No, Where Are You Really From? The Impact of Categorizing Others

This month we are publishing Becoming Diasporically Moroccan by Lauren Wagner. In this post the author discusses the themes of microaggression and othering that are explored in her book.

© Kiyun Kim – from Racial Microaggressions, December 2013

Contrary to the typical imagination of discriminatory speech being direct and obvious, othering or categorizing statements often happen more subtly through microaggression. It can be understood as the ways underlying stereotypes about race, class, gender, and other social attributes are reproduced in casual encounters – like the experience of the woman in the picture on the right, from photographer Kiyun Kim’s project on microaggressions in a NYC university (For more testimonies, see the Microaggressions Tumblr or this nice video at Quartz with examples from film and TV). Microaggressions can be found anywhere, and experienced by anyone who might find their own sense of identity and belonging inadvertently or purposefully stereotyped by someone else. As they are becoming more widely researched and recognized as fostering social divisions, universities around the US are mandating that incoming students learn about the negative impacts of microaggression on their peers.

Yet, the existence of ‘microaggression’ is coming under attack by media and researchers, who question many of the claims made about potentially negative impacts of subtle speech. In Becoming Diasporically Moroccan, I try to show how the very subtle communicative and embodied modes for categorizing others do have an impact – not necessarily a direct and immediate one, but a cumulative and collective impact, as whole communities can come to feel ‘othered’ by the repetition, across members and over time, of small speech acts that create distinctions between us and them. This book doesn’t concentrate on how ‘othered’ groups feel harmed; rather, I try to focus on how othering contributes to evolving ideas of membership, participation, and a sense of belonging in an emerging group.

Let me take the example from the photograph above to illustrate how categorization happens in ordinary conversation.

No, where are you really from?

This is a question I hear quoted all the time by my research participants as one of the most troublesome ones they receive. While they are Moroccan-origin individuals who grew up in Europe, they share the problem of many migrant-origin individuals around the world of somehow not being allowed to be ‘from’ the place where they grew up.

The person asking this question may be on a genuine quest for information, but this includes layered, embedded assumptions that make it microaggressive. It is, firstly, context-specific, and depends on local knowledges and shared assumptions about what is ‘normal’; what should a person who is from somewhere look, sound, or be like? That leads to a second factor: that statement takes into account some kind of visible embodiment as categorizable in a combination of place (e.g. the somewhere she is from) and descent (or, the family lineage she comes from). This statement makes an assumption that place and descent map onto each other following a ‘normal’ category. Asking where she is really from implies that her claim to be from that somewhere is impossible. When these assumptions work together, they perpetuate this kind of (maybe unintentional…) microaggression, where this woman may feel like she has to justify being from the somewhere she feels she is from.

No wonder she is rolling her eyes…

Categorization at ‘home’

In Becoming Diasporically Moroccan, I pick apart face-to-face interactions where similar kinds of categorizing talk takes place, but in a different kind of context. Instead of looking at how Moroccan-origins manage their categorization in their European homelands – which might be compared to how lots of other minorities and migrant-origin groups have to deal with microaggression within a dominant (often ‘white’) group – this book looks at how these categorizations take place between Moroccans who live in Morocco and Moroccan-origin adults who visit Morocco from Europe. Like some other communities that develop in one place and can trace their familial descent to another place, Moroccans have a chance to regularly visit ‘home’. When they do, however, they often feel ‘othered’, in the opposite way to how many feel ‘othered’ in Europe.

By looking at individual examples of interactions in marketplaces, between resident Moroccan vendors and Moroccans-from-Europe, I show the subtle conversational details of how this ‘othering’ works. My conclusion, however, is not about how one or the other party may be doing wrong… Instead, I advocate that we start to think about how individuals like this – who grow up connected by descent and place to multiple homelands – together create new categories that help us evolve our thinking about where anyone might ‘belong’.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Local Languaging, Literacy and Multilingualism in a West African Society by Kasper Juffermans.

Local Languaging: Challenges Existing Definitions of ‘Language’ and ‘Literacy’

Last month we published Local Languaging, Literacy and Multilingualism in a West African Society by Kasper Juffermans. The book challenges existing definitions of ‘language’ and ‘literacy’ in The Gambia. In this post, Kasper gives us a bit more background to the ideas discussed in his book.

Local Languaging, Literacy and Multilingualism in a West African SocietyHow many languages do you speak? If we think a bit longer about this rather common question, it is not the same kind of question as How often have you been to Africa? or How many children do you have? Generally, travels and children are rather easy to count and remember. With language that’s not quite the case. Languages are difficult to count not because people often speak such a large number of them – usually they don’t – but because it’s hard to tell where one language begins and another ends, as well as what counts as speaking it.

As a student of African studies at a Belgian university I began carrying out field research in The Gambia, Africa’s smallest mainland country. The Gambia gained independence from the UK in 1965 and like many African states it has maintained its colonial language as official language. This includes use as a medium of instruction throughout the public education system and almost exclusive use in the written media and the public space.

I began my research in a modern multi-ethnic village in the southwest of the country. The village comprised people of Mandinka, Jola, Fula, Wolof and Manjago ethnic groups living together. It was a very encouraging environment to learn Mandinka with numerous people around me with the patience and the interest to teach me, and enough (elderly) persons who did not, or pretended not to, speak any English. The more time I spent in the village, the better my Mandinka became. Before long my communicative skills were enough to engage in small talk with neighbours, fellow passengers, street vendors, etc. But then people would challenge me and ask me if I could, or why I didn’t, speak their language. This way I learned to recognise and greet in Wolof, Jola, and Fula too. Not only did I have to learn the local language, I had to learn to language locally, to respond adequately in greeting sequences involving Arabic, the interlocutors’ ethnic language and the lingua franca of the situation. I had to learn to choose the right moment to switch, and get the cultural pragmatics of turn-taking and back-channelling right. All of this is not learning different languages, but rather learning local languaging.

In my research I learned to look beyond languages in the plural to understand multilingualism and literacy in Gambian society. I discovered that I had entered the field with a rather European conception of language and that this was different from African ways of understanding language. In the linguistic landscape – i.e., the public space as marked by linguistic objects – I could hardly see any language other than English. There were only very few occasions of local language, and then usually only in Wolof. What did this mean? Are African languages somehow not written languages? Is Wolof more vital than other Gambian languages? And how do we read the prolific use of images complementing text in the public space? My book attempts to address these questions.

The Gambian government prepared an education policy for 2004-2015 that announced the introduction of the five most commonly used local languages as subjects throughout the education system and as medium of instruction in the first three years of basic education. But why can’t we see any evidence of this policy in the school I investigated? Could the problem be situated in the fluidity of local language practices and the fixity (and eurocentrism?) of such a policy document? Community members declared their support for the introduction of moo fing kango (‘black people’s language’) in their school, but refused to make a choice about which of the local languages should be introduced. The book argues that such voices need to be taken into account and attempts to proceed from there in understanding language in education and society at large.

During my fieldwork I gradually unlearned to conceptualise language in the plural, and to understand language rather as a verb. The present book contributes to the languaging turn in sociolinguistics by emphasising the dynamics and fluidity of language as practiced locally in a globalising world. Whereas English and literacy have in the past strategically been pluralised to emphasise diversity in practices across cultural contexts (Englishes, literacies), it is now time to singularise them again and think of language and literacy as material nouns. This book can be read not only as a sociolinguistic monograph of one West African society, but also as an exercise to unpluralise language.

For more information about this book please see our website.