*note: the majority of this post is based on interactions at different places I’ve worked at, usually with white people 35+
Smiling white faces: “So where are you from?”
I smile back, giving an answer I know is definitely not the one that they are looking for, “New Zealand.” or sometimes, “Wellington.” Occasionally that will satisfy them, as they go on to announce that “Oh you’re a Māori!” sometimes followed by a congratulatory look to one among them that presumed I was before approaching me.
“No, I’m not.” – and no, these days I often don’t pre-answer the questions I know will follow. I’m tired of it and honestly my first answer should be enough. New Zealand is where I am from, I’m a Kiwi.
*Puzzled expressions follow*
I wait for the inevitable: “Oh but where are you really from?” or “What’s your background?” or the classic “What are your parents?” And no, not their occupations. I’m not sure about you Captain Cook Jr., but I’m pretty sure my parents are people.
My personal favourite is “What are you?” – I could be many things, the first being absolutely tired to death of this conversation and envisioning you walking out the door.
“My mother’s family is originally from England-” I pause, and they look at me expectantly to continue, because that is not the part they care about and everyone knows that. “-and my father is from Samoa.” “Aha!” they exclaim. They tell me excitedly “I went to Samoa on vacation once,” (probably pronouncing it Sih-mow-ah). “Such a beautiful country!” Or a personal favourite is when they list off random Samoan colleagues they have had, or a half Samoan third removed niece that maybe I know. Or that they really like The Rock.
What am I meant to say? “Oh my goodness I really love Leonardo DiCaprio and Chris Pine?” List off random white people?
“I used to work with this Samoan guy, he was sooo funny. We used to -”
How am I meant to respond? By telling you white colleagues I’ve worked with? Will we then have something in common?
Usually this happens at a place of work or in a context that I have to nod and smile and say “Samoa’s beautiful isn’t it, (despite the sad fact that I’ve never yet been, only adding to my discomfort at my perceived failed identity), and yes the Rock’s cool!” They smile and wave, go about their day feeling proud that they made a ‘cultural connection,’ with me. Or stand and wait for their gold star for liking something of ‘my culture’ (or just simply knowing something of it).
I’d like to pause for a second to state that this has nothing to do with not being proud of my Samoan heritage. I’m very proud to be Samoan, and despite being disconnected from my culture for so many years I am slowly trying to learn things that I have missed. The issue here is people of colour’s national identities in Western countries being questioned or erased due to their non-whiteness. When a Polynesian – or other poc asks me my ethnicity, I will say NZ Samoan! Because they are not asking the question from the perspective that I do not belong. That I am other. That I am not from here. They are not wondering if my dad was an overstayer (but I mean he was though lmao).
When a white person asks where I am from they often do not care that I am from New Zealand. They do not care that I was born in Wellington, and the answer they are not looking for is “Wellington Hospital,” or “Out of my mother.” They are wanting to find out the part of me that makes me not white.
Because it’s “exotic,” I’ve heard countless times. And naively people do believe this is a compliment. I used to think it was! Do you know what that word is actually defined as? According to my friend http://www.dictionary.com it means:
“Of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized.”
No fully naturalized or acclimatized.
Not fully belonging.
I’ve had friends tell me that I’m lucky I have ‘something in me,’ because they wish they weren’t ‘plain white.’ People over the years – and today, tell me that if I have children with another mixed race person, or a white man, my kids will be beautiful. Because to them, Pasifika identity on its own is not beautiful. But add a splash of white and it’s exotic, desirable, fetishized. I’ve had people tell me that I ‘don’t look that Samoan.’ And they have meant it as a compliment, even going so far as to state that it’s cool I have some ‘European features but with a lovely tan!!’ You know that you’re just saying that it’s the white blood in me that makes me attractive to you? Oh but the tan? You can get one at your local salon without the years of racial oppression that come with it!!! Go ahead girl!
Do you know how many people ask my European NZ friends, family members or colleagues where they are from? Pretty much none. Or if they’re asked the first answer they respond with is accepted without question. Or they person asking means ‘what City.’ This curiosity behind where are you really from is almost exclusively reserved for people of colour. (And it’s important to note that this entire post is based on the fact that I am a Kiwi, and I have a New Zealand accent. If you are a European person living in New Zealand with a distinctly German accent – for example – that’s a completely different story if someone asks where you’re from. Because there is always someone that will try to discredit people of colour’s experiences – I’m just preempting it).
The issue behind the question of where are you from is the constant placing of anyone of colour as being other. Of being made to feel foreign in their own countries. Being consistently asked this places doubt on my identity as a New Zealander, as if it is somewhat invalidated due to my Samoan heritage. Not to mention the fact that it causes me guilt over my disconnection with my Samoan identity and culture. In short, being asked this question so frequently makes me feel like I have neither identity. I cannot be fully New Zealand Kiwi, and I cannot also be Samoan. I am neither.
The question of ‘where are you from,’ is one that anyone of colour has heard multiple times, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. And it’s not a big deal some may say, but when people’s first impression of you is that you are other, a stranger in your own country, this has real-life implications. Whether it is in a social setting and you are avoided, or people begin conversation with you differently than white people in a room. Whether you are applying for a job, and know that your appearance causes you to be at a disadvantage, or maybe your name. When people constantly question your legitimacy as a person of a particular identity.
Some people say that they don’t see race. But when you are the only non-white person in the middle of the room please do not for a second tell me that no one sees that. If I was in a picture with all white friends and someone said ‘spot the difference,’ – what’s the first thing you’d spot? Honestly.
I’ve had white friends in situations where they are the only white person, or only one of a few and they immediately express their discomfort and concern. At my University some of my white friends won’t even go on the second floor because that’s where ‘all the brown people hang.’ For other people this isn’t a one off situation they can avoid, but their daily life. It doesn’t feel good when people constantly imply that you don’t belong in the country of your birth, (particularly when you don’t fully feel you belong to the country they believe you belong to).
When people say ‘what are you,’ to me – they are not asking whether or not I am human. They are not asking my nationality. They aren’t looking for whether I was born in Auckland or Wellington (if they even believe I was at all). They are seeking out my ‘other.’
For white people in particular, I challenge you to reconsider your intentions when you are asking a person of colour where they are from – (and I mean pushing it further once they’ve answered). Consider that the need for your curiosity to be fulfilled may have an actual impact on the person you are asking. Do you really need to know?
Now I can’t and don’t speak for everyone. Some people are probably more than fine for people to ask their ethnicity, the blood type of their third grandfather, and their home address. I speak for me. I’m simply here to share my own thoughts, feelings and experiences. Maybe generate thoughts you may not have had.
All humans have an innate longing to belong, to feel a sense of community, to find home. For myself, finding a sense of balance between my Pasifika identity – Samoa, and New Zealand is a constant journey. I still feel largely uncomfortable and aware of my failure to ‘participate’ in both groups. To many Samoans I am ‘not Samoan enough,’ but for white people – I’ll never be one of them. #afakasiproblems.
Perhaps the tone of this post was a little more angry than the previous, because that’s what I am – frustrated. On a positive note I’m finally going to be travelling to Samoa (first time!!!!!!!!!!!!) at the end of this year, and I cannot WAIT.