“Where are you from?” is a question that every person in my family has been asked, from my parents in the 1960s to my little nephew, crying on his way back from school. I’ve faced the question from schoolteachers who want to know if I speak English, dates trying to exoticise me – and a manager who laughed afterwards, knowing he should not have asked.
“Where are you really from?” is the follow-up, if you don’t give someone what they want. While the question can come from a place of curiosity, it is hard to ignore the sinister undertones, especially when it’s repeated.
So, when I read that Ngozi Fulani, the head of a domestic abuse charity, was questioned where she was from while in Buckingham Palace, I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me, however, is how it has become headline news and a sackable offence, as the honorary member of the royal household who asked the question has since apologised and resigned. Dear, oh dear.
Fulani’s story is every person of colour’s story. I wish I could say it’s unique. I wish I could say that nobody else has been asked such a thing. But that isn’t the case; if it seems unique it is simply because not all of the people of colour get the chance to tell their story. I have had my own day out at Buckingham Palace, and found it similarly unwelcoming.
The grandest invitation I ever received as a journalist was to attend an exhibition at the palace. It arrived in a small cream envelope, with my name – spelt correctly – in calligraphy.
Regardless of whether you’re a kid from a council estate like me, or a prime minister going to a weekly audience with the monarch, I imagine that everyone feels some sense of wonderment when they drive up the Mall. Fulani probably felt the same. In the palace, your eyes widen as you are blinded by the bling – there’s lots to take in, after all – with the sky-high ceiling, crystal chandeliers and that balcony.
The crowd was all establishment figures in Savile Row-worthy suits and designer dresses: Tory politicians, mid-level royals, a David Attenborough here (talking in that wisdom-filled staccato tone), and a David Starkey there. There’s feeling out of place, but then, sure, there is this. Almost any person would feel some discomfort, but when you also realise that every single person in the room is oh-so white, darling, it’s one of the most uncomfortable feelings in the world.
There were jokes about the “exotic” art in reference to the Asian pieces. Someone recognised one of their aristocratic ancestors in a portrait on display as if that were ordinary – it consolidated how somebody like me could never belong in the establishment.
The only person I saw all night that looked like me – aside from a glimpse of Patricia Scotland – was a single Asian man. We locked eyes and smiled at each other. I’m sure if we’d have spoken I’d have had more in common with him than anyone else at the party. But he was a waiter, and I was a guest. In that moment, you are reminded that it’s merely by an accident of birth – or, more accurately, the aftereffects of colonialism – that you’re on one side and they’re on the other.
It all reminded me of the pervasive feeling of not belonging. That is why “where are you from” is such a politically loaded question. The answer should be simple, but it is a way for people – white people – to rank you on the social ladder. I know what I am actually being asked: why is the colour of your skin different? Why are you brown? Why aren’t you white? Why are you here? Should you be here?
Since I am brown-skinned and Indian, time and time again I have to prove my Britishness. When people ask me where I’m from, saying “Oxford” never meets their expectations. I’ve had enough. If I don’t call out the question, I allow the problem to persist; if I do call out the question, I make white people uncomfortable.
The thing is, I’ve assimilated into their version of Britain, so it’s time for them to assimilate into mine and the “minority” version – a multicultural, truly British society. The face of Britain is changing. Whether you like it or not, there are more and more people who look like me. The British story is a multicultural story. Whether it’s Labour MP Robin Cook hailing curry as the national dish, the most diverse team making up the England football squad, and now the first British prime minister of colour being of Indian descent – we are part of the fabric of Britain.
But who gets the privilege of being labelled British has always been a controversial subject. Ever since Britain began its overseas expansion, people of colour have been made to feel like guests in our own home as well as our new home – welcomed with one hand and scolded with the other.
Working-class people of colour are unlikely to stumble upon people that share their melanin, let alone long-lost relatives on the walls of galleries, museums or Buckingham bloody Palace. So, let’s make everyone feel welcome.
It’s time to start asking new questions.
Kohinoor Sahota is an arts and culture journalist. She is working on a book titled Where Are You Really From?
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