Last night I watched the Tommy Tiernan Show on RTE 1. Tommy is undoubtedly a brilliant interviewer; warm, empathetic and with a nose for getting right to the heart of the matter. One of the first questions he asked his first guest Brenda Fricker was ‘Are you sad?’, an excruciatingly personal question to ask someone. I held my breath as I watched her face absorb the question for a moment before lowering her tone and heartbreakingly answering ‘oh yea…yea’. It was a brave question and it only worked because there was a trust between them, and Brenda was honest enough to show her vulnerability. That painful admission was really powerful and I think we all connected with her at that moment.
His second interviewee was Bashir Otukoya, Assistant Professor of Law at UCD and PHD student. Tommy’s first question to him was ‘Where are you from?’. Bashir, if he was taken aback, did not show it and answered cheerily that he is originally from Nigeria but based in Drogheda as he has been for all his life here in Ireland.
But I felt for Bashir in that moment, in having to explain that he is also Irish. The reason ‘Where are you from?’ is such a sensitive and loaded question is because it immediately sets the person up as being ‘not from here’. It ‘others’ them.
Straightaway Bashir was identified as not being ‘from’ Ireland. He was set up as being different, and most of the interview continued on to focus on this difference, his challenges growing up in Ireland as a black man including at school, in employment and his quest for Irish citizenship, which he got in 2016.
I put up a tweet on Twitter saying that ‘Where are you from?’ is a sensitive question and how you should be careful how and why you ask it.
One man commented that this question is an innocent Irish thing, showing genuine interest, a cosy question that sets the scene for you to tell your story. The sentiment surely is genuine interest meaning no harm, but is it really your business to ask someone to tell you their story like that without knowing anything about them? Immigration is hard and you don’t know what people have been through. Calling it an ‘Irish thing’ does not magically make it warm or endearing. From experience I can also say that it is not exclusively an Irish thing. I lived in Japan for 4 years and I got asked this question 100 times a day. If I had lived there another 4, or another 20 or another 30 years, or until the end of my days, I would still have been asked this question.
No matter how well I spoke Japanese or how much I followed the customs and behaviors, I was always ‘the foreigner’. The widely used word for foreigner in Japan is ‘gaijin’ which I heard almost every day. ‘Gai’ translates to ‘outside’ and ‘jin’ to ‘person’. I have to say that at times I found it hurtful to be considered an outside person, and judged entirely by my appearance. This is what this question does when it is the first question you ask someone. Asking this question of someone you have just met makes an assumption about them. And that’s the definition of prejudice. At least it is respectful to establish a rapport with someone before you start digging into their personal life. And even then, you should tread carefully because you don’t know what anyone has been through.
A lot of people have commented saying that it’s a customary question, breaks the ice and means no harm.
It’s not intended to harm, I know that. But the thing about harm is that, it’s not really about the intention or the person inflicting the harm. The impact is on the other side. As Bashir put it, when you hear this question ‘over and over and over again’ it begins to feel like ‘You don’t belong here’ and that does begin to cause harm.
The other reason that it’s a sensitive question is because it can be a really complex one to answer. For many people in our multicultural, globalized world, it’s a really difficult question to answer, and to answer it accurately would require going into a lot of personal detail. If you were born in Poland to an Irish mother and a Polish father, moved to America at the age of 4 years and grew up speaking English with an American accent, how would you answer it then? You are not going to start explaining all that to a perfect stranger. Because it’s none of their business and they don’t really want to know all that. They want a simple answer so they can put together a simple idea in their head about you. But it’s not a simple question. Yes I know it can be, but these days more often than not, it’s not. When I worked in an Irish pub abroad, staff would sometimes come over to me excitedly and say ‘Evelyn, this customer is from Ireland’ and I would excitedly go over expecting an Irish accent and some news from home, but it would usually be an American person with Irish heritage, who would be a lovely person, just not what I had been expecting. I suppose this challenged my assumptions of what an Irish person is.
I was staying in a hostel with a woman who was born in India to Indian parents, grew up there until her early twenties before moving to America to get married to an American man. She looked Indian and sounded Indian, but when asked this question she says that she is from America and an American. I saw confusion several times on the faces of people who asked her, because it wasn’t the answer they were expecting.
Often this question turns into the same conversation. Where are you from, why did you come here, how long will you stay. At first it was nice, but this conversation got really tiring after a while and it constantly re-inforced that I was different.
I think the complexity also lies in the fact that the meaning is unclear. Does it mean ‘Where were you born?’ , ‘Where were your parents born?’ ‘Where did you grow up?’ ‘Where have you spent most of your life?’ ‘What nationality are you?’. It can mean one or many of these things. So then it comes down to, what is it you are really asking. And then it should probably be a question of, is it really appropriate to ask these things of someone you just met.
I think it’s important to note that Tommy Tiernan asked Brenda Fricker ‘Where do you live?’ and he asked David Norris ‘Where did you grow up?’, two very different questions to ‘Where are you from?’. They are straightforward and the meaning is clear.
One tweeter commented ‘Never take offense to that question, it’s in the Irish psyche to be curious to see if their school geography can match you with somewhere they’ve heard of or they might be able to find someone in common with you’. That’s the simpler end of the story, it’s endearing, warm and reflects the Irish sense of humor.
My boyfriend is a very proud Irish man and he doesn’t agree with me that this can be a sensitive issue. He is also a big Shane McGowan fan. So I asked him the question and it went something like this:
Me: Where is Shane McGowan from?
Boys: He’s Irish’.
Me: Not, what’s is nationality. Where is he from?
Boyf: He’s from Ireland.
Boyf: Both his parents are Irish, he’s been to Ireland loads of times, he plays Irish music, his heart and soul are Irish, he is ‘Irish’.
But the question was not ‘what’s his nationality?’. Is this what the question really means? McGowan was born in England, grew up in England, has an English accent, but he is ‘from Ireland’ because of those reasons mentioned. You can see how answering this question can get complicated unless you were born of parents of the same origin, and grew up and lived all your life in the same country as them, which is increasingly not the case in today’s world.
Another guy on Twitter commented sarcastically that I should ‘lighten up’ and that I was ‘woke’. Another guy lamented for the state of education and the next generation saying that schools and colleges should be demolished for brainwashing kids with this wokeness and that the next generation is f*#ked. ‘Wokeness’ is a new buzz word and often used in a derogatory way to describe ‘millennials’ getting easily offended. There is a lot of fear in those comments, but if respecting others and allowing people to express themselves freely without hurting anyone is something to be fearful of, to me that is the scary thing. The world changes, and it’s changed so rapidly in the last not even one hundred, but ten years and twenty years since the new millennium. I was born in 1985 so I grew up in ‘the last century’ as my nieces are fond of describing it. Things change, it’s nature, it’s evolution.
I wonder why some people responded defensively and even offensively to my comment. One person told me to ‘cop on, twat’. One person told me I need to get out more (Great advice in the middle of a pandemic). I wonder is it because they are worried that their own views might contain prejudices, and that is uncomfortable for them. Like Bashir said ‘Why does someone get defensive when they are accused of racism? It’s because their integrity is being questioned. But if somebody’s telling you that you are acting in a racist way, its not for you to question whether that question is founded or not, it’s to internalize that feedback and ask why did someone think that about you – its an opportunity to self-reflect’.
I’m not calling anyone prejudiced, I am trying to explain how it feels to get asked this question repeatedly as an opener, when you are in a living in a country where you are visually different to the majority, and how it can sting. Sometimes when I was really tired of being asked it, I answered random countries like ‘China’ which would induce confusion or hilarity, because its not what they were expecting, not what they assumed I was. They had a pre-conception of my identity.
Several times when I said Ireland, people began to talk about the IRA, and I did not want to get into a discussion about the IRA with someone I did not know, in what was a friendly and casual situation, it was not appropriate. Bashir put it well when he said ‘When it is the very first question, you don’t know what the other person’s intentions are. You don’t know if it’s going to be a friendly relationship, or whether it might become racist, and because you have experienced racism before, you have to be careful’.
Another tweeter said ‘People have always asked where I was from when I’m in a different country, should I be offended?’. It’s not for me to tell you that you should be offended, you’re missing the point.
Another person commented that context is key with this question, which is exactly the point. It’s not that asking someone where they are from is a rude question per se, it’s the context it is asked in that matters.
Tommy went on to tell a story of secondary schools in Galway where school children play black versus white soccer matches. That’s black children versus white children. He described this as ‘wonderful’ and ‘delightful’. His point was that this ‘in the moment’ showed that they were comfortable in their differences of ethnicity and that there is beauty in that. Bashir laughed generously, saying he wouldn’t go so far as calling it wonderful and talked about the psychological impact this goes on to have into adulthood, that splitting children up into combative teams based on visual difference becomes a problem later in life as those children in the ‘black box’ realise that it’s the ‘white box’ they need to join if they want to make it.
One tweeter commented that ‘It is evident how the onus is always on those who experience prejudice and hate to extend patience to those who cannot see their prejudice themselves’ which hits the nail on the head.
Another tweeter commented that RTE are doing great work on diversity and inclusion. But diversity is supposed to be about accepting difference, not highlighting it. Isn’t it more diverse to accept someone for who or what they are, rather than ask them to explain it?
The vision for diversity might have been there, the execution unfortunately was not.
Comments from people defending the asking of this question ‘Where are you from?’ miss the point. It’s not about whether it’s right or wrong to ask it, it’s about understanding the broader implications of this question, and the hurt and exclusion it can cause when asked in the wrong context.
Prejudices are something we all have. I certainly have them, Tommy Tiernan showed he has them. Prejudice is about pre-judging people and we do it all the time, but I would go so far as to say that most of the time we are wrong in our pre-judgements of people. It narrows the perspective immediately and a great deal is lost.
The next time you go to ask ‘Where are you from?’ from somebody, stop to ask yourself what is your motivation for asking it. And I would be very interested to hear your answer.