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Questions about 'where you are really from' can lead to a good conversation, says black Pentecostal champion

by Donna Birrell

A leading champion for multi-cultural relations says there is nothing wrong with asking someone where they are "really from" as long as there is no racist intent behind the question.

Bishop Joe Aldred was speaking to Premier after Lady Susan Hussey, a former lady-in-waiting to the Queen, resigned from her role at Buckingham Palace. At a reception earlier this week she had asked a black-British domestic abuse campaigner, Ngozi Fulani - "where do you really come from?"

Bishop Joe Aldred, who is a former head of Pentecostal and Multi-cultural relations at Churches Together in England, said:

"The first thing I want to say is that when someone says she feels disrespected, racialised, as a consequence of her conversation with Lady Hussey, I think we have to take her seriously. 

"The experience of being racialised sometimes can be generalised, but it is best taken at source. If somebody says, as in this context here, I feel that you abuse me in this conversation, take that seriously. 

"I think the issue is about Britishness, and whether it is accepted by white people. I was born in the Caribbean, my children who were born here, for example, are British. But every time we meet, are you going to question me about where I am really from?

"It's fair game for Lady Hussey to say 'so where are you really from?' The challenge then is the way it is received - is it questioning my Britishness? The truth is, all of us are asked that question from time to time. I'm not racialising somebody when I do that, and I suspect many white people will be following this conversation, feeling 'oh, what can I say now?' But it's about intent and what it cries out for is neutrality, humanity and the conversation."

"I think this question is a fair question. White people generally in Britain need to understand the history of racism and what that means to black people. The fact that chattel slavery, the transatlantic slave trade, the racism of the last year, colonialism, means something deeply ingrained in us.

"So be aware of your own history and the history of the people or the person that you're talking to. From the other side, I will say that black people need to just chill a little bit on this one. Recognise that it is a conversation piece and that actually, it may have a quite innocent, benign intent. Or it may have a deeper and more racist, racialised intent. You don't know when the person asks you. However, what you do is assume the best, so if somebody asked me that question, which I have been asked, I will answer them.

"I will tell them that I was born in Jamaica, I've lived here most of my life. My roots are in Africa. So you ask the question back and nine times out of ten it leads to a very good conversation."

Ngozi Fulani told the BBC that her interaction with Lady Hussey was "like an interrogation" and that she felt she was being forced to denounce her British citizenship. Asked if she had wanted Lady Hussey to resign or if she would have been content with an apology, Ms Fulani said: "I would have preferred it did not happen."


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