Thursday, 8 December 2011

What's wrong with being asked about your ethnic background?

I recently came across an article in the Guardian titled 'It may not be racist, but it's a question I'm tired of hearing'. The author writes about how she's frustrated at being constantly questioned about where she comes from. She says that people only ask her where she's from because she's a "bit brown"/"cashew-coloured", and by asking, those people have implied that she is "less British". 

It starts off with:

Last weekend, I had The Conversation for the 3,897th time – and this time, it took place in central London just two roads away from the hospital where I was born. As usual, it went like this:
Stranger: Where are you from? [Translation: You look a bit brown. Why are you brown?]
Me: London.
Stranger: No, where are you really from? [Translation: You are clearly telling me untruths. Brown people do not come from London.]
Me: London.
Stranger (exasperated): No, where are your parents from? [Translation: Now you're just being obtuse.]
Me: Africa and America.
Stranger (confused): Erm … so where are your family from, like, back in the day? [Translation: People who come from Africa and America do not look like you.]
Me: Iran, India, Africa, America and England.
Stranger (relieved): India and Iran! Do you ever go back?
At this point, I have to explain that it's hard to go back to somewhere you have never been. I've lived in London since I was a zygote, have a London accent and don't speak any languages except English – yet just because I'm cashew-coloured, I'm often questioned about my heritage. 

Explaining why it annoys her, she writes:

...It's partly down to exasperation at people thinking I'm less British than them because I'm brown...

Surely this author suffers from acute First World syndrome? It's melodramatic and presumptuous to believe that people only show interest in a person's cultural background to suss out or confirm how 'unauthentic' the person is. When I'm asked about my cultural background, I've never felt that the questioner is insinuating that I'm less Australian. Never have I stopped to think, "Hang on, this person must be inferring that I'm un-Australian or less Australian because I have olive skin and 'distinct' features." Asking a person about their ethnicity is a conversation starter - an ice breaker, really. I personally don't feel judged when I'm asked, nor do I feel objectified. If the questioner is probing me in a patronising way or wearing a Ku Klux Klan cloak, then I may have grounds to believe that they're not asking out of interest. Otherwise, no.

I also find it distateful how the article assumes that those who do the asking are mostly Anglo/white (the 'stereotypical' or majority Brit). I ask people what their cultural background is all the time, whether they're "cashew brown" or pasty white or unmistakably Arab. I'm curious about certain people, and I enjoy knowing/learning about a person's background and lineage. Humans are naturally inquisitive and we tend to want to find out more about people who look distinct or sound distinct. 

It's needless to feel offended by nothing much at all.


Anonymous said...

England - Australia: a cultural translation this is.
I think our immigration nation has fostered a curious nation. The Australian indeed may ask about ethnic background, but not to accentuate one's unaustralian-ess, as we'll always fall back on the fact that 'no one's really Australian, except the Aboriginals' (or atleast so how I've been brought up to believe.)
I quite agree with you, we're an inquisitive people.
I understand this lady's frustration though, however her experience is subjective to Britain's attitudes towards multiculturalism (of lesser tolerance than Australian's, I believe)
Thanks for posting! Interesting read.
(this is @paulzena btw)

Saad said...

A lot of people also ask because your background significantly influences you and your values as a person cos even though you've been born and raised in a country all your life, you may have been raised up in a particular culture/religion wh...ich essentially stems from your 'background' and thus defines you as a person. That's why, not to be stereotypical or anything, but quite often a person's background will give you a good indication of what that person is like and their values/customs/traditions/practices etc.

Anth87 said...

I think one thing the journo from the Guardian hasnt captured are the looks you get once you name your ancestry (regardless of where you're from), the way body language changes, the way certain questions after that initial 'where you from' can quickly become framed differently.

The question "have you ever been back" really does get old pretty quickly, and it assumes you migrated to Britain or Australia or the US etc no matter how many times you say I was born here. I once stupidly admitted I have a Syrian background (three generations old) and was coerced into a conversation about why the current president needs to be sent to Siberia. Meanwhile, I'm not that political, I'm not an activist, I don't think that much about the current political situation in Syria. I once admitted I came from a particular Islamic sect only to be looked at with horror and asked to justify how I could, as a woman, subscribe to a patriarchal mysogynistic religion. Its laughable!

There really is nothing wrong with being asked where you're from, on the whole people are curious as you rightly point out J. And while its nice to be thought of as unique and maybe even exotic, its equally courteous to be thought of as universally human.It's a fine line, but I think as Australians, we're pretty close to getting there.

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