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‘Where are you really from?’ – a seemingly innocent question that masks the history of Racism and Exclusion

By Arifa Syed, Senior Consultant

An uproar and a collective sigh rolled through the nation when in November of 2022 a prominent Royal Household member – Lady Susan H. – insistently asked a Black guest – Charity founder Ngozi Fulani – “where are you really from” and kept asking until she got an answer.  An insistence that was preoccupied with uncovering her ancestral heritage even when Fulani had answered the UK as her place of identity, alluded to ‘explain to me how you are here.’ The seemingly innocent question asked at a particularly high-profile event carried within itself the experiences of countless people to justify their place and existence within British society. As someone who has experienced this personally, it is not the curiosity that hurts – after all, we are all social beings who get curious about each other now and then – but the ignorance without the responsibility that is codified as curiosity that hurts. Ngozi Fulani’s encounter is not an isolated case; people who do not appear ‘White’ and ‘European’ experience an on-going questioning based on numerous factors like their names, skin-colour, accents, and visa status. However, it cannot be chalked to purely present-day racism, either. A historical understanding of why these instances become particularly harmful is necessary for the message to stick and for intentional considerations to be made in the future.


Why has this happened?

In a multicultural society like the UK, nationality, ethnicity, race, and skin colour become terms that are often used interchangeably. While these terms are inter-linked with each other, they are also distinct concepts within themselves and should be understood as such. Historically, nationalities have been conflated with race e.g., British = White, African = Black, Indian = Brown.

Particularly, deciphering these undertones urges us to look back at the historical epoch when the British Empire was voraciously expanding – I do share this as a Pakistani descendant of the product of the Empire. This is precisely where ‘us’ against ‘them’ ideologies became ingrained with unequal power dynamics and still plague us today – everyone has a place and everyone has a purpose, and anything out of that structure becomes questionable and requires an explanation. The present-day manifestations of racism cannot be understood or addressed without looking at the histories of who we are and where we come from . In a way, Whiteness belonged to the UK and anything else was the ‘other’ that did not belong, and their presence needed to be justified and verified. What effectively also took place, because of the Empire’s expansion, is population exchanges to fulfil labour needs in building and servicing Britain by bringing over ‘subjects’ from the British colonies. This explains the historical multicultural facets of Britain and the presence of multi-generational diversity in the UK alongside present globalisation processes that enable migration.

The prominent ideology that our skin colour equals our nationality means that in societies where one race remains dominant e.g., Whiteness in the UK, those who are from the minority races but are born in the UK feel excluded and experience a denial of belonging. People should understand the difference between nationality, race, skin colour, and accents so that they do not discriminate, even unintentionally. For example, asking about someone’s heritage and ancestry could be acceptable but insisting to get to their roots as if they were an enigma that needs to be solved sends out a clear discriminatory message of ‘you don’t belong here’ – packed in the veneer of curiosity and inquisitiveness. Especially, when an answer has been provided, as in Fulani’s case, yet there remains an entitled insistence on finding the ‘truth’ because skin colour is conflated with nationality. 

It is important to recognise the intersections of someone’s identity, all of which are active and valid at the same time. Someone – like my brilliant colleague, Martha – can be British because she is born and raised in Britain, and simultaneously proudly identify with her Afro-Caribbean descent and heritage. It is now my responsibility to respect and honour those intersections. This is the beauty of intersectionality that provides us with the language and thought process to accept, welcome and embrace people’s complex nuances.


What can be done to be better together?

It is natural to be curious. In fact, curiosity is central to growth and connection. However, curiosity should be interwoven with respect, acceptance, and responsibility. The point is not to shut down the conversation and be afraid to ask questions, but it matters how we ask those questions and what intentions we convey through our demeanours. The crux of the issue is not asking someone where they are from – it is what follows later,  ‘where are you really from?’ that causes exclusion and denial of belonging wrapped in bias, stereotypes and prejudices.

Alongside, we cannot look forward unless we learn to look back; a part of our responsibility as inclusive individuals comes in enlightening ourselves with our interconnected and power-studded histories to understand the complexities of someone’s existence. This requires the courage to learn, the vulnerability to acknowledge when we do not know, the bravery to apologise and the empathy to accept and embrace. We should not ask people where they are really from, but we can ask about their cultural heritage or ancestral lineage. From my experience when asked this with the right intentions, the impact is positive, people are happy to share, and reflective learning moments are formed.

Finally – I personally follow the mantra of ‘once we know better, we should do better’. That is where intentional behavioural change resides and should be cultivated to make everyone feel included. We can and should do better.

Here’s your next read where we talk about why we need to talk about microaggressions in the workplace.

The crux of the issue is not asking someone where they are from – it is what follows later, ‘where are you really from?’ that causes exclusion and denial of belonging wrapped in bias, stereotypes and prejudices.

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