“Where are you from?”
Being able to answer this question with ease is something that many take for granted. While there are usually no malicious intentions associated with the question, it does carry some sort of weight (whether it’s negative or positive) with people of color.
Because I was born in Saudi Arabia, with my teenage years spent in Southwest Virginia and most recently relocating from New York to West Philly, this question has often been difficult for me to answer.
But throughout college and grad school, I was able to craft a better explanation — partially with the help of “co-cultural communication theory,” which was conceived of by a communications scholar out of Western Michigan University, Mark Orbe, whose work I came across while working on a presentation on ethnic identity in punk rock for a conference back in 2008.
Orbe’s theory focuses on intercultural communication and how those with different cultural identities simply deal with it all. His outlook on this was refreshing because Orbe doesn’t believe in subcultures: As I understood it, he found the term “subculture” to further marginalize people that weren’t interested in being seen as “sub” or beneath a mainstream culture, so to speak. The theory presented the concept of choice, which really appealed to me.
The question lends itself to isolation and otherness, or maybe a lack of belonging in the present context.
Why is choice important in this scenario?
Feminist blog Feministe explained it best in a three-part series it published back in 2011 called, “Where Are You From?” The question lends itself to isolation and “otherness,” or maybe a lack of belonging in the present context. The question also forces the other party into vulnerability. Don’t get me wrong, I try to be as much of an open book as possible, but it’s also important to realize that some spaces are safer than others.
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Which brings us to the present day: I see Philadelphia as a safe space. Mayor Jim Kenney has been known for his positive stance towards immigrants ever since he named Philadelphia a “sanctuary city,” something I have valued as a resident as we prepare to usher in the new presidential administration. Philadelphia — not New York City — was also recently named the first World Heritage City in the nation.
I’ve been thankful for safe spaces such as international relations organization Citizen Diplomacy International, the National Association for Multi-Ethnic Communications and now, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP).
Join me at HSP this Wednesday evening for a discussion entitled “A ‘Melting Pot’ or Kaleidoscope? Immigration and Discrimination” with fellow panelists Leslie Alcock, assistant director of the Irish Immigration Center, and Pedro Rodriguez, director of the city’s Office of Human Resources, as we tackle complex issues. Our moderator is Faye Allard-Glass who is an assistant professor of sociology at Community College of Philadelphia. Tickets are free but an RSVP is required.-30-
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