Why it’s hard to be asked ‘where are you really from?’

I feel most people by now know that for mixed-race people or British PoC, being asked ‘where are you from?’ can be an uncomfortable question. We saw it with Love Island contestant Yewande Biala this summer – “Oh, she’s Irish? Yes, but where is she really from?” everyone asked. But I think it’s important people understand why an apparently harmless question can bristle us.

Obviously, asking ‘where are you from?’ is pretty standard practice when meeting someone new. But I find when I reel off my whole ‘Malvern – near Worcester? Yes like the sauce. It’s near Birmingham?’ spiel, some people either immediately ask ‘no – where are your parents from?’ or ‘yeah but where are you really from?’ or simply go ‘oh… okay’ with disbelieving raised eyebrows. A lot of people just say ‘okay’, granted, but it’s hard to shake off the minority who respond differently. These people aren’t actually asking where I’m from – they’re asking why my skin is brown.

Which, might I add, is also fine. But when it’s one of the first questions people ask me, I have to wonder if they’re seeing me as a human being or just as a brown person. I’m not implying that we should all be ‘colour-blind’ – that’s a privileged position to take. But when you could ask me about my degree or my interests and instead you choose to question after my skin colour, it does ring a few alarm bells in my head.

I think it’s important to add that the question is particularly hard because we find it difficult to answer, even in private dialogue with ourselves. I’m still not really sure ‘where I’m from’. Identity and split identities are hard subjects for mixed-race people especially, and so the question can actually become quite a sensitive one. I constantly feel as though I don’t participate with my mum’s (Mauritian) culture enough, despite being 50% Mauritian. Is it wrong that I don’t engage with Mauritian culture? Is it bad I can’t speak the same language as half of my family? Why does it make me feel guilty?

Being culturally ‘both’ can be pretty hard when society always seems to want you to choose one or the other, so asking ‘where are you from’ can actually be a very loaded question when aimed at a PoC. That’s why the question is a tricky one.

Serena Smith

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