Identities is available on and at Chapters Coquitlam

You are an African living in the West…

You have spent more of your life living away from the African country of your birth than there…

Your parents are immigrants or you have African/Caribbean ancestry but you have never lived on the continent or the islands – a ‘third-culture kid’

You are of African lineage, and grew up living many places…

You are mixed race or of mixed ethnicities…

The first question you are frequently asked, by relative strangers, is: Where are you from?

Last October, I did a talk at a conference titled: Where are you from? The first short story in my book, Identities: A short story collection shares the same title. Here is an excerpt from the story:

As soon as the elevator starts its ascent, I hear the voice on my right say: “Where are you from?” I feel the warmth rising from my stomach as I go into an amygdala hijack. I stare even more stoically ahead in the hope that the voice isn’t directed at me, even though my heart already knows the answer. The voice floats again through the veil of the battling emotions assailing me. “Where are you from?” I feel my body turn to the left and hear my voice saying: “Do you get asked that randomly in elevators?!” I watch the girl’s cheeks flush bright red and her lips open to form a response. The elevator rumbles to a stop and I feel her flood of relief as she looks apologetically at me and bolts off on 10. I feel trapped and consider bolting off the elevator with her but my rational brain is still in shock and isn’t moving as fast as I want it to. What was I supposed to do now? I turned to the right and said with a cynical smile: “Why do you ask?” My interrogator looks suddenly shifty and mumbles: “just curious I guess…” flipping open his commuter magazine and burying his face in it. Before I could collect myself to say anything else, the doors open for me. I say pointedly: “Have a great day” and sashay off. I suddenly feel defiantly confident, saying with my walk: I belong here.

Have you ever had this experience? The experience of being asked, randomly, by strangers, four-word or five-word questions about your identity? This experience, is what I call Identity Interrogation. And it is a commonplace experience for me. These days, when I am asked Where are you from? my technical, provocative answer is Canada – where I am now a naturalized citizen and where I have lived for longer than the other place I identify with as home, which is Sierra Leone in West Africa. When my answer of Canada does not satisfy, I have been asked:

Where were you born? My answer to that, is Germany. I promise, it’s the real answer. My experience has been that when people do not get the answer they want, the question deepens to:

Where are you REALLY from? or Where are you ORIGINALLY from?

I have come to realize that when this persistent interrogation occurs, the answers really being sort are to the more hidden questions:

  • What is your lineage and ancestry?
  • Where did you immigrate from?
  • Where did the first-generation of immigrants in your family hail from?
  • What is your ethnicity?
  • Who are you anyway?
  • How did you come to be here – in this place/position of privilege?
  • Why should I be talking/listening to you?
  • How come your English is so good?
  • Why are you different from the stereotype/story I hold about your social identity group?

I say these are hidden questions, but it is true for me, that I have also been asked variations of all of these questions as well.

I have been troubled by and have run the emotionally gamut with this interrogation phenomenon, so much so that I began to study and do research on it. I began to realize that I am sometimes happy and excited to share and explain myself, and other times I have been completely taken aback and left confused and even a little angry after these interactions. I have learnt, over time, that my reactions to being asked about my identity depends on:

  • Whether I am asked by a stranger or by someone I have a relationship/rapport with.
  • The apparent motivation behind the questioning. Do I experience genuine curiosity, respect and an interest in learning from the other person, or do I experience being sized up to be placed in a box? Is the person willing to reciprocate about their own personal identities?
  • The spoken and unspoken assumptions behind the questions. For example: where are you from? implicitly assumes that someone is ultimately not from here.

Bottom-line, it matters who, when, how and why identity questions are asked, for the receiver of the question to feel either interrogated or connected and in relationship with the questioner.

So, why does this matter?

  1. It matters in our global world, because so many people now have identity connections to multiple places, beyond the obvious markers of race, ethnicity and the place of their biological lineage. Given global migration trends, our world is becoming even more locally global and assumptions of “where people are from?” no longer hold true. It is imperative to building interpersonal and social relationships of mutual respect that we re-learn how we interact with each other to build inclusion, instead of promote exclusion in everyday interactions.
  2. The issue of being interrogated, and therefore excluded, is a shared phenomenon for peoples of colour and ‘minority’ groups living in the West. For example, see this NYT frontpage article (An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China) and video (#thisis2016) sharing this same experience among Asian-Americans.
  3. There is growing knowledge that even when well-intentioned, everyday experiences that reinforce social stereotypes can be just as painful as institutional and social ideologies of exclusion. It’s past time to move beyond this, and that starts with understanding the small and big ways in which we all include or exclude others.

Does this mean we must no longer ask questions and try to learn about others? Not at all. Again, the issues are: who/when we choose to ask, how we ask, and why we ask. My goal now is always to ask people about their identity only after we have some rapport/relationship, to ask with respect and genuine curiosity and share why I’m asking…because that is how I’d like to be engaged with as well.

I know that learning to interact in new ways can be awkward and uncomfortable at first – it is easier to just blurt out – where are you from? – than think about all the above –  but it is the price we must pay to build the bridges we need as our human and global community evolves once again.

So, as we celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy this week and all things social change, let us remember in his words:

Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” Martin Luther King Jr