Just before Christmas, the former “Lady in Waiting” to the late Queen Elizabeth, Lady Susan Hussey, apologized for what some asserted was a racist question: “Where are you from?”
Lady Hussey posed the question to Ngozi Fulani, founder of a charity in the United Kingdom. When Fulani noted she was from Hackney in the UK, Lady Hussey followed up with, “No, what part of Africa are you from?”
When Fulani tried to explain that no records were left about her ancestors, the Lady pressed on, quasi-demanding to know Fulani’s nationality and where she and “her people” were “really” from. After a few more back-and-forths, Fulani let the Lady know she was born in Britain, of African heritage and Caribbean descent and that her parents had emigrated to Britain in the 1950s.
Read through the thread and it does appear that Lady Hussey subjected Fulani to an intense barrage. Fulani argued the questions were racially loaded but later (after Lady Hussey apologized) noted that no malice was intended.
But whether you agree with Fulani that the questions were racially loaded, or just rude in their rapid-fire insistence with a few clueless assumptions (our view), it would be unfortunate if people stopped asking strangers “Where are you from?” Knowing more about randomly-encountered strangers helps us understand people’s histories, stories, struggles and triumphs. It often breeds sympathy and sociable behaviour, which is badly needed nowadays.
For example, one of us (Mark) recently chatted with an Iranian immigrant, Amin, who spoke of why he left his home country two decades previous. He said it was due to Iran’s repressive, theocratic regime. He described his sadness at how Iran’s mullahs and religious police were manipulating Iran’s historic faith. It was a poignant conversation that would never have occurred without asking about his origins.
Mark also recently had a delightful conversation with someone who adopted his childhood hometown, Kelowna, as her own almost three decades ago. “Mulu” noted how she first moved from Ethiopia to Montreal and then Kelowna in 1996. What was touching about the conversation was that she was working in a seniors’ home, helping to take care of his mother.
He told “Mulu” that just one block from where she now worked with his mother and other seniors was his childhood elementary school, where his mom used to volunteer on “play day” every June. He loved that a newer Canadian who cherished Kelowna was now helping care for his mom just one block away from that school. That conversation, too, would not have occurred without his curiosity about a woman with an accent and her history.
One of us (Rima) has also had such pleasant encounters with strangers ever since arriving from Lebanon over three decades ago. The Canadians she’s met ever since have been unfailingly good-hearted. On her small town’s streets in New Brunswick, she is moved when cab drivers honk their horns and wave hello as it reminds me of her childhood neighbourhood in Beirut. Similarly, when she visits the beautiful beaches, villages, and cities of New Brunswick, she encounters kind people who talk to “strangers” like herself, making them feel welcome.
She could have taken offence at some questions. When she first moved to her town, people used to ask her and her spouse: “Are you from far away?” or even “very far away?” because of her accent.
For some in our easily-offended world, such questions are supposed to be off-limits. For both of us, however, they show curiosity: “Are you from far away?” Is there anything more accurate, benign, and lovely than that?
Once, in a Tim Horton’s in Moncton, a senior asked Rima if he could touch her curly hair (most have straight hair around there). Her response: “Of course, why not? Go ahead, sir!” with her spouse’s amusement.
Conversely, when she once visited the village of Bouctouche, she bumped into a group of men speaking Chiac, an Acadian-French mixed with English. Fascinated, she asked if she could record a snippet of their conversation to share with her sister abroad. They generously accepted. As she and her husband chatted with them, they compared Chiac with the dialects in Lebanon. It was a lesson in how we, as Canadians, can/should be curious about one another’s origins without being offended.
Sure, the question “Where are you from?” could be perceived as an insult, implying “You’re not from here.” Sometimes it is annoying when one is born in Canada, but because of colour or other features, a stranger assumes a Canadian by birth is from somewhere else.
Nonetheless, in our experience, it’s a mistake to assume inherent “racism” or that such questions always imply non-belonging. Most people just have a natural curiosity, and occasional mistakes aside, asking someone where they are from is a wonderful way for all of us to learn more about each other.
Rima Azar is an associate professor of health psychology at Mount Allison University, Sackville, N.B., and a senior fellow at the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. Mark Milke is the executive director of the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy.