When the damning story of Lady Sussan Hussey repeatedly asking charity boss Ngozi Fulani about her ‘real’ background emerged, I felt a real sense of victory. Finally, we can start to criticise why it is that so many of us are challenged on the issue of where one is ‘really’ from — despite, arguably, being as British as the asker.

Innocent curiosity?

Defenders of this question often state that they are interested in hearing about multi-ethnic heritage stories. That they are simply embracing the cultural diversity of the United Kingdom. However, it is the emphasis on the word really that dismantles this assertion. Often, this enquiry follows on from the initial and harmless: ‘So, where are you from?’ The addition of really can only suggest that the previous reply was unsatisfactory — perhaps even a deliberate omission?

Here is an example of a conversation I had the other day in a London cafe (please ignore my posh coffee choices, I am a product of gentrified London):

‘Oat flat white?’

‘Yep, that’s me, thank you.’

‘You’re so pretty by the way; where are you from?’

‘I’m from around here actually, lived here my whole life.’

‘No, no, where are you really from?’

Whilst I appreciated the compliment, the rather intrusive follow-up question upset me. To be clear, I am not ashamed or embarrassed of being half-Malaysian — and will happily share this with people when I want to — but the assumption that I am not quite British just because I am not completely white is outdated and reflects a wider societal problem.

‘White Britain’ has never existed

The notion that the ‘original’ British inhabitants were purebred white is historically false. Since the invasion of the Romans in 47AD, Britain has always been a country in which diverse cultures have resided side by side. There is evidence of North African people living on Hadrian’s Wall as well as inscriptions by migrants that moved to the British Isles from Italy and further across Europe. True, these people did not look like the Celtic tribes inhabiting most of England during the period, but they lived there nonetheless.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, this became even more prevalent. The 1800s saw Jewish people fleeing persecution in Poland and trade brought Indian and Chinese people to British ports. The 1940s then saw the encouragement of immigration from the Caribbean to help rebuild Britain post-war, whilst the ’50s and ’60s experienced mass migration from the newly established Commonwealth countries. The point of this sketchy timeline is that there has never been a period when ‘British’ solely equated with ‘White’ Anglo-Saxon dwellers.

Racial aesthetics at war

There is a haunting consequence to identifying with people that ‘look like us‘ — especially when applied across the international geo-political sphere. Chancellor Karl Nehammer of Austria — previously strongly against encouraging the settlement of Afghan refugees — immediately reversed his position when it came to refugees from Ukraine. A former prosecutor general of Ukraine told the BBC:

‘It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair… being killed every day.’

What conclusions should we draw from this? That some of us are more willing to support those who are suffering if they are white? With tensions between the Western economies and those of Russia and China souring, the idea that nations are incentivised to ally on the basis of racial aesthetics is a scary one indeed.

Domestic Politics

The bias towards preferring ‘one’s own’ is further seen in the UK’s recent policy of ‘levelling up.’ With a motive to boost economic prosperity in traditionally ‘red wall’ seats, the Conservative Party has been focusing on areas in the North East of England, regions that entered decline following the post-Industrial Revolution. Yet these former mining areas are not as poor as their ‘mill town’ counterparts. What they are, however, is predominantly white. The 2021 census reveals that in Durham, where 4 seats voted Tory in December 2021, 96.8 per cent are classed as white British.

However, the unrealistic assumption that Britain is predominantly white presides over domestic policy-making. In a country where two of its major cities (London and Birmingham) are no longer majority White British, it may be time for the Conservatives to embrace the idea that a vote cast by a non-white British citizen is a valid and valuable vote.

The real issue

Merely condemning Lady Sussan Hussey for her inconsiderate question to Ngozi Fulani is not enough. We need to reflect on the wider implications and consequences of her attitude. There is nothing wrong with showing a healthy dose of curiosity about someone’s ethnic origins. The real issue is the presupposition that someone who is not white is also not really British but ‘other.’

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