When I was little, I assumed I looked “typically British.” It wasn’t something I ever thought about, as I wasn’t so aware of ethnicity and racial identity at that age. But since my two closest friends and everybody on TV had “typically British,” facial features, and I’d got so used to seeing my own features that I couldn’t really observe them how an outsider would, I naturally assumed I looked similar to my friends. It’s really quite funny how viewing yourself in the mirror doesn’t give you an accurate description of what you look like to others because you are so used to your own face.
As I grew older, I gradually realised that my ethnicity was different from that of my friends. (I know, I sound really thick now.) The main reason was because people started to ask me where I was from. I used to reply, “England,” because I was British, and I assumed that that was the answer they were after. At first I took this as a normal question, and didn’t think too much about it. But I soon began to think it was a strange thing to ask, seeing as we were in Britain and I could obviously speak English.
Something about the question, “where are you from?” started to annoy me. It was partly because the answer was a mouthful, since my parents are from different multi-syllabic countries, and I had to tag onto the end the fact that I’m British. It was also partly because I was never sure whether people were asking a) where I was from, b) where my parents were from, or c) which part of the city I lived in.
But there was something else. Something that slightly offended me, that I couldn’t quite place. For a while I thought it was because the question was rude. But my mother didn’t take offense, and she was asked it frequently. So it couldn’t have been rude.
Sometimes people would be “clearer” and ask me where I was from originally. This added another layer of annoyance, because I’d have to explain that I was born over here, therefore, I was from here originally. I think I went through a short phase of trying to make people feel slightly awkward about it, but I grew out of that pretty quickly, since it made me feel awkward as well.
I have even had the question followed by, “is your father a black or a white South African?” which seems oddly direct, and isn’t something I’d ever ask someone else.
I recently realised that the reason I resisted the question”where are you from?” so much was because it made me feel like an other. I don’t like the idea that I’m viewed differently. I’ve come to understand that people automatically put you into a specific “racial identity” box in their head as soon as they see you, without thinking about it.
(I wonder whether this is a cultural thing, or an in-built, human function. Probably the former. If so, is it because of media portrayal? Is it because the people asking were not exposed to different ethnicities when they were babies?)
I understand that me saying “I don’t like the idea that I’m viewed differently” may seem hypocritical when I colour my hair bright red and consciously try to dress away from the norm. But I feel like the way I dress is a separate type of characteristic from my natural features, because it’s a way of differentiating myself that I CHOOSE rather than something that is determined by genetics. I don’t like people stereotyping me, categorizing me or othering me based on something that occurs naturally and bears little correlation to my personality. Being asked where I’m from brings home the fact that people see me differently because of my ethnicity.