‘Where are you from?’
I hear this more often than I hear my own name, and my response often depends on who’s asking; I can turn my ethnicity… heritage… into an icebreaker and ask the other person to have a guess, if they get the right answer I’ll give them £100. They never guess correctly, which I’m always relieved about – I can’t afford to keep giving away £100! Or I can weaponise it, pushing the other person into feeling self-conscious about whatever stereotype or bias they might be exposing in trying to guess. Finally, I can lie, which I often do when I feel uncomfortable, or unsafe, or just exhausted.
I’ll say, ‘London, mate’, and stick to that even when the response is, ‘Okay but where are you from from?’
And without fail, the response if I chose to reveal my half-Brazilian, half-Montenegrin heritage is always an impressed ‘woah!’, a moment I recognise, because I do it too, but a moment worth unpacking nonetheless.
Call it what you want; biracial, mixed-ethnicity, mixed-race, ‘ethnic’, the idea that people who are a blend of races, ethnicities or nationalities are somehow more fascinating, or more ‘trendy’ is pretty problematic. Here’s a little break down of what is going through my mind when the entire conversation descends into a discussion about where I come from:
First of all, I am neither an imported fruit nor a mystical creature in a zoo, so comments about how rare or ‘exotic’ I am, and how new and exciting that is for everyone, implicitly suggests that I’m too different to belong. I understand that it is an unusual mixture to you, but to me it’s all I have ever known, it is natural and familiar and yet still something I have to condense into soundbites because here I am, explaining it to a stranger for the fifth time this week.
I may have foreign parents (is what I say when I mispronounce words like ‘radiator’ or reveal that I don’t know what Paddington Bear is), but I was born and educated in London and so bombarding me with questions about the political, socio-economic history of Brazil and Montenegro is going to make me feel like I don’t know enough about the political, socio-economic history of Brazil and Montenegro. Would you ask me this if I stuck to my ‘London’ answer? Probably not.
Loaded compliments that are solely based on my ethnicity make me feel uncomfortable, even if you don’t intend them to. Saying that I’m more interesting or more attractive based on something I have absolutely no control over is just an empty compliment – and if it wasn’t tinged with racism (and it usually is) – I probably wouldn’t care. But telling me that I must be an amazing dancer, or ‘fiery in the bedroom’, or must be used to wearing bikinis is bizarre and repulsive, and you should know better.
In all honesty, those comments are not that exhausting to deal with. There are plenty of people who are mixed, just like I am, but who have to deal with a lot more racism. I’m fortunate to pass as ‘white enough’, as I have been informed, so even though some casual racism might be thrown my way, the colour of my skin hasn’t often made me into a target the way it can for many others.
The hardest part of navigating my complex identity is that I myself, do not know exactly how to answer the ‘where are you from’ question. Truthfully, I am unsure. Debates about my ‘genuine’ identity, about the number of passports I have, or should have, about how many languages I can speak and about how much general knowledge I should have are not debates I agreed to when answering the question. Nor is my identity something you are entitled to ‘test’ me on. Here’s what I’d love to talk about, when I am asked about my background:
It is strange to be born in one country but have connections to two, very different countries. It is strange grow up in a household where all three languages are spoken, but English dominates out of practicality, so that the older I get the more I lose what once came to me so easily. And it is stranger still to grow up with a blend of three cultures that make the United Kingdom seem both so familiar yet so foreign at the same time, a feeling that is reinforced when someone insists on determining my origins even after I’ve already given them my answer. It is hard to grow up with family stretched between two different continents; I have missed birthdays, weddings and funerals. I go back often and still feel like an outsider, I read the news and listen to music in an effort to prove to other people (and myself) that I am authentically who I say I am.
These are things I’d much rather discuss with you, stranger or not, instead of struggling to answer what exact year Brazil’s military dictatorship ended, or explain that, yes, I do speak Montenegrin but I never learnt to read or write in it so I am nowhere near fluent. Please stop questioning me. Perhaps start listening instead?
- Monika Radojevic is reading for an MSc in Development Studies at SOAS University of London