We all like to find out where others are from. Place shapes us, and connects us. I love it when I meet someone who has connections with South Devon, for example, and we can chat about places we know. We are tribal creatures, and like what is familiar to us, what feels like home. But the ‘where are you from’ question can also divide us – when black and brown people in the UK are asked this by white people, we know that what appears to be an innocent, curious question can actually be a way of ‘othering’ us, and telling us we are not from here.
All ethnic minorities are familiar with this question. But in rural parts of the UK it’s not just bringing our Britishness into question, but our right to live where we live. I remember when I began to clock what was going on. ‘Where are you from?’ people would ask. ‘Devon,’ I’d say, ‘and before that, Cambridgeshire, and before that…’ ‘What about your family?’ they’d ask next. Or, ‘where are you REALLY from?’ And I’d give them what they wanted: the knowledge that my dad comes from Ghana. What they really wanted to know was, ‘why are you brown?’ and ‘why are you here?’
BBC3 has created the Where Are You From? game, which highlights the question brilliantly.
Afua Hirsch describes ‘The Question’ as being ‘the most persistent reminder of that sense of not belonging.’ Afua writes in the Guardian, after the paper’s Bias in Britain poll identified high levels of racism in the UK, about ‘the constant singling out of people of colour in order to ask: “Where are you from?” And to keep on asking, until information about some supposedly exotic country of origin is delivered.’ The Question, she says, is rarely meant to be malicious. ‘Yet being asked where you’re from in your own country is a daily ritual of unsettling.’
It’s been a big issue for me, having spent most of my life in rural parts of Britain. White people in the south west have often assumed I’m from London, or Bristol. One woman who lived in the same small seaside town I’d lived in for years, claimed she could hear my ‘London accent.’ It’s as though it’s become accepted in public consciousness that yes, black and brown people can come from the UK nowadays, but they’re all in cities. The idea that black equals urban is a rhetoric I want to explore and begin to shift – there are much higher numbers of ethnic minorities in inner city areas, but people of colour don’t only live in those places. We have multiple identities and experiences, and are as diverse as anyone else.
The idea that black and brown people can *really* come from the English countryside challenges ideas of nationality and Englishness. For some, it is a place that represents the last bastions of Empire, a golden age when everything was right (and white). People of colour cannot be rooted in a place where there is sea, and grass, and woods.
Life moves at a slower pace in the south west, and we are slow to change attitudes and understanding. Urbanites would be shocked at some of the stuff that goes on – overt racism that goes unchallenged, the use of old-fashioned and offensive terminology to decribe black people (this language hasn’t moved on, for some, since the 1950s) and (my personal favourite) the constant touching of black people’s hair without consent. It is time we moved on, into a future where having a diverse ethnic population living in rural surroundings would not only be OK, but be welcomed.