How long do you need to be here, to be from here? To belong? I’m British. ‘But where are you really from?’ My dad was born and raised in in England and so was I. What is it that you want? What is it that you're trying to get out of me? Since tracing my ancestry, I know that I am British Jamaican, with origins in West Africa. It is humanising, empowering and grounding to know this for myself. But why is it important for you to know? I have given you my answer. If you persist, you’re not asking the same question.
Enquiring about where a Black person is from can be painful. There are many who can’t trace back their ancestry due to slavery. They can’t access birth records and travel logs that have been lost or were never made in the first place. My own linage is difficult to decipher for this reason. And an origin-story interrogation can serve as a reminder of historical trauma.
But there’s another, more insidious reason why this can be a painful experience. And that is that the question is almost always loaded. It is about staking a claim on the country; who was here first, who is more superior. It is, point blank, racism.
Ngozi Fulani’s interrogation at Buckingham Palace by Lady Susan Hussey was racism. The woman, who was the late Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting and is Prince William’s godmother, pursued the Sistah Space founder for information about her nationality, long after Fulani had given her reply. The fact that Hussey could not accept: ‘Here, the UK’ as an answer, means the question was not a genuine enquiry. Instead, it was an expression of her own entitlement to be at the Palace and an admission that she thought Fulani looked out of place. It was othering.
As a Black person, you can tell when someone is harmlessly intrigued by you. The intentionality behind questions around race are paramount. If I’m with a Black person whose accent fascinates me, I’ll say: ‘My goodness, I really love your accent. If you don't mind me asking. Where is it from?’ That’s intentional.
Challenging a Black person’s heritage is something else. First and foremost, this practice is founded on a tacit assumption, from a white supremacist belief system, that the first people in Britain were white. They were not. And if you think so, I would suggest you explore the skeleton remains of famous figure Ivory Bangle Lady, who lived during 4th Century AD and was discovered in York. Or Beachy Head Lady, a Roman-era skeleton found in East Sussex. Black people have existed in Britain since the dawn of civilisation, yet people are surprised by our existence, unaware that every single modern human being comes from a Black woman in Africa named mitochondrial Eve. Questioning if we belong demonstrates historical illiteracy, and the false belief Black people only came to Britain in the transatlantic slave trade or Windrush.
Adjacent to, but deeply entwined with this issue is the gratuitous touching of a Black person’s hair. Putting your hands on another person's body unwarranted goes against consent and is a violation of boundaries. The act itself is learned and generational. To contextualise this, there were human zoos in late 19th century Britain, where Black people were paraded around like animals for white people to observe, prod and poke. That sense of entitlement over somebody else’s body permeates history and endures in the treatment of Black people today.
Racism like this is a form of trauma. But while we don’t question the trauma of sexual offence, women like Fulani find their experiences of racial abuse undermined. Data shows everyday exposure to racial stress is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, similar to war veterans. Sadly, news coverage of racism isn’t censored nor sensitive to our feelings. Black people are either asked to educate others or debate the topic, without any empathy for what it might trigger.
I don’t engage unless I choose to. I had a number of press requests last week to comment on this and I said no to the majority of them, because unless you want to have an intelligent discussion and you’re there to listen and better understand, I'm not going to enable the debate. I've got a book on this subject, a TED talk on the subject. And I've got a self-directed anti-racism course. Everything you need is there, because I chose to use my skill set and my knowledge to offer that. But when it comes to talking about things that could be painful, we have to be able to hold boundaries.
I only work with people who understand systemic racism. They might not feel confident about addressing it, whether in their workplace or at home, but they know it's an issue. They won’t debate whether being asked probing questions about one’s race is harmful. They believe the words that come out of Black people's mouths and they also accept that Black people aren't a monolith.
Racism is a public health issue that impacts us psychologically. And I'm interested in healing. Let’s show emotional maturity by owning up to it when we’ve contributed to harm. Let’s allow people to find comfort and safety in coming to see us, because they don’t have to convince us why a micro-aggression is harmful. Let’s believe people when they give their first answer to questions about origin, because you never know what untold trauma you’re only scratching the surface of. And, let’s ask ourselves before we enter the small talk whether ‘where are you from?’ is going to build rapport with someone, or cement the divide. Better yet, whether it is any of your business at all.
Nova Reid is a thought leader, TED speaker and author of The Good Ally, which you can purchase here.
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