Where are you really from? ‘This has been going on for too long and I believe it needs to stop’ 

Ridley Road Market, Hackney Pic: Alan Denney

By Ruth Hallows, Ed Holt, Henry Zhang and Amelia Neath

It was the directness of the question that shocked Ngozi Fulani, the chief executive of Hackney-based charity Sistah Space, when she attended a Buckingham Palace reception this week: ‘Where are you from?’

Such a question and the interrogation that followed, where Lady Susan Hussey, a former lady-in-waiting to the late Queen Elizabeth, pressed Fulani ‘Where do your people come from’ and ‘where do you really come from?’ was to Fulani, simply out and out racism. And particularly shocking in the context of a Royal event.

In the furore that has followed Fulani’s disclosure of the exchanges and Lady Susan’s rapid removal from her post, many questioned how anyone might believe such comments could ever be acceptable. And while small minority however took to social media and defended Lady Susan, 83, as simply reflecting the views of her generation, when perhaps it was easier to ask someone their origins. Others said that racism was never acceptable, whatever your age.

And it is undoubtedly a question that would alarm many among the inner city communities of London, where on average, 52% of residents from ELL’s boroughs are from non-white backgrounds, according to newly released census data. Many feel they have experienced some form of racism within their life.

Eastlondonlines went out onto the streets of London to ask whether it was ever acceptable to ask someone “Where are you really from?”

Shadrach Amoako Pic: Ruth Hallows

Shadrach Amoako, 22, from Deptford said: “Asking someone where they’re actually from ain’t really okay. This has been going on for too long and I believe that it needs to stop.” 

He added: “She [Ngozi Fulani] will have had bad experiences and us black people don’t want to go through that. We want to try to make our lives equal to everyone else and succeed.” 

“It’s harsh, it’s very shocking and very appalling…it’s just caused so much hatred. I mean already with the Megan Markle situation…people are really gonna start seeing the real Buckingham Palace and how they are when meeting people of other ethnic minorities.”  

Alice Bailey Pic: Ruth Hallows

Alice Bailey, who works in a florist, said that it was “never okay” to ask where someone is from. The 30-year-old said: “I don’t think it’s anyone’s business and I don’t think it’s relevant to anything. The fact that Buckingham Palace removed her makes a really good statement”. 

Jake Waterfield Pic: Amelia Neath

Jake Waterfield, 22, from Whitechapel said: “Honestly, I am not surprised that it happened. I do not think anyone should ask questions like that, but unfortunately non-white communities must experience it a lot.” Asked if he thought the Palace dealt with the racist remarks appropriately: “Lady Hussey who made the comment and asked the questions was more proactive in their resignation than the Palace was in their response.”

Cristina Gavrilescu Pic: Amelia Neath

Cristina Gavrilescu, a 22-year-old London College of Fashion student, said: “It is definitely not okay to ask things like that. For example, in the palace, I feel like they cannot accept someone who is not purely white. But in terms of this behaviour in this country, I don’t think the behaviour will change any time soon, especially as it is rooted in older British generations.”

Gavrilescu, who lives in Whitechapel, also found that she was relating what happened to Fulani to past racist incidents in the Palace. “For example, what happened to Princess Diana when she dated someone that was not white. A similar thing happened to Prince Harry and Meghan,” she said.

Layla Zachariah Pic: Ed Holt

Layla Zachariah, 42, a dog walker from Beckenham, said that asking someone where they are from does not always have bad connotations: “Personally, if someone asked me my origins I wouldn’t be offended. Someone doesn’t need to keep pushing if someone doesn’t want to answer. I’m British-Asian and I think it’s natural for someone to want to know where I’m from, I guess it depends on the scenario and who was asking, sometimes it’s acceptable sometimes it’s not.”

Kerry Albram Pic: Ed Holt

Kerry Albram, 24, a bartender from Dalston, said: “If you’re repeatedly asking the question for sure it’s inappropriate. If it’s out of context it’s fine, if you’re having a conversation with someone and it comes up that’s different”. 

He added: “It doesn’t surprise me someone that close to the royal family would say something like that, stuff with Prince Andrew, it’s classic really we know what they’re like”.   

Xiaoqiao Wang Pic: Henry Zhang

Xiaoqiao Wang, a 26-year-old model from China, said: “It depends on the situation. Obviously like I am originally from China, and I felt it was the proper thing to do when I make friends… But concerning this situation… if you keep going what’s your origin, that’s definitely racist.”

“I don’t feel [insulted when asked about where I came from] because I’m just from China and now I’m holding a Chinese passport. But if I’m raised in Britain and people are trying to ask me that just depending on (whether) I have an Asian face and (after) I’ve told them I grew up here and then they just keep asking me then I feel like it’s not polite… It’s none of your business. Why you trying to chase that?” she added.

Kaysor Ambia Pic: Henry Zhang

Kaysor Ambia felt that since Lady Hussey was in a professional setting it was not appropriate. The 28-year-old food truck owner from Bangladesh said: “It is inappropriate. Normally, if you’re in a friendly environment, then is different, like the way you approach. You can ask about someone’s background. Like ‘where are you from?’ But if you are in a professional state or in… a meeting, it is inappropriate to ask your background unless you don’t have a confidence on it when you have to know each other. Otherwise, it is offensive.”

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