Nawal

United Kingdom

The problem with 'where are you from?'

March 16, 2021

Born in Kenya, raised in England and with mixed Arabic roots, I’ve always stood out growing up. The way I dressed, spoke and carried myself differed from local customs. Complimented with the blended accent I never knew I had, it all accumulated to the billion-dollar question: Where are you from?

On my first day of ‘Big school’, I remember being thrilled at the prospect of starting anew; a clean slate, a new chapter of my life. Huddled around the large wooden table, in the last lesson of the day, I remember giggling with my newfound friends before immersing myself in the new subject: woodwork.

A single loud knock resonated in the room. Just as we were about to disperse, a young teaching assistant entered the classroom. ‘I’m looking for,’ she said, sweeping the room, finally stopping at me. ‘There you are, don’t worry about struggling with your English, I’m here to help.’ 
Confused, my eyebrows furrowed before I mustered the courage to splutter, albeit reluctantly, ‘Thank you very much Miss, but I can speak English perfectly fine.’
Baffled, seemingly at the lack of accent that I had spent years fine-tuning, she looked down at the clipboard once again before back at me and asked, ‘But aren’t you from Kenya?’

My breath hitched and embarrassment adorned my face. Sniggering, my classmates enjoyed the supposedly comic scene, looking at the teacher and back at me as I awkwardly grimaced. I grimly smiled before answering quietly, ‘I was born in Kenya but raised in England for close to ten years now, so I think I'll do quite well on my own.’

The mortification I had felt slowly dissipated; it was succeeded by annoyance, anger and frustration at once again being subjected to the all too common practice of prejudice. As the teacher exited, I sunk in my seat and the classroom filled left and right with muttering as I was left with the uncomfortable feeling of shame crawling over me. I was doused with a bucket of cold water.

‘Where are you from?’ - behind the seemingly innocent words lies a deeper, darker meaning- prejudice gift wrapped in the naivety of the person who asks the question.  
‘Where are you from?’- four basic, mundane words strung carelessly together- the asker unaware of the anxiety laced in between each letter.
‘Where are you really from?’- the worst question to ask a person of colour.
The five words that have the power to condemn any person of colour to spiral and battle with the intricate issue of their identity, singling them out from everyone else once again.

My identity for me has always been a complex puzzle - as I grew older, my perplexity only grew; is it where I was raised? Where I was born? My nationality? My heritage? My parent’s birthplace? Or my ethnic background?
 
Indirectly, this customary icebreaker has become a way to discriminate against coloured people in general- it questions their sense of belonging and alienates them from everyone else. However, the context plays a starring role- this question can be innocuous - the real hurdle is the set of prejudice, stereotypes and insinuations shrouded in prosaic words.
Perhaps for me, the icing on the cake was the '1 meter by 45 cm’ cloth I wore wrapped around my head, which was to some, supposedly synonymous for: spineless, outcast and oppressed. Society has resolved to grouping people together and forcing them to conform to induced labels. 
 
From birth we are force fed the idea that we must fit into a box- one society has manufactured that segregates us from one another and prioritises ideologies and beliefs that are only skin deep. Black people must warn their children and teach them how to appear less threatening, less minacious in front of Police officers; how to control their temper to appear less hostile and violent. Muslims, must filter their words, ideas and opinions in fear of them being taken out of context and being affiliated with extremism.
 
Coloured people and Muslims are aggrandised in the media and although the media does not tell us directly what to think, it tells us what to think about. Terrorist attack? It was Muslims. Gang shootings and lootings? It was violent Black people. But to a certain extent some communities can also be held accountable. Rather than teaching others how to be accepting, we teach ourselves how to be accepted; rather than speak out and inform, most of us choose to muffle our voices and remain silent when it matters most. Paranoia holds us prisoners.
 
Society has fabricated ideals and those who fail to adhere to an archaic epithet are shunned as outcasts. We have become too complacent in employing labelling, immediately attempting to deduce a person’s character based largely on their physical appearance. Some people claim that there's a significant difference between races, but the ‘evidence’ of different brain sizes being reflective of race is not significant- women also have smaller brains than men on average, but have similar IQ scores.

The flawed practice of categorical labelling is a human endeavour to grapple and make sense of the impossible. It's unfeasible and quite ludicrous to believe that we can all be confined to one box. In simple words, labelling contributes to the prodigious problems we face. 
 
Autumn McDonald penned, ‘Racism is a virus—if you’re not actively vaccinating your children against it, it will infect their hearts and spread, harming all who come in contact with it.’ The biggest label exercised is ‘Race’–yet the concept of race has no scientific nor genetic basis. As a species we share up to 99.9% of our DNA. Rather than a physical attribute, race is a social construct and based on the 0.1% of DNA that is evident in our external features. The largest label has been proved as fallacious, so why do we accept these chains rather than break free and fix burnt bridges? Believe me when I say it’s our differences that make us stronger, and not our similarities.

 
References:
https://hbr.org/2020/10/whats-wrong-with-asking-where-are-you-from
https://onbeing.org/blog/omid-safi-the-problem-with-asking-where-are-you-from/
https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/07/question-where-are-you-from-racist/373818/
https://www.abc.net.au/everyday/where-are-you-really-from-how-to-better-ask-race-question/10610346
https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2017/08/opinion/where-im-really-from/
https://www.marketwatch.com/story/heres-why-you-should-never-ask-someone-where-are-you-from-2018-01-17-9881251
https://www.nytimes.com/2000/08/22/science/do-races-differ-not-really-genes-show.html

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4 Comments
  • Mina_77

    I know what you mean! I get this question all the time. When people see I’m not white, the assume I’m not Australian, despite the fact that this is my home. This is such an important topic, and good on you for writing about it!


    18 days ago
  • SunV

    This is such an important topic. I'm Indian, but I was born and I lived for six years in the US, so all my tastes (food, music, even to come extent clothing) have been influenced from the US, and now, living in India. People are surprised that I don't eat spicy food and I don't like to dance, because being Indian, you're automatically supposed to be a huge dancer. You're just expected to love spicy food.

    But I try to take it in stride. Your from everywhere? Embrace it. Love that fact that you can speak more than one language, that you can survive in more than one place, that you have a bigger range of music, because you can understand more lyrics? That's not a weakness, it's a strength.


    about 1 month ago
  • McK13

    Wonderfully said!! This is all so profound, beautiful, and authentic! I can definitely relate as people frequently ask me "What are you?" or like you express here "Where are you really from?" since I'm biracially South Asian (Nepalese) and white. Anyways, great writing, definitely impactful :)


    about 1 month ago
  • Writing4Life

    WOW. This is absolutely amazing. I have a friend who is Russian/Australian. When I told her I wished I had been born in a different country, so I would have been born bilingual (wow it sounds so obnoxious this way lol, I didn't mean it to), she said a lot of people say that to her, but having a mixed ethnicity isn't that great. In school she was put in the special needs class simply because she was born in Russia, even though she could speak English perfectly fine. I think this is such a powerful piece, well done, and congrats on being a finalist <3


    about 2 months ago