The question “where are you actually from” can spark heated debates. We understand that this question may come from a place of genuine curiosity, but we must be attentive to the social dynamics that come into play in any given situation.
Intention is instrumental in weighing up why this question is so problematic. Following the initial question by asking them “where are you actually from” insinuates that their first answer wasn’t good enough. Interrogations of this nature stem from socially ingrained ideas of what it is to be British, usually equating to Whiteness. It doesn’t acknowledge the fact that migration is an integral part of this island’s history. It singles someone out as the Other, regardless of where they were born.
If this conversation takes place between two racialised people, as long as these power dynamics are recognised with sensitivity and humility, arguably asking someone where they are from can be a very beautiful source of solidarity. It can open up discussions around shared experiences and stories of migration and belonging as postcolonial people, especially when it is a natural unforced element of an already well-established conversation between two postcolonial or racialised people. Depending on the levels of rapport and familiarity and comfort that have been established, this question can allow people to find our commonalities, and to recognise differences.
However, power dynamics can become unbalanced if the person asking the question holds more social power than the other person. This can apply where one person is White, and the other is a Person of Colour. This can even be the case with two People of Colour, where one has an evidently greater proximity to Whiteness over the other.
The debate around this question highlights how deeply White fragility is ingrained in our society. People who interrogate another person’s identity will often become defensive, if their preconceived assumption, or idea of what they wanted the answer to be, is not met. Defensive reactions can be incredibly frustrating and upsetting for the migratised person. Becoming defensive when someone expresses hurt or doesn’t give the answer you wanted is a form of gaslighting.
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