Where are you REALLY from?

By Joyce Osei

The recent fall-out and the media backlash about what happened with Ngozi Fulani – when she went to Buckingham Palace and repeatedly faced this question – got me thinking about my own lived experience of being asked this.

Over the years, I have had this question and its different guises asked of me many times in different scenarios such as social events and, of course, at work. I’ve even been explicitly asked ‘Were you born and bred in London?’ at the end of a job interview!
What’s the problem? 

On the surface ‘Where are you from?’  seems like a very simple and straightforward question, and I’ve heard a lot of people say that this question comes from a place of curiosity. Now there’s nothing wrong with being curious, but what about when ‘Where are you from?’ is followed up with  ‘Where are you really from?’ or sometimes even ‘Where you from from?’

For me that’s when it becomes problematic, because the so-called simple question is actually a fully-loaded one!

A couple of things immediately come up for me: If you are the person asking the question, what are you really getting at, and, have you ever considered the impact of those words?

When I am asked this, it makes me feel confused, like I don’t belong or that I am not being believed. It also reminds me of the time I was asked what my ‘real name’ was, immediately after I introduced myself as Joyce. (This is a true story and is possibly a blog for another day!)

Before asking that follow-up question I would recommend thinking about the context to your conversation and asking yourself if it is really relevant or necessary to ask that second question.

What is it about where the person said they are from that you find hard to believe?  Why doesn’t the idea you have about them in your head match their answer and therefore makes it less believable to you? We know that our words betray our thoughts and biases, so these questions could be seen to convey the speaker’s bias that a person who looks or sounds different from them cannot be ‘from here’, or must at least have a name that sounds ‘’unfamiliar’’.

A better approach?

In order to transform this (as it is a real issue, particularly for people of colour, and is worthy of change) you could consider the following points before you ask this type of question:

  1. Context – what is the context of your conversation and is it relevant? Are you having a conversation about birth places (relevant!) or is this a casual ‘getting to know each other’ chat (not in the slightest!)?
  2. Intention – Why do you want to know this and what value does it add to your conversation or relationship? Is the question more about satisfying your own curiosity (not inclusive) or is it about understanding the person with whom you’re speaking (inclusive)?
  3. Impact – Flex your empathy muscle: if you looked or sounded different, how might you have interpreted this question? How do you think it would have made you feel?

Considering these 3 elements will help you determine whether you should ‘go there’.

Alternatively, on the safe side, don’t ask the question at all; be patient instead, and let the conversation progress until a clue is provided or the opportunity arises for you to ask a relevant follow-up question. In time, the person you’re speaking with might talk about where they grew up. If not, you would still be getting to know them better and finding out other – possibly more interesting – things about them that they are happy to share.

And if you have considered the above points and you’d still like to know the answer, you can ask me the next time we meet in person…