Why We Should Stop Assuming Someone's Nationality Based on their Ethnicity
Despite what it might feel like, we have come a long way in the fight against racism in the last fifty years. As much as we like to complain that society is not good enough, we cannot ignore the fact that society has improved and that living conditions are the best they have been yet. It does not mean there is no room for improvement, but I have to recognize that in general, people are less racist. Societies are more inclusive and tolerant. Everyone tries and makes an effort. We might not like everyone, but at least we have learned to shut our mouth and respect each other’s liberties. That’s already a big win.
Because things have been improving, some people wish People of Color (PoC) would stop complaining as much. Talking about racism and discrimination is tiresome for all parties involved. It takes time and effort to reflect on one’s behaviour and to change one’s opinion. In addition, nobody likes to be told they were wrong, particularly when one has already admitted to their fault.
A term has even been coined to describe this feeling: white fatigue. Flynn (2015) explains “White fatigue occurs for White students who have grown tired of learning and discussing race and racism, despite an understanding of the moral imperative of anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices”. It can be upsetting to be forced to learn and argue on a topic that is basically pointing the finger at you as the culprit. It can also be incredibly challenging to understand the person that’s in front of you and that’s clearly so different from you. It is draining to have to go about your life while always being conscious of your race and what that might mean to other people.
The sad truth is that to be able to ignore one’s race is a luxury. PoC cannot ignore it. Ever. Because racism is a lot more complex than a simple “everyone is equal” catch phrase. Racism can also be institutional, which is expressed in the practice of social and political institutions, or cultural, or economic. It is more subtle, less overt.
I understand and agree that racism is slowly disappearing and that there are reasons to rejoice. However, I will continue to call out on seemingly inoffensive actions because improvement does not mean perfect. Improvement does not even mean good.
Recently, I have been increasingly annoyed by people assuming someone’s nationality based on their ethnicity. It has happened to me a few too many times to ignore it anymore. It always takes on the same form, and I find this behavior offensive at best. A stranger might ask where I am from. I always give the same answer: “I come from Belgium”. It does not cross my mind to say anything else. That’s where I was born, where I grew up and where most of my family lives. The reaction of my interlocutor is what sets me off: a look of surprise and the seemingly innocent response of “Oh, I thought Europe was white”.
I really started to be annoyed with the question last summer. My partner and I spent one night in an AirBnb in the middle of the Belgian countryside. Hearing us talking English, our host asked us where we were from. I said I was from here, but my partner was from Canada. Our host did not believe me. He asked me several times bewildered how that was possible, clearly implying that my Asian-looking partner could not be part of what he thought was a white Canada. He did correct himself after several minutes when I pointed out that Canada was never a white country, but belonged to indigenous peoples. His then *perfect* reply was to tell me: “well, I guess if you can be Belgian, I don’t see why he could not be Canadian”.
Do not get me wrong. I am not trying to single out white people here. I get this question from anyone. It came from the Torontonian black cab driver from the Caribbean that did not know Belgium had black citizens. It came from the custom official at Porto’s international airport that assumed that I must have gone in the wrong line when I queue in the ‘EU passport’ lane. It came from everyone that has ever asked me “but where are you really/originally from?” It came from the person that I invited in MY house and that told me straight to my face that it was a bit weird that some European countries have black citizens.
I despite my reaction every time. I have this impulse to justify myself. I start to explain that some European countries are incredibly multicultural, that it can be traced back to colonial times, that actually over 15% of France’s population belongs to a visible minority group. I then go on and argue that Europeans are less sectarian than North Americans (debatable) and that they tend to mix more.
I hate myself every time afterwards. I should not have to justify myself.
Citizenship is a legal matter. It is not natural or innate. Citizenship is a concept socially constructed by a state, state that is in itself another human invention. Citizens are and should be equal in front of the law. A white Christian Belgian has no more right than a black or a Muslim Belgian. In front of the law, there is no value in having five generations living in the same country versus one generation. None.
In addition, don’t we live in an incredibly connected world? Don’t we all know by now that many developed countries actually boasts a multicultural population? Aren’t white Canadians freaking immigrants to start with?
The surprise you show when you assume a PoC can only come from Asia or Africa is rude. Period. It makes it seem as if the person does not belong in the country they were born or raised in. It is especially rude because this person was probably never questioned about their own origins.
As we enter 2020 with all our hopes and resolutions, I will encourage you to do one additional thing: stop assuming someone’s nationality based on their ethnicity.