In the aftermath of the Ngozi Fulani incident; questions like ‘where are you really from’, no matter how well-meaning – only serve the other and exclude, particularly those from Black communities, says Usaama Kaweesa.
Picture standing in a big circle, in the great outdoors, with a group of enthusiastic fellow hikers from all over the world. There is only one black person in the group. We go around, introducing ourselves. Smiles on all our faces and buckets of positive energy flowing through our hand gestures. It’s my turn. “Hi everyone, My name’s Usaama and I’m from the UK” Suddenly I am interrupted with a question. The question: “Yeah, but where are you really from?”
This comes from a fellow hiker. A fellow white hiker. I am Black. And I am British. In my head, I wonder if she’d be satisfied if I answered with the name of my borough. Maybe my town, my neighbourhood. I even jokingly consider revealing my door number.
“My family heritage is from the beautiful east African country that is Uganda”. I give her the answer she wants. The universe is corrected in her eyes. I am not really from here. I am not really British. We carry on with our hike.
This is only one example. It is recent. But I can name countless other incidents where my identity was challenged. It is more shocking to find out that it happens at the highest levels of our society. I stand in solidarity with Ngozi Fulani for enduring this unfortunate encounter and hurtful experience.
Black communities and racism.
If you are black in the UK at some point in your life you will face racism. We have come a long way since the days of Senior Royals having a stake in slave trading companies like the Royal African Company. Or shop window signs barring us access, alongside our Irish brothers and sisters, and dogs. State-sanctioned and overt racism may largely no longer exist. Black communities may not be explicitly targeted by structural policies. But, covert racism is still out there and it hurts.
Where do we belong?
I was left speechless after my first ever Council meeting this year when I was mistaken for a very talented musician by a fellow councillor. Unbelievable considering, I had just sat in the Chamber with him, alongside all the other councillors, only moments earlier. To make matters worse, the councillor challenged me on this until he finally came to the realisation that I was not who he thought I was.
Similar to being asked where you’re really from – experiences like this dangerously imply that even though we are here, in these spaces, we do not really belong. If we do then it’s only because we fit in a narrow scope of stereotypes – the entertainer or the exceptional high-achieving immigrant. It hurts.
On the off chance, you are reading this as someone who has, in the past, innocently asked a Black Briton this question I want to be absolutely clear – I do not believe most people pose this question with malicious intent. Or that any person who is curious about the heritage of a Black person is a terrible racist.
An integral part of the social fabric.
When I think back to the people who have asked about my Ugandan heritage, most I consider to be kind and generous people with a genuine curiosity. It is not asking the question that’s the problem. It is what the question implies, whether intended or unintended, and how it makes others feel. Black communities are an integral part of England’s social fabric. It is possible to be Black and British. It doesn’t have to be more than that. We belong.
Whenever I’ve been asked this question, I wish the person had taken a moment to think about the harm a question like this can do. 3 things to consider before you ask someone where they are from:
1. Is this the most appropriate space to quiz someone on their family background?
I’ve always felt ambushed and a little confused by the question whenever I’ve been randomly asked at events that have nothing to do with heritage. The most recent example being at a function focused on celebrating local small businesses. Although, needless to say it’s not a good idea to ambush someone in any circumstances.
2. If you do ask the question, will you accept the first answer you get?
I’m very proud of my Ugandan heritage. I was born there and still have aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who live there and who I try to visit regularly (when I can get the time off work). I love talking about that place. However, I don’t always feel comfortable sharing all of my deeply personal information with strangers I’ve just met. So when I’m asked the question I simply reply with the place I was raised and have spent almost my whole life: the mighty London borough of Merton.
3. Is it important for you to know where someone is ‘really’ from, and why?
I don’t believe most people who have asked me this question thought they were saying anything racist or even anything wrong. After all, it’s not a crime to be curious about other people we meet. In fact, it’s what makes living in such a diverse city like London so rich. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that for a lot of people like me – this question is rooted in a racial bias that implies ‘someone who isn’t white cannot truly be British’ and that is the problem.
If there’s any good to come from Ngozi Fulani’s experience it’s that hopefully the next time someone considers asking a Black Briton “Where are you from?” They pause to reflect on whether what they’re really asking is the more racist question that most decent people would never ask: “where are you really from because you’re Black?”
Usaama Kaweesa is an alum of the Restless Development International Citizen Service Programme. He has used his overseas volunteering experience to take action on the issues he cares about ever since; including engaging young people in the political process; championing volunteer social action; and standing for public office. Usaama currently serves as the Councillor for Cricket Green Ward, London Borough of Merton.