“Where Are You Really From?” – Race Isn’t Just a Black and White Issue

It started as we entered the country, while my passport was being checked.

“You are from India.” (I couldn’t tell if it was a question or statement)

No, England. (I have a British passport)

“No, you are Indian!”

No, I’m English.

“No. Indian! (No, I’m English). Pakistan? (No, I’m English). Afghanistan? (No, I’m English).”

“Your father, where he from?”

The Caribbean, I replied.

“Caribbean…?”

The Moroccan border guard seemed a mixture of satisfied I didn’t say England, and confused because he wasn’t expecting that answer.

This scenario reoccurred many times while we holidayed in Marrakech. Men – possibly trying to be polite and start a conversation – begin by asking me where I came from, I say England, and a familiar response eventually  comes forth (whether worded this way or not): “But where are you really from?”

Brief background. I’m English (don’t even question it) to immigrant parents. They’re from the caribbean – Trinidad & Tobago. So were my grandparents. My great-grandparents were immigrants –  indentured labourers from either India or Ceylon (it was Ceylon back then) in the 19th century, around about the time slavery was abolished. In fact that’s why the caribbean colonies needed their indentured labour. Someone had to grow all that sugarcane for the Brits now they didn’t have slaves to do it for them.

Anyway, the short version is that I look ‘Indian’ (the subcontinent), and that is backed up by DNA, as all the way down the line you can trace my ancestors back to there. So calling me Indian is ok right? No.

I’ve never been to India. My parents have never been to India. My grandparents never went to India. My great -grandparents may not have even come from India.

So on a basic level, saying (telling me) I am Indian is incorrect, as my family haven’t set foot there in at least four generations.

My connection to India is probably about as strong as anyone in the UK who enjoys eating curry, cuisine which is pretty much a British national dish anyway. I do have a greater sense of connection to Trinidad (check out my Macaroni Pie recipe – I even got it published in The Guardian), but that is still my family background. I am English, proudly so, and don’t ever try and tell me I am not.

My sense of English identity has been forged in part through the furnace of racism. Like any brown kid growing up in seventies/eighties Britain, racism – whether on the playground or the adult world – was something we had to deal with. My parents didn’t give me much direction on how to deal with this, and what I do remember were contradictory responses at different times.

So early on, I decided that I was English. I’m a stubborn fellow, so I have never let anyone tell me differently. This frustrates a lot of people who are probably just making conversation, hence the phrase “But where are you really from?” trying to direct the conversation to hearing tales of ‘exotic’ Indian ancestors.

In the past, I’ve asked white people about why they might ask me this. Many have had a similar response – they feel their background is so boring that they find mine & other brown people’s much more interesting in comparison. They say it with almost a sense of jealousy. Their intention isn’t to define me as different, or even as not being English. But that is what they are doing by not accepting my simple response to a question of where I am from as ‘England’.

My daughter will be the next generation to experience whatever version of identity politics that occurs in her lifetime. She is mixed race, and ethnically a very binary mix of ‘Indian’ (see previously) and white European.

But that is such a small part of her story. I have already detailed my side of the DNA family tree. On her mother’s side while ‘White European’ is the catchall term, my wife is a New Zealander of British and Irish descent. We joke that our daughter – with ancestry from India, Caribbean, New Zealand, and the UK – is a distillation of the former British Empire.

For my statement that I am English, I have always had one fact to latch onto to back that up: I was born in England. While my daughter is being brought up in England, she was not born here – she was born in New Zealand of dual nationality. In the UK she will always be classed a foreign born citizen – a demographic the likes of the Daily Mail often likes to trot out to illustrate how out of control immigration is (this is a demographic that also includes the likes of children of armed forces personnel born abroad – hence the high number of German born Brits in the UK).

While my daughter will probably never be assumed to be ‘Indian’ as she is very light skinned, she does look ‘mixed race’. It’s a popular look these days. There are many stars who (at first glance  at least) appear to be of indeterminate ethnicity, such as Vin Deisel, Rashida Jones, Dwyane ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and Jessica Alba. But however my daughter ends up identifying herself – if indeed as anything – will her choice be questioned like my own has?

In the UK at least, I’m not sure it will. The society I live in now is very different from the one I grew up in. Seventies Britain still hadn’t grasped the concept of second generation immigrants. While it’s a term I dislike, because it still classes me as an immigrant, at least it acknowledges that children born of immigrants are culturally different from their parents.

While I don’t feel defining myself as English would be questioned in mainstream British society anymore, I continue to experience this in countries ranging from Turkey and Morocco, to New Zealand and America.

The US is a source of a great new example of the issues around the children of Asian immigrants, with the new Netflix series Master of None.

Created by & starring Aziz Ansari (Parks & Recreation), it cleverly and very funnily maps out many of the issues I have described here. Aziz is an American born comedian, whose parents emigrated to the US from India in the late seventies.

While the series tackles many topics, race and identity is one of them. Aziz (and his onscreen alter ego Dev) is an American, but others – including casting directors – still see him as an Indian first and only. For instance he derides the fact he only sees people who look like him cast as cab drivers, shop owners, and computer scientists!

America is a good decade or two behind the UK in mainstream acceptance that they have citizens of Indian descent who, despite the way they look and the funny names, are not Indian but are as American (or British) as a white person. Sometimes more so – such as my wife and I.

I haven’t really spoken to my nearly 4-year-old daughter about race that much yet. She has previously stated that she is ‘white like mummy. I responded with “No. you’re light like mummy, but brown like daddy”, which she accepts. While we live in a largely white English market town, there have been an influx of people who have moved here from London, and the racial mix is increasingly diverse. As well as white children, my daughter also has close friends who are of Chinese and Zulu descent.

I will bide my time and see what issues – if any –  she has with racial identity, and empower her to discover and feel confident in who she is – whoever that may be.

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Disclosure: I am a member of the Netflix #StreamTeam program. Our household receives free Netflix for a year and I post about how our family uses the service.
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Man vs. Pink

Blogger, stay-at-home dad to toddler fangirl

12 thoughts on ““Where Are You Really From?” – Race Isn’t Just a Black and White Issue”

  1. I’m not sure if Quantico is streaming across the pond yet, but it features a pretty impressive multi-cultural cast, including a woman of Indian descent as the lead! And it’s really good and addictive!

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  2. This story really peaked my interest as our family is just going through some “racial identity” things. I am Australian, with an English father, and Australian Mother. My Mother’s Mother was born in Australia after her parents and older siblings moved out from England, so “genetically” she’s English. I’ve always thought of myself as 100% Australian. Until I lived in Japan and I was constantly asked about my ancestry. In Japan, where the majority of people are Japanese and so are their ancestors going back to before records were kept, “Australian” wasn’t a good enough explanation. One day a British friend introduced me as “Australian, but she’s really 3/4 English”. And it suddenly hit me – I AM at least 3/4 English, possibly even more – and I’d never realised it until I was in my twenties. I have a British passport – but I’ve never used it. My whole personal identity was thrown by her one comment. My husband is Japanese. 100% – no ambiguity. Our children were born in Australia and hold Australian and Japanese passports. My Englishness isn’t enough to get them a British passport. At age 21, the Japanese government expects them to choose whether they will be Japanese or Australian and give up one passport. I wonder what they will do? In Japan, they are called “Half”, because they are half Japanese. In Australia, I thought they were just Australian, but lately my son (13 yo) has started saying he’s an “Asian Australian” and distinguishing between his “Asian friends” and his “White friends”. The Asian ones include kids with Nepalese, Taiwanese/Indian, and Vietnamese/Macedonian backgrounds. His friends call him “Honda” and “Fukushima” and he calls them Gwailo – which apparently is Chinese for “White People”, even though no-one in our family speaks Chinese. What is going on? I know teenage boys like to call each other names and it’s probably mostly harmless, but it seems strange to me that my own children have suddenly started to identify so strongly with being Asian – when I’m not. My daughter is younger and doesn’t seem to differentiate between her friends as much as my son – so is it an age thing? Is he working out how he fits into society? Even though his “Asian” friends all have quite different backgrounds from each other – having something in common brings them together. They all have better tans and a diet high in rice and soy – or is it just having one or more “foreign” parents to complain about? It’s certainly fascinating to watch them grow up and see how they work it out for themselves.

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    1. What a fascinating picture you paint of your family. It’s certainly a minefield, and how kids relate to their ancestry is as full of twists and turns as our own – even you who were so sure of things before. I do think there is a strength in being confident in who you are, and perhaps that’s what we can help our children achieve – however they go about it, including calling their friends names!

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  3. Hi, I just want to say that I’m really shocked you think that the issue of “where are you from?” doesn’t exist any more in the UK. I was born and raised there, I’m mixed race (white British and middle eastern) and “pass” as white. But as soon as people hear or see my name the questions come – Where are you from? Yes but, where are you REALLY from? Well, where are your parents from? And so forth. My mother is a born and raised white British woman with a moderate north-east accent, but because she wears a hijab people ask her where’s really from! I agree that the vast majority of the time people are not trying to be insensitive, they are really just interested, but I have always still found it alienating. It takes away your power to identify yourself if you tell them where you are from and their next response is akin to ignoring your answer completely. And it is still rife in the UK in my experience anyways.

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    1. I’m only writing from my experience, and it hasn’t happened to me in the UK for many years – possibly because I tend to surround myself with Greater London Guardianistas. Sorry that hasn’t been your experience.

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    2. Hi – I know a few people with equally mixed and interesting backgrounds. I myself am a mix of Scottish Irish and French ! But from doing family history research I am very interested in all strands of my family and have visited or hope to visit villages which go back probably four generations … but I still feel a connection. I am just a little surprised you don’t have any wish to find out more about your Indian connection even though they went via the Caribbean ? You sound a little like you are rejecting your past ? I mean “English” or the British were pretty mean in the past eg to many Scottish people who were sent abroad in the Highland Clearances, with families burnt out of cottages etc and people left starving … anyway just a few thoughts ! And I suspect kids nowadays don’t think much about their past at all now ! but certainly I have tried to gather family history.

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      1. Rejecting my past? This is related to the attitude my post is about. I don’t get your assumption that I have to be interested in what happened in the 19th century, in a country none of my family have been to in FOUR generations. What’s the statute of limitations on this? Should I be interested in Africa where we all came from? Trinidad looms large in my background, and proudly so. India 150 yrs ago simply does not – and as you can probably tell I get frustrated that I even need to justify my lack of interest. Also, this idea I or anyone should have some sense of historical grievance against the English? Seriously? That’s the kind of attitude that fuels wars.

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  4. Interesting blog and I like your attitude. Your story reminded me of a South American friend of mine who apparently ‘expected’ me to have something more than “Oh” to say when he explained he had a Spanish Catholic mother and a German Jewish father. I can’t remember why it came up. I had noted that, having light-coloured hair, he didn’t have typical South American colouring, either indigenous or Spanish/Portuguese, but that’s all. When he told me his parentage I just thought “Ah! that explains it” so I said “oh”. He then said: “Is that ALL?” Me: “Er, yes.”

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  5. Ooh I enjoyed reading this post as it’s one I could relate to quite a lot! My dad was born in London but his parents hail from St Vincent so pretty similar history and when I was younger I often got asked where I am from. “Err Luton, why?” I haven’t been asked the question in years though, except by an annoying supermarket delivery driver who said “you don’t look like you’re from round here, you look like more than just a spray tan”. Sigh. And my two sons are white as sheets with blonde hair and blue eyes so now people assume I’m their nanny, grr. Sorry I am going on a bit, will shut up now!

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