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The question

The tendency to classify people according to their origins turns a seemingly innocent question into an offensive remark.

If you are a person with a migration history living in Germany you will be faced with a certain question quite often in your life: “Where are you really from?” There are variations in the phrasing but the gist is always the same. The question is a follow-up to the general question of origin people ask each other when they meet for the first time. It is perfectly ok to ask a person where they are from; it is part of the catalogue of questions people ask when getting to know each other. It is not ok to ask the follow-up question.

I hear that question basically every time people see or hear my name. If you are German but have a name that is not typically German or you don’t look typically German (meaning you have dark hair or dark skin) you will hear this question often, very often. Most of the time the people asking it don’t see any harm or problem with it. They say they’re just curious and interested to learn more about you; maybe you have something exciting to tell them about your background. To them, it’s obvious that there’s more to you and that you’re not (only) German.

This might be correct, but there are serious problems with the question and therefore in the future everyone itching to satisfy their curiosity should just refrain from asking it. First, you are questioning someone’s legitimate belonging to the German society, thus making them feel excluded. Second, you are putting your desire to satisfy your curiosity over the other person’s right to privacy and self-definition.

You don’t belong here

To be clear and fair: There are people who are very open and have no problem whatsoever in answering the question about their roots. Sometimes they do it without even being asked or already include the complexity of their origins in their initial answer: “My family is from Vietnam, but I was born in Stuttgart.” These are not the people I’m talking about. I’m talking about those who do not disclose their “actual” place of origin. It is their absolute right and should be respected. They will share this detail of their biography when they’re ready and they want to. It might not look like it, but this question is highly intrusive and people should be given time and room to address it (if at all) on their own terms.

Try to imagine what the situation feels like for someone who has decided to answer the question “Where are you from?” with Germany or Berlin or Munich or Dresden. Their parents or grandparents or even they themselves might have been born somewhere else, despite this fact they choose to identify their place of origin as somewhere German. It’s their home and the place they identify with. This is what I do. I always say Berlin. Now, when people don’t accept that as a full and legitimate answer and want to know where I really come from, I feel excluded.

How can someone with a immigrant background ever feel at home in Germany when they are constantly being placed somewhere else by others against their own choosing? How can I finally feel that I rightfully belong in this society that I call my home when people constantly reject my answer and are only satisfied when their prejudiced intuition is confirmed? How many generations are necessary to finally accept someone as really deutsch?

The one blatant message you are driving home every single time is this: You don’t belong here. This is disrespectful at best and plain marginalizing and discriminatory at worst. If we want to start building a society that grants equal value to all its citizens and tries to overcome racism, xenophobia and discrimination, we need to start treating all our fellow citizens respectfully. In terms of the question of origin, this means respecting someone’s autonomy over their own identity. They say they’re from Berlin, fine, that’s it – you treat them as someone from Berlin. Your curiosity is not more important than my autonomy over my identity.

Are you one of ours?

Very often there is no easy or short answer to a question that private and complex. It may look harmless but it’s not. Caryl Phillips, a British writer, describes it in a nutshell when confronted with the question yet again on a flight to Ghana:

“_The_ question. The problem question for those of us who have grown up in societies, which define themselves by excluding others. Usually us. A coded question. Are you one of us? Are you one of ours? Where are you from? Where are you really from? And now, here on a plane flying to Africa, the same clumsy question. Does he mean, who am I? Does he mean, do I belong? Why does this man not understand the complexity of his question? I make the familiar flustered attempt to answer the question. He listens, and then spoils it all. ‘So, my friend, you are going home to Africa. To Ghana.’ I say nothing. No, I am not going home.”

Usually the interrogation doesn’t end with “Where are you really from?” Very quickly one question leads to another because most of the time the stories people have to tell are a bit complex. One parent from Germany, the other from Egypt; grandparents migrated from Kosovo to escape persecution as Muslims; born in Mexico, grown up here with parents but entire family still lives in Mexico. When you disclose your actual origin or roots very soon you are being asked questions about your family and your journey to Germany: migrant – legal, illegal – refugee, exiled? When? Why? How?

All of a sudden you hear yourself stutter explanations and justifications for events and decisions you yourself know little about. It is very difficult to say “I don’t want to talk about that.” once you’ve allowed the questioning to start. You feel exposed and vulnerable and sometimes you even lie just because it’s easier or you yourself don’t really know the answer to the question “Do you feel more at home in Germany or Turkey?”

The truth is: You already told them where your home is, but they missed it, because in their world that answer is not possible – yet.

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