... we must learn how to ask about origins

by Mithu M. Sanyal

Guilt (Issue II/2019)


Portrait of the author Mithu M. Sanyal. Photo: IMAGO / Future Image

“Where do you come from?,” Bohlen asks a five-year-old girl during the German television talent show, Supertalent.  “From Herne,” she answers in a friendly way, refering to a city in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. 

“And mama and papa?,” he continues to pester the child, and then, in case she doesn’t know where he is going with this, he suggests that they might be from the Philippines.

The little girl looks around, confused. “They’re also in Herne.”

But this isn’t an answer that Dieter can accept. “What country do you come from? Where were you born?”

The child is clearly stressed now. “I don’t know.”

But that doesn’t stop Dieter: “Grandma and grandpa?,” he continues.

And, as is typical in social media situations like this, half of the commentators on the clip are outraged while the other half can’t understand what the problem is. He was just trying to be nice, there was no bad will intended.

We should take it seriously. That is, take both sides seriously. It seems that articles, books and broadcasts about this foundational question are not enough. It is time that the education system got involved. Because it is true that most people don’t mean this question to be horrible. But it would not be emotionally intelligent to ignore the background that has this question being asked in the first place.

The basic problem is not that people like myself are somehow expatriated with this question. Rather it is that something more basic is being taken away: a sense of belonging. The philosopher Ann Cahill explained that humans are porous beings. What she means is that we cannot search and somehow find an identity for ourselves. Our identities are formed by, and through, contact with other human beings.

That is why human beings in isolation lose their ability to see reality objectively. The walls begin to pulse, it is no longer possible to grasp that water bottle standing on the table. And this loss of reality happens in a shockingly short time.

In order to build up our own sense of self, we don’t just need people around us. We also need them to ask us regularly, who are you? That is what that question – where do you come from? – really means. And it should be clear to everyone that it is the opposite of openness to force an answer out of a five-year-old child in front of a television audience of millions.

But this question is also asked of Germans with white skin, isn’t it? That’s right! But when they answer, “from Herne”, the next question is not “but what about your mama and papa?” Even though they might just as easily have a parent that comes from England, or Sweden, or who knows where.

Humans with white skin get to define their own identity. I had a girlfriend once, who was white and she always said she was Greek because she loved Greece so much. And I was so jealous of her because I couldn’t even say I was German, or Indian. Because I didn’t have such easy access to that sort of definition.

And now for the more painful part. It is equally as oppressive when my friends tell me, unsolicited, that I am so totally German. Their well-intentioned perspective also leaves me little space to be myself.

In an age where we are obsessed with origins, where you come from is an important mark of your own identity if only because we have to work on it continuously. Recently my son needed my birth certificate for a bureaucratic issue. He copied it and showed it to all his friends: See, my mother really is an Indian, just look at this evidence of my personal history.

That is why not asking about origin is not the answer. But we need to learn to ask this question in a more open way. And at school! A good example of an open question would be something like this: What is your ethnic origin and what does it mean to you?

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