Where Are You from? Notes on National Identity from an African-American in Spain

By Abena Wariebi

Reporting from the Catalonian city of Barcelona, Abena Wariebi discusses national identity from an African-American perspective, assessing the differences between American and European conceptualizations of belonging.

Collage of faces

Collage of faces c Courtesy Photo

I have the pleasure of meeting many people in Barcelona who are curious about what has brought me here. A few days ago, while having lunch at a bar, I met an older Spanish man. We went through the formalities: He asked me my name, where I’m from, and what I was doing in the city.

A few minutes prior to our conversation, this same man had walked into the bar with a friend, with whom he was discussing learning French. He sat down at the bar, looked towards me and said, “Yes, let’s ask her. She looks like she speaks French.”

I get that a lot here, the assumption that I speak French.

I told him that I am from the U.S. and more specifically, from Maryland. That answer apparently was not good enough as before I could ask him where he was from in return, he stated, “Yes, but you look like you’re from somewhere else.”

Unsure as to whether I wanted to engage in a debate about identities, I reluctantly responded: “Well, I was born in Nigeria. However, I’ve lived almost 19 years in the U.S.” The conversation continued for a few moments but soon our attention drifted elsewhere. The TV in the restaurant was showing a news story from the U.S. followed, ironically, by one from Nigeria. I heard him say: “There goes your country.” To which I responded, “oh yeah, another Trump headline.”

“No, I mean Nigeria.” He replied.

This interaction may seem innocent, but if like me you study immigration management and issues related to diversity there is a lot to unpack here regarding the way we tend to think about national identity. Questions about belonging and citizenship are about more than legal definitions. What does it mean to be from a place? What is national identity and how is it constructed? Who is American? Who is British? Who is French?

Effectively we know who we are. I understand that I am American and not Canadian because I reside in the territory of the U.S. and have my life there. Identity is however a highly politicized concept. Whether one feels American or feels Spanish will have more to do with their socialization, their country’s history, political conflicts and the political agenda. Nations, regimes, and countries have a lot of power in shaping national identity. The events of the past as well as current day politics will determine whether a country will adapt an exclusive or inclusive model for the concept of identity. The consequences of this decision determine who will feel a sense of belonging and who will forever be left on the margins.

In the U.S. I can assume the identity as an African-American with little contestation because despite the country’s heinous treatment of blacks throughout history and today, the U.S. was built on immigration and, it is generally believed, anyone can in a sense adopt this identity. An ideology exists that what makes an American is an acceptance and reverence of values such as hard work, determination, and the accomplishment of the American dream. American society is plagued with racism, but ultimately because of the long history of migration and the existence of different groups, it is more difficult for this sort of nationalist agenda to be vocalized. This is not the case in many other countries, specifically European nations with histories of colonialism. In such cases, identity is often linked to ethnicity.

In the U.S., in regard to religious identity and nationality we’ve seen a different relationship evolve. Religion is another dimension in this conversation about identity and belonging. We also see it invoked at times as a tool to include or exclude certain groups. Within just the first few days of Trump’s presidency he passed the so-called Muslim Ban restricting entry into the U.S. for citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. This ban not only impacts the people within these countries, but also the entire Muslim population living in the U.S. as American citizens. Trump has consistently linked terrorism exclusively to Islam and consequentially the idea that Muslim Americans are just as dangerous as terrorist groups in the Middle East. Through his discourse and his position as president he has been able to legitimize a threat and establish a common enemy. The Muslim person to him is a transversal threat linked to internal and external insecurity. Trump’s hate speech and tolerance of Islamophobia will impact Muslim Americans who may find their identity being torn away from them.

Not to undermine the several other components that make part of this discourse, within the scope of this essay I focus mainly on ethnicity. For example, in the Netherlands, the population is broken down into two categories: ‘autochtoon’ and ‘allochtoon’, to distinguish the ethnic Dutch from foreigners. The second category, the allochtoon also includes second-generation migrants who were born in the Netherlands. If not for the purpose to highlight some sort of discrimination through data and statistics, this sort of distinction, especially for second-generation migrants, is arbitrary at best. To distinguish them from any other Dutch person considering they have been born in the Netherlands seems to be for no other purpose than to perpetuate the idea that they are somehow different or not truly Dutch.

Another example is the case of Italy in which foreigners, including those born in Italy, must wait until 18 to apply for Italian citizenship. Contrarily, foreigners who have Italian descendants can move to the country and within two years of legal residence make a claim for citizenship. This sort of distinction is not necessarily mal-intended, yet I think we should consider why we put more emphasis on ethnicity when we think about national identity and citizenship rather than place of birth, residency or even values. We should be critical of how this sort of framing can in turn lead to discrimination, racism and xenophobia. A Moroccan born in Italy must wait until he turns 18 to “become Italian” while an Argentinian with ethnic roots in Italy can assume this identity in two years.

The way we think about national identity and the way it is constructed is important. It can be a tool of inclusion or a way to delegitimize certain groups and promote a nationalist agenda. As European nations and societies grow increasingly diverse from both historical migratory patterns as well as more recent influxes, a new approach to how national identity is constructed must be considered. What we are now seeing however is the rise of right wing populist parties who mobilize an “us” vs. “them” discourse.

My purpose here is not to disassociate myself from the African continent. I am consistently finding new ways to embrace my African-ness. But when I am constantly asked where I am “really” from, I cannot help but wonder if white Americans are also experiencing the same? For so many people in Barcelona to constantly assume that I am from France or French-speaking suggests that they do not realize that within their own city there is an Afro-Hispanic/Afro-Catalan community that have also been born and raised here. The problem is that this group is not visible and often not included in Spanish identity.

I am black and American. African-American. One and the other. The two at the same time. When I am asked here where I am from I will continue to give the same answer. Not in any attempt to deny my African-ness, but to emphasize the fact that the American identity can be more than just one.

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