If you are an ethnic minority who has grown up in the UK, chances are you have at one point been asked “but where are you really from?” by someone who has decided that your skin colour means you are not eligible to be from the UK. This question is the social interaction equivalent of a loud gameshow buzzer signalling that your first answer was wrong and inviting you to try again. Having been on the receiving end of this this more times than I count, here’s my take on why this patronising question has no place in 21st century Britain.
The scene is a familiar one: I am at a social occasion, during small talk with a stranger the subject turns to where I am from, I naively answer “East London”, unaware that my present company is a Britain’s Got Colour judge with his hand poised over a buzzer, and then all of a sudden I’m confronted with the sound of “No! But where are you really from?”.
the question is always delivered as if…it is my cue to peel back my bottom lip and reveal the mark of Wakanda…
My first reaction is why-oh-why do I attract people like this at parties, the kind who are so very fascinated with the conundrum that is my face, existing in this country. The question is always delivered as if my real hometown is the subject of a secret shared only between me and this stranger and it is my cue to peel back my bottom lip and reveal the mark of Wakanda (forever!).
So why does this particular question bother me so much? Put simply, I don’t take kindly to strangers usurping my right to determine where I am, and am not, from while simultaneously reinforcing the outdated notion that I have to be white to be authentically British.
I was born and raised in Tower Hamlets and have spent almost all of my life living in and around it. From my perspective, it is hard to conclude that I am from anywhere else. I appreciate that this is not a view that is necessarily shared by everyone with my background, identity is a complicated matter, but it is nevertheless the one I have determined for myself and I will not be corrected by strangers seeking to exert a socially abrasive form of dominance over my narrative.
To avoid any confusion, I am not offended by the acknowledgment that I am not white and that perhaps, given the history of Britain and its empire, this means I have a connection to another country. Both of these things are true and I am, in fact, very proud of my Somali heritage and quite happy to talk about it – as shown by this entire website I have dedicated to discussing it, among other things.
What offends me is the expression of this interest in my heritage through the question “but where are you really from?”. When a stranger asks me where I’m really from in response to my assertion that I am a Londoner, all I can really hear is “guffaw! oh you thought you were from London? Silly black girl, no, where are you really from?”.
After all, it is not a correction that is ever applied to white people whose parents emigrated here. Brits with parents from, say, Sweden are not routinely subjected to this bizarre interrogation into their ancestry, it is just accepted (literally) at face value that they are really from wherever they have claimed to be from in the UK. From this perspective, it is hard to conclude that going around correcting the experience of black and brown Brits exclusively is not a bit racist.
There are many countries where national belonging is determined along ethnic lines but I am not from one of those places…
Now before the PC hating brigade fly off the handle and accuse me of calling everyone a racist for not being colour blind, I’m not saying you cannot politely inquire about someone’s heritage or ethnicity or that I’m opposed to being asked about it. I’m specifically saying that “where are you really from” is not an acceptable way of doing it. Apart from being patronising, it is woefully out of step with this country’s present day approach to ethnicity and nationality.
Because in twenty-first century Britain, it turns out you can be black, brown, purple, whatever and still qualify as British. That is not to say that the system is perfect or there aren’t unique challenges faced by Brits who are not white (I think the word Windrush sufficiently covers this) but the point still stands.
There are certainly many countries in the world where national belonging and acceptance is largely determined along ethnic and/or religious lines but I am not from one of those places and, unsurprisingly, do not want their attitudes toward minorities applied to me in my own hometown.
Here are some handy tips for those who are still struggling to follow. If I say I am from East London, you can take my word for it. If I feel like expanding on my family history I will, and if I don’t, then I won’t. You, random stranger at social event, are not entitled to my life story or to make edits to the parts I have offered you. And if you are experiencing a desperate need to place every non-white British face you meet, please find an alternative, less patronising way of asking than “where are you really from” because I am officially retiring this question and if you keep antagonising me with it you might just get a really East London response.