Where Are You Really From?

Our class has explored the concept of “Othering”, which is the process of creating a binary of “us” and them”. When we speak about “Othering” and race, this means that white skin and Western customs are normalized and dominant, while people from the Global South and/or racialized folks are made to seem dissimilar, backwards, and subordinate. As a mixed race woman of colour, I feel that I am “Othered” no matter where I go. In the few days that we’ve been travelling India, I’ve been able to compare the ways in which I am “Othered” in the West versus the ways in which I am “Othered” here. I feel that these processes produce the same colonial narratives but come from very different dynamics of power.

I often feel that I am caught in a cultural limbo, being someone who identifies as Canadian but who is not usually perceived as such. While my father has white skin and bright blue eyes, I inherited my mother’s darker Sri Lankan features. I am often asked the question, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” upon first meeting people. When this occurs, I am steered to explain my family members’ entire ethnic backgrounds, and sometimes endure microaggressions in this process. In India, I feel that the question “Where are you from?” is used to inquire more on the basis of my actions, language, and performativity, as opposed to the basis of my skin tone alone, as is the case in Canada.

When visiting the Golden Temple, many of my light-skinned peers noted how they were “Othered” as locals clamoured to take photos of them. One individual referred to our group as “Canadian queens”, then turned to me and asked, “You look like a local. Did you come here from Canada? Where are you originally from?” Another individual asked my friend where she was from, then turned to me with the same question. When I replied, “I’m also from Canada”, they continued to probe me for details on my ethnic background, asking me when my parents had originally “settled” in Canada.

Nobody has asked my light-skinned peers when their families “settled” in Canada, and yet we are all settlers to Canada if we are not Indigenous peoples. I see that my peers and I are received in very different ways by people who live here, just as we are perceived differently from each other back home. In Canada, I am questioned for having brown skin in spite of maintaining Western mannerisms, and am seen as less Canadian due to the normalization and privileging of white skin. In India, I feel that I am questioned for having mannerisms that do not match my seemingly Indian appearance, while my peers’ light skin is celebrated extensively for its difference. It has shaken me to see these processes of “Othering” in such a blatant, universal manner, and yet, that is the essence of “Othering” itself.

Despite my discomfort, I have had some meaningful exchanges with locals in our ensuing discussions of multiculturalism and being mixed race in Canada. I am being challenged to think more deeply about my identity and what this means for the ways in which I navigate my privilege as I participate here in India.

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