Notes On A Not So Scandalous Scandal

Think of this particular entry as a portion of my notes for an upcoming entry which analyses the portrait bearing the text “Where are you really from.” Out of all of the t-shirts featured in this project, this seems to be the most problematic the most misunderstood. For many critics, the word ‘really’ seems to have been glossed over, and so in their minds I am dissecting the question “Where are you from”? I react very differently depending on how this critique is delivered to me. If it’s sent to me in an email, if it’s said aloud to me at an event, or presented on *Facebook as it was last night: I don’t understand the problem with the question “where are you / your family from originally / where did you get your roots” when it is posed correctly”. I have my suspicions about why the word ‘really’ is glossed over and I think it has something to do with the emotions that this project stirs up for many White viewers (just read the comments section of The New York Times, Der Spiegel, the ZDF video piece). If there’s just one thing that can be broken down, I imagine that these critics will feel a sense of validation, they will say to themselves, “The whole project is null and void. Here is the hole in this ‘theory’, this is the proof that he is making this up, reading into things that are not there, racism does not exist here.” It’s much easier for some people to point a finger at me instead of analysing beliefs which they have been fed all of their lives. I get it, but I’m not having any of it. As I work on this week’s article, I would like to share with you how I respond to these comments. Maybe it will help you in your own conversations, if you choose to have these kinds of conversations at all. If you don’t, and I mean this, good for you! Isaiah Lopaz- Him Noir

The question that I address in the photographic series Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Him, which in actuality is a question that I have been asked several times over in Berlin, though never in London or Amsterdam where I also lived, is “Where are you really from”? Similar or related questions include, “Where are your parents from”, “Where are your Grandparents from”, “What are your roots”? I do think that for non-White Europeans the question “Where are you from” can be problematic. If a non-White German person speaking to a White German person in German is asked “Where are you from”, and they answer “From here”, “From Berlin (or insert any German city or Village), or “I’m German”, then you have your answer. This person is identifying THEMSELF as German and that’s that! For now I would like to return to the question that I address in my photo series and that question again is, “Where do you really come from”. When I am asked “Where are you from”, I always answer “Los Angeles”. That’s where I’m ‘from’. When I am then asked what my roots are, where my parents are from, where my grandparents are from, I know that I’m being asked these questions based on my skin color, so let’s just call it what it is, i am being asked “Where are you really from” based on race. A White person from Canada, The United States, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa isn’t likely to be asked, “Where are you really from”, “What are your roots”, “Where are your parents from”, Where are your Grandparents from”. White people don’t have ‘roots’, and have not been uprooted due to slavery or colonialism, or genocide. A White American will never hear from another White person from Europe or any of the countries that I’ve listed, “Oh but you’re White, so are you British, German, Italian, Irish, French, or Swedish”. White people from South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia are also not likely to hear these questions. We know how they got there: by force, by warfare, violence, colonialism, genocide, trickery, warfare, and other heinous acts.

An interest in my roots is a distant memory of the displacement of my ancestors, a recollection of the Transatlantic slave trade, of the outcome of The Berlin Conference, the effects of colonialism on the continent of Africa. People who ask me this question after hearing that I’m from Los Angeles know very well that I cannot trace my African heritage because my ancestors were not encouraged or allowed to keep their customs, their religions, their languages, their morals, or their values. This question also ignores as Taiye Selasi put it, that a human being cannot come from a concept, and that a nation, something that can be born, something that can expand, something that can evolve, and something that can fail is not an absolute. Look at the history of Germany as a nation for example. I have learned that the question “Where are you really from”, is really a question about my ethnicity. There’s race, nationality, and ethnicity, the question where are you from posed to me as a non-White person is all about my ethnic background which is only important in a racialized society. What a silly thing to ask a stranger, and what’s even more ridiculous is to expect that you will know more about me when I disclose my ethnic background(s), assuming I have the privilege of knowing them at all. When I answer that I’m ‘from’ Los Angeles, it’s clear that I am American. White people who then ask me where I’m really from are not willing to accept this based solely on race. The “Where are you really from” question asserts that I’m lying, that I don’t have the ability to define myself as an American, and this all based on race. This is what I find most problematic about this question… the assertion that I as a human being who happens to be Black cannot identify myself as someone who belongs to or hails from a concept (a nation) simply because I’m not White. I’m not a tree. I don’t have roots.

The person who I am addressing went on to state, “My approach always was that being interested in/and exploring differences is never a bad thing – when it’s done for the right reasons.” I elaborated on my thoughts about his original comment and his ‘approach’ in the text below.

Language is so crucial in these discussions because it belies the structures that we’ve been trained to think in when it comes to race. As Grada Kilomba said, “We’ve been educated to think in racist colonialist structures.” What does it mean to explore difference? At a talk I gave a few weeks ago where I exhibited the t-shirts from this series for the first time, a man approached me and said, “What if i’m an ethnologist and I see a Black European and I want to know what their background is”? “If you ask a Black Swedish person who’s parent’s are from Uganda, ‘Where are you from’, and they answer that they are Swedish then they have told you where they’re from, they have told you that they identify as Swedish.” He could not accept this because for him this person would not be Swedish. It was interesting to watch him try to rephrase the question, to explain his ‘curiosity’, his right to subject others to explain their nationalities in terms that he could understand and therefore accept. “If I’m an ethnologist though, and I just want to know about their Ugandan roots what’s wrong with that?” “You are denying how this person identifies themself simply based on the color of their skin. If you are an ethnologist studying Ugandan culture then you need to find someone for your study who identifies as Ugandan or even Swedish Ugandan, or Ugandan Swedish”.

What is difference? This idea which seems to be innocent is loaded and highly problematic. Last night after taking the time to type out my answer to you, I was listening to a Toni Morrison interview with Charlie Rose where among other things, she talks about race. She mentions that White people forget that they too are also a ‘race’ and that their race has some serviceability. Grada Kilomba observes, ” What is very important when we talk about racism is to understand that whiteness is a political identity, which has the privilege of both being at the center and still being absent. That is, having the power, but this power is perceived as neutral and normal. It is precisely this privilege of remaining unmarked but of marking the others that characterises racism.“ I received a letter wherein a man told me that there was nothing wrong with him seeing, as he put it, ‘a second generation German with a Chinese background and asking him ‘Where are you from’? “It was so strange to see him (the man which he identified as Chinese) speaking our Franconian dialect. It of course does not match,” he went on to write. Why doesn’t it match for this White Franconian man? I have to admit, I find such a notion just as ridiculous as it is dangerous. We see that in this man’s mind, the person which he describes is not a human being in this moment. It would be strange to see a plant or inanimate object speak any language or dialect, but it should not be strange to see a non-White European speaking a ‘a dialect exclusively spoken in Europe’. If this man were regarded with humanity it would not be strange or wold not be ‘mismatched’ or better said, ‘out of place’ for him to speaking a Franconian dialect since human beings with the ability to speak are capable of learning multiple languages and various dialects. The problem for this White Franconian man is two fold: on the one hand, deep down of course he knows that the ‘Franconian dialect’ does not belong to him, that anyone can learn it, and that Whiteness does not prevent non-Whites from sharing components of culture which are contained in language. Language, reading, writing, and knowledge are power. Where once non-Whites were prevented from speaking or learning how to ‘properly speak the language of their oppressors’, anyone who grows up in Franconia can learn the dialect (or dialects?) of this region. “You speak such good German”, or, “He speaks my dialect fluently”, remind us that we are not expected to ‘match’ you in any way, shape, or form. On the other hand, in another part of his brain, he gives himself over to the mania that we all live with (race/racism) and this mania tells him that something is not quite right, something that only critical thinking can rectify, but perhaps it’s best not to go there or to do that.

What I find so illuminating about all of this, is that we as non-Whites are never looked at for how similar we are to you, our differences are always skin/skin color deep. You may look at me as a Black man and think of me as different, never mind that we can both speak English, never mind that we might both be artists, never mind that we might like the same literature, the same music, the same foods, that we might both be gay, that we may have attended the same festivals, that we both speak Spanish or French as second and third languages, that we may have been brought up in the same faith. My difference in this case, the difference which you seek to explore, or the perceived differences which may cause others to avoid me entirely, stem from the same place, the same space, a rigid, arbitrary framework which we call race. I’m not sure if you’re from Germany, and will make no assumptions but I’d like to share my thoughts about this particular question, as they’ve come together over the last few weeks. I live in a country where many parts of this country only came together around 1871. The United States, the colonised land that I come from which was taken by force from some of my ancestors, and where my other ancestors were taken from their homelands and forced into slavery, is quite a bit older than Germany. Germany was divided in 1945 and then reunified in 1990. Nations are concepts and not absolutes and I am curious why many of the White Germans who ask me, “Where are you really from”, ‘believe’ in nations or nationalities as fixed concepts, a belief which the history of Germany does not validate.

Of course questions like “What are your roots” reveal that we as people of color belong elsewhere, to occupied lands, former colonies, to countries and continents with terrible histories and deplorable living conditions, ideas which do the impossible: they recognise colonialism and ignore it at the same time. “Where are you from”, and “Where are you really from” are questions that speak of belonging. “Where do you belong?” Your non-Whiteness signals that you cannot belong here. There is an origin story which supersedes your birth on this land (Germany, the United States, Australia), your upbringing here on this land, your history and experiences here on this land, your passport, and your status as a citizen of this nation.“ Sometimes I’ve rephrased this question to White Germans, “Well what about you? Where are your parents from.” The answers vary, but usually sound like, “Well I’m from this village or that city”, “My Mother’s from this village and my Father’s from that village”. Once someone explained to me, “I’m a real Berliner. How many generations of your family come from America? My family has lived in Berlin for over six generations.” Yes, he really asked me how many generations of my family were ‘American’. If you’re “a hundred percent German”, as I’ve also heard, there are reasons why. Are concepts like Bio-Deutsch and quizzing non-Whites about their roots simply a throw back to a time where you were either German or you were not? Race was and continues to be a system of power and privilege which defines difference as not White. This is what it was created to do, this is what it does to this day. This dubious quest to define and explore my differences is in service of severing my humanity, my individuality, my objectivity. In this scenario your normal neutral is the standard, and my difference is based on my skin color, and not the uniqueness of my mind, my abilities, and my life experience. The latter is how ‘difference’ can be measured because it does not make sense, it is highly illogical to measure me using an arbitrary theory constructed for the purpose of power, White supremacy, and the subjugation of non-Whites.

*The first comment has been translated into English. My comments have been edited for grammar, punctuation, and spelling and a few points have been sharpened to better communicate my thoughts on this particular subject.