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“Where are you from?”: A mini-treatise

I presented a paper at the Metropolis conference on immigration and migration in Halifax today. It was an inspiring day hearing about programs like the Canadian Experience Pilot Program, which helps immigrants who have been in Canada for less than seven years find paid internships, and community-based efforts in Antigonish to welcome and support refugees. But today I want to write about something a bit more controversial: the question, “Where are you from?”

My colleague Martha Radice presented a paper today on a project she has been working on. The researchers asked Halifax residents about their feelings towards greater diversity in their neighbourhoods. Overwhelmingly, respondents said that they viewed diversity positively, though they were cautious when asked how accepting their neighbourhood would be towards immigrants or visible minority people. To me, this was really telling: most Canadians I know claim to be unbiased on the topic. But the reality of having a non-white person, immigrant, or refugee in your workplace, on your hockey team, or at your child’s school is a different thing altogether. And the proof is in the micro-aggressions: the questions about your country, assumptions that you know the best ethnic food in the area or have odd cultural practices, the assumption that you’re not quite good enough for that promotion. These fall into the category of subtle racism, and although most people are more familiar with institutional racism, which no Canadian city is immune to, subtle racism is arguably far more pervasive.

Every person with an accent, a foreign-sounding name, or visible minority status dreads the “Where are you from?” question. It means explaining your country of origin (even if that’s several generations in the past), the etymology of your name (even if, like mine, it “sounds white”), or your immigration story (even if it’s traumatic). For people like me who are Canadian-born, it’s problematic: we’re assumed to be foreign or non-English speakers. But for everyone who is asked this question, there are several assumptions: first, you don’t belong, you’re not native to this place, you’re an outsider. You’re asked to defend yourself in a way that “invisible minorities” (British, Danish, German, American) never are.

Second, people assume you can be categorized. What box do you fit into? Out of town? Out of province? From that one province everyone hates? From that country that’s in the news for its terrible human rights abuses? Once the box is ticked, they know what type of food you eat, what type of job you deserve, how loudly and slowly to speak to you, what your political stance is.

My response to both of these assumptions is outright defiance. I’ll answer that I’m Canadian, which pisses them right off. “But….” they’ll persist, “Where are you really from?”, as if all Canadians are blonde, blue-eyed, and Protestant. One questioner even pointed to my face, implying that my appearance automatically categorized me as a foreigner. I refuse to tell people my hometown, which pisses off Nova Scotia folks to no end. They way they play it, growing up in Peterborough, Ontario or Kelowna, BC has different outcomes and leads to totally different people that they need to treat differently. They way I play it, a person’s hometown is merely an accident, something they had nothing to do with. For example, I chose to leave my hometown over twenty years ago–should I still be tied to it forever? Should I still be identified with the country my parents, grandparents or great-grandparents came from, decades later? Should someone who immigrated from China 50 years ago still be associated with their Chinese heritage? But folks in Nova Scotia won’t drop it, and keep asking related questions like, “Well, you must have grown up somewhere!”

I ask you this, Nova Scotians: Why is it so important for you to know the origins of people who don’t look or sound like you, who eat a different kind of food, who practice a different religion, who have different habits in the workplace, who socialize in a different way? We don’t ask you where you’re from for one reason: it’s obvious that you’re “from here”. It comes across in the way you talk about the place, the pride in the accident of your birth, the way in which you speak of the place as the best or most beautiful in the world. Those of us with foreign-sounding names, accents, or darker skin tones know that the question is offensive. We know that if a person’s culture, heritage, or religion is important to them, it will probably come up in the conversation. We know what it’s like to be marked as an outsider and we would never do that to anyone. Other visible minority folks also ask where we’re from, only they’re marking us as an insider of sorts–they know that we’ll get it. But mostly, we don’t ask where you’re from because we just don’t care. We don’t need to put you in a box to talk to you, learn about your life, or understand your problems.

“Where are you from?” is the classic subtle racism affront because the questioner doesn’t think it’s racist, but the person being questioned does. The real proof is that when I tell this story, or when I admit to people “from here” that Halifax is a hard place for brown people to live, they invariably reply, “Really?…That makes me so sad.” First, the disbelief, and then the disappointment that this place is not that different than many others in the way it “others” people. Small and mid-size cities are particularly rough for those who don’t look, speak, or perform the way the native-born population expects them to, and Halifax is the rule rather than the exception.


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