It’s often considered to be an inadequate response if an ethnic minority person say they’re from the UK. A subsequent question follows – “Where are you really from?” Snéha Khilay discusses the political and emotional significance and impact of this question.
I recently presented at the European Equality and Diversity Conference in Vienna. Whilst sightseeing, I would approach people, mainly to ask for directions. Their first immediate response was to ask me, “Where are you from?” to which I would respond from UK. We would then exchange further pleasantries and I would head towards my destination following their directions.
When asked in UK “Where are you from?” my response is “I live in Hertfordshire.” What often makes me feel uncomfortable is when I am then probed with “Where are you really from?” I consider UK to be my home and interpret the follow up question to mean “You are not from here, you don’t belong…” The discomfort is further exacerbated when I am then complimented on my ‘accent free’ English.
At the various training sessions that I have conducted, I have noticed a divide in the response from participants. Often the white participants have indicated a genuine interest, a friendly conversation-opener when asking “Where are you from?” Some however conceded that they would not ask this question unless the person was Black/Asian or the person spoke with a strong accent. By contrast some of the black and Asian participants admitted that they abhor this question as it clearly implies that their origin is from elsewhere and that they belong to another country, a subtle rhetorical reminder of their excluded status.
Whilst taking into consideration that the spirit and context in which the question is asked could be with friendly interest, let us examine the context in which this question is often received. Michael, a black man, in his mid-50s, has had several experiences of being shouted at in the street and being told to “go back to where you come from”. He therefore feels anxious when asked where is he from especially as he has experienced a barrage of “you don’t belong here, what are you doing here, you are taking over our country” etc.
Second and third generation British citizens of different ethnicity find the question irritating as well as irrelevant as the question seems to imply a convenient way to categorise – being placed in a group that is separate from the British identity. For some, this question becomes a reminder that the identity of being ‘the other’, not British, is highlighted.
Jasmine who describes herself of Mixed Race/Ethnicity felt that the question, ‘where are you from?’ indicates that she is living in a country that is warmly embracing different cultures and that the question was asked to build rapport and find a common ground. Jasmine considers that given the many travel opportunities now available, people are simply inquiring whether they have visited her country of origin and if this is the case, stories are shared. Mina, proud to declare that she is from India, readily shares information about being Indian and indeed finds companionship from those who are interested in her background.
As for me, I am proud of where I was born and my country of origin. However I am selective in how I share the circumstances under which I came to the UK. My personal story to how I arrived in Britain is precious, and despite having lived in the UK for most of my life, I remain cautious of being misunderstood or for my background to be regarded simply as entertaining conversation.
Whilst it is worth considering that a person could be asking the question for the first time, the recipient most likely has had this question addressed several times. On some occasions, the question is asked under the guise of being interested only on the basis of their ethnic background and for no other reason. It is worth reflecting on the need to ask this question and to acknowledge that by asking this question, some recipients feel obliged to define their identity whilst taking responsibility for your curiosity. I would rather tell where I am ‘really’ from when I am ready and want to share this information.
“Oh yeah, I hate this question, I get it a lot especially after emphasising the correct way to pronounce my name. The response I get is ‘oh I noticed your accent…’ I speak with a Yorkshire accent.”
Snéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at www.bluetuliptraining.co.uk.