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Is it OK to ask someone where they are really from?

Updated: May 13

Headline news today captures the story of charity founder Ngozi Fulani. She was persistently asked about where she was ‘really’ from by Lady Susan Hussey, who has subsequently apologised and resigned. Some say it’s another sign of an established institution needing to modernise.

While some may argue it’s a harmless question that stems from intrigue, the reality is that it is incredibly othering. This week’s census data revealed that the non-White population of England and Wales is now 18.3%, which means for a growing group of people, where they are really from could be just up the M1.

The question of ‘where are you really from?’ is one commonly heard amongst some of our team. So we asked them how they react when they're asked:

Cathia Randrianarivo, Inclusive Research Consultant:

"Unless you are either Malagasy, or have some level of world curiosity - and therefore could recognise the similarity of my surname to another capital city - I have come to accept that people generally find it hard to place where I’m from. Even in as diverse a city as London (shock horror).

"Depending on my energy and tolerance levels, my response to this question can range from lying in the most apathetic manner, to using sarcastic humour, to friendly probing and educating live. I often trust my read of people to pick a personalised route, but have occasionally got it wrong.

"Just two weeks ago, I opted to amicably engage and as soon as shared that I was from Madagascar, I was interrupted with an excited “Oh wow, like The Lion King!”

"I ended up walking away and will be going back to using humour in the immediate future. Not because I don’t want to talk about my heritage, but because a question like ‘so where are you really from?’ tends to open up more than is really appropriate for small talk".

Sarita Lewis, Production Director:

"For me, the underlying question here has always been: “Why don’t you look and sound like I expect you to?”

"Before the age of 10, I lived in four continents and attended international schools with a range of accents. Many English-speaking international schools result in the sort of accent that people recognise as North American, except for North Americans who recognise it as close but just different enough (“Are you… Canadian?“).

"So when I tell people that I’m half Filipino and half New Zealander - more and more these days, my mixed-heritage story will be accepted even if my skin colour and eye shape seem Southeast Asian (at worst, I’ll get “are you sure you aren’t Chinese?“), but people will still often be confused by my lack of New Zealand accent.

"I understand that I have had the privilege of being exposed to a wide range of countries and ethnicities at a young age, so I have learned how to answer as efficiently as possible - but it remains frustrating when people doubt my answer because perhaps I’m the first person they’ve met who has this story.

"That’s actually part of why I love dyeing my hair. People presume that my hair should naturally be black or at least brown, and I understand that - but when people see my hair is purple or blue, I’m rarely asked to justify myself. It’s the one time no one asks “but why do you really look like that?”"

The reality is, as establishments seek to modernise, the people working for them require the cultural confidence needed to understand how certain questions can make others feel. That cultural confidence is built on understanding how language involves, and also understanding the complexity of identity.

Standard diversity & inclusion training is never enough - it's about systems change to understand how structures have been built up to create an establishment, and what's needed to nudge things forward for an ever changing society.

It's why we're passionate about truly embedding equity, diversity & inclusion into organisations - ensuring that people aren't judged for having the thought or asking the question, but creating the conditions and building the cultural confidence so everyone feels included.


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