Where Are You Really From

Many people aren’t from one place and are in constant motion. So why must we choose one nationality from a drop-down menu?

“But where are you really from?”

Sigh. This again.

Say what you mean, please: Are you actually asking why I have the accent I do? Is it my skin color that prompted your question? Perhaps you’re wondering where I live, or how I got to where we’re meeting today? Sometimes I’ve already answered your question, but somehow you don’t accept my answer.

As a British citizen with Bangladeshi heritage who’s lived in Germany for the past six years and is currently in the U.S. for a few months, I always struggle to answer the question of where I am from, and it’s getting harder with time. What would you like to hear today? I could say the UK, but I haven’t lived there for years and never lived in London, so I can’t be impressed by mentions of your favorite London hangouts. I could say Germany, but then you’ll assume I’m German with an exceptionally convincing British accent and compliment me on it undeservedly. I could say Bangladesh, but I’ve never lived there for more than three months at a time and it feels artificial to claim that. This, though, seems to be the only answer that will satisfy you. It seems to fit the preconceptions that make you refuse to accept that a brown woman could be “from” anywhere but Asia.

Confronted with a drop-down menu of countries, I think again of what you’re actually asking. Borders change, divide, rejoin. Do your menu options keep pace?

I’m baffled at your sense of entitlement. It’s not that you ask in the first place; it’s that you ask again, after I’ve answered. No, where are you really from? Is there any other personal question to which you would outright reject my answer? Would you say that about my height, or my profession? I can refuse — no, it’s not your role to define my identity, to put boundaries on who I can and can’t be — and yet you do it over and over.

I can’t spend too much time thinking about you, though. I meet people like you regularly, at least once a week. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I will say whatever I think you want to hear, anything to make the conversation progress before we get to the awkward part where you realize that you wouldn’t be talking to me like this if I were white.

I find traces of people like you online. I realize you must have been involved in building the digital systems I interact with, the ones that force me to identify just one place, one country, one state as my permanent location.

In person, I can dodge the question, refuse it, change the subject. Online, in the way you’ve designed those systems, I can’t. There, to my frustration, I can’t refuse the terms of your question and the way you define how I can answer and how I can identify myself.

For all the 1990s utopian dreams of the internet as a space where nation-state borders don’t matter — typified by John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” in which he declares that “our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions” and that “the only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule” — what we’ve ended up with is an online version of our offline realities, in which borders are not transcended but instead exaggerated. Citizenships aren’t ignored but instead enforced more strongly, with internet users being put into stronger categories rather than having boundaries blurred like we had hoped. Data and the categorization of people and their identities have become more important than we ever imagined it would.

Confronted with a drop-down menu of countries, I think again of what you’re actually asking. Countries are complicated. Borders change, countries change names, divide, rejoin. Do your menu options keep pace? Who decides what makes a country a country? There must be different versions of the lists of “all” the countries in the world, tailored to different political conditions, and the official recognition of different prevailing institutions. No Taiwan, if you’re building a form for the United Nations. No Palestine, if you’re creating a system for the United States. What about the people of Transnistria, a self-proclaimed republic on the Ukraine-Moldova border, recognized by only three states? I wonder about my friends from countries not universally recognized: Do they ever get to answer the question the way they want to?

Until 2015, there were within Bangladesh 102 areas that were considered part of India, 21 of which themselves contained little areas considered part of Bangladesh, one of which contained yet another counter-enclave of India — the world’s only third-order enclave. Similarly, in India there were 71 Bangladeshi enclaves, three of which contained Indian counter-enclaves. Almost 52,000 people live in one of these pieces of land. How on earth would this complicated narrative of geopolitics fit into a drop-down menu?

The way our digital systems are set up hide a lot from the individual. You ask where I’m from in a form, and I have no way of knowing what you mean, or why you’re asking until I’ve reached the end. Sometimes your purpose goes unexplained except in the fine print, and even then I have no way of knowing how the location I select will be used to profile me or to “give me the best service” until it’s too late. But worst of all, most of the time I have no idea why you’re asking where I’m from at all, or if there’s hidden purposes that you won’t ever reveal to me: Are you selling this information to a third party? Providing it to governments? Using it to profile me so you can serve me more “appropriate” advertisements to reinforce those stereotypes? As an individual, I have little power to find out. You have no incentive to show me, and keeping me in the dark enables you to categorize and stereotype to your heart’s content without the real versions of your stereotypes complicating your data.

Something confuses me though. Migration is as old as time. Humans have been moving across continents, exploring, colonizing, adapting to new climates and leaving others, for many centuries. Some have been forced to move; others have migrated out of necessity or desire. Societies have sought to extend their borders and take land from others for centuries — is that what you’re seeking to do here too? A sort of digital conquest, where you impose your terms on people and make it so that if they want to exist on online platforms, they have to play by your rules?

Your systems are set up to judge me based on where I’m from, but like millions around the world, I’m not from one place. Yet you have chosen not to develop ways of computing multiple locations. Instead of adjusting your system to reflect reality, I’m forced to conform.

Like millions around the world, I’m not from one place. Instead of adjusting your system to reflect reality, I’m forced to conform

Digital technologies seem to have ignored how people actually move around in geographic space: It’s relatively new that some of us have fixed locations or even addresses at all, and in some regions, nomadic cultures still exist. In Somalia, over a quarter of the population is nomadic; in Mongolia, just under a third are still nomadic, moving from place to place with their herds. Seasonal migration from rural areas to urban ones is a way of life for many, or from poorer countries to richer ones, as Bangladeshi migrant workers who find work in countries in the Gulf do. For millions, location is and always has been fluid and complex, dependent upon a myriad of factors, from climate to the economy to geopolitics.

Yet specifying a single location as one’s place of “being” in a format that online systems recognize is posited as a prerequisite to modern digital life — or at least the financial parts of it. Now we enter systems with a particular credit card, which requires a bank account, which requires a fixed address. And of course, specifying one’s country of origin generates different treatment both within and outside these systems. Prioritizing and sorting people according to their assigned location makes it easy to discriminate accordingly, as the U.S. travel ban makes explicit. For those whose location answers relate in any way to countries with significant Muslim populations, now is a worrying time.

Under the veneer of national security concerns, rights are being denied based on prejudice against those countries and against a religion. Years of colonialism and imperialism have created perceived hierarchies among nations that have deep, persistent ramifications, maintaining oppression and uneven distributions of power. Stereotypes abound based on the countries we say we’re from, some with deeply racist undertones, strengthened by a lack of diversity in popular culture and an ignorance of the “other.”

I think twice about mentioning Bangladesh anywhere online; most of the time I decide to do it anyway. I’m lucky though: I can pick between a few countries and two of those — the UK and Germany — give me more privileges. Sometimes this works in my favor. My British accent gets me undeserved praise in the U.S. for being funny or smart, and undeserved respect in former British colonies. But this merely mirrors and ultimately reinforces the stereotyping. I don’t know how to make it stop.

I’m frustrated that this approach to identity has become entrenched in our digital technologies. Instead of building that “cyberspace” that John Perry Barlow described, we’ve re-created conditions where citizenship and location not only retain their importance but have their impact extended.

Perhaps it’s here that the roots of the internet reveal themselves. Developing digital systems has never been about building a space apart from reality, not really, but about establishing new systems of control, integrated with the offline. It’s always been a power struggle, with military interest and money.

“Cyberspace” gave us a fantasy to lose ourselves in, a cloak to hide the real power at play — and now those tentacles of power are strong. They push us toward single identities, gender binaries, only certain racial identities, these singular location categories. Who are these systems built for? Whose values are embedded within them, and whose values are we striving to achieve?

I assume that you aren’t faced with this problem, that you have the privilege of facing the question of where you are from with just one answer that you don’t ever worry about giving. You probably also don’t know exactly what’s done with your answer, how it’s filed away, what it affects. If you had ever worried about it like that, you wouldn’t have allowed it to be set it up and asked this way.

Or perhaps your narrative is more complicated: You might be an immigrant too, but being able to identify yourself as from the country you’ve arrived in is part of your integration. Naming the place you want to call home in these menus gives you more social clout, it signals success, it gives you an opportunity to put down in a database that You’ve Made It. Associating location with your identity is a sign of success for you, and it’s not my place to question that.

The forces pushing us toward a single identity are likely to get stronger. This provides the appearance of more social control

But there seems to be a clear profile privileged in digital systems, and I feel like slowly, slowly, we’re realizing that the bearers of this profile already hold the most power, already sit at the table making those decisions, and rarely have to compromise to fit into someone else’s idea of who they should be. The many, many of us who don’t fit that profile deserve better.

We respond however we can. Just as I want to dodge your question in person, I try to dodge it online, to confuse your desire to categorize me against my will. I want my people to know who I am and how I identify, I want that to be fluid and changing, and I want the machines to have to struggle to sort me into one of its pre-programmed groups.

Other people share this desire. There’s a trend of people putting their locations not in the Twitter’s location field, but in the name field instead, where the machines don’t look for it. Real people know how to make sense of it: Zara @ NYC, Zara @ Berlin. It’s easy to change so people know where to find me and when, but the machines are none the wiser.

The forces pushing us toward a single identity are likely to get stronger. Establishing a single identity and enabling interoperable data sharing across commercial entities provides the appearance of more social control. On the commercial side, incentives for creating a single identity system are strong — for commercial entities collecting our data, it would allow them to share what they know, to broaden their knowledge of their customer base, to “understand” their customers better, or at least to believe they do, and sell that belief.

Digital mechanisms of identification are being implemented more widely, like Aadhaar, a multipurpose 12-digit identification number assigned to all Indian citizens and based on their biometric and demographic data. But data is shared between governments and international agencies, and an error or false data point might have far-reaching consequences. A fingerprint shared at one border might be easily accessible on the other side of the world. Identities are valuable, powerful resources that can permit or deny access to all varieties of spaces.

Increased awareness of these problems of inclusion and exclusion are growing. Some groups have moved toward data minimization: collecting only necessary data rather than all the data. The temptation is still there though, and the hype around “more data, better decisions” is still very much alive.

In most of the digital spaces I’m currently in, there is little space for fluidity. The limits around what I know and what I am able to find out about where that data goes are strong. In my ideal digital space, my identity would be mine to define, locations would be mine to pick, and I would know for what purpose you’re asking.

More diversity among the people designing these systems might finally mean that the questions asked about who we are and where we are from are more easily answerable for more people, not just a certain lucky few. Ideally, we wouldn’t have to answer them at all, and we could define ourselves, what we want, and who we are online. You wouldn’t be able to reject my answer as you do online and offline; you wouldn’t know anything that I don’t want you to know. Now, though, all I can do is respond to the question you ask me in person and perhaps make you rethink these systems and the part you play in them.

Zara Rahman is a researcher, writer, and linguist who is interested in the intersection of power, race, and technology. She has traveled and worked in more than 25 countries in the field of information accessibility and data use in civil society. She was the first employee at OpenOil, looking into open data in the extractive industries, then worked for Open Knowledge, working with School of Data on data literacy for journalists and civil society. Rahman is currently a Fellow at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City, investigating the bridging role between highly tech-literate communities and lower tech-literate communities. She is also a Research Lead at The Engine Room where she leads their Responsible Data Program.