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But where do you really come from? … why we are so bad at talking about race

The recent controversy about racism in the British Royal institution does not look like it’s going to go away anytime soon. What with ex-Lady in Waiting Lady Hussey offending a black guest at a charity event and the Netflix series by Harry and Meghan.

But how do we know when a question might cause offence and when it is just natural curiosity?

Taking the case of Lady Hussey, her opening question of ‘Where do you come from?’ to Ngozi Fulani the CEO of the Sistah Space at a charity event, is a not an uncommon question. Anyone who has a regional accent, or an unusual name will be used to it. Often, I am asked if I was born here because of my Irish name, but for most (white) people that is where it will end. If you are not white you are more likely to be asked ‘But where do you really come from?’ even if you are a first or even second generation British citizen.

This is how institutional racism works. The implied bias is that for you to truly belong in Britain, you must look like me, sound like me and have a similar ethnic identity to me. Was Lady Hussey trying to offend? I rather doubt it, but offend she did. Often racism plays out at a subliminal level. We are hard wired through our upbringing, cultural references and the media to see the world as being like we are. For those of us who are white and from a white majority culture, we are simply unaware of the sleights we make towards black people everyday.

Should Lady Hussey have known better? Of course, she should, given that she has travelled the world with the Queen on diplomatic visits for the last 60 years. But then, we all should know better. How easy do we find it to talk about race and ethnic differences in a sensitive way? How can we find a balance between genuine curiosity and downright offensive?

The reason that Lady Hussey’s questioning ventured from simple interest to offensive was the way that each question was followed by a rather argumentative similar question, ignoring the responses that were given because they simply did not fit with her mental model (aka bias) of where a person’s is from if they are not white and did not dress in a traditionally British way. This was even more evident with the follow up question ‘Where do your people come from?’ The view that only one kind of look, sound and race can belong to a country is at the heart of Racism. It would be nice to think we are past such thinking, but the reality is we still have a long way to go.

But would it have been possible to have this exchange and satisfy her curiosity without causing offence? Asking where someone is from, is in itself not offensive. But the intention behind such a question and the follow up questions clearly mark a difference between simple curiosity and racism. A more sensitive enquiry might have been: And what is your ethnic heritage? Many of us come from different racial, ethnic or geographic heritages, but still see ourselves as British. Often, we are happy to talk about and are proud of our ethnic heritage, but we do not see that detracting from our sense of Britishness. America is very good at pairing ethnicity with citizenship. You are not just American, but African American, Italian American, Irish American, Latinx and so on.

Have you been faced with such a question in the past and has it caused you to feel like you don’t belong? Do you have a ethnic or racial heritage which is different from your citizenship?

What does being British mean to you? When you think about it, do you have a mental picture of what someone will look like, sound like and be like if they are British?

As part of the launch of my new book The Inclusion Edge, I’m offering companies free workshops on Bias Awareness. If you would like to bring this to the attention of your leadership group, or an affinity group, message me and we can set something up.

Let’s change the world one person at a time.

The Inclusion Edge is out now on Amazon

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