“But, where are you really from?”

By Charissa Dechène

From a very young age I was aware of the fact that I was different in my physiognomy than the majority of the people I came into contact with, even from my mom. My mother is Dutch and my father is of Indo-European descent, and I would fall into the social category of Western-allochtoon. My mother has been asked frequently when my sister and I were younger if we were her own children. As if she could not be the mother of two children of colour. When I was younger my mother and I would visit my grandparents in Rotterdam and we had to go with the subway. I can recall having feelings of having to prove myself that I was a ‘normal Dutch girl’ and not one of those ‘others’ who are not ‘integrated’ in Dutch society. Later I realised that these feelings derived from notions and comments I heard in my social environment about allochtonen being a threat to Dutch society. Of course, one should question the very idea of what ‘Dutch society’ is and should be, but I will not go into that in this post.

The main issue here is exclusion and inclusion of Dutch citizens (whom are everyone living in the country with a Dutch passport) in their communities. However, people tend to exclude and include people, something that happens both intendedly as unintendedly, as also with microaggression. Sue argued that the power of microaggression lies in the fact that it is often invisible to the persons who encounter them (Sue 2007: 275). He and his team also identified nine categories of micoraggression: alien in one’s own land, ascription of intelligence, color blindness, criminality/assumption of criminal status, denial of individual racism, myth of meritocracy, pathologizing cultural values/communication styles, second-class status, and environmental invalidation (Sue 2007: 276-277).

Today I would like to address microaggression. Which is an issue I find sometimes hard to explain to people who never have to deal with these types of aggression. Microaggression is a term coined in the 1970’s by psychiatrist dr. Chester Pierce and refers to unintended discrimination. Professor of Psychology and Education of the University of Colombia Derald Sue has adopted the term to refer to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue 2007: 271) . He also divided racial microaggressions into three forms (Sue 2007: 273-275):

Microassaults: A microassault is an explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behaviour, or purposeful discriminatory actions.

Microinsults: A microinsult is characterized by communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. Microinsults represent subtle snubs, frequently unknown to the perpetrator, but clearly convey a hidden insulting message to the recipient of colour.

Microinvalidations: Microinvalidations are characterized by communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of colour.

Sue argues that forms of microaggressions can occur in communications between people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but also in communications between people who differ in gender, sexuality and physical and mental abilities. In this post I want to focus on ethnic and cultural microaggressions I have encountered in everyday life. However, I will write another blog where I will incorporate the microaggression theory into everyday sexism another time.

Before I go into my own experiences, I would like to elaborate a little on the social context of the Netherlands.
The Netherlands has an ethnically and culturally heterogeneous society, in other words it is a multicultural society. However, if you are a part of what makes the society ‘multicultural’ you are bound to come into contact with people who will question your physical appearance (e.g. the colour of your skin, your hair, the shape of your eyes, etc.). In the Netherlands we have a word for people who are of non-Dutch descent and which divides the society in to two kinds of Dutch citizens: allochtoon (non-Dutch) and autochtoon (Dutch). Since 2006 there has been made a distinguish between allochtonen from Western (including Japan and Indonesia) and non-Western cultures. You could also say that the norm is autochtoon and the non-normative are those who would fall into the category of allochtoon. In cultural anthropology the allochtoon could be interpreted as ‘the other’ in Dutch society. Marijn Nieuwenhuis recently wrote an article about racism and police brutality in the Netherlands in which he explained the concept of allochtoon and autochtoon:

allochtoon (in Greek literally referring to a person from another soil) versus autochtoon (autochthon, in Greek “from the soil itself”), serves as evidence of the still persistent environmental determinism in Dutch nationalist imaginings. Dutch national identity is in fact firmly rooted in ‘primordialist’ ideas that the soil shares specific genetic characteristics. Those imagined belonging to another ‘genetic’ make-up or thought of and seen as ‘culturally’ different continue to be considered primarily as guests who have to compensate for their lack of rootedness in the ‘Dutch’ soil by strictly adhering to the cultural codes and rules of the land (Niewenhuis 2015)

This elaboration on the meaning behind the social labels in combination with the social fact that people who are perceived as ‘culturally’ different are being imagined to be the Other in our society can be seen as problematic. The terms ‘allochtoon and autochtoon’ were coined in the 1970’s by a group of social scientists who wanted to move away from concepts of minorities. The concepts were originally intended as legal concepts referring to place of birth and citizenship (an allochtoon is someone who is an immigrant or someone who has one or two parents who were born in another country). However, the terms have been stigmatized and institutionalized in Dutch society and are now more commonly used as a reference to one’s cultural background, in particular if this cultural background is not Western. The negative social stigma around the concept ‘allochtoon’ is associated with people who are, according to normative ideas of Dutchness, not integrated into Dutch society and have a different ethnicity (e.g. they have not fully adhered to the cultural codes and rules of the land, which includes talking in and understanding of the Dutch language without difficulties). The concepts also give light in the way racism and discrimination occurs in the Netherlands and the idea of an ‘us and them’ (‘us’ being autochtonen and ‘them’ being allochtonen).

To talk about forms of racism you must first understand the concept of race. Race is a conceptual framework dividing the human population into ranked categories which was developed by Western Europeans who began travelling the world in the 1400s. The racialization of the world resulted in a small number of human categories, most frequently five types with sometimes added sub-races and mixed-race types added to them. The ranking of race occurred according to assumed and imputed fixed quanta of cultural worth, intelligence, attractiveness and other qualities. It also reinforced pervasive inequality in terms of the political, economic, social and legal conditions of everyday existence ascribed to persons judged to be of different races. The concept of race arose with the perception of global variation in the physiognomic and bodily appearances of human beings. This is certainly real, but cannot, and should not, be contained within a small number of racial types because of its complexity. The simplistic racial categories are based upon a few ‘package’ traits that hardly explain a scientific approach to the complexity of human bio-variability. (E.g. blood factors and enzymes vary enormously within populations and each varies independently and are not parallel with visible racial markers or in concordance with each other).

In the 19th century a theory assuming that people who have an African background were supposedly lower on the evolutionary ladder became dominant. The “Great Chain of Being” theory argued that all living creatures could be arranged on a continuous scale from the lowliest insect to the most evolved human (a white person). The theory also claimed that people with black bodies were closer to ‘nature’ and would therefore be more ‘physical’ and also more sexual. A dark skin was not only perceived as ‘primitive’, but also as ‘dirty’, ‘sick’ and ‘contagious’. This association between a black body and sexuality resulted in an erotic interest towards people of colour (see for example Gilman 1985 and Smith 1963).
In the 1960s global consciousness over racial inequality sharpened and a liberal anthropology affirmed that race does not exist. However, the ideas of race and the conception that an intimate relation between Europeans and non-Western people would be a threat for Western civilisation remained. Therefore, the socially-organized result of race ranking which results in, racism, does exist (Sanjek in Barnard & Spencer 2002: 462-464).

“If men define situations as real, they are real in its consequences” (Thomas 1928: 572)

Anthropology shifted its interest in race toward ethnicity. Ethnicity is usually used to refer to someone’s socio-cultural identity and ‘transcends’ the idea of race. Ethnicity is the expressive process of cultural identification of people in identifying with others based on shared cultural heritage, ancestry, homeland, language, dialect and symbolic systems (e.g. religion, mythology, dress style and ritual). A constructivist approach of ethnicity argues that it is a continuing ascription that classifies a person in terms of their most general and inclusive identity, presumptively determined by origin and background (Sokolovskii & Tishkov in Barnard & Spencer 2002: 190-192).

With the concepts of allochtoon and autochtoon in mind in combination with the notions and explanations of ‘race’, racism and ethnicity I would now like to share my experiences with microaggression, in particular the categories of alien in one’s own land and pathologizing cultural values/ communication styles.
Because I look ‘different’ I have often been asked by people where I was from. I would say that I am from Gouda (the place where I live). Then they would ask “but where are you really from”, to which I would answer that I am from Rotterdam (my place of birth). They would then look kind of confused and ask again where I am originally from, because the place I was born or where I lived was not what they meant to ask, or rather where they were interested in. It would turn out that they wanted to know what my cultural heritage was, because I have a different physiognomy than theirs. So I would explain that my father was born in Indonesia and that my mother is Dutch. Then they stopped asking questions and assume and ascribe stereotypical features to me, for example that I would be a compliant person and interesting because I have a mixed ethnic and cultural background. Or that when I was quiet it must be because of my Asian background. It also occurred, several times, that people would ask what I was. Well, I am not a ‘what’ but I am a human being. To this question I would also answer what my social roles are, like I am a daughter, a sister, a niece, a cousin, a neighbour, a consumer, etc. The important question to be asked here is: why is it relevant to know someones ethnic or cultural background?

These questions did not gave me the feeling that the person asking was interested in me, but just wanted to know why I look different and ‘unexplainable’. It made me feel like I was not good enough for them when I said where I was from. It also made me feel that they were ‘othering’ me and ‘exoticizing’ and therefore also eroticizing. “People who are halfblood are the most pretty” is just an example I heard a lot. ‘Halfblood’ or ‘mixed blood’ is ansich a troublesome term, I do not have part blood and part other fluid in me. But I will go into this issue and its historic relevance in another blog.

These kinds of questions about my appearance also send me a message that I was not Dutch, or not Dutch enough. The fact that I sometimes feel like an alien in my own country by having to answer these questions again and again and explaining why I am irritated by these questions illustrate the effects that microaggressions can have on a person. Photographer Kiyun did a project in which she asked her friends to write down racial microaggressions they have encountered.

Another frequent issue I have is being randomly addressed to on the street by people who would, as they walk by, or as I walk by them, say or yell “ni hao” which is Chinese for hello. This is something I do not like at all. Firstly because I don’t understand why people are randomly talking to me and addressing my appearance, as goes for everyday street harassment which I myself and other women encounter on a daily basis. Secondly, I am not Chinese and the people who are saying “ni hao” are saying it as a pejorative joke and often don’t even know what they are saying. Usually I tell them to shut up or just ignore them, however ignoring often results in being called a slut (because misogyny I guess). It also denotes that people perceive people who look Asian as one and the same who share a common culture, which is obviously not the case. Alex Dang wonderfully answered the question “what kind of Asian are you” in this awesome poetry slam.

When talking about these issues with people who do not encounter these situations I am often being told that I am being oversensitive, which makes me feel that my feelings are ignored, not important and also not even acknowledged. “The people asking you where you are from are probably asking them, because they want to know more about you. You look interesting”. To what I would respond with that my cultural and/ or ethnic background does not tell you anything about my character or makes me, as a person, per se interesting. Sometimes I feel as if this is a constant battle, me being annoyed and feeling attacked by these questions and having to explain why that is. Which also illustrates the power of microaggressions, the perpetrator is not aware of the impact his/her words have on the person because they often don’t see the harm it encompasses. Some would say that this is because the people who would ask these questions are white and have ‘white privillege’ and do not encounter racism or discrimination on a daily basis. When asking them if they would like to be interrogated (because that is how it feels) about where they are from of being addressed to on the street by random people about your colour or physiognomy, they would mostly answer with a firm no. However, they would then switch back to saying these are not forms of racism or discrimination.

As Marijn Nieuwenhuis and anthropologist Femke Kaulingfreks have stated, people in the Netherlands continue to deny that there is such a thing as constitutional racism in the Netherlands. It is as if people do not want to acknowledge the fact that in this country, which is supposedly tolerable (for example we were the first country in which gay-marriage was legalized), racism exists. People who speak about racism or discrimination are being shut down with comments that they are oversensitive, should go back to where they came from and other dismissive commentaries. What is shamefull is that people (of color) who speak up about racism and discrimination do live here and are often born here and are thus a part of this society, but are still seen as the ‘other’. I often feel that, because I have the ability to ‘educate’ people about these kinds of issues, I am obligated to inform people what influence such microaggressions have on people, rather it is about colour of one’s skin or about gender. But also that issues of racism, discrimination and alienation is not only something that happens to people who are black, but also to people with an asian background..,to all people of color..and people who have ‘mixed’ ethnic backgrounds, something that is unfortunately too often not highlighted. I think that more diversity and non-stereotypical representations thereof in media and pop culture could and would help change perceptions.
I also hope this blog helped do that.

If you want to contact me, please leave a comment or you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram.


3 thoughts on ““But, where are you really from?”

  1. Super excited to return to this blog post of yours from much earlier! Not only because the message here strikes hard and rings true, but also because you’re taking the time to share your actual experiences of microagressions in the Netherlands, and I think this is an experience that translates across settings worldwide. And actually, your post reminds me of this video I came across on YouTube, called “What Kind of Asian Are You?”, which speaks to the U.S. context, but I think very well relates to your experience, too.

    It’s a reminder for us all to think through what we’re about to say, BEFORE we say it! All in an effort to keep making this world a better and more inclusive and thriving place for everyone.

    Loving your blog! Keep sharing with us ❤ !!


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