In case any one is curious, I am really from Birmingham, UK. Shocking I know right?
The scenario is always painfully familiar and predictable.
I will be going about my merry way, doing a tedious activity like shopping, exploring a new city or trying to shimmy away on a dance floor somewhere and the question will be directed at me.
‘Where are you from then?’
To which I always reply, ‘the UK’ – but this answer is somehow never satisfactory. The person asking the question isn’t having any of this.
My brown skin, brown hair and brown eyes have been detected so surely there has to be much more to me than just a red (for now) British passport.
The dialogue will continue in a predictable manner: ‘But where are you really from?’
Right, you got me hands up, I’m a Brummie mate, guilty as charged.
But even this isn’t enough, and the person always dares to take one step further into their interrogation and finally hits me with, ‘But where are your parents or grandparents originally from?’
Ah, OK then.
Now it has taken on a different meaning, and the initial supposedly friendly question that kicked off the topic has been revealed as a prop to expose my otherness.
Were my original responses not enough to satisfy you? Do you not understand why this is upsetting?
Let me put it another way: I don’t go around asking people who are white where they are really from. I don’t push deeper and remind white people that some of the earliest settlers in Britain were in fact black Romans, and therefore demand to know when their Anglo Saxon ancestors arrived.
So why is it OK to ask me?
This is a scenario that sadly all too many non-white people will recognise.
I’m not saying it is intended racism, but what I will say is that the question is invasive, loaded with negativity, and it makes me feel like I am being singled out because I do not fit people’s outdated stereotypes of what a British person looks like.
Interestingly, these questions rarely come from friends and colleagues, whom I actually spend a lot of time around and therefore could perhaps understand their curiosity.
Instead, they come from complete strangers.
Strangers in a bar, on a dance floor, at a holiday resort abroad, or attending networking events in London.
Or they come from the other obscure characters that pass through our daily lives, the ones who rarely leave an impression, like a hairdresser or an estate agent.
It is astonishing the persistence that the stranger has when asking this sort of question; they will not stop prodding until you have confirmed their suspicions that there is something a little too brown about me.
The smug look on their face as I give in; their little victory in identity politics makes me feel sick.
This is a common query faced by non-white folks, which aside from making us hyper aware of the otherness of our skin tone (something we cannot escape from), is an alienating question that makes us afraid of the verbal or physical racism that may result when divulging our ancestral history.
Luckily, I’ve never been asked this question and then subjected to racial abuse. The fact that I consider this to be a stroke of luck highlights the sadness of the world I live in as a British Asian female.
There has been a long battle played out in playgrounds, at birthday parties, on public transport, in the office and other public spaces that results in a sense of insecurity – a feeling that I am rudely trespassing in a world where I am not wanted.
Growing up with cautious parents and grandparents, who had been subjected to the horrors of casual racism, unfair discrimination and deep-rooted prejudices, non-white children are taught about the hatred the world can hold at an early age.
We are taught that racism is a real threat, that racists lurk behind polite faces and uniforms, and we should never let our guard down too easily.
As a child, it was hard to understand why somebody would have an issue with me because my skin was a different colour, why I was called ‘paki’ in the playground, or why I was told to go back home every so often. But I accepted it as a way of life.
I don’t always feel comfortable talking about my race because all too often, I was made to feel like it was something to be ashamed of.
And many other non-white people feel the same way.
We don’t know how to proudly claim it because when a complete stranger engages in this pathetic conversation, demanding to pinpoint our origins to some far away land on a random Tuesday afternoon in Starbucks, it causes anger.
This question isn’t about innocent small talk, or a curiosity, it is about telling us that we do not belong.
It is about reaffirming that, although our passports may be British, and that we love a good cup of Earl Grey, and watching a bit of Eastenders, we are still the other in the eyes of some.
We’ve had it tough because for too long, we’ve been too scared to openly embrace our racial heritage and culture in fear of the backlash it may bring.
We suffer from Imposter Syndrome as we try to engage in British culture, and hope that someone doesn’t ask us why we are immersing ourselves in it.
As someone who, since birth, has been aware that I look different to the majority, this question reaffirms that to me.
It tells me that I am not fooling anyone. That I do not belong. That I am still the other, in which I don’t belong in one land or another.
In an increasingly globalising world, people still want to put me into a box.
For those of you who ask this question: you may satisfy your curiosity, but instead of finding out where we are really from, you are actually just reaffirming our fear that the answer is nowhere.
So next time, don’t ask. Wait for a person to open to you about what their identity means to them.