I come from a mixed heritage background. West-Indo-European would be one simplified way of describing it. On my mother’s side Irish and Scottish meet Trinidadian-Indian and on my dad’s Welsh, English and roots somewhere in Scandinavia add to the mix. The result is four children of very questionable origins. There is, however, a question of tact involved when interrogating someone about their particular mix. If you’ve ever gotten a negative response to the question “where are you from?” and walked away feeling shocked or confused, let me try and clear some things up for you…
Be Prepared to Share
The number one thing that irks me about the way many people approach the subject of origins is that, more often than not, they are not looking for a conversation. What I mean by this is that the majority of people will ask me where I’m from, get an answer, say something like “ohhhh that explains it,” and move on to another subject or simply walk away. “Um. Excuse me?” That whole interaction just became really hurtful to me because there was no real exchange. It feels like being an information booth or a computer, which I’m not. When I get a chance to return the question, with honest curiosity, I am usually met with a shrug and “I’m from here,” or “it’s not very interesting.”
Expecting someone to divulge their whole family history and then not being prepared to share anything of yours…well…it doesn’t exactly encourage connection, to say the least. Even if you think your family roots are completely banal, opening up your side of the conversation will make most people feel a little less exotified and a little less alienated at the very least and will allow you to connect on a human level.
The fact is that most people are a mix of a few things if they take the time to look in to their family tree. In Quebec for example, most people (well, most white, francophone people…) will claim to be “Quebecois.” What this actually means is “I am French, Scottish, Irish and First Nations…Possibly German, Polish or Italian as well. But my first language is French so I identify with the history of French speakers in Quebec, and therefore call myself Quebecois”. Or something along those lines. How is that not interesting?
Yup, It’s All Relative…
Now to lay it all out, it’s true that my reaction, and most people’s reactions, will be different right away depending on who the question is coming from and the context in which it’s being asked. If someone who is also visibly of mixed heritage or a “visible minority” asks me I’m less likely to feel offended, it’s true. This may seem unfair. However, first off, they are almost definitely in it for an exchange, rather than simply satisfying their curiosity, and will offer up their story for mine. Secondly, there is a certain amount of shared experience that creates a baseline of solidarity. If you haven’t been asked every day of your life where you are from you may not know that it often feels incredibly alienating. Being singled out on the regular can make you feel like you don’t belong, even if most people have no harmful intentions.
Of course, if you are someone with lighter skin you, or at least your ancestors, have probably still experienced some form of exclusion, oppression or other challenges. It’s just that in a culture that accepts whiteness as the “norm” and where light skin is equivalent to “being from here,” in a North American context, we probably don’t have the same experiences in daily life. When someone asks me where I’m from I inevitably react differently depending on their attitude and the way they phrase the question, as well as sometimes, unfortunately, what they look like. I don’t like admitting this, but it’s true, and based in lived experience.
Mostly my reaction will depend on how people approach the topic. If I feel that the person has no awareness of the fact that as someone who is considered a “visible minority” I probably get asked where I’m from a lot then I will be slightly less enthusiastic about the encounter. Partially because this lack of awareness comes from a place of privileged ignorance about the experiences of a large part of the world. But that’s why I’m writing this piece. Because I’d like more people to be aware of the potential sensitivity of this issue and how to approach it in a way that increases connections rather than repeating a pattern of exclusion and alienation.
Starting from a point of genuine curiosity combined with a desire for exchange and a willingness to share about yourself is a wonderful place to start!
Don’t Dig too Deep
Another point that might confuse some people is that those of us who are constantly pointed out as being mixed or “from somewhere else” don’t always feel like sharing our family histories! Crazy, I know.
It’s important to be willing to accept and respect someone’s boundaries if on a given day they just don’t feel like getting in to it! As someone who was in fact born in Canada, in Quebec,in Montreal…I don’t always feel good about people pointing out that I don’t look like I’m from here. I do not always appreciate being reminded that everywhere I go I am assumed to be from elsewhere. When I say that I’m from here…it would be nice if sometimes people just accepted that as the truth, or at least let the topic go for five, ten, thirty minutes.
Instead most people, at least those who have not been sensitized to this whole topic, will dig deeper. “No but, where are you really from?” “Well, I was born in Montreal, in Quebec,” “No but…where were your parents born?” “Well, my mom grew up in Winnipeg and my dad in Nova Scotia,” “Okay, okay but…like…where do you get that lovely tan?”Gahhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is where I feel like jumping off a roof or returning to the wild never to be seen by humanity again.
In these types of situations I know what the person really wants to get out of me. I know what they are really trying to ask (“why are you brown?” or rather “why aren’t you white”). Unfortunately I have learned to read my interrogators pretty well by now and people who take this particular tack tend not to be looking for an exchange, but for information. I also know, were we to meet again, they will not remember a single word I said to them about where I’m “from.”
Of course all of this is a very personal perspective. Given conversations I’ve had in the past with people who get identified as “other” by those around them, I do know that a lot of this is common ground for many.
So what I mean about the approach people take is as simple as be sensitive, treat me like a human being (worthy of exchange, not just a passing curiosity), and accept my explanations at face value. Respect how people choose to identify and what there boundaries are in the moment when it comes to sharing their family histories. Start out with openness and a desire to connect rather than simply to satisfy your curiosity, and everything should be fine…!