Book Review: But Where Are You Really From?

But Where Are You Really From?

I needed to read this book.

For years, I asked this question whenever I was talking to someone who didn’t look like me (white). I often feigned politness and left it till a bit later in the conversation, but in recent years I’ve seen the pain it can cause and come to understand that the asking of the question ‘But where are you really from?’ is a clear example of my white privilege, and something that instantly puts whoever I’m talking to on the back foot.

That’s not how I want to talk to people, to fellow image-bearers.

Amanda Khozi Mukwashi is the CEO of Christian Aid, and she sums up what I was trying to articulate above really clearly:

 

“It is a question that means different things depending upon the ethnicity, colour of skin and perhaps accent of the person being asked. For some, the question might be posed to ascertain whether you are from a community or country that is perceived as being dangerous and therefore whether you could be a dangerous person–the message being, ‘I don’t trust you’. For others, the question might mean, ‘I think you are uneducated, primitive, suffering and desperate’–the message being, ‘I pity you’. However it is asked, the question of where are you really from dismisses any response to the initial question (Where are you from?), rejects your offer of a shared humanity and goes in search of what makes us ‘other’, different and what grounds there are for exclusion.

 

This little book (96 pages) is a powerful and readable story of one woman’s wrestling with themes of identity, humanity, and fitting in. As a young white man, it was profound to be invited inside the hopes, history and dreams of a slightly older black woman, with a very different story to my own. And even in those three, those single words describing race, age and sex/gender, there is no single narrative. As Amanda puts it, “single narratives are simple–but they are not who we are. Until we share and own our multifaceted stories, these ostracizing ‘simple’ questions will persist.” I found that a helpful observation! This leads to one of the simple takeaways of this book, undoubtedly relevant to conversations between people of different races, but generally quite useful: “Maybe instead of asking, ‘But where are you really from?’, you could ask me who I am instead?

 

Reviewing a biographical book can be difficult – particularly when some of the framing ideas are not clear, and where they are clear, are some what muddled or confusing. Amanda writes “We must change. It will take a long time, but each one of us knows what is right. We are created equal and with innate worth. We also have innate goodness and knowledge of what is right. We must dig deep and bring out that which is right and wholesome and true. That is what will develop solutions that are sustainable. It will heal the planet and it will heal the people. It is idealistic, but nothing short of that will save the world from a path that it has currently set itself.” Aspects of that are true – we are created equal and with innate worth – but I think it is demonstrably untrue to say that ‘each one of us knows what is right’, let alone deeply theologically untrue to say that we have ‘innate goodness and knowledge of what is right’. Indeed, the very theological principle (made in the Image of God) that leads me to agree with much of what Amanda is writing demands that I observe we are not ‘innately good’, and certainly any innate ‘knowledge of what is right’ is not pure and simple. The notion of digging deeper to find truth within ourselves is a sentiment with more in common with Disney or an average pop song, than with the Bible. From my perspective this is a major concern, but it isn’t perhaps a big idea shaping the whole book.

 

Faith as an aspect of identity is key in this book. I was fascinated and encouraged by Amanda’s observation that “When you take the power and strength that comes from my heritage as a Black African Woman and place them in the heart of faith, I find that the values of my heritage are aligned with the values that my faith in God gives me.” – not least because I know I cannot always say the same about my experience of being white, British and male! I resonated, sadly, with Amanda’s observation – which is clearly a source of pain given how fundamental her faith is to her life – that “At times it has been difficult to talk about my faith so openly. In the UK at least, for a while it felt like there was a subtle but real dislike for anything that is faith.” That is an experience I would not necessarily have expected to share! As she closes this little book, Amanda finds a simple and powerful way to express a deep truth, and a brilliant answer to the titular question: “I truly believe my story didn’t start in a country, it started in the mind of God where he shaped me and spoke me into being. As a woman of faith, I believe that he created every part of me, wonderfully and beautifully, to be a manifestation of his love.” Amen!

 

I really enjoyed reading this little book. Amanda’s easy-going style, honesty and vulnerability made it a joy to read. This is an eye-opening book, about the complexities of black identity, and also in the way the author quite causally but firmly observes some of the lies that exist in British culture about Zambia and Zimbabwe. I am glad I read But Where are you Really From?, and will be recommending it in light of the fact that it astutely and creatively demonstrates the reality of white privilege, not in a way that forces white people to self-flagellate, but one that invites the reader to learn and grow. My caveats about some of the underlying theology are important, and I don’t want to downplay them, but overall I think this is a helpful and timely book.

 


It’s worth noting that this book was published by SPCK, for whom I work for IVP. I didn’t have to like it, and I hope this review isn’t clouded by that fact.

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