On the Complex Response to "Where Are You From?"

Emma Dabiri

Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is the author of the book Don't Touch My Hair (London: Allen Lane, 2019).

Dear Emma, I’m half white Irish, half black Ghanaian, working in a professional field. I have lived in Ireland for my whole life: fluent Gaeilgeoir, Mass every Sunday as a kid, the whole shebang. Lately, I have found myself getting more and more frustrated by loose comments made by people I encounter in everyday life and at work. A common question is “Where are you from?” When I tell them I’m from Dublin, the response is frequently some variation of, “No, but where do you really come from?”

People often (apparently innocently) pick me up for using Irish turns of phrase in everyday conversation. They giggle at how Irish I sound, or how “that just sounds wrong!” Every time, it makes me check myself to see what it is about me that “gives me away”. It’s so draining to field this stuff again and again. I don’t see why I should have to justify my existence to someone I’ve only just met every other day.

I realise it has fed into me disengaging from my African identity, or at least not actively or publicly exploring it. Any thoughts on ways to stop taking these comments personally? What needs to happen for people to get over the idea of an Irish person with brown skin?

The first thing that came to mind when I read your question was a line by the poet Nikky Finney: “The heart of loving myself always had to do with loving my Blackness”.

First of all, let me say I can relate entirely to what you’re saying. You have every right to be frustrated, what you are going through is absolutely head-wrecking. It’s exhausting, it’s draining, and you deserve better. I’m sorry. I’m not sure that anyone who has not experienced being black in a very white environment can really understand, so it can also be an incredibly isolating experience.

I can’t imagine many non-white people in Ireland escape the constant questioning, the insistent demands to justify their presence. However, there’s a particular pain involved when you don’t have anywhere else to say because you are just from Ireland. It’s your home, but not one that you are allowed to claim. This insistence that you must be from elsewhere is deeply disorientating, and can leave you feeling extremely lost and anchorless – at least that’s how I felt.

You mention people’s responses to your accent. I know all about that one, and spent such a long time feeling disassociated from my own voice. I would speak and people would express disappointment, surprise, even anger that I didn’t sound “Jamaican” or whatever their black accent of fetishisation was. There was other stupid stuff, and it was pretty much constant: I remember watching Boys in the Hood and the “friends” I was with – who I’d known for years – trying to work out why I didn’t sound like I was from South Central LA.

I was entirely baffled, thinking I’m from around the bleeding corner, why on earth would I sound like I was from LA? A place I still, to this day, have never been. I remember thinking, How do they see me? Who do they think I am? Come to think of it, who am I? It often felt as though I didn’t have permission to be me, I was expected to perform something but I didn’t know the lines.

In terms of “disengaging from your African identity”, I think that’s really something key to address. It can feel really odd when people are insisting that you are something that you might have very little connection to, or knowledge of, I get that. But at the same time we should always remember that “blackness”, unlike “whiteness” is an inclusive and plural identity. If you have a black parent you can never be white, but if you have a white parent you can be black. Why is that?

Nonetheless, despite this inclusivity, I often sense a resistance from some mixed people to identify as black. This might be based on the reasonable-seeming argument that I used to make myself. The idea that I am as white as I am black seems pretty rational. Except for the fact that there is nothing rational about race.  As I have now come to understand it, you cannot be half white.

The idea of whiteness is a social construction and it is organised around a spurious idea of purity and exclusivity. You are either white, or you are not. If you have visible evidence of African ancestry, that’s it, whiteness is off limits to you. And if this exclusion makes people feel angry, it should. It should motivate more of us to challenge the privileges of whiteness; we are all equal, and deserve the same opportunities. Certain advantages should not be the preserve of a group of people who have racialised themselves as white.

What most of us don’t realise when we talk about “the white race” or the “black race”, we are not dealing with neutral, natural categories. The very idea of a white race and a black race existing as separate and distinct from each other was carefully engineered, for reasons that find their expression in European expansion into the Americas.

The idea of a pan-white ethnic identity was a necessary tool in creating a sense of solidarity among disparate Europeans who could now have a unified sense of themselves as white people, and moreover, it justified their “superiority” over and exploitation of, the enslaved population who became “the black race”.

There are still privileges associated with whiteness and stigma attached to blackness. Is it naive to assume that a mixed person in a very white environment might not internalize that, and seek to distance themselves from their blackness? Which is why this is so necessary: “The heart of loving myself always had to do with loving my Blackness.”

Our society is one that often demands that we shrink ourselves into reduced versions of possibility, and I find this to be particularly pertinent with mixed people, who at various points in our lives often attempt to force ourselves into limiting categories, or into what we think is an authentic version of one “side” or the other.

Growing up there have been so many permutations of me, many of them emphasizing only certain parts of myself, usually at the cost of suppressing others.

For me, proud as I eventually felt to be black, I was then plagued with the fear that I wasn’t authentically black, as if there is only one way of being black – another racist trope.

When I was a teenager I started going to the States regularly and it was the first time in a long time that I had found myself in all-black environments, which I found immense relief in. I looked normal, I looked like I fit in, that I belonged. Until I opened my mouth. Where the hell are you from? Why do you sound like a white girl [and a really, really weird one at that]? I hated it. My accent let me down time and again.

At the same time, I felt incredibly resentful about being constantly excluded from Irishness, and eventually I was like, “Fuck it, I didn’t ask for any of this shit, they can shove it”.

For about a year after I first left Ireland I tried to disguise my accent. I could quite convincingly sound American, and American Emma seemed to make more sense to people than Irish Emma. Black and Irish was some sort of aberration, and I just desperately wanted to be an ordinary person. If that meant being inventive with my accent then so be it.

In answer to your questions about taking these comments personally, and what needs to happen for people to get over the idea of an Irish person with brown skin, I would say this: obviously my strategy was unsustainable (and ridiculous), as I healed – and I would refer to it as a healing process – and came to be more comfortable in my own skin, things began to fall into place.

I got to a place where I felt comfortable with myself as a black woman and understood that being black didn’t mean speaking in a particular accent not my own. I could embrace my plurality and still be black and still be Irish.

I also no longer felt that I have to reject my Irishness. I came to understand how Irish I am, culturally – my outlook, my perspective, my sense of humour. I understood that there is no self-professed Irish gatekeeper that can make any of that untrue.

No matter what anyone says, it has little bearing on the irrefutable reality of my Irishness.

I also make a point of not identifying as half anything. That “mixed race” half-black half-white song just left me feeling a whole heap of nothing. Why have halves when I can be whole?

I am an Irish woman in the same way that I would describe you as an Irish man. But I am also black, not half black. Black. And Irish.

I think people underestimate the necessity of having a black peer group. For me that is the number one necessary resource, the survival kit for navigating whiteness. This simply wasn’t an option for me when I was young. I had to leave home in order to have any type of black life.

If I could have had black Irish peers, I think my life and experiences would have been very different. I do think eventually Irish people will become more used to those of us who are non-white, and eventually it won’t be such a big deal, but we can’t wait for that to happen. We need to do what is necessary to live our fullest lives in real time. When the others catch up (and they will) good for them. But I’m not sitting around waiting for it to happen.

Obviously what works for me won’t be exactly the same as what works for you, but focus on feeling comfortable with yourself. Also, sit and think about the fullness of your identity. Are there any areas that you feel resistant towards or hesitant to explore? If this is the case, think about why that might be.

Another thing I wish that someone had said to me is that there is no inauthentic way of being yourself. Even if you are positioned at a very unusual intersection, or minoritised in a way that people are not familiar with, the very fact of your existence makes that position valid.

I’m going to finish with these words by the poet and feminist scholar Audre Lorde, because they sum it all up really well: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive!”

I’m not going to lie, it hasn’t been easy, but at this stage in my life I absolutely adore getting to be both black and Irish. It can provide such a unique perspective, and we have incredibly rich cultural resources to draw on from both sides. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I think you might find the book Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon helpful. It was an invaluable discovery for me.

I hope this helps. Much love!

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Emma Dabiri: Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is the author of the book Don't Touch My Hair (London: Allen Lane, 2019).

Reader responses

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at 10 January 2018 at 17:27

“we have incredibly rich cultural resources to draw on from both sides. I wouldn’t change it for the world.” This is wonderful.

at 10 January 2018 at 20:26

hi emma sorry to hear are upset by comments I am from Dublin
if go down the country I am asked where I am from its a irish
thing and its friendly we irish do it

as I say be proud of your heritage I would find the world a boring
place if everyone was the same colour all cultures brings a gift
to make our world kind regards marion

Pink Elephant
at 4 February 2018 at 22:18

I’m so glad I found this article (and writer!) tonight. It puts into words everything I’ve thought and felt about my mixed race self for as long as I can remember. Why be halves when you can be 2 wholes – I’ll never forget these words!

at 19 March 2018 at 18:25

I am almost certain I have asked Irish people of mixed heritage where they’re from and I feel like such a dick. It’s a subject I’ve discussed recently with people. I’d never consider a mixed race Irish person less Irish than I am but I know that’s what is being implied. My family studies genealogy and I’m inherently nosy. Ireland was historically very homogenous and I am curious to know what might have brought their family here (which as I type is obnoxiously intrusive and another reason not to inquire). My curiosity and good intentions don’t trump making someone feel like an “other”. The question is hereby banished.

at 22 March 2018 at 13:54

So glad to come across this article, albeit a bit late. I’m white but can identify with much of what you discuss here. I was born in England to an Irish father and an English mother and moved back home when I was 11.

I developed two separate accents – the Irish one I used to fit in at school and the English one for home. Whenever I was in the presence of another English accent, my English one would take over, even if I’d been speaking with an Irish one all day. It was extremely confusing and distressing for me growing up and I felt like I had a split personality.

I spent a few years back in England in my early 20s, and the English accent came back full force. When I came home to Ireland for good ten years ago, it remained my dominant accent. I am *CONSTANTLY* asked where I’m from. When I answer with my Irish hometown, I’m asked where I’m really from. People expect me to explain my entire life history and I get very, very frustrated. It’s all the things you say: exhausting, draining, and deeply painful to have to continually justify myself and my identity.

And obviously, with an English accent, there are complex historical legacies to contend with as well. I’ve been subjected to all manner of offensive anti-British sentiment as if I’m personally responsible (“English b*tch”, etc.). It feels like racism, but I don’t know if that’s the correct term for it. British people are the largest group of ex-pats in Ireland. I’d be really interested in your take on Irish racism against British people and British-Irish people (as opposed to Anglo-Irish) in Ireland, and if indeed it is racism, or some other kind of -ism.

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