“Where are you from?”
“I am from Miami, Florida,” I, (Abdulrahman Bindamnan) replied. “But where are you really from?” the questioner insisted. “I am from Coral Gables, Miami,” I replied.
Perplexed by my answers, the acquaintance reframed his question, “But what is your ethnicity?”
“I am Arab,” I answered. Oblivious to his microaggression, he continued, “Oh no, I meant what is your national country of origin?” To which I said, “Why does that matter?”
These questions are common for immigrant students, who are often bombarded with interrogations to explain themselves. When we reveal our foreign status, our stories become both alien and un-relatable. Recently arrived immigrants shouldn’t have the burden to explain who they are: To be an American doesn’t mean you have to adhere to a specific race.
People who relocate from one place to another suffer from a sense of loss because they’re at the juncture of remaking history. They’re at the midpoint of cross-pollination of ideas and cross-fertilization of identities. They possess unique insights into how to redefine the sense of belonging to a particular space. Although the traditional corridors of power and oppression (as we once knew it) has collapsed, we’re still an engine of inequality, creating tribal groups of “us” versus “them.” Inequality has resurfaced in a venial new variant that is not less insidious, and we need to resist the tendency to group people into predefined boxes.
Luul Boru reflects
When I’m asked about my background; that ignited a fire I did not know I had in me. A fire so dim that even a spark wouldn’t dare to threaten and wake it out of its dormancy. As a brown person in Ethiopia, my reflection in the mirror was not so different from the majority. In all the directions I walked, I fit right in. Everyone from the neighbors, pedestrians, classmates, teachers, and friends were all replicas of the reflection I saw every morning. I knew I was a brown person with a rich heritage and culture, but that was always an afterthought. I tuned in on the tales and legends of our family from my great uncle, my mom, and my aunties, but those were just bedtime stories to me. Even when my great uncle, may he rest in peace, talked about the Oromo struggle as an active participant in the resistance against the Ethiopian government, cool, I thought. I realize now that I have taken my history and culture for granted for the better part of 20 and so years of my life. Becoming an anomaly in an ocean of diversity in America was the wake-up call I needed for my heart to beat, ache, and hunger to learn about my cultural identity.
Even if I may have taken offense at the question, “Where are you really from,” my reaction might have been nothing more than a projection of insecurity in my skin. It was a gut-wrenching question that left me bothered as long as I responded evasively. The person I see in the mirror now urges me to scream off of every rooftop that I am the granddaughter of brave men and women who fought for our liberty. I have their blood cursing through my veins so what excuse do I have to push aside my difference when my ancestors celebrated their being and stood with their chins up and back straight fighting against an oppressive regime? That made me ashamed of my ignorance and how much I had taken my history and culture for granted.
Who are we really? We all know that we are sons and daughters of somebody. But who are those somebodies? We need to learn to connect with our roots. Our values lay in knowing who we are. The degrees we get from schools and the jobs we take on are not who we are. We are humans. We are miracles walking on earth. But we won’t get to realize this until we look inward and resuscitate that dormant body with damaged roots. To give it life is to feed it with knowledge and let the branches grow and become a willow tree. It will then attract all kinds of creation and energy, so ask away your questions again and I will take you with me on a journey.
Abdulrahman Bindamnan is a is a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota and Luul Boru is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota.