22nd Sep 2023


Six reasons why 'where are you really from?' is racist

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It was nothing special, just a run-of-the mill encounter at a Brussels Bubble reception. As she introduced me to the EU representative of an international organisation, a friend mentioned that I was a European "expert" on EU stuff.

There was a quick exchange of name cards. The woman looked at my name and then at me. She was clearly puzzled for a bit, but then had a 'Eureka!' moment.

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  • With elections to the European Parliament only 18 months away, allowing racist and far-right 'European Way of Life' dog-whistles to become the norm will have dire consequences

"Ah, I see you are from somewhere over there!" she said. "So is it Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, maybe Syria or Lebanon? Where are you really from?"

There was an awkward silence. The person who had introduced us turned bright red. I started to say something but walked away instead.

No harm in the question, many will say: it is innocuous enough. The woman was just being curious. I have heard such arguments and been asked where I am really from on countless occasions.

This time, however, I could not get the exchange out of my head. It stayed with me as I celebrated Christmas with my big, blended, mix-and-match, multi-cultural family.

It stayed with me as I left Brussels to visit my mother in Karachi after three years of Covid-induced separation.

By the time the Turkish Airlines flight landed at Quaid I Azam airport, I knew I had to tackle the issue head on. Why had the question upset me so much?

Unlike Ngozi Fulani, founder of a British domestic abuse charity, who was repeatedly asked where she was really from at a royal event in London, the query had certainly not 'traumatized' me.

But it had triggered a complex mix of confusing emotions. I was angered, irritated and saddened, all at the same time.

I needed to clear my head and to clarify just why asking "where are you really from?" can be hurtful to so many people. So here is a very personal and partial attempt to explain.

First, as a non-typical inhabitant of #BrusselsSoWhite myself, I can vouch for the fact that it is not about unease at being different.

People I meet in my anti-racism and pro-equality work feel the same way. For them as well, difference is an everyday reality, a part of their complex, multi-faceted and often hyphenated identities.

They are not ashamed of their "roots" or their so-called "duality". Quite the contrary, they see them as an asset.

They embrace and celebrate their diverse heritage and backgrounds as an added skillset — even an added geopolitical skillset — which benefits the European nations they call home and the countries where they or their parents/grandparents were born in.

Second, until the glorious day when things change on Planet EU, being different — looking different — in Brussels' white spaces will remain the norm for non-white and non-Christian Europeans.

It is par for the (obstacle) course which most Europeans of colour become quite good at navigating.

It becomes a problem, however, when people use the difference to question a person's "true" identity and to challenge their credentials and their place in Europe.

Third, if someone is introduced as European, it is because that is how they choose to identify themselves. It means Europe is home, they belong here.

The woman's question, with its unpleasant Orientalist undertones, had made me entirely part of another faraway and exotic world, stripping me of the European part of my identity. Since I was from some jungle or badland "over there", I was not really a 'European', just masquerading as one.

Fourth, she had pigeonholed, classified, and categorised me. More than that, I had been simplified.

She turned me into a one-dimensional version of myself and denied by ability to move seamlessly between cultures, histories and geographies in a very complex world.

Fifth, let's be frank: although all of us come from somewhere, it's only Europeans of colour that get asked the question with the "really" in it.

So next time you think people should not be criticised for "just being curious" about someone's origin, ask yourself just why that harmless extra sub-question only ever surfaces around non-white Europeans.

Once you do that, it should become clear that the query is a microaggression which plays into toxic stereotypes embedded in conscious or unconscious biases based on culture, history and geography.

Racism is often violent but it is also structural and subtle.

Sixth, context matters. I love exchanging stories about our diverse backgrounds with friends and other non-white Europeans. However, the question is certainly not appropriate in job interviews and other work-related situations, including networking receptions.

That is because it is about power structures. The woman I had just met was indicating her 'powerful' European authenticity compared to my less powerful one. Also, experience shows that the question gets asked by bosses, not those lower down the pecking order.

It may seem trivial to spend so much time and energy "overthinking" a simple question at a time when Europe faces so many complex domestic, regional and global challenges.

In fact, this is exactly the moment for such a discussion, however uncomfortable.

Fighting racism and discrimination and working to build a truly inclusive Union of Equality is not a sideshow. It must not be put on the backburner as racists and populists become mainstream across Europe.

With elections to the European Parliament only 18 months away, allowing racist and far-right 'European Way of Life' dog-whistles to become the norm will have dire consequences.

In 2023, Europe must do better. The future of our societies and the EU's global role and reputation depend on it.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She is also the editor of the EUobserver magazine.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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