As a Jewish, white, Los Angelino woman with skin dark enough to look like I could belong to most ethnicities, I often receive the question: “what are you?” Growing up, I would walk through airports or travel to new places and have all sorts of people approach me and ask me questions in different languages (Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, etc.), assuming that I shared their nationality or ethnicity. Despite my childhood frustrations at the awkwardness of feeling like I’d disappointed a stranger by being a monolingual American, I have come to see a great beauty in this trait. Almost everywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve had the privilege of looking like I could belong to any number of communities, and thus I am not typically treated with hostility. Instead, I am met with curious looks as locals try to puzzle out my ethnic, racial, and religious identities, and then often with smiles as people comfortably assume I must be, in some way, similar to them.
On my first day of work at Cairde, this pattern repeated itself. A Romanian man walked in to the advocacy center, the part of the office in which I work, and was talking to some of my colleagues as I did the reading my advisor assigned me. I cheerfully waved hello, and at one point joined the conversation. From him, I received two identifiers. The first was when, upon hearing me speak, he said something along the lines of: “ah yes, I knew you were from the States before you even spoke.” Typically, being an American abroad is a bad thing, and so as I tried to explain that I was not a gun-toting stereotype, he surprised me by saying something I had never heard before: “It’s a good thing, I could tell by how much energy you had and how you greeted me and by how hard you’ve been working over there.”
I was nothing short of shocked. I answered with an expression of that astonishment, and we went back and forth about whether or not being from the States is typically perceived as a “good thing” until he finally asked the series of questions that I was really waiting for, and the series of questions that I have been asked countless times by clients and passersby in Ireland. With him, and with most people, the series of questions unfolds like so:
Him: “So where exactly are you from?”
Me (confused, because we had gone over this, and wondering if he was trying to ask about my ethnicity): “Um… the States?”
Him: “No, but where are you from, from?”
Me (still confused): “California?”
Him: “No like where are your parents from?”
Me: “They’re also from the States. And my grandparents are from the States. Are you trying to ask about my ethnicity?”
Him: “Yes exactly, where are your ancestors from?”
Me: “Poland, Russia, and Austria.”
Him: “Really? Nowhere else? ”
It’s hard to imagine that my ancestry is so important that it’s worth such conversational awkwardness and circuitousness. It’s also hard for me to imagine exactly why my ancestry is important at all when I personally feel so disconnected from it. This isn’t because of any active choice to separate myself from my “origins,” but because all of my grandparents, and even some of my great-grandparents, were born in the U.S. I was raised American, with our family traditions of celebrating Jewish holidays as my biggest connector to my roots.
It can be very frustrating to have people assume that my heritage is a fundamental determinant of my identity. Whether I like it or not, and regardless of how long my family has been in the U.S., I identify as an American before I identify with any other culture, nationality, or the like. I think when I answer inquiries about where I’m from by saying “the States,” others should accept that as my national identity instead of assuming that there must be some other, important identity that I’m hiding, and must be discovered to understand me.
I also think that I am immensely privileged because if people choose to base my identity on my Eastern European heritage rather than on my view of myself as American, the impact on my life is far from catastrophic. For the migrants and ethnic minorities with whom I work every day in the office, the color of their skin or their accents (if they are first generation migrants) have much larger consequences. For the ethnic minorities who live in Ireland, and see the fact that they are Irish as their primary identity, being assigned an alternative identity and treated in kind seems painfully difficult to handle. It creates an unwanted dissonance between their conceptions of themselves as active members of Irish society, and of their treatment as outsiders.
At Cairde every day, many clients seek help claiming an Irish identity. They seek Irish jobs, Irish legal status, benefits of Irish medical cards, but more than anything they seem to seek the normalcy that the privilege of being identified as Irish could bring to their lives. Often, they struggle to navigate the consequences of the foreign identities projected onto them by racist shopkeepers and hostile security guards. When they come into the office searching for whatever services they need, they can bring with them a dissipating faith in a country that is failing to accept them. This week, when my coworker asked an Iranian refugee where he was from, the man was immediately furious. He started shouting about the fact that all that mattered to anyone was that he was Muslim. As a consequence of being identified as Muslim and Middle-Eastern, he had been beaten by police officers, suffering in Direct Provision, and angered by the every day racism he faced. And he spoke of how frustrated he was because he was struggling with his Muslim identity, and only wanted to belong, to be treated as Irish.
Projections of identity can put people into an unwanted box. It strips them down from a whole person into an ethnic identity, both stripping them of individual sets of hopes, dreams, chosen affiliations, and so on and ascribing to them stereotypical sets of the same thing. It takes away their own personal truths, and replaces it with a pernicious alternative: that of the falsified “truths” of stereotypes, of stigma, of ingrained prejudice. Even if stereotypes are not universally degrading and can at times even be positive, the pain that stereotypes can bring via prejudice seems to have a much more profound impact upon the stereotyped than the rare positives. In sum, projecting an identity onto another deprives them of their personhood. It gives someone a space to characterize me in terms that contradict how I conceptualize myself, and do the same to any number of ethnic minorities in Ireland.
This experience is challenging me to push past typical conceptualizations of identity, and means by which to identify others, in ways that did not occur to me before. And while I hope that I have never projected an identity in a manner so harmful as what I have seen while I am here, I can never know what my unconscious actions have done to another. It is clear, though, that in the Irish context – one of mass migration, of a relatively newfound convergence of cultures – this issue is actively damaging the lives of migrants and minorities attempting to make this place their new home.