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“Where are you really from (because you’re Black)?”

Usaama Kaweesa is an alum of the UpRising Diaspora Changemakers Programme and is the Councillor for Cricket Green Ward, London Borough of Merton.

2 December 2022

Picture standing in a big circle, in the great outdoors, with a group of enthusiastic fellow hikers from all over the world. You just so happen to be the only Black person in the group. We all go around, from person to person, and proceed to introduce ourselves. Smiles on all our faces and buckets of
positive energy flowing through our hand gestures. When it gets to my turn I confidently proclaim, “Hi everyone, My name’s Usaama and I’m from the UK.” Suddenly I’m interrupted by a question. The question: “Yeah, but where are you really from?” Shouts a fellow hiker who happens to be White. A part of me deep down knows she’s challenging my Black British identity. But, being me and not wanting to make things awkward, I pretend she’d be satisfied if she only knew the borough or town I come from in London. I even jokingly consider revealing my door number. Finally, I give in and she gets the answer she wanted. “My family heritage is from the beautiful east African country that is Uganda.” And with that, the universe is corrected in her eyes and we continue with our hike. This was my experience not so long ago.

I could have given an even more recent example of my British identity being challenged because sadly this happens more often than people know. 

It’s even more shocking finding out that it happens at the highest levels of our society. To be honest, however, I am not surprised and stand in solidarity with Ngozi Fulani for enduring this unfortunate encounter and hurtful experience. 

If you’re Black in the UK at some point in your life you will face racism. We have come a long way since the days of Senior Royals having a stake in slave trading companies like the Royal African Company. Or shop window signs barring us access, alongside our Irish brothers and sisters, and dogs. But while state-sanctioned and overt racism may largely no longer exist, covert racism is still out there and it still hurts. I was left speechless after my first-ever Council meeting this year when I was mistaken for a very talented musician by a fellow councillor. Unbelievable considering, I had just sat in the Chamber with him only moments earlier. Not to mention my friends would be first to tell you I have no musical gifts. To make matters worse the councillor challenged me on this until he finally came to the realisation that I wasn’t who he thought I was. 

Similar to being asked where you’re really from – experiences like this dangerously imply that even though we are here, in these spaces, we do not really belong. If we do then it’s only because we fit in a narrow scope of stereotypes – the entertainer or the exceptional high-achieving immigrant. That hurts.

On the off chance you are reading this as someone who has, in the past, innocently asked a Black Briton this question I want to be absolutely clear - I do not believe most people pose this question with malicious intent. Or that any person who is curious about the heritage of a Black person is a terrible racist. When I think back to the people who have asked about my Ugandan heritage, most I consider to be kind and generous people with a genuine curiosity. It’s not asking the question that’s the problem. It’s what the question implies, whether intended or unintended, and how it makes others feel.

Whenever I’ve been asked this question, I wish the person had taken a moment to consider these 3 things before digging into someone’s family history and potentially causing unintentional discomfort:

1. Is this the most appropriate space to quiz someone on their family background?
I’ve always felt ambushed and a little confused by the question whenever I’ve been randomly asked at events that have nothing to do with heritage. The most recent example being at a function focused on celebrating local small businesses. Although, needless to say, it’s not a good idea to ambush someone under any circumstances.

2. If you do ask the question, will you accept the first answer you get?
I’m very proud of my Ugandan heritage. I was born there and still have aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who live there and who I try to visit regularly (when I can get the time off work). I love talking about that place. However, I don’t always feel comfortable sharing all of my deeply personal information with strangers I’ve just met. So when I’m asked the question I simply reply with the place I was raised and have spent almost my whole life: the mighty London borough of Merton.

3. Is it important for you to know where someone is ‘really’ from, and if so, why?
I don't believe most people who have asked me this question thought they were saying anything racist or even anything wrong. After all, it’s not a crime to be curious about other people we meet. In fact, it's what makes living in such a diverse city like London so rich. However, that doesn't take away from the fact that for a lot of people like me - this question is rooted in a racial bias that implies ‘someone who isn't white cannot truly be British’ and that is the problem.

If there’s any good to come from Ngozi Fulani’s experience it’s that hopefully the next time someone considers asking a Black Briton “Where are you from?” they pause to reflect on whether what they’re really asking is the more racist question that most decent people would never ask: “where are you really from because you’re Black?”