I have dark brown curly hair, brown eyes and beige skin. Evidently, so do a lot of other people in the world, making me able to “pass” as a lot of different races and ethnicities… simultaneously. So far, I have been categorised as Lebanese, Portuguese, Columbian, Indian, Mexican, Pakistani, Egyptian, “brown”, and “sort of white.” The last one is my favourite, because what does that even mean?
It can be fun to be racially ambiguous. Not really boxed in because although I am a potential member of several groups, ultimately, I am uncategorisable.
What is constraining is the actual categorisation itself. Mainly because of where it comes from – the questioner. Once they decide what I am, they feel it is their obligation to inform me, exactly who it is I am.
This conversation usually goes like this:
Them: Where are you from?
Me: Its kind of complicated. I am from Nova Scotia, but spent most of my upbringing in Dubai.
Them: So you are from Dubai?
Me: No I just lived there as an expat, I’m from Nova Scotia.
Them: Really? You don’t look like you are from Nova Scotia, where are you really from?
Them: Where are your parents from?
Me: Both are Canadian. Mom was born in Nova Scotia and Dad in Yemen.
Them: Ah Yemen. You are from Yemen!
Now on the surface, perhaps this exchange does not look that offending. But it is, for two reasons.
First, the persistence in needing to place me, and once they do, to tell me, rather than accept my definition of where I am from, and “what I am.” It shouldn’t ever be okay to tell someone who they are, and that’s exactly what someone is doing when they tell you what race you are, or what area you are from.
Race and home, through establishing ties of belonging, make up big parts of our identity. It isn’t just a colour, or a spot on the map. These are identity markers because they carry with them values, beliefs, and traditions.
Given the importance of these labels, it is so important that they be placed correctly, and in line with what the person in question would label themselves, if at all. So not only is the questioner telling you what you are, but they are often declaring you something you personally do not identify with, and something you wouldn’t even be accepted as within that group.
So applying this to my own experience: I am Yemeni, there is no doubt about that and I am fiercely proud of this. But, that isn’t the same thing as being from Yemen. I wasn’t born there, I was born in Canada. I didn’t grow up there. So placing the label of “from Yemen” on me, is just not accurate.
Similarly, although I spent most of my childhood in Dubai, I cannot say I am from Dubai. I remember the move and how homesick I was. I lived there as an expat, still very tied to Canada. At my school, we had international day, where kids would dress up in their national dress and teach other people about their cultures. I would alternate between my elegant Yemeni dress and a t-shirt with the Canadian flag.
When I lived in Dubai, expats safely guarded their cultures, and didn’t really plan on staying there for a long time. Expats don’t generally become Emirati citizens – mostly because thats not the end goal of the government. Expats are brought in to work, to contribute to the economy. It takes 30 years of living in the UAE to even be considered for naturalisation. We weren’t immigrants, we weren’t on the path to citizenship, we were just migrants.
Seeing someone like me, a person of colour and declaring them to be of a foreign land, regardless of the constant reminders of their experience is othering. Actually, seeing a person of colour and assuming they are from somewhere else is othering too.
This leads me to the second reason the question is offending and inappropriate: it conflates where someone is from, their nationality, and their race.
Race is a societal construct which serves as a descriptor for the physical features you have. Where you are from, can be many things; where you grew up, where you are currently, or even nowhere. Contrary to popularly held opinions, a person’s race, where they are from, and their actions do not always go hand in hand.
This really, is the crux of the problem.
People allow their assumptions about a person who looks a certain way to dictate what their behaviour and interests should be. For instance, a Saudi Arabian girl has to be devoutly religious, or a Dutch girl from Amsterdam must be pretty liberal when it comes to drugs.
So what does this all mean? These offending mindsets create a lack of respect for people’s self-identification and for individuality amongst the minorities. More than that, they signify misunderstandings of the ways that race, nationality, life experience, and identity work together.
The constant repetition of this question results in entrenching existing inequalities of race and status in society. For the person questioned, the most dangerous effect of this is an internalisation of these ideas. The feeling that they really don’t belong, and that they don’t deserve to either.
If we want society to be a more equal place, and if we want to respect diversity, conversations like these have got to change.