Viewpoint: Where are you from?

Discrimination, curiosity or racism?

Where are you from? was the question that Lady Susan Hussey of the Royal Household repeatedly asked Ngozi Fulani, CEO of Sistah Space, at an event at Buckingham Palace on 29 November 2022. The questions came from a position of privilege and assumptions about someone who looked different. This was an example of racism and discriminatory behaviour.

People have also subjected others to this repeated questioning, including white people with non-British accents. Is this discriminatory? Yes, because the intent is commonly to belittle and make the recipient uncomfortable. Occasionally, however, the intention is mere curiosity. And that is OK but can be tiring for the recipient.

Discrimination, these days, is rarely overt and focused on the person’s difference. It is usually indirect, such as repeatedly asking, ‘Where are you from?’, or explaining something that the person already knows about because the speaker has assumed that they don’t understand. For example, describing how the UK postal system works to someone who was born here.

These behaviours and actions come from a place of privilege, assumptions and biases. When they are present, many will use them to maintain the status quo of separation and belittling. It takes a very brave person to say something and, often, people just smile and tolerate such actions. Regardless of the psychological cost of being the recipient. Because it takes courage and effort to speak up and sometimes there is retaliation.

Organisations are extremely poor at addressing these behaviours systematically. There are so many published reports of discrimination. Yet some still permit these behaviours, including leadership.

So what can we do?

As speakers and actors, we must continually examine our privilege, biases, and assumptions and values. Explore how you interact. What was the effect of what you said and did? Was the outcome always positive or was there a significant and negative impact? Most times, our intention is to be positive, and this comes across. But when we are insecure or want to be superior, then we can say and do something degrading. Let’s think about how we can address our insecurities without harming someone else by our actions.

It is vital to think about our perspective on difference and diversity. This journey is ever evolving and has shifted gears since the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter and other similar movements came into being. The lack of equality and inclusion is on the public stage, more than previously. Those who were silent and had to endure now say something. Those who took part in discriminatory behaviours will sometimes listen, but some continue because we have not challenged them previously. In this ever-emerging world of difference, it is important to think about how we can open ourselves to inclusion. An excellent way, if done respectfully, is to talk about it with colleagues, with their permission. It is likely that someone in our inner and outer circle has a difference. But they may not want to take part or declare, and we should respect that.

As actors and speakers, we must think about why we want to say something. If the intention is not honourable, then it is best to say nothing. Speaking and acting from a centre of decency and respect for self and others should be our baseline.

Anna Eliatamby is director of Healthy Leadership, CIC and co-author, with Blueprintforall, of Our Journey for Diversity and Inclusion in Business (Decency Journey book Seven).

Image credit | iStock

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