I listened to the Ideas Worth Spreading Ted Talks audio podcast this morning while I was at work. The speaker was Taiye Selasi, author of the 2013 novel Ghana Must Go. She is Ghanian and Nigerian, born in London, and raised in Massachusetts. In her Ted Talk, Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m local, she discusses the complexities and pitfalls in answering the question, “where are you from?”, with the name of the country you were born in. Countries are created through arbitrary borders, and there are people who were born 20, 30, or 40 years ago in a country that now no longer exists. There are millions of people, like Taiye Selasi, who were raised in countries different from the ones their parents came from. Taiye tells the story of her friend, whom Taiye was shocked to discover was Nigerian. She was shocked because her friend is Lebanese, and she assumed that because of her light skin and facial features that she couldn’t possibly be Nigerian. Taiye shared this story as an example of how we use the seemingly innocuous question of where are you from as a way to place people (and also police?) within racial/ethnic boundaries.
Taiye offers a different idea of how we can not only ask someone where they are from, but how we think of ourselves outside of the state. Where are you local is the better question to ask because it allows people to bring the richness of their experiences to the answer. To understand where you are local, Taiye asks us to consider three things: rituals, relationships, and restrictions. What are your daily rituals? Where is the first place you go in the morning? Where do you buy your coffee from? Where do you eat lunch? Where’s your favorite happy hour bar or restaurant? Who do you have relationships with? In what ways are you restricted in the places you live(d).
I enjoyed this podcast because it exposed me to a new way of thinking about place, borders, and citizenship. If you’re interested in listening to it, or any other Ideas Worth Spreading Ted Talk, and you have an iPhone, just search for the podcast in the podcast app.