To caveat this blog and the ‘lessons’ within it: this is personal. It may sound emotionally fuelled but I make no apology for that. My aim is to address why questions and comments like ‘where are you from?’ are problematic and fuel division, not curiosity. All I ask is that you read with an open mind, and listen.
This week, Lady Susan Hussey stepped down from her position as Honorary Royal Aide after constantly asking the Founder of the charity Sistah Space, Ngozi Fulani, where are you from? We’ve all seen the transcript - there is so much to unpack. In training and articles on microaggressions, the ‘where are you from?’ question is a key player and point of discussion. So many people do not understand (or refuse to accept) that it is layered with discrimination:
maybe they just want to know about your culture and background
they don’t mean it like that, it’s just curiosity
it is a genuine interest in the lives and history of people
it’s generational, it’s all they know
how can asking someone about them be racist?
I could go on and on and usually, I’m more than happy to discuss, even though (and rightly so) I shouldn’t have to: we all need to do the work ourselves, recognise our bias and unpick it. Working in education and with young people, however, teaches you patience and you’re usually pretty willing to give anyone and everyone the benefit of the doubt, time and the opportunity to learn. But, this weekend I discussed it very briefly with my grandad and it really made me think. For context, my grandad was a colonial subject, born and raised in Africa, of South Asian descent (pre-partition, Indian, post-partition, Pakistani); once a Kenyan passport holder and citizen and ever since the 70s, a British passport holder, and citizen. Along the way though, he is someone who has had to relentlessly, consciously and subconsciously, rebuild his identity, his place in the world, time and time again in order to do what every human being is entitled to do: to live.
‘Where are you from?’ removes a sense of agency and identity
One thing I’ve learned from my grandparents and family at large is that people of colour have always had to caveat. We’ve always had to compromise, give people the benefit of the doubt, roll our eyes and move on; bite our tongues, avoid certain conversations, normalise gaslighting, answer unnecessary, exhausting questions about our identity, self-improve to assimilate (not self-love), and ultimately, we’ve always had to ‘fit’ into environments we don’t really belong - or perhaps are (sub)consciously unwelcome. I write all of this early on as it can be argued that this level of exhaustion is at the crux of the problem with ‘where are you from?’ The question primarily denotes a lack of connection, identity and place. The answer is in the question: ‘the first thing I see is that you look different; the way you look doesn’t fit in here.’
The person asking the question sees it as a mere 4 words of curiosity. The person answering the question experiences a lack of belonging, almost akin to imposter syndrome: I am from here, I don’t really know anywhere else; but to satisfy the intrinsic bias associated with my appearance, I have to answer your question as if I do. And, with every response, I begin to lose a sense of who I am.
Now, the counterarguments: but of course, you fit in, you just have a different heritage, different history!
Do I? Firstly, my history IS your history, which is pretty much why I’m here (in my case, the UK). It’s why it’s my home. It is also my children’s home. Making me answer your question, takes my home away from me; it makes me feel insecure and unsafe in the only place I’ve ever been and belong. It makes me cautious about sending my child to school, walking home alone, going to the park - their differences are marked: you are not ‘from here’ so why are you here?
Secondly, why does the colour of my skin make me a historical textbook about my heritage? Part of the exhaustion and frustration associated with questions like this is the expectation of rich, ‘oriental’, ancestral knowledge that I’m supposed to have as a person of colour. Sometimes, I wish I did know more about my heritage; perhaps it would make my sense of identity stronger as opposed to the constant pressure to assimilate. And herein lies a tragic paradox: my family have spent a lifetime trying to ensure we fit in and belong to the place that IS our home. And yet, their work is undone by a flippant comment or question: ‘where are you from?’
Calling out microaggressions is holding people to account - not to blame.
In everything I’ve read about fragility, gaslighting and general aversion to critical race theory (about which I won’t pretend to know a lot - but Leeds Beckett Uni does!), feeling blamed or attacked is a common thread. It makes sense - we are mere human beings and criticism can always feel personal. We always turn on the defence because no one really likes accepting they’re in the wrong no matter how much Brene Brown or Simon Sinek they read..!
When someone calls you out, we literally have to force ourselves to listen. Listening is key in these moments; as soon as you jump to the defence, interrupt, look to correct, justify or retreat and feel that you’re being blamed, you’ve completely misunderstood the problem. Social media has stunted our ability to listen and learn - yes, it’s enabled call out culture and an abundant amount of learning, but it’s taken away such a necessary ingredient: listening.
Racism and being micro-aggressive is by and large an institutional and structural problem (or macro, as Senior Leader, Sanum Khan says: there is nothing micro about aggression). We are all in some way victims of it. Some of us (white, heteronormative, cis-male, by and large) are served better by it, but not better for it. Of course, we can say 100s of years of structural racism are to blame, but the blame game solves very little. We are accountable and responsible for flipping that narrative.
To flip the narrative: we’re all from here. This is home. Ask something about me as a person, not the way I look to you. Next question?
But it’s generational, how can we blame a generation for what was their norm?
Colonialism, prejudice and power have had a profound impact on us all, but it’s not an excuse or free pass for prejudiced behaviour. The question, ‘where are you from?’ and many more like it, fuel bias, division and a prejudiced image of the global majority:
if we excuse the prejudice this question represents, we cannot overcome racism because it is a toxic feedback loop which normalises it. It normalises conscious and unconscious bias which results in privilege.
By excusing it for generational reasons, we’re basically accepting (and forgiving) that older generations are racist; that being racist is almost a byproduct of being white and people of colour will always be the victim. If we accept this the feedback loop will not break because the echo of prejudice won’t end…grandkids, great grandkids will be privy to a prejudiced narrative.
By the same token, if we normalise racism for certain generations, we accept that older people of colour, like my grandad, have always had to perform, assimilate, and get over their suffering, simply for who they are…to explain just how problematic and wrong this needs another blog post in itself.
By normalising the question, we continue to normalise race-related hierarchical structures, invisible narratives and division, all of which are a recipe for hate and discrimination.
But I really didn’t mean it like that - I’m not racist
Media bias has a lot to answer for. That is, our understanding of racism is often violent, argumentative, and dangerous, and the tragedies and loss we see on our screens. We often forget that the latter is fuelled by discrimination, bias and prejudice in our language, actions, what we see (and what we don’t see), read, listen to, and what we say. The question ‘where are you from?’ and comments like it might not be the overt racist actions many of us recognise, but they are what lead to the tragic racism we see on our screens and in the news.
And, even if you ‘didn’t mean it like that’, just for a minute, listen and acknowledge the experience of people of colour: to be at the constant receiving end of being ‘othered’ is not acceptable and it is not something we should have to deal with. Understand that you have a responsibility to resist and undo the racially driven structures that are dividing us. We can do better than asking ‘where are you from?’
Did my grandad say all of the above? Not quite, but his words did inspire this blog. And, as he said, am I going to tolerate someone asking my children ‘where are you really from?’ I hope we all share an answer to that.