As a British Asian woman one of the most recurring questions I’m asked when I meet someone new is: ‘Where are you from?’ At this point in my life this question infuriates me. It is mostly asked by men, and usually white men. In the UK this question is filled with racial tensions bubbling beneath the surface of our society. However, when I go abroad I get asked the same question even more. Sometimes it can be harmless, as a tourist people wonder where you’ve travelled from, and all tourists get asked that question. But the responses are another problem. It can be difficult trying to explain to foreigners how I am British and Asian at the same time. Awkward conversations about race, nationality and ‘where my parents are from’ become even more tiring when language barriers and ignorance come into play.
When brown men ask me where I’m from its one thing. I don’t like it, but I know it’s more about curiosity than difference. My London accent and brown skin are something they might not be familiar with. But when white men ask ‘where are you from?’ they don’t consider how it can marginalise others. More often than not, the one question quickly turns into an interrogation session, with people trying to trace my ancestral roots to parts of India they’ve never even heard of.
I recently started working as a corporate journalist, and was lucky enough to attend a work conference abroad last week. Before the trip I worried that the people I’d meet would ask where I was from, and had some great advice which separated the two categories in that question: nationality and ethnicity. I went to Berlin, a pretty diverse city, and was asked where I was from 3 times in the space of 3 days. Each time was different; the intent, the way it was asked, and how it made me feel. I know this is a shared experience between POCs, and thought I would share my most embarrassing experience of marginalisation with you.
Let me set the scene, I’m out at a fancy Italian restaurant in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. There’s about 12 of us at the table, a large group of men and women, from various places. I wasn’t the only ethnic minority at the table, but I was the only one without white skin.
As such a large group, and unable to speak German we drew attention in the restaurant. While waiting for the main course one perky waiter came over and asked us:
“Where are you from? You all look different?”
No-one replied, so I said, “We’re from Britain.”
“We’re from London.”
“Ohh London,” he said. “But you look like you’re from India!”
There was silence at the table, I could feel the heat rise to my face. Unable to think of a response I said,
“No, I’m from London.”
I felt embarrassed, and honestly didn’t know what to do or say.
Luckily my friend/colleague sitting next to me stepped in and diverted the conversation to the waiter, asking him about his name and where he was from.
“I’m from Albania”, he said.
Once the waiter walked away the silence stagnated, leaving all 12 of us to sit in my embarrassment.
A few moments later the white male sitting opposite me goes, “Well, that was awkward…”
We all felt awkward. But it was worse for me.
I hadn’t realised I stood out in this group of people so much. My colleagues, who I see on a daily basis and senior members of management sat around the table and bared witness to the waiter, who was a migrant himself, single me out. Clearly I didn’t look like I belonged in this group. Which is something I hadn’t thought of until he pointed it out.
Funnily enough, just last month I had tried to explain to my colleague why he shouldn’t ask strangers where they are from. He didn’t understand, and I didn’t have the energy to argue with him. He wasn’t the one singled out in front of his colleagues, but he was the one to say it was “awkward”. I replied, “this is what I’ve been saying”.
So, white men of the world… please think before you ask someone where they are from. Think about why you want to know, and how you’re going to pose that question. Personally, I don’t think there’s any need to ask a stranger this question. You have no right to ask me where I’m from, like I don’t belong. You have no right to comment on the colour of my skin, or ask me why I don’t have an Indian accent. Have some common sense, but more than anything have some respect. Just because you’re not put under a magnifying glass every day of your life, it doesn’t make you any better than POC. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes for once and stop being so ignorant.