By OICD Executive Director, Prof. Bruce White

How do you answer the question “where are you from?”. If you are like most people, you’ll answer with the name of a culture or nation state: “I am American”; “I am from France” etc.. Ever wonder why this is the case? Why do we draw the line in our history at the point of when we think our cultures or nations began?

The history of modern human migration involves 80k+ years of bands forming, splitting up, and moving off in different directions, mixing with others and sometimes returning to previously inhabited locations. This means that all national populations are a mix of ancient human migratory groups which can be traced to the first migrations within and out of Africa. As well as the fact that this science is in itself a fascinating area of study, (Smithsonian article here), a perhaps even more interesting fact is that this science, even if understood, has almost no influence on how we form and express our identities in everyday life.

Why, for instance, doesn’t everyone, regardless of their cultural or national heritage, not answer the question of “where are you from?” with a puzzled expression and the statement: “I’m from Africa, just like you and everyone else!”.

Likewise, why don’t we express some of the detail of our true epic origin story? There is perhaps an obvious answer that springs to mind: in the ordinary course of conversation it would be difficult to express the real complexity of one’s origins without sounding slightly mad. For instance, let’s imagine what a properly factual summary of the answer might sound like for a typical Japanese individual:

“The location I was born in has experienced several waves of migration over the last 60,000 years involving peoples who came from South Asia, Siberia and Micronesia. These people were themselves already highly mixed with others but over millenia have experienced additional regional and international micro-migrations (which introduced yet new groups). Together, and sometimes during periods of conflict but often through cooperation, different mixtures of these peoples formed organizational structures, and these, in turn, defined the geo-politics of the region and the emergence of “my country”. This “country” (we call it “Japan”) is of course, really just an entity of the imagination with a history that cannot really be quantified due to the fact that any cultural narrative is necessarily incomplete. But despite it being imagined, many people who “live” in “Japan” pretend to share a biological origin. When I say “pretend”, however, the real social and genetic diversity is unknown to the vast majority, probably because the expression of a broad social genetic diversity is mostly incompatible with a cultural narrative which (at least since the 1930s) works to express the idea of sameness. Despite this, however, just like the vast majority of other modern human groups, all “Japanese people” can trace their origins back to the first band that successfully left Africa around 80,000 years ago.”

Quite a mouthful I’m sure you’ll agree! And if you were meeting this person for the first time, you would either find them fascinating and have the best conversation of your life, or quickly make an excuse to go and talk to anybody else at the party! But the point is, of course, that it may be impossible to express the true complexity of our origins easily. But this is not the only answer as to why we use nations and cultures as our shorthand for our complex origins. A deeper answer may be related to the usefulness of drawing lines in history–the fact that doing so helps us to express different identities to each other at different times and in different contexts. And these lines are not limited to international or intercultural communication. Think of how even within our nations we can draw the line at different points depending on our moods, or who we are with or what we would like to express about ourselves. You may be from the UK, for instance, but have you ever thought about whether you are descended from Celts, Anglo-Saxons or Romans? We can do the same thing in families: have a brother or sister that you think is a better reflection of one or other grandparent? We are pretty adept at using family history to separate or find commonality with our own siblings!

I suppose the larger point I am interested in exploring here is that the drawing of the line itself is important. It is the drawing of the line that determines the kind of identity we will express in that moment, and the line tells us a lot about how the identities we are expressing or observing are built. And knowing how identities are being put together can be really useful when trying to understand problems such as discrimination and sectarian violence, and strategizing ways to help counter these forces.

Interested in this area of identity-making, or have something to contribute to the thinking or practical use of such observations? Do contact me at bwhite* (replacing the asterix with an “at” mark) to give feedback of any kind.