Article by: Cia
It’s three p.m. on a Monday in August. In a fairly sleepy charity shop, tucked away at the far end of a suburban high street, a handful of pensioners peruse crockery and second-hand handbags. I’m behind the till, clicking a pen for fun, when a middle-aged man with a boarding-school accent and a sweater draped over his shoulders approaches me with a pair of paperbacks in his hands. While I punch their price into the machine, he asks me, “Where are you from?”
I’m preoccupied with counting out change for the note he gave me, so I reply with the name of the London borough that the shop is in.
“Sorry? Iran?” he replies.
When I look up and hand him a receipt, I realise that he was expecting a country for an answer. If I’d realised earlier, I probably would’ve given him the name of the borough anyway, in some form of Tom Haverford-esque micro-defiance.
“Oh, Iran… Beautiful country, isn’t it?”
I’m Indian. Instead of correcting the fact that he misheard me, like any other normal person in my place would’ve done, I decide to go along with it and give him closed-off answers; if I correct him, I know that he’ll ask questions, prolonging this conversation, and I’ll have to answer them while watching the old woman waiting to pay for a pair of shoes grow more and more impatient.
“Tehran, especially - are you from Tehran? It’s such a beautiful city!”
If I say yes, he’ll probably ask me questions about Tehran, which (despite its supposed beauty) I know absolutely nothing about.
“No, sir. My family’s from the countryside.”
“Oh, really? Wonderful! Where, exactly?”
He begins to name regions in Iran. My panic grows by the second. He certainly doesn't look Iranian, so how could he possibly have this level of knowledge about the country? Does he do this to other brown people as some form of perverse power move?
“A village. In the South.”
“What part of the South? What’s the village called?”
I inwardly curse this man for his nosiness. In a bitter attempt to make him go away, I mumble at him, hoping he’ll accept it as the name of a South Iranian village. He does, and he promptly leaves. Perhaps he knew less about Iran than I had originally thought. I am left behind the counter, somewhat mortified at my own awkwardness and a little confused at how the abruptness of his question made me feel.
So, reader, why exactly have I imposed this anecdote upon you? To be perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure myself. Part of me wants to dismiss this entirely - it’s no big deal, he was fairly polite, perhaps he just was just curious and wanted to educate himself, it was barely a micro-aggression, if that - while another part of me (the part that decided to write about this) is much angrier: it made me feel othered; he made me feel like he saw me as more brown than British. Perhaps I could argue that he only asked me because I don’t fit his idea of what Britishness looks like.
Naturally, this brought on a healthy slew of paradoxical questions about my identity: the fact that my ethnicity precedes everything I say or do to a certain extent frustrates me, because I don’t like the fact that I don’t have any control over this, yet racial colourblindness frustrates me too, since my ethnicity is something that I am rather proud of and I feel like it’s a vital part of my identity.
I feel like the main reason that our encounter left me feeling uncomfortable was the fact that he didn’t know me: it would’ve been different if we were in some way acquainted, and he was enquiring into my background out of some sort of friendly obligation to do so. Here’s a mediocre analogy for you: in a way, it did sort of feel like I was a carpet in the home section of a department store, and he was asking a shop assistant what fabric I was made of. In other words, what made me uncomfortable was the fact that he asked about my ethnicity before asking about my name, or anything like that - he saw my ethnicity before he saw, well, me.
Asking about someone’s racial identity isn’t necessarily racist or offensive, in my opinion. I think it depends on the context of the situation and your relationship with said person - I don’t think that man was necessarily a bad person, or that he had any particularly malicious intentions on that Monday afternoon. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you’re curious about someone’s ethnicity for whatever reason, try to assess the situation properly. Is it really necessary? I suppose it makes sense to ask if, for example, you were engaged in a discussion about ancestry and genealogy, but it makes considerably less sense in a context where you don’t know them very well at all, like the situation I was in.
Of course, you might mean well - perhaps, to you, asking about someone’s heritage is a way of educating yourself about different cultures, which is a fundamental part of cultural ‘tolerance’, whatever that means - but please remember that they are under no obligation to ‘educate’ you. People of BAME backgrounds aren’t walking, talking encyclopedias when it comes to social justice; although we are open to discussions on issues that affect us, it isn’t our responsibility to educate all the time. Be proactive! Educate yourself.
And please, please don’t ask anyone where they’re really from.
[image description: ‘Where Are You From?’ in white letters on a brown/purple background.]