Perhaps growing up in Vancouver has changed the way I approach the question, “But where are you really from?” There is no doubt that my geographical position in this country changes the climate in which that question is asked. Since I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in Toronto, I have been able to switch gears and not view this infamous question as such a nagging issue. Some might say that it’s a compliment to be asked because that means people are genuinely interested in me and my origins. Hmm. Not so much.
Because so many Canadians are from immigrant families I rarely thought it was unusual for people to ask about my background. It was only when people started to focus on one aspect of my ancestry that I caught on to some other, deeply rooted motivations. My heritage is European, African and Caribbean; I do not place an emphasis on any one culture over another (but let me tell you, other people do). In my case, all components of my heritage make me who I am, and, yes, over time I have felt offended when people pick apart my African and Caribbean backgrounds. Let me explain further: Once my “blackness” is confirmed, the revelation is followed up with labels and snap judgements. It’s painfully evident that my Welsh heritage is not tackled with the same stereotyping determination. Fortunately, every now and again, the odd person appears with whom I can dialogue and we both walk away learning something about each other.
Most people seem to act out of a sense of entitlement and, within seconds of meeting, they demand, “Where were you born?” I imagine that they want to know how they should treat me, whether they should they call me sista‘ or senorita. Since my lineage comes from three very different parts of the world, I make a game out of it by answering the questions precisely and exactly without embellishments.
The conversations generally look like this.
“So, where were you born?”
I respond, “Guelph, Ontario.”
“Oh, really? You were born in Guelph?” They say with a note of disappointment in their voices. But then their eyes light up because they have thought of another question to ask. “Well, where was your Mother born?”
I smile and respond, “She was also born in Guelph.”
Stumped for a few seconds but not discouraged, their faces twist. It’s as if I can see them trying to compute how I, looking the way I do, could be standing in front of them and be from Guelph and, furthermore, have a mother who was also born in Guelph. Then with the utmost confidence that their next question will yield the desired answer, they ask, “Where was your Grandmother born?”
I respond, “Wales.”
Then the rapid-fire Q&A begins with, “Where is your name from?” When the “Where are you really from” question is left unclear they ask “Who do you get your freckles from?” Finally, it escalates to (my personal favourite), “What are you?”
Gasp! By now, I’m thoroughly exasperated. “Where do I begin to answer?” I reply. “I am human, I am female, I am a lot of things.”
Perhaps you are all familiar with the “one drop” philosophy, adopted by American slave owners. Essentially, as long as an individual had even one drop of African blood, that individual was considered Black, regardless of what could sometimes be a very mixed lineage. Well, the “one drop” concept is, in some ways, alive and well today and is the unspoken subtext that spurs someone to ask “What are you,” when I am clearly and visibly something other than white. So possibly the question could more precisely be phrased as “What part of you is black?” Not, “Where are you from?” After all, when I truthfully answer with Guelph, Ontario, no one is never satisfied!
As a side note, when we are tempted to ask the question, “But where are you really from,” we need to recognize, it’s a loaded question, it assumes someone does not belong in the space that he or she is occupying. People ask this question to compartmentalize and categorize others. People commonly refer to negative stereotypes rather than taking the trouble to get to know individuals or communities.
I’m not saying that everyone should stop asking; questions are important and necessary. We have a responsibility to abolish the use of heritage as a spring board to discrimination, entitlement, privilege, negative stereotypes and a host of damaging “isms.” Sometimes, when we forget to reflect on our interactions, we lose sight of our responsibilities. Not all Canadians have a positive or encouraging experience when discussing their heritage, and our country, like many others, contains a multitude of people who are subject to communicating discrimination and prejudice. We need to be aware. It’s important to really sit down and reflect, ask ourselves why we are asking the “Where are you really from” question. Are we genuinely curious or are we motivated by something else? I am proud of my heritage and enjoy speaking to it; however, I would love it if these dialogues were begun out of real interest and not structured like a scavenger hunt.