotic, noble, profligate, disease-infected, and chronically misgoverned African “other”, making me feel like an exhibition. These are some of the traits or images that outsiders so eminently bestow on Africa. Any attempt to argue otherwise or present a different picture, if one had the stamina to do so, often feels like an exercise in futility. My dehumanizing home could have consumed or shatter my black body if I hadn’t escaped!
Home may not necessarily be a specific space or place, a comfort zone, a memory, or even people. Home may be deeper and more personal than anything that can appear on the outside of us, or anywhere we’ve been. Home may be a place we’ve never seen or a place that is beyond what we can comprehend within the boundaries of our limited awareness. Home may be like love, a word we’ve prescribed to a feeling that comes and goes, that is neither tangible nor reliably descriptive as a place, but a state of being without the unnecessary interpositions or impassable barriers that we erect and impose on others to distort and call into question the sanctity of their being.
Benjamin Maiangwa teaches in the department of Political Science at Lakehead University. Maiangwa’s research focuses on the intersection of politics, culture, and society. His recent publications use storytelling to explore notions of contested belonging, mobility, and how people experience conflict and peace in everyday life (Benjamin’s writings on roape.net can be found here).
Featured Photograph: A baggage cart vehicle returns to its bag (31 May 2018).