“Where are you from?”
When I heard that question directed recently at a colleague of mine — a prizewinning American photographer who came here from Iraq by way of Syria — I chimed in.
“I’m British,” I said. “You’ve got two immigrants here.”
On another occasion, when I saw a Post Office teller grow impatient with a Spanish speaker who was struggling to make herself understood, I wondered what might come next.
“Not everyone understands me when I speak English,” I said, trying to inject a little humor into their exchange.
My otherness is on display every time I open my mouth, but people rarely consider me an immigrant — as if that status were reserved for needy brown or black people who cross borders in large numbers.
I have been on the receiving end of the “go back” trope. But rarely.
When I wrote more than a decade ago about being a so-called Ampersand American — a person with dual citizenship — I wasn’t ready for the “go back” vitriol that flowed into my inbox. As many as 40 million Americans have or could claim citizenship overseas, according to Stanley A. Renshon, a political psychologist and author of “The 50% American.”
Some see the dual citizenship, which is protected by a 1967 Supreme Court ruling, as a legitimate reflection of our complex cultural identities; others see it as an erosion of America’s national identity. I can see both sides of that argument.
But for the most part, I’m the kind of immigrant Americans welcome: White, pretty well educated and employed. I can even do a passable imitation of the queen, which charms an extraordinarily large number of people here, despite the efforts almost 250 years ago to throw off the “long train of abuses and usurpations” committed by her ancestor.
Not that being British makes me perfect. I’m not Norwegian, after all. But — speaking as a Brit, now — it’s worth remembering that Norwegians haven’t always been the friendliest immigrants, when you think back to 1066 and all that. They have long been labeled criminals and rapists, though some recent research suggests that, after invading, the Vikings intermarried and assimilated, eventually learning the local languages, including Welsh and Latin (for the elite).
I am also the kind of immigrant the far-right likes. Richard Spencer — the man who coined the term “alt-right” — told me so himself.
A couple of years ago, I called Spencer and asked how concerned he was about demographic trends that show whites will no longer be a majority here by 2045.
He wasn’t worried about illegal immigration, Spencer told me. People who immigrate illegally often go home, he explained. What bothered him was foreigners coming here legally and refusing to go back. He called for “a 50-year period of net-neutral immigration.”
Given the fact there would almost certainly be some attrition (including, perhaps, Americans looking for better opportunities or more congenial lifestyles overseas), I asked Spencer which newcomers should be prioritized.
“I would want to give preference to people with European backgrounds,” Spencer said.
To people like me.
I didn’t find that reassuring. I remember the people at my naturalization ceremony at the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Courthouse in downtown Baltimore, who had given up everything and risked their lives to come here and were deeply committed to making a go of it.
For me, taking U.S. citizenship didn’t require giving up anything. It was a choice, prompted by my marriage to a man who teaches constitutional law and believes that being American is less about birth certificates than about the traditional American values of “justice, liberty and the rule of law.” He views those values not only as the country’s founding philosophy but as its ongoing moral guide. Being of Philadelphia Quaker stock, he also emphasizes an unflashy approach to life.
Those were compelling reasons for me to take the responsibilities of my new citizenship seriously. I consider it a privilege to be called for jury duty. I vote. For many years, I ran the Fourth of July parade in our neighborhood, even reading aloud the Declaration of Independence on our front lawn.
And I have been grateful for the way America accepted me, even as I remain acutely aware of how much harder it is for many of my fellow immigrants.
I remember another British journalist who spent a summer working at The Post — a “black bloke,” as he described himself, with what many people consider the quintessential white man’s voice, albeit with a London accent.
In an article he wrote before going back home, Gary Younge described how accustomed he had grown in England to the “Where are you from?” question.
“London,” he’d say.
“Well, where were you born?”
“Well, before then?”
“There was no before then!”
“Well, where are your parents from?”
“Oh, so you’re from Barbados.”
“No, I’m from London.”
It was refreshing, Younge said, to find himself in the United States, a country of immigrants.
“Almost everybody here is originally from somewhere else,” he wrote. “Even the white people.”
All that came back to me when I was talking on the phone with the architect of the alt-right about his plan to populate America with people like me.
But wait, I said to Spencer. You don’t know if I am black.
There was no clear answer on the phone. And I should not have expected one. It wasn’t really where I was from that mattered.
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