“Where are you from?” is not necessarily a racist question, but for those of us with brown skin, it’s a loaded one. We answer it uneasily, unsure if the conversation is going to unravel into something more distressing, as the encounter between Lady Susan Hussey and Ngozi Fulani did on Tuesday at Buckingham Palace.
Hussey, the late Queen’s former lady-in-waiting, asked Fulani, chief executive of the domestic abuse charity Sistah Space, “What part of Africa are you from?” and refused to accept Fulani’s answer that she is British and is from Hackney. She demanded: “No, but where do you really come from, where do your people come from? … Oh I can see I am going to have a challenge getting you to say where you’re from. When did you first come here?”
Hussey is 83, but that’s not really an excuse: she’s had longer than most people to learn that this hectoring line of questioning isn’t acceptable. She could have taken a leaf or two out of Queen Elizabeth’s book: she would politely ask guests at receptions, “Have you come far?”, and would accept whatever they told her in return.
The Queen clearly understood that “Where are you from?” is an alarming question for British people of colour. We don’t know what the intent of the question is: what is lurking beneath the surface? Why does the questioner want to know where we’re from? Is it simple innocent curiosity, or is it designed to put us in our place? Do they want to make assumptions about us based on stereotypes about our heritage? Are they racist?
Aware of the latter possibilities, people of colour born in the UK will answer, sometimes defensively, “Britain”, because it’s true. Often Britain is all we’ve ever known. I was born in London and have lived here for my whole life. I have never even been to Iran, India, Kenya or Tanzania, the countries of my mother’s heritage, so it feels inaccurate to say I am “from” there. Even when people ask “But where are you from originally?” I feel that originally I’m from London. My birthplace is my origin.
For lots of younger people “Where is your family from?” will also lead to the answer “Britain”, because some families have now been here for three generations.
So maybe, instead of asking where we’re from, you can live with not knowing. And, if we have British accents, you can accept that we’re from here, exactly the same way that you’re from here. I know that the “Where are you from?” question feels important, but too often in Britain today it’s asked in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons.
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