“Where are you from?”

Recently I was sat around a dinner table with a three other people, and collectively we represented London, Manchester, Luton, Wales, Pakistan, St Kitts, India, Senegal and Trinidad. We began to speak about the issue of identity as ethnic Britons, and the difficulty of answering the question “Where are you from?” The question has number of meanings and interpretations for the person asking, as well as the person responding, and we were always acutely aware of when our response had been the “wrong” answer! Anyway, below are some examples of how this question can play out in social interactions.

 

“Where are you from?” can mean:

  1. Which city are you from?
  2. Which university are you from?
  3. Where did you grow up?
  4. Where do you live now?
  5. What nationality are you? Where were you born?
  6. What is your ethnicity?
  7. Where were your parents born?
  8. What is your ethno-cultural heritage?

 

BME Briton to BME Briton

When these two relative strangers meet, often there is an unspoken awareness that “Where are you from?” is both asked and interpreted as 8. Fairly simple and straightforward, and a response to another question may result in repeated questioning until you get to the right one. But overall, this interaction is without hostility.

 

Non-BME Briton to Non-BME Briton

When these two relative strangers meet “Where are you from?” may be asked as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8, and interpreted as  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8. Again, fairly simple and straightforward.

 

BME Briton to Non-BME Briton

When these two relative strangers meet “Where are you from?” is often asked as 1, 2, 3 or 4, and interpreted as 1, 2, 3 or 4. Easy peasy! But why do we not question the heritage of whiteness? Should we?

 

And then, it gets a bit more complicated:

 

! Non-BME Briton to BME Briton

When these two relative strangers meet “Where are you from?” may be asked as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 as we live in a fairly informed society. However, at this point the BME Briton – fully aware of his visual differences – might be unsure and may respond to whichever question he feels depending on which is easiest or most convenient. This is rarely challenged, political correctness in action.

 

! BME Briton to Non-Briton BME

When these two relative strangers meet “Where are you from?” may be asked as 3, 5 or 6, and interpreted as 3, 5 or 6. However, the Non-Briton BME may in some cases be slightly annoyed by this if they have been resident in the UK for quite some time.

 

! BME Non-Briton to Briton BME

This represents for some British-born ethnics the most perilous of interactions! When these two relative strangers meet “Where are you from?” is most often asked as 5, 6, 7 or 8, and any response to the contrary on the part of the Brit can result in a brief flash in the eyes of the other party which says “You are a sell-out and have lost your culture.  You are ashamed of your heritage and ashamed of me!” It is the interaction some of us dread, particularly within our own communities. British identity is complex!


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