Published September 28, 2016
Most of us will recognise the common conversation opener, often used as a handy ice-breaker in awkward situations, or even as to express genuine interest into another’s background: “So, where are you from?” However, for me, as a mixed-race Icelander with darker skin than most and thick curly hair, I find that the question “Where are you from?” is weighted heavy with certain expectations, prejudices and preconceived ideas of my cultural background. Most of all, people who ask me where I’m from, rarely expect the answer “I’m from Iceland”.
The black sheep of the family
When asked by friends from abroad to describe what a typical Icelander looks like, I usually say blonde beautiful women and tall bearded men; at least, that’s the stereotype. But mixed into the herd you’ll find the black sheep: mixed-ethnicity Icelanders, the children of immigrants. However, this is not to say that these individuals can’t consider themselves Icelandic solely because their appearance doesn’t tick the many boxes associated with the Icelandic stereotype. As one of these individuals myself, with an Icelandic father and a British Jamaican mother, I find that my appearance often sparks several questions—even about my belonging.
I’ve lived in Iceland for the majority of my life, and my connection with my Icelandic nationality is much deeper than my connection with any other cultural background I can claim. I’m fluent in Icelandic, I attended primary school in Reykjavík and I completed my exams at Kvennaskólinn í Reykjavík. I thoroughly enjoy camping during the summer and taking a dip in the thermal pools during the winter. I sit outside on the balcony soaking in the sun even though it’s only 12°, because as every Icelander will know, that is what we call summer. And of course, my heart was full of pride and joy when the national men’s football team achieved amazing success during this summer’s European Championships. However, it seems as though my sense of Icelandic identity isn’t quite enough, as I am questioned by fellow Icelanders about my cultural heritage on a weekly basis, sometimes even daily.
No, really, I’m from Iceland
It is safe to say that the answer people are looking for is not “I’m Icelandic.” But it is the correct answer. I am from Iceland. I may be from elsewhere as well, but my sense of Icelandic nationality is a defining part of my character. Why should my dual heritage or different appearance dilute my Icelandic identity? “Yes, but where are you from?”, people continue, as though my answer hadn’t met their prejudiced expectations. Assumptions of my foreign background override my claim to be Icelandic, and I find myself trying to justify my Icelandic nationality by explaining my family’s heritage. Yes, it is correct that my Icelandic heritage only extends through one of my parents. However, I identify the most with my Icelandic cultural background, and I am proud to call Iceland my home.
Maybe I should be thankful, for the curiosity of the strangers who ask me this question. Maybe I should consider it a compliment that my appearance is so intriguing. I understand that this question doesn’t come with bad intentions—well, not always. Yet no Icelander would ask me this question if they considered me to be as Icelandic as they are. It is as though my presence is too confusing; the colour of my skin says foreign, but the accuracy of my Icelandic says native. Therefore, people feel the need to categorise me, to pinpoint where I belong.
In a sense, asking me where I’m from is like asking a zebra if it is black or white. My answer will never satisfy those who have pre-conceived ideas about my cultural heritage. However, despite the good and bad intentions of those who ask me where I’m from, the question has made me question my own identity on a daily basis, and it has made me more aware and sure of who I am as a person. As the Icelandic community grows and becomes increasingly international and diverse, the concept of Icelandic nationality is also changing. I put forward that we consider ourselves and others as Icelandic not by physical appearance, but by culture. After all, what does it matter where I’m from anyway?