Using Fanon’s work, Benjamin Maiangwa, Gillian Robinson and Ethan Oversby ask if questions of origin and geography are racist and discriminatory, with harmful and belittling connotations. Does the question ‘where are you from’ contain in it white supremacy, entitlement, and racism. Surely, the authors ask, no-one should have to constantly affirm their existence.
By Benjamin Maiangwa, Gillian Robinson, and Ethan Oversby
“I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning of things, my desirous to be at the origin of the world, and here I am an object among other objects“
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
I (Ben) published a piece in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) titled: “Where are you really from?” I argued in this piece that whether in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and elsewhere, the “where are you really from” question engenders micro-aggressive elements about one’s sense of (un)belonging. I shared various anecdotes from Nigeria, South Africa, Japan, and Canada to underscore this nervousness of belonging, emanating from that question. In all cases, I concluded that the question, despite its assumed harmlessness, favors whiteness as a standard for judging other people’s sense of being and origin.
Various anecdotes in my ROAPE story have spurred interest about the nature of the question and whether it is naturally rooted in micro aggressive elements, being intentional or unintentional discriminations, some not so subtle, with often harmful and mal-intentioned undertones. Some of my students asked whether the ‘where are you from’ question can broadly be marked up to white supremacy, entitlement, and racism at its core.
I (Ben) was at a grocery store with my friend, lining up to check out our items. I was conversing with my friend in English, when I realized a man on the queue was eavesdropping on our conversation. As I was about to pay for the groceries, I heard the man uttered “Jambo” (hello – in Swahili) and looked up as if he was talking to someone in the air. I looked at him, but he kept his gaze upward. I was certain that I heard him say “Jambo”, and to be sure I asked, “sorry, did you say something?” He quickly said “no”, and for good measure, added, “Habari Yako” (how are you – in Swahili), and then looked away again. I’ve had it at this point! “Why is he uttering phrases in Swahili to no one in particular?” I thought it was the “white gaze” already dissecting me like Fanon said in Black Skin, White Mask. So, for what it was worth, I decided to engage him. “Nzuri” (everything is fine – in Swahili), I said directly to him. He smiled with some sense of satisfaction, and then responded “my grandfather lived in Kenya.” “I am not from Kenya,” I quickly interjected. “But I have many friends from there which was why I could respond to you even though I didn’t know you were talking to me.”
As we said our goodbyes, I kept wondering, whether the man judged me based on my accent and placed me—wrongfully—in Kenya. Did he think because of the way I spoke English that I couldn’t possibly be from Canada? Or is Kenya his only frame of reference for the source of any shade of blackness? Or is it just his way of breaking the ice with someone who looked different? If that were the case, why didn’t he just speak English with me?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that the ‘where are you from’ question is a marker of white supremacy, entitlement, or racism, depending on where, when, and how it is asked. Ethan (the third author) asked some acquaintances what they thought of the “where are you from” question seeing they’re from different countries themselves. They felt that it wasn’t necessarily a problematic question, but it definitely has better alternatives and requires a certain level of trust. For example, a better alternative would be to ask, “where did you grow up?” However, in my case with the man who spoke Swahili to me, I consider the manner in which the question was asked as deeply insulting. The question was posed in a way as to categorize me as the “other” with roots anywhere else, but here. It was the case of the dominator culture deciding my fate, and placing me and, probably, anyone that looks like me, in the place it believes I belong. For as Fanon says, “the colonist and the colonized are old acquaintances [without the humanist commitment]. And consequently, the colonist is right when he says he ‘knows’ them. It is the colonist who fabricate and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.” Nobody should have to live in this existential wreckage of always affirming their existence to counter its fabrication by others.
On the anecdote about the woman in Canada in my ROAPE article, who repeatedly asked where I was before I came to Canada, and before then, and before then…when I was clearly not making it simple to access the information while subtly and politely communicating my discomfort, is it possible that she missed those intonations? Is our social awareness so different depending on where you are in the world that we are sometimes unable to grasp cues that would indicate someone does not want to be pushed further? Or is the assumption of expecting an answer so ingrained that she feels she has the right to keep at it until she gets what she wants? Is the fact that this happens in non-white settings as well means that everyone is employing whiteness as a norm?
The question’s origins seems to come from an accusatory white supremacist viewpoint, even if it has since evolved into a question of curiosity. Fanon knew full well what adopting colonial behavior was like, so it can be the embodiment of whiteness. A predominant goal of colonization within Canada was to completely assimilate, and I (Ethan) grew up with people that embodied “whiteness”, in an ideological sense. They had the self-hatred that Fanon spoke of which led them to criticize their peers for any behavior they deemed wrong.
Another contention had to do with the man in Ben’s ROAPE article whose parents came from Pakistan. He clearly (from his disgusted response to Ben’s questioning him where he is from) had an awareness of the potential effect of that question. Unless he never gets asked that question because when someone speaks to him, he sounds like he is “from here”. He wants to know when I (Ben) came to Canada, but how dare I ask him. Is that an indication that he has embodied white supremacy? Is it inherent in a country like Canada, which was industrialized by an ethnically diverse population, that it is your skin colour, or your accent which prompts further inquiry, or both? And if one looks or sounds “Canadian”, “English” (Or Ojibwe or French), then is the other ignored and is it assumed that you “belong”?
Fanon once stated “To speak a language, is to take on a world, a culture.” Speaking English and sounding Canadian makes a minority person “belong”, whereas people that speak English but have “foreign” accents are often asked the question “Where are you from.” The way we sound has much to do with the question as looks do. When I (Ethan) returned to Campus after Christmas break, I met my new roommate who is Chinese with an Australian accent. I would be lying to say that his appearance and sound didn’t make my brain lag for a bit, and in the spur of the moment I asked him where he was from. Even though he didn’t apparently take offence because he understood that his accent could be misleading, I regret asking the question because I made assumptions about race and language.
What comes up repeatedly for the students in Ben’s classroom while discussing the ROAPE story are questions of human’s natural tendencies to be curious about someone that looks, sounds and is obviously from somewhere else, or who is different. In this sense, can we say the question is rooted in white supremacy or is rooted in human nature? Isn’t it inbuilt in us to be inquisitive of, wary of or fearful of strangers? For instance, when children ask, “why is that person black?” which Gillian’s own children have recently BLURTED out in the grocery store towards a man next to them in the aisle, and she (hopefully appropriately), said “because humans are all different colours!” Was her child indicating an innate desire to know more, to understand, to make sense of themselves in relation to others and the nature of the world, absent of malevolent or repressed racist intention?
Children’s curiosity may be excused for obvious reasons, but it is a different story with adults. Unlike the man at the grocery store who concluded that I (Ben) was Kenyan, I met another lady at the same store who started off well in terms of her approach to unearthing the source of my blackness. I had bought cassava, among other items. Out of curiosity, I guessed, the lady asked how I’d cook it. I said, “just like potatoes.” “Ah, and how do you eat it?” “Same as potatoes,” I said. Then I went on about the different types of sauce with which one could eat cassava. And she went for it: “Where are you from?” I paused, and bystanders looked at me, as if they too had been expecting an answer. I felt at that moment like I had been put on trial! The woman might have interpreted my pausing as some sort of a resistance and went on to tell me she’s lived in South Africa for four months, among other exotic places on the African continent. “I lived in South Africa as well”, I managed to chip in. “Oh really?” she said and then added, “my sister married a South African, and you don’t have the accent.” “I am Nigerian”, I finally said, and it made sense to her.
I thought the lady was clever to use the cassava prelude to unravel my blackness. But I also thought she should have stopped at that, and maybe at “South Africa” since we had both lived in the country. But it felt to me that she really wanted to place me somewhere; to get to the source of my blackness. To paraphrase Fanon, I felt “I can’t go to the grocery store without encountering myself!”
Another relatable question arising from the ROAPE article acknowledged that those who frown against the “where are you from question” is because of a state of being perpetually ask this question throughout one’s life; being essentially accused of not belonging here or there. This is so much so that the state of self-inquiry when “where are you from” is a constant, requires one to eventually turn inwards and ask, “who am I?” But the question arises: doesn’t it seem completely inauthentic, ignorant and is the exact opposite of acknowledging someone’s very important differences to not ask the question, as we’re not supposed to be colour, culturally or ethnically “blind”, because that is also a form of racism?
It is not ignorant, and there’s certainly a place for the question depending on one’s familiarity with the ‘other’. Yet in my (Ben) experience, the framing of the question has often been discriminatory even by people considered to be from the same country. I was in the grocery store again with a friend, and a woman came and greeted us: “Hi, where are you from?” My friend looked at me because we’ve had this conversation over and over again, and he was wondering how I’d respond. I simply told her, “Nigeria”. She seemed happy to have found her brothers because she quibbled in pidgin, “na we we na.” We all laughed, as she proceeded to say, “I’m from Delta State.” Incidentally, my friend was from Delta state, and this revelation made the woman ecstatic to the point she didn’t ask where I came from in Nigeria. Then I chipped in for good measure, “I am from Kaduna state.” “We’re all one”, she said in a consolatory tone. I couldn’t help but to wonder why she needed to assure me of the oneness I had already taken for granted. I stopped wondering when she introduced my friend to her “non-Nigerian” friend as someone from her region in Nigeria and said nothing about me. Again, this may not be racism, and given the colonial configuration of Nigeria, the ‘head count’ remains acutely relevant in social relations. But one would think those who have traveled and mixed up with a mosaic of people and, perhaps, being tormented by the ‘where are you from’ question themselves would or should know better.
I (Gillian) acknowledge that I cannot have the experience of being treated as though I am an outsider based on ethnic or geographical heritage. I have never been outside of North America. I certainly do not feel entitled to know more about someone than they care to share, and I would hope that I would be able to pick up someone’s hesitancy before it became awkward or harmful. I’m just not sure we can expect that everyone will know the difference. I don’t think not asking the question makes you blind to culture or ethnicity, but rather, encourages the pursuit of knowledge of the world further. Learning about the world, cultures, and ethnicities is interesting and framing the question around that could transform the question. Framing our similarities like love for food or sport can make the framing of questions more genuine and intimate. The question acknowledges that we are different, but simultaneously leaves out the reality of our similarities, which are as important in forming a humanist or admirable stance.
The reader may be convinced that this question is completely off-limits, that people do not appreciate being asked where they come from or where their land of origin is. If this is true, and people stop asking and being asked, do we succeed (at least partly) in further insulating ourselves from the diverse realities of others, arresting our inquisitive nature and further othering? On the other hand, does the resentment of having our ethnic heritage as a point of constant inquiry leaves us with an ever-evolving sense of existential loci?
Where do any of us belong? Where are any of us from? Who are you, really (originally)? Is that a more appropriate question? Often the simplest answer is the best one that can be provided. Ultimately, we are all human, from far and wide we each have unique experiences regardless of our background. To paraphrase Fanon again, we as a people, want but one thing: may we never be instrumentalized. May the subjugation of people by people cease. May we be allowed to discover ourselves and desire others wherever they may be.