Identity Interrogation is a commonplace experience for Yabome Gilpin-Jackson, a black African woman, who was born in Germany, grew up in Sierra Leone and studied in Canada and America. She has lived in Canada half of her life, but is still asked the question: “Where are you from?” Her recently released book, Identities: A short story collection, is a compilation of experiences on global African identities that spark dialogues that go beyond stereotypes and assumptions of African experiences.

“Where are you from?”

I feel the warmth rising from my stomach as I go into an amygdala hijack. I stare even more stoically ahead in the hope that the voice isn’t directed at me, even though my heart already knows the answer. The voice floats again through the veil of the battling emotions assailing me.

“Where are you from?”

I feel my body turn to the left and hear my voice saying:

“Do you get asked that randomly in elevators?!”

I watch the girl’s cheeks flush bright red and her lips open to form a response. The elevator rumbles to a stop and I feel her flood of relief as she looks apologetically at me and bolts off on 10.

I feel trapped and consider bolting off the elevator with her but my rational brain is still in shock and isn’t moving as fast as I want it to. What was I supposed to do now? I turned to the right and said with a cynical smile:

“Why do you ask?”

My interrogator looks suddenly shifty and mumbles: “just curious I guess…” flipping open his commuter magazine and burying his face in it.

Before I could collect myself to say anything else, the doors open for me. I say pointedly: “Have a great day” and sashay off. I suddenly feel defiantly confident, saying with my walk: I belong here.

In ‘Where Are You From?’ – The first story in Identities: A short story collection by Yabome Gilpin-Jackson

Last October, I did a talk at a conference titled: Where are you from? The first short story in my book, Identities: A short story collection shares the same title.

The talk and ensuing short story was born from the experience of being asked, randomly, by strangers, four-word or five-word questions about my identity. This experience, is what I call Identity Interrogation. It is a commonplace experience for me, a black African woman, who was born in Germany, grew up in Sierra Leone and studied in Canada and America. I have now lived in Canada for longer than my West African home. Yet from the day I arrived in the West as a young adult, till now, I experience this interrogation – sometimes even before I have said a word or given away my ‘interesting’ yet nondescript accent:

“Where are you from?”
“Where were you born?”
“Where are you REALLY from?”
“How come your English is so good?”

And deeper still, the sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly questions:

“Who are you anyway?”
“How did you come to be here – in this place/position of privilege?”
“Why should I be talking/listening to you?”
“Why are you different from the stereotype/story I hold about your social identity group?”

I was naïve about such things when I arrived from my predominantly black African country of Sierra Leone. Over time, this interrogation has seeped through the sheave of my naivete, painting my identity as dark as the dominant social narratives of who and what a ‘black’ and ‘African’ person is thought to be.

“Who says I am an oppressed minority?”

There are instances too many to count. There was the time in my undergraduate sociology class when I looked up to realize I was sitting in the heavy atmosphere that floats in when moods suddenly change. Everyone in my discussion group was avoiding my gaze. I looked up at the screen to see that my so-called social identity fully classified me as an ‘oppressed minority.’ My reaction was laughter. Who says I am an oppressed minority? Yet my untainted identity starting steeping one shade too dark that day.

Then there was the time I graduated top of my class with the Dean’s medal. An award that was published in the university news online post and then released to the press under the title: “Refugee earns top business medal.” I was ruffled by the latter choice of title, resentful to have my accomplishment headlined by my refugee experience. My identity darkened further still with that experience, steeping to a bitter black as it collapsed in with the African-as-refugee narrative.

We all have work to do

Over time, I realized that there are times I am enlivened to respond to: Where are you from? What is common to these times is that the question is posed within relationship, in context of respect and genuine curiosity. Whenever I feel relational connection as I call it, it is because I know, I feel, in those interactions that I am not put in a box or judged as a strange tea to be tasted, commented on and spat out. Unfortunately, I know that this identity interrogation, instead of relational connection is not just an interracial phenomenon. I have also felt the sting of being spat out with no ado within black communities, similarly dismissed, boxed or classified with disdain as some strange tea – tainted by my ethnicities, western influences socioeconomic status or another aspect of my identity in their eyes.

I believe the time for boxes is over, on and off the African continent, and around the world. A look at global migration trends shows us our world is becoming even more locally global and assumptions of “where people are from?” no longer hold true. My own experiences and research are teaching me that everyday interactions evoking identity politics and belonging matter just as much as the broader social dialogue, in building interpersonal and social relationships of mutual respect and inclusion. My short story collection on global African identities is a first step toward sparking dialogues that go beyond stereotypes and assumptions of African experiences.

I believe that telling the stories of our lives makes us more fully whole, uncovering richer understandings of each strand and shaping and reshaping each of our webs to make them fuller – beautifully prepared to catch what is meant to nourish us, withstand what threatens to break us and when we break, rebuild our webs to be even stronger than before. I also write, because I believe only I can tell the many stories of my life. And only I get to decide exactly how beautifully steeped I want my tea to be. I hope that the web of these stories connects somewhere with yours and if it doesn’t, that it brings to focus an understanding of a part of the larger web of life that we are all creating and part of together.

AsMartin Luther King Jr once said, “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

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