My racially ambiguous appearance has always been a topic of conversation throughout my life. Especially during the many years that I worked as a barista. I could always tell when the fateful question was coming. The customers (who were usually white) would get a quizzical look on their face: furrowing of the brows, squinting of the eyes, tilting of the head, before blurting out: “Where are you from?” I am going to try and explain to you why I loathe that question. I want to start by saying that it is not okay to randomly ask a stranger that question. It is also not okay to interrogate them further when the answer they provide does not satisfy your itching curiosity. That question is personally aggravating on multiple levels, and as a result, I simply reply: “I am Canadian” (an answer I have resorted to in the last couple of years). I do this because when I am asked that question, I know that they are really asking me: what makes your skin brown? When they ask me that question, I know they are assuming that I must be from somewhere else. When they ask me that question, they are “Othering” me by positioning my roots outside of Canada. When they ask me that question, I am often forced into giving a history lesson about Black existence in Canada.
Here are two scenarios in which I try to put you in my shoes to better understand these experiences:
They ask me where I am from and I answer: “Canada.” They look at me like I have three heads and say: “No, but like where are your parents from?” and I answer: “Canada,” and then they sigh, or roll their eyes to express their irritation. This makes me feel like the antagonist by causing them discomfort. But why is that answer not good enough? What is a Canadian? What does a Canadian look like? Why can’t I simply be “Canadian?” This exchange makes me feel “Othered” and/or like I do not belong in Canada.
They ask me where I am from and I answer: “I’m mixed.” They respond: “Yeah, but with what?” and I sigh and say: “I’m Black and white” (because I really do not want to get into it). Yet, they push: “What is your Black side?” (Because they only want to know what makes my skin brown). I respond: “My father is Black Nova Scotian,” and they look at me like I have three heads and say: “What’s that?” I understand the confusion. Nova Scotia is not an ethnicity; Nova Scotia is a province. And because the Canadian educational system has failed us as children, we become adults that have zero knowledge of Black Canadian history and zero knowledge that Black Canadians even exist. Therefore, I must explain the historical existence of Black life in Nova Scotia. This exchange requires me to literally prove my identity to someone while serving them coffee at 7:30am.
The Canadian educational system’s omission of Black Canadian history has resulted in widespread ignorance. Most Canadians believe that Black existence in Canada is something recent, and that cannot be further from the truth. Black people have been in Canada for centuries. I urge you to visit the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 website and the African Nova Scotian Affairs website for an exhaustive timeline and exploration of Black migration in Nova Scotia, dating back to the 1600s. In summary, Black people have created and cultivated their own communities in Nova Scotia for over 400 years. My ancestors date back six or seven generations. So, when they ask: “But where is your Black side from?” I am not being petty when I respond, “Nova Scotia” or “Canada”.
Identity is an extremely complicated construct.
When I answer the question by saying “I am Canadian,” that answer comes with its own complexities. I acknowledge that there are privileges that come with living in this country and that I have rights, opportunities, and freedoms that many do not have in other parts of the world. Yet, I also acknowledge that this is stolen land and that the Indigenous people of this land continue to suffer at the hands of the Canadian government. I also acknowledge Canada’s history of racist immigration policies that continue to restrict Black and Brown people from entering and staying in this country. I must also acknowledge that there is systemic racism present in every institution in Canada that continues to oppress and harm Black, Indigenous and other people of colour. So, to be clear, when I say “I am Canadian” it is not some loud and proud patriotic declaration. I answer with: “I am Canadian” as a form of resistance to the (racist) preconceived notion that someone who looks like me must be from somewhere else.
Let me finish with this…
I am not saying that you should never ask a person where they are from.
I’m saying that there is a time and a place. And that is not at my place of work while I’m serving you your morning coffee. The social etiquette of when it is an appropriate time to ask someone something personal about themselves applies to this question as well, because it is a personal question. I know that other people of colour have their own unique experiences, but I am positive that they too feel “Othered” when they are asked the same question. And it is not a comforting feeling. Even if you are well intentioned, you do not know what experiences, feelings, or possible traumas you are stirring up when you ask someone where they are from. Furthermore, be mindful of your own subconscious misconceptions of what constitutes “Canadian” identity, in order to continually challenge the dominant perceptions of “Canadian” nationality.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, I hope it enlightened you in some small way 🙂