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“Don’t Ask Where I’m From, Ask Where I’m Local”

in Musings · 2 minutes read

Every once in a while I stumble on a great nugget of wisdom that reshapes a small part of my thinking. With time, and many of these nuggets, I get to recycle a large part of my lodged ideas.

Recently, I stumbled on a TED talk that fits the above description. Taiye Selasi’s “Don’t Ask Where I’m From, Ask where I’m a Local” is a short 16 minutes video packed with insight that shifted, rather quickly, how I think about identity.

We grow up with a very strong national identity; a lot of weight is given to the concepts of country and nationality. We are somehow defined by the regional borders we were born in; borders that may or may not have existed half a century ago; that may or may not exist half a century from today; and that have little impact on our identity when compared to other factors.

“History was real, cultures were real, but countries were invented.”

In hindsight, this is a concept I was uncomfortable with; a mini internal struggle I wasn’t fully aware of. I just knew I always had a hard time answering the question “where are you from?”. My answers felt contrived, incomplete, or inaccurate. I also noticed many of my peers experienced the same feeling.

I have less in common with the average Lebanese than I do with a Pakistani that left home to study engineering abroad, tracks all sort of personal data, and launched his own company.

My experience is where I’m from.

In her talk, Taiye introduces the beautiful and significantly more relatable concept of locality. It is our neighborhoods, our schools, our hangout spots, in essence, our local experiences that define who we are. Taiye urges us to stop asking where we are from, and instead ask where are we locals. (As an aside, she was born in England and grew up in the US, she’s the daughter of a mother raised in Nigeria and a father raised in Ghana, and so on.)

“All experience is local. All identity is experience.”

She then introduces the three “R’s” to help us think about our locality: specifically, we are locals of where we carry out our Rituals (“In what city or cities in the world do shopkeepers know your face?”) and our Relationships (who and where are the people who shape our days), and, finally, we are also subject to Restrictions (visas, racism, political instability, etc.).

“Replacing the language of nationality with the language of locality asks us to shift our focus to where real life occurs. […] As a unit of measurement for human experience, the country doesn’t quite work”

Let Taiye give you more insight into this. I recommend you watch the talk here.

Note to myself: I realize I have never taken the time to reflect on this particular feeling of internal discomfort, even after having encountered it several times. Taiye has helped me both understand and remedy it, by replacing an outdated thinking model (country/nationality) with a more adequate one (locality). This is a reminder to myself to take better notice of these internal feelings of discomfort (“something’s off”) and then take the time to understand them.

“You can take away my passport, but you can’t take away my experience. That I carry within me. Where I’m from comes wherever I go.”


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Published on:   October 8, 2015