Where are you from?
Please don’t ask me where I am from
I am here
because you were here there and everywhere
so now I have a right
to be here there and everywhere.
I wrote the above lines as the introduction to a speech I gave in 1995 about gender, race and identity within the context of the global women’s movement. I was living in London at the time and I got asked the question, ‘Where are you from’? more times than I cared to remember. I was passing through Gatwick Airport in 1993. I had just landed after a long flight from Costa Rica via Miami where I had gone to attend a conference. I had spent all the hours on the flight from Miami fretting about making a connecting flight from London to Madrid for another conference. I only had approximately one hour and twenty minutes for the connection. I handed my British passport over to the immigration officer at Gatwick, only for him to ask, ‘Whose passport is this?’ I found the question so funny I burst into laughter. His next question was, ‘Where are you from?’
My connecting time started to dwindle with every question I got asked by this fellow and with every exasperated answer I gave. The point at which he was about to get up to take my passport for further enquiry, I said to him, ‘I have a connecting flight. This is my ticket. Ironically, I am one of those going to represent the UK at the Women in Development Europe conference. It would be a shame if I missed my flight because you feel I am not who I say I am’. He turned red and handed my passport over to me. I was furious but I reserved my anger for the long letter I wrote to my Member of Parliament at the time complaining about how I was treated. After three months I got a detailed response from my MP which essentially stated that they had investigated the matter and they were sorry for what happened and efforts were being made to make their staff more appreciative of diversity.
This week, ‘Where are you from?’ became a global question. There was a reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Consort Camilla. One of the guests, Ms Ngozi Fulani who was representing one of the many charities that had been invited was approached by an elderly lady, Lady Susan Hussey and the following conversation ensued – my own interpretations are in the brackets.
Lady H: Where are you from? (Asking foreigners where they are from is a good ice-breaker)
Ms Ngozi: Sistah Space (It is nice to have been invited and for our work to be recognised)
Lady H: No, where do you come from? (She is not responding to my question, maybe she doesn’t understand?)
Ms Ngozi: We’re based in Hackney (Okay now, she is not going there, is she?)
Lady H: No, what part of Africa are YOU from? (She thinks she is smart, what an uppity upstart)
Ms Ngozi: I don’t know, they didn’t leave any records (Wao! She really is going there! Who let this dinosaur out to roam?)
Lady H: Well, you must know where you’re from, I spent time in France. Where are you from? (Stop wasting my time, I have been around the world so I know a thing or two about who is from where)
Ms Ngozi: Here, UK (What prayers did I leave out this morning that would make me cross paths with this person!)
Lady H: No, but what nationality are you? (What do you mean you are from the UK; British people do not look like you. I am British, I should know)
Ms Ngozi: I am born here and I am British (Enough already old lady. This is not funny any more)
Lady H: No, but where do you really come from, where do your people come from? (This is what I don’t like about these people, they never know their place)
Ms Ngozi: ‘My people’, Lady, what is this? (My people? With those two words, I am not British in her eyes!)
Lady H: Oh I can see I am going to have a challenge getting you to say where you are from. When did you first come here? (This one is a tough nut to crack but I will break her. How dare she argue with me?)
Ms Ngozi: I am a British national, my parents came here in the 1950s (She really does need a history lesson)
Lady H: Oh, I knew we would get there in the end, you’re Caribbean! (There you are. Why were you trying to be stubborn. You are not from here!)
Ms Ngozi: No Lady, I am of African heritage, Caribbean descent and British nationality (Why was I invited here to be treated like this? At Buckingham Palace! No wonder Meghan fled)
The exchange started out benignly enough till it took a rather bizarre but sadly familiar turn, for those of us who have been a part of such conversations. Lady Sussan Hussey is an eighty-three-year-old former Lady in Waiting to the late Queen Elizabeth. She is also the Godmother of Prince William. She has worked for the royal household for over 60 years and they no doubt value her experience, knowledge and loyalty. Yet it seems that though Lady Hussey can be forgiven for being a woman of her time (the generation who used to peer into the baskets of black shoppers at the supermarket out of curiosity) she does not get a pass for making a guest so uncomfortable that she felt the need to make an international incident out of it. The intimidation and harassment of Ms Ngozi was uncalled for.
Supporters of Lady Hussey claim that she would never have been intentionally racist because she is an experienced quasi-diplomat who travelled with the late Queen all over the world. This raises two issues. First, Lady Hussey and her supporters do not understand what racism is. Second, as someone who worked closely with a monarch who dedicated herself to understanding her people, Lady Hussey is painfully tone-deaf and out of touch. Her exchange with Ms Fulani was patronising, condescending and not worthy of someone of her station, who has been charged over the years with teaching younger people etiquette and manners. Well, maybe in her book black people do not deserve to be treated with respect. Lady Hussey was promptly thrown under the bus by Buckingham Palace and had to resign. With a war of the Waleses versus Sussexes going on, ‘Husseygate’ was an easy score for Camp Sussex.
Apparently, Lady Hussey had also asked Mr Nazir Afzal, Chancellor of the University of Manchester exactly the same question she asked Ms Ngozi Fulani. Perhaps because Mr Afzal is used to deploying different tactics to deal with people like Lady Hussey, he simply responded, ‘Manchester currently’. That seemed to be enough for Lady Hussey to back off. It was easier to latch on to a gaily dressed African-looking woman at Buckingham Palace and be affronted when she refused to be placed in the box she tidily placed her in.
It is a struggle to have to navigate personal and institutional racism, especially in its subtle forms. The way I have learnt to deal with it is to expect it. If you expect it, your guard is not down and you are alert. It is the moment you assume that you have paid all dues and levelled all playing fields and earned the right to sit at the important tables that you get a painful reminder. This is true of both racism and sexism. There is always someone prepared to ‘other’ you, to make you feel that you do not belong, that you have no right to be there. To intimidate and bully you into accepting labels that are not yours. There is always someone exercising privilege over you. For those of us who ‘travel the world while black’ and who have children who are growing up with all the rights and privileges of these other lands, we need to have conversations about race, class and privilege as often as we can. Sometimes our lives and those of our children depend on this. We should all be prepared to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ with as much dignity and clarity as possible. Where am I from? Where do you want me to begin Maam?
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com