Is ‘Where are you really from?’ a racist question?

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Is ‘Where are you really from?’ a racist question?

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It seems, at first blush, like an everyday tale of woke hypersensitivity and intolerance. But the more you think about it, the more it shines a light on the contradictions that animate people who call themselves anti-racists.

Here’s what happened. Over Christmas, Buckingham Palace threw a party for charity workers. One of the guests was Ngozi Fulani, who had founded Sistah Space, “a community-based nonprofit initiative created to bridge the gap in domestic abuse services for African heritage women and girls.”

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During the reception, Ms. Fulani was approached by a courtier called Lady Susan Hussey, who was there to welcome guests. We have only Ms. Fulani’s account of what happened next because, while she took immediately to Twitter and the airwaves, Lady Susan, a lady-in-waiting to the late queen and godmother to Prince William, would not dream of going public.

As Ms. Fulani tells it, Lady Susan moved her braids to see her name badge, asked where she was from, and, apparently dissatisfied with “the U.K.” as an answer, repeatedly pressed her on where she was “really” from, finally eliciting the reply, “Lady, I am of African heritage, Caribbean descent, and British nationality.”

Lady Susan resigned as soon as Fulani went public with her complaint, and Buckingham Palace let her go without bothering to hear her side of the story.

Yet surely there is another side. The job of a lady-in-waiting is to make small talk, and asking people where they’re from is often a good start. Perhaps, seeing Fulani’s quasi-African dress, Lady Susan was trying to establish a connection. She traveled with the late queen around Africa and attends a mainly black church in London.

It often happens that two people come away with radically different takes on the same conversation. In Ms. Fulani’s version, Lady Susan was persistent way past the point of rudeness. But all recollections are subjective, and Ms. Fulani, who had described Meghan Markle as “a survivor of domestic violence from her in-laws,” hardly seems an enthusiastic monarchist.

Not that any of that mattered, of course. Once the charge of racism is leveled, the logic of Salem kicks in. To question the accusation, or plead for clemency on behalf of the accused, is to risk denunciation. Commentators, politicians, and the royal family accepted Ms. Fulani’s version of events without hesitation.

So far, so predictable. But there is one aspect of the affair that has been nagging at me ever since. Lady Susan’s offense, other than touching someone else’s hair, was to ask a Brit where she was really from. This can indeed be an obnoxious question, implying that a black woman somehow does not belong in her own country.

Yet the very thing that makes the question offensive also invalidates the British BLM movement. Why, after all, should black Britons react to a grisly death in Minneapolis by tearing down statues or attacking London coppers? The answer given at the time by those who supported the demonstrators was that a wrong suffered by a black man in Minnesota was an injury to black people on every continent. A black man might have been born in the United Kingdom, watched the same children’s TV as his white fellow citizens, studied the same school curriculum, followed the same sports, and read the same newspapers. But, when it came to racial politics, that was not where he was “really” from.

Having never met Ms. Fulani, I have no idea where she stands on all this. She has Africanized her name as well as her dress — she was born Marlene Headley to parents who came to Britain from Barbados — but I don’t want to make assumptions.

What is clear is that some of those who sprang most aggressively to her defense often apply their own versions of “Where are you really from?” The black Labour MP Diane Abbott was one of many leftists to revel in the ethnic diversity of the England soccer squad.

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“Without players of immigrant origin,” she declared, “the England squad would be a very small squad indeed.” Right. Where are they really from? Yet this did not stop her from being furious on behalf of Ms. Fulani. How can the rest of us be expected to keep up when the woke keep changing the rules?

If, as we all agree, it is rude to suggest that ethnic minorities are not fully from their native countries, then, by the same token, it must also be wrong to suggest that they ought to get worked up about some foreign quarrel on the grounds of shared physiognomy. Quite apart from also being discourteous, divided loyalties make an open democracy difficult to sustain. Isn’t that basic anti-racism?

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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