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Monday, May 27, 2024
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Where are you from?

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PEOPLE often ask where I come from. Unlike Ngozi Fulani (née Marlene Headley), the chief executive of the Sistah Space charity who was greatly offended by an ‘interrogation’ on these lines by Lady Susan Hussey, lady in waiting to the late Queen, I take the question as a compliment. It shows my interlocutor’s interest in me as an individual. In my case the question is prompted by a complexion more Latin than Anglo, or a surname more biblical than British. In Dublin, the locals thought me Italian. In fact my mother was second-generation South African, my father first-generation Irish, and both families came from Lithuania. Not that they would have identified as ‘Lithuanian’; they were Jews, originally from Judea. Hence my complexion.

No individual is sui generis. Whether we like it or not, we are defined by our roots. And our multicultural society features roots from everywhere in the world. Indeed we are encouraged to celebrate this diversity. So why do people take offence at the question of their origins? And if Britain is as ‘racist’ as its detractors claim, why do those same critics object to the suggestion that they aren’t truly British? 

There is nothing racist about the question ‘Where are you from?’ Even if the questioner were an old-fashioned type who assumed that foreigners are inferior, the charge would be of xenophobia rather than racism. Even that would depend on context. 

Take the chant of ‘Yiddoes’ by Spurs fans. On the surface, this appropriation of a derogatory term is ‘racist’. But it’s equally possible to see the opposite. The ‘Yiddoes’ chant shows an acceptance of Jews, with a dash of irony. A fan wouldn’t claim to be a ‘Yiddo’ if he hated Jews, would he?

To acknowledge someone’s otherness, be it national, racial, sexual or whatever, is not in itself hostile, especially given our traditions of humour and banter. Harold Macmillan said there were more Old Estonians than Old Etonians in Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet. Predictably, his witticism was deemed ‘racist’, on the grounds that euphemisms are unsafe.

The obsession with ‘racism’ extends to many an innocent conversational gambit. I once asked a friend whether people say she looks like Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez. Seeing her bridle, I brought up my apparent resemblance to Rowan Atkinson and – back in the day, when compliments could be taken as such – Dudley Moore. But if you’re Black, any perceived resemblance to another Black person must be ‘racist’.

The Black population is no more homogeneous than the Jewish one. In both cases we have a global diaspora made up of individuals with fascinating family histories. My curiosity in hearing about a fellow Jew’s exotic ancestry extends to everyone’s roots and is quite unrelated to the colour of their skin.

The modern metropolitan comes from ‘anywhere’ rather than ‘somewhere’. Allegiance to a particular nation is seen as small-minded or outdated. We are supposed to be citizens of the world, not bigoted nationalists. (Unless you’re Scottish.) So when people ask where I come from, I tell them: ‘All over the place.’

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David Isaacson
David Isaacson
Former foreign-news editor at The Telegraph (Weekly Edition) and arts editor at The Jerusalem Post.

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