“Where are you from?”
“Neasden, it’s like North West London – near Wembley?”
“No, where are you REALLY from?”
Annoyance ? Anger? Frustration? Pride? In this split second that I am asked this question for the millionth time since I was first born without white skin, I really don’t know which one of these words best describes how I feel. Was my top class geographical referencing and casual name dropping of a place no-one other than avid football fans really care about not good enough as an answer? Can I not be REALLY from London given that it’s the only place I’ve ever truly known and called home? Does it mean that every time I’ve been asked this question that I’ve had to give thought to my heritage, to the cultures outside of London, those far away from home that supposedly define where I’m quintessentially from? Yes. It does. And I settle on the last of the four feelings, I am proud.
“Oh well my parents are from a lot of places, my mums Jamaican but she’s mixed Oriental and Black and my Dad’s from Kenya but his family originally came from Kashmir, now in Pakistan – you?” (Try writing that on a form instead of London).
This is the answer I’ve come to perfect over the years, from being a kid in primary school where almost everyone claimed to have multiple origins, it became a necessary answer to memorise. And learning fractions definitely helped too, you know, them ones where you’re describing yourself in 8ths, 16ths and will even stretch it to 32ths so you can win the “who’s more mixed than who” competition. There was always the Nigerian kid who would try and convince you that being half Yoruba and half Igbo made them also racially mixed – interesting idea when you think about 15 years later, I mean, what even is at the essence of that big social-construct we call RACE? At the time though, just a great way for fractions to mean anything in the real world, and trust me, I got good at that quick-fire mathematics.
But genuinely, what do people mean when they ask the question? If it’s not the geographical location (I’m convinced it’s so they can stalk your house on Google Earth) people are after, then how can we rephrase to get to the core of what it is we want to know? I’m quite happy to call myself a Londoner, but that’s not quite interesting or adequate enough as an answer. When I am cornered by the follow up question of where I’m really from and I decide to either give my well-rehearsed answer or be a bitch and make them guess (c’mon we’ve all tried it, the game can go on for ages), I’m more often than not greeted with a “WOW that’s so cool”. Cool isit? So now being mixed is cool? Make of that what you will. There are some of you, I hope, getting angry that mixed-raceness is somewhat fetishised. That currently we are ‘trending’, we only have to take a couple of uneducated turns on a wander through social media to see how many misguided young people want cool designer mixed-race babies. There are others of you, I also hope, who share in my pride that yes, IT IS cool. That retaliating with a barrage of ethnicities that make up your heritage is definitely a thing to be proud of and also a great way to introduce yourself, the conversation starter, “meet Bilal, he’s from basically everywhere” (most definitely NOT what I said, but anyway “Hi”).
So clearly it isn’t a question of where I geographically call home, or where I’m ‘actually’ from. Rather it’s something much deeper, more a question about my heritage, of the cultures that make me, well, ‘me’. Then why do we all via some default setting phrase the question as such? Why do we unintentionally alienate people almost right away from their own feeling of being a, or even of being British? I’ll let you figure out your own answer to that one, but perhaps it’s time we think about the intentions behind our questions, about the language we use when framing such questions and the effect that our language can have on individuals own perceptions of their identity. Maybe it’s time to find a new way to phrase the question, because where am I really from? Well, I’m from London mate.