Where Are You From?

The exhibition was really good, the private view was a real success with the gallery being full to the brim with people discussing the work and embracing a wine or two.  A couple of people commented on the piece and wanted to read the articles but couldn't due to the placement.  So here is the first one with the next two weeks containing the others. 

 

Where are you from?

 

Is it ever ok to ask this question? What does it imply? The literal intrigue as to where someone is from in terms of their heritage? Or is it a more loaded question quizzing where someone is from and why they are here?

This reminded me of a heated debate that occured on a Friday night down a neighbourly drinking spot where a group of young men were talking to my friend of Indian heritage and asked where she was from.  Her response was to answer matter of fact, that she is British born but her parents are from India, No problem. However another friend took offence to this, questioning the intent and informed them that it was inappropriate to ask such a direct question as it implies that ‘you are not from here’.  Fast forward post a very heated debate and the resolution was for them to enquire as to someone’s heritage as it was less provocative.  After discussing this further with my two friends, it was clear that my friend opposing the question had suffered a lot of racial abuse as a young child having move here in the 1980’s. For those who remember, it was a tricky time politically and racially with various divides both across London and the rest of the UK.  So for her, this triggered uncomfortable memories that were racially motivated and her reaction was in direct response to that.

Which made me reflect on my own mixed heritage and experiences as a child.  My mother was born from an Indian mother and White British father during the early 1960’s. Sadly for her this was a time where inter-racial relationships were not the norm and frowned upon.  As a result, she was adopted by my Nan, who was from Germany, and my Granddad, who was a Londoner. T hey were the pioneers of their day; also adopting a son from Singapore and another daughter from the Caribbean, again with mixed heritage, possibly German.  So here was the United Colours of Benetton family, which on the surface was so forward thinking and liberal of them.  Sadly due to the era, cultural education was not at the forefront for adopted children.  As a result there were no links to India on either an emotional, physical or cultural level for my mother to connect to in terms of her own identity and acceptance of that.  Resulting in shame and denial.  An issue I am sure many adopted children had to deal with during that time and still do to this day.

Obviously I am my mother child so I have Indian blood, which was diluted some more due to her relationship with my white British father.  Growing up in a small, white working class town and being mixed race was significant especially as I was only one of three children in school that came from an ‘other’ background. My dark brown, almost black hair, olive complexion and brown eyes were too much of a contrast to my light haired, blue eye counterparts especially during the summer months.

It made growing up difficult, as there were no discussions regarding my mother’s adoption, as she was ashamed, which transferred to me.  As a child and still as an adult, people ask where I am from, which makes me question their motive and the potentially loaded meaning behind it.  Growing up in the Midlands, there was mass migration from India and the Caribbean that led to a lot of racial divide and tension.  I remember being called ‘Paki’ and feeling very confused by this term as I was not Pakistani and did not identify as anything other than British.  Which I echoed from my immediate role model, my mother, cloaked in her all of her shame and lack of education.  Which I do not blame her for but she could not equip me with any of the tools to navigate this questioning world growing up.  Luckily for me I embraced my ‘mixture’ when I went to university and felt comfortable in my own skin finally, discussing my families history and celebrating it for what it was, diverse.

The paradox I am in now, especially living in London where it is so ethnically diverse, is that my dilution is even more apparent.  My journey has gone from feeling embarrassed to embracing the ‘I am exotic’ element of me, another term I would use when people asked ‘where are you from?’  To being no longer in the minority, which is not a problem don’t get me wrong.  But the issue is now that I have been referred to as ‘white passing’, which threw up a whole new set of emotional problems as there was so much time invested in embracing the difference, only to be told that I am not.

Funnily enough this is a topic that is being written about more and more. The articles are wonderful to read as there are so many people navigating a world that is somewhat conflicting.  The worst aspect is when you are perceived to be white which is especially tricky when people make racists comments, somehow thinking 1, it is ok to voice their opinion to a stranger and 2, their assumption is that you are white therefore you will be receptive to such opinions.  The shock and embarrassment when you correct them can be somewhat titillating but annoying nonetheless.  But hey life is always an education and it is always good to be informed as well as informing others.

However, I do fully understand and accept the argument from people of colour who are judged on a daily basis in a racially prejudiced way just due to the colour of their skin because their skin colour is so apparent. I do have the ‘luxury’ of being mistaken for being mediterranean more often than not so I can walk down the street without judgement or prejudice.  We are constantly witnessing how the establishment can be so unfair, unlawful and that is what is reported.  I feel concerned that there is so much fear, who knows what is going to happen?  Fear is cultivated in the unknown but empathy costs nothing.  I think we should all be breaking down barriers and asking more questions but we just need to remember to ask the right ones in a way that is not hurtful or divisive.