Nationality and Citizenship as social transactions: A Personal Perspective

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Joined: 29 June 2011

 The term people use most frequently to describe me is ‘international’. Someone will ask me where I am from and I will tell them it is a little complicated. The person will reply that they can tell from my accent that I am from the US. I will then explain that my mother is American but I was born in France. The next logical question is if I have dual US and French nationality, to which I have to explain that I am a dual national with Belgium because my father is Belgian. Some would then say, ‘but that is not where he is from originally.’ and I then clarify that he is half Nigerian half Portuguese (a recent discovery). That is when they say ‘so you are quite the international?’

A version of this conversation tends to occur wherever I travel. I seem to be understood by others according to the borders crossed simply by my existence. The borders I have actually crossed however reveal different perspectives on what type of citizen I should be and what nationality I should have,.  These questions are often connected to ‘race’ and sometimes, gender.

Citizenship in the US

When I moved to the US at the age of six I was unaware of being half American. I learned about American culture(s) from a foreign perspective. ‘Race’ was immediately an issue although as a child I did not know how to articulate it. I had previously been unaware of skin colour differences translating into (perceived) socio-cultural differences. As I grew older it became apparent that having a certain racial background generally meant one spoke a certain way, dressed a certain way, listened to specific genres of music etc. For example in a PE class my teacher said I should join the basketball team, saying I must already know how to play. Until then I had never played basketball.
American concepts of citizenship can be all-inclusive, but belonging means belonging to a specific category which is compounded by very specific racial ideologies. The state of Louisiana for example, has a law dictating the criteria that determine one’s ‘race’. I had very few African American friends precisely because I did not play basketball and listen to hip-hop. Essentially I did not fit the social categories of blackness found partially in stereotypes and reinforced both within and out with the community. American citizenship is also  based on both jus sanguinis and jus soli.  Being American means being American first and harkening to one’s roots as an immigrant second.  Whilst originally welcoming all who sought membership to the ‘melting pot’, events since 11 September 2001 and the persistent issue of illegal immigration have all but completely reversed this attitude in the government at the same time as sparking a heated debate among American minorities.  

 EU citizenship politics  

Living in the EU, my accent has been the biggest source of confusion. There is an even split between those who directly attach American stereotypes and those who are aware that many learn English with an American accent through schooling and television. Friends very quickly forgot the details of my background and treated me as if I were completely American, which sometimes involved treating me as if I were ignorant of European history and customs. Citizenship in the EU is different to other parts of the world.
Before being European one is say French or German.
Immigration is a reoccurring issue across the EU and in social settings and interpersonal exchanges it manifests itself visually: it is assumed being French, German or British has a look. To give a recent personal example, I am standing in line in Top Shop pleased to have finally found a pair of jeans that fit in a flattering way. The woman in front of me approaches the woman at the till and in the process of paying engages in conversation, asking where she is from. By appearance one would assume she is from somewhere in Asia (having recently arrived in the UK) but without pause the woman replies in a thick Scottish accent, ‘I’m from Glasgow.’

Citizenship in Egypt

Living in Egypt for four years revealed to me how citizenship and nationality as representations of individuals and geography can be addressed. Egyptian nationalism is haunted by strong imagery linked to its founding struggle in the early twentieth century; the country itself was represented visually as a woman and men were rallied to protect her honor.  These images were increasingly tied to religious, social and political beliefs that are heavily gendered. In my view, Egyptian categories of inclusion and exclusion are rigid and the majority of individuals still place heavy emphasis on appearance when gauging a person’s origins. To be categorized as Egyptian there must also be a strong cultural element with its own rules concerning inclusion and exclusion. What is interesting about this is that many Egyptians have ethnic/racial connections to surrounding countries, often professing them proudly.
Being a non-Egyptian also comes with its own set of cultural stereotypes which are equally fixed. I have observed that many still believe that the origin of one’s father is the only relevant piece of information when ascertaining where a person is from. Until 2004 this was a legal reality; Egyptian citizenship was only gained through one’s father. Initially, I endeavored to tell my entire story. Taxi drivers would fixate on my father’s background, addressing me from the perspective that I was really African (note the singularity when my father has a plural background). Eventually the argument became that there were no people of colour in the West or that it was not possible for a person to be half or a quarter of anything. One either is or is not. I made a final uncomfortable compromise and started introducing myself as Belgian. With a few exceptions, my ‘type’ of foreignness was established and accepted. On first glance however (for example while walking the streets of Cairo), many people continued to insist I was African, shouting the names of countries to get my attention.
The tensions I encountered living in various countries have been both frustrating and disheartening, but what draws my fascination is the nuanced way in which they differ from place to place. They become part of what I go through to connect with others in new places, making each experience more whole.  Ultimately these experiences form part of how I understand myself and how I understand what it means to be a citizen and a dual national in the 21st Century.  

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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