No really, where are you from?

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An Op-Ed piece by Lise Ragbir for TRT World.

Brexit and Trump’s “Muslim ban” have made the US and UK far more hostile towards immigrants. But at what point do people go from being immigrants to just being ‘American’ or ‘British’?

The catchy pre-Lent Carnival tune “Leave Me Alone” may have emerged as a Trinidadian feminist anthem putting sexual harassers on notice, but the Calypso Rose ballad could be a refrain for how I, a woman with roots there, regard those who puzzle needlessly over my immigrant roots.

My parents are immigrants, born and raised in Trinidad, now naturalised citizens of Canada. I’m an immigrant, born and raised in Canada, now a permanent resident of the United States. My daughter, 4, who was born in the United States, is half Canadian, half American. Or, depending on whom you ask, half Trinidadian and half Italian. Or half black, half white. Or only black. Or only American. With immigration at the centre of worldwide fear as the American President tries to ban Muslims and refugees, and the United Kingdom prepares to reduce immigration — for families like mine, and millions of others around the world, the proud stories of how we’ve moved around the globe, now carry a different weight.

Six months ago, I believed my daughter would never experience the type of immigration scare I’d endured in West Texas. I also imagined she’d be spared the question I’ve been asked my entire life, “Where are you from?” To which an “I’m from Montreal,” is followed with what has become a predictable: “No really. What are you?” It is a question not all of us get asked. At least not yet.

Canada’s citizenship and immigration website crashed as the 2016 election results prompted concerned Americans to consider their options. That night, I didn’t check the website, but in the hours following the recent #muslimban announcement, I found the downloadable forms required to prove my daughter’s right to Canadian citizenship. This was a small act that brought tremendous relief. Until, two days later, when the news broke of a mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec. As American friends asked me if I grew up near the site of the shooting and Canadian friends texted or called to trade fears and empathise, the hope that came with the idea of “home,” wavered.

Let’s face it, if you are not Native American, you are an immigrant in the Americas. While the Migration Policy Institute reports immigrants make up 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, additional data estimates close to 40 percent of current citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island. An overwhelming percentage of the African-American population descended from enslaved Africans. While centuries of global migration have erased and created cultures, some still believe a wall, or immigration bans, can halt cultural evolution. As the us-and-them ethos garners steam, and I prepare my daughter for the inevitable question, this is what I want her to know:

Who you are is more important than what you are: with a strong sense of self, the labels attached by others, will carry less weight. When my daughter understands she is the beautiful and proud of culmination of the hopes and defeats of enslaved Africans, indentured laborers from India, French and Portuguese colonialists, native peoples the Caribbean and Italian immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, she can stand firm in whom she is as she develops the other parts that make her uniquely her.

There isn’t always a right answer: “Identifications are socially constructed and politically determined, as are the privileges and disadvantages that attend them,” says Cherise Smith, Ph.D., author of “Enacting Others,” an art historical examination of the politics of identity.

As a first-generation Canadian of Trinidadian descent who identified as black growing up in Montreal, and emigrated to the U.S. as an adult, I know identify is fluid. I learned this first-hand when I first moved to New York and a friend suggested I participate in an advertising focus group. Over the phone, the screener asked: “Are you African-American?” I hesitated, half-jokingly answering, “No. I’m Trinidadian-Canadian,” as I sought to honor an African-American narrative and history that wasn’t mine. I would’ve felt like an imposter had I said yes. When the person said, “This focus group is for black people,” and hung up on me, I questioned my answer. I’ve come to learn for many, the labels “black” and “African American” are interchangeable, diminishing an array of complex narratives, just as throughout the Caribbean, Syrian is used to describe anyone of Middle-Eastern descent. If the question has different answers within different contexts, one might wonder: how important is the question?

There is power in answering a question with a question: Over the years, countering the question with, “Well, what are you?” is the most productive approach. In the order of things, I usually see the flash of privilege-check flicker across my interviewee’s face, then a slight defensive adjustment of the shoulders before the guard drops and the question is answered, often with enthusiasm. In understanding we each have a story to tell, my daughter will come to know her strength rests in her ability to learn new things.

These lessons will not stop the tears when she encounters hate speech, and undoubtedly at some point hears, “Go back to where you came from.” But with these lessons, I hope she’ll have a clear sense of where she wants to go.

One thought on “No really, where are you from?

  1. Exactly. As an American who has chosen to live in the Caribbean for 25 years, I still encounter this kind of cultural confusion, although not to the extent of the political and social backlash now rampant in the so-called developed countries. Let us pray for a world where labels fall by the wayside and we are free to follow our dreams with a light heart.

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