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As I write this now, a man has plonked himself down on the couch next to me, asking me if I’m new to the area, and what time this cafe  closes.

I can feel my body tensing up, my eyes quickly darting down towards my laptop because I can’t be arsed for the next line of questioning, which I know will inevitably be related to my race.

It always goes this way and I won’t know what to say. Or he won’t accept my answer.  Answering  where are you from?  will satisfy the curiosity. But it won’t make the discussion any less awkward for me, because I don’t have an answer for why I really look the way that I do and I don’t know if I ever will.

“Your folks, where are they from?” he continues after broaching the topic, around 45 seconds in, hoping that this will tell him what he wants to know.

“And you, where are you from?” He continues, nodding his head.

Because I’m tired of being asked this, I don’t tell him.

Because I’m sick of having to explain my brown skin, dark eyes and coily-in-the-front-wavy-underneath-hair and English accent. I don’t tell him.

Because saying “half my family is Irish” doesn’t satisfy what is really being asking here, which is, why and how how I came to exist as a brown, ethnically ambiguous girl and what the other side of my family is, I stay silent.

And because he kind of smells funky, I’m actually just fucking tired and because he later asks me for money,  I don’t tell this person anything.

via GIPHY

However that was just one time, because I didn’t feel like it. I’ve actually lost track of the thousands of times people have demanded to know more about the  reasons behind me being non-white – and  I’ve reluctantly offered up my story (and with it, often a piece of my soul). But whilst travelling it seems the questions intensified, too.

Answering where are you from? whilst travelling

This year I’ve made a conscious effort to connect with people across the African diaspora as I’ve travelled to black spaces. Whilst I’ve loved interacting with a wider cross-section of people than I did back in London and, I realised that looking like a local definitely produces some welcome benefits,  I’ve also had to fend off more questions about my appearance than I ever did back in the UK. (Or maybe it feels like more work because I have to explain my life story in a foreign language?)

Most of the time it’s well-meaning enough; answering where are you from? to locals doesn’t offend me or drain me, because they are simply curious as to why I don’t speak Spanish or Creole. They want to know why I don’t fit the traditional mould of an English traveller and how I look like them but I don’t sound like them. And so in these cases, I don’t mind widening their limited perception of Britishness, at all.

In Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia and the Dominican Republic for example —  where I blended in very well — most people just don’t have passports and a lot of locals genuinely weren’t aware of  black and brown people in the UK, identifying as British. So when a Cuban tour guide asked how someone like me “could afford to travel” and told me it had to be because I “came from a white family”, I wasn’t mad — just slightly surprised, I guess.

answering where are you from
Blending in with Cubans in Havana

Similarly when a gay couple during Carnaval de Barranquilla ran up to me, mouths agasp and told me that they just didn’t know “girls looking like me” existed in the UK and spoke English, I just laughed and told them that brown people be everywhere.

However there were plenty of times it got annoying whilst travelling too, namely with guys who fetishized me for my race and couldn’t *believe* that I had shattered their dreams of hooking up with a 〜Caribbean girl〜 by daring to open my mouth and allowing my English accent to come tumbling out. (Sorry not sorry). I remember in Cuba when an Italian guy approached me in a bar, spoke to me in Spanish and asked me where I was from. When I replied and he realized I wasn’t actually a native but a Brit, he actually asked to see my passport as proof that I was from the UK. “Your parents, where are they from too?” he demanded.  Funnily enough getting ID’d as a flirtation tactic doesn’t quite do it for me — although I also took it as a compliment because Cuban gals are HOT.

How to not get stressed whilst answering where are you from?

If you know your identity in full (lucky you), then answering where are you from? simply and honestly may not be an issue for you. I guess my story is pretty unique in that I don’t fully know my racial background and so, trying to explain why that is is extra tough and brings up things I’d rather not discuss.

If like me, you’d also just rather not chat about it with locals or other travellers then I find replying with something like: “I live in___ but I don’t really talk about my race/family” sometimes shuts the convo down quickly. Then again, sometimes it doesn’t.

If you experience probing questions being a traveller of mixed or black identity then I’d also recommend replying with whatever the hell you feel like, on that particular day. Because it’s your life and you shouldn’t ever feel as if you have to explain yourself to anyone.

via GIPHY

Personally, I handle any questions and comments with humour, patience & grace (as long as people don’t piss me off) because it just makes life easier. And when where are you from? is coming from a local, I don’t mind too much, because it’s usually just another way to strike up genuine conversation and bond over melanin.

When it gets awkward…

However, in Morocco, the audacious approach to wanting to know my race got old, quick. Cries of “Mama Africa!”, “Black power” and “Obama!” literally followed me down every winding alley and it was actually quite isolating to experience after a while. Especially as I was in a travel group with all white people and some of them seemed to take pleasure in telling me what I should and shouldn’t find offensive.

I also found it strange in Morocco that most men shouting the questions were my colour? Like, I was in Africa surrounded by Africans and I couldn’t work out why they were shouting “hey Africa” at me.. Saying I was English just didn’t cut it; they wanted DETAILS.  Why was I dark-skinned? Why was I mixed? I ended up just lying all the time as I couldn’t be bothered trying to tell my life story in broken English.

Morocco life was weird

If you’re a person who doesn’t think much of asking someone where they’re from, or you wouldn’t think twice about probing further if you didn’t get the answer you felt you deserved, maybe reflect on the impact your questioning can have. Because if you’re white and you’re asking me this in London, where I’ve grown up in my entire life, are you asking me why I’m here? If I’ve yet to go home? If I really belong in the UK? Are you asking me to prove my Britishness to you? Or to own my blackness more?

Think about what you’re asking — what is is that you really want to know?

Do you get asked where are you from? a lot whilst travelling?  How do you respond? I need tips! Comment below or email me 🙂

8 Comments

  1. Great post Georgina – I can relate to this all too well as someone who doesn’t “look British”. Your post made me realise I don’t mind people asking me this as much while I’m travelling too, but I have gotten a bit defensive about it back home following many awkward (and frankly insulting) encounters. Sadly, I still don’t know what the best response is!

    • Georgina Lawton Reply

      Hi Victoria! Thanks for your comment and glad you could resonate. Yes it is a tricky one…when travelling I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt more bc they are genuinely just curious. Back in the UK it really does irk me if people press for my whole life story and don’t except that I like to identify as British. I think it just depends my mood too!

  2. Hi Georgina,

    I stumbled across your blog in the apple news section about your hair. I read it because it 100% hit home with my own experience of hairdressers. I’m mixed race too and at 41, have had a lifetime of “where are you from’s?”. I, like you have felt that as people probe, you end up giving a deeper explanation than you are comfortable with of justifying who you are. You’re right-you do give up a little bit of your soul. I’m as English as bread and butter, Yorkshire tea and saying ‘sorry’ constantly but I feel constantly like I’m not quite white enough, or black enough to ‘fit in’. It’s got less over the years and bizarrely, having children has made me more confident about my identity.

    Anyway, I don’t want to ramble, but I’ve gone ‘natural’ too after years of straightening, relaxing and tying it all back like it doesn’t exist. Gone are the days of longing to have timotei straight blond hair and now actually enjoy having ‘big hair’! I’ll have a look at those YouTube video tutorials

    Lorna x

  3. I get asked this too. I think it is often just curiosity & people want a SIMPLE answer. Of course your & my case, although different, are not simple.
    I’m white (blond, blue eyed) and still get asked this quite a lot. I am Canadian, but with an unusual name, so I think that prompts a string of questions.

    “Where are you from?”

    -Canada

    “But your name, where is it from?”

    -***

    “Oh so you are ***?”

    -No. My mom just liked the name.

    “Yeah, but where are your parents from?”

    -Canada

    “Before that?”

    -A mix. Well my mom’s side has English, Jewish, French, Spanish & Dad’s family immigrated from the US a hundred years ago but are probably English.

    -But I really don’t know. I’m adopted.

    This either leads to silence or another string of personal questions.

    My husband is Canadian but ancestrally 100% European from one country. And even in his culture people press for more information when traveling. Oh what province, what village, … do you know so & so? People are curious & will dig for more information.

    As for tips, try not to get offended. You could always come up with some smart ass answers like:

    Earth
    Immaculate conception
    Sperm donor mix-up

    Or just be ready to tell the truth the best you know it.

    I need to snoop around more on your blog. Do you have your DNA results back yet?
    I’m tempted to do the same thing in order to provide a simple answer. But even knowing that information will not provide either of us with an easy answer to “Where are you from?” as we are much more than the DNA in a glob of spit.

  4. I can relate to this. I am mixed with Guyanese grandparents but a black British mother. I also have a Slovak father with Hungarian (grand)mother (actually my paternal grandfather was from the Hungarian speaking region of Slovakia, but my father grew up in Bratislava and has a kind of mixed identity).. HOWEVER I have grown up in London! I have spent the past 9 years living abroad in various countries and I do find it annoying having to explain where I am from to strangers. I don’t remember it ever really being an issue growing up because I grew up in what I now realise was a highly unusual multicultural utopia in which race and class were largely invisible. Outside of the UK however, people often ask where I am from and saying England or London never quite cuts it as much as it would for my white friends. There are a number of reasons that the question annoys me.. firstly I am not from one place and I find that people who tend to ask this question are of a “people being from one place” mindset, so I get annoyed that I say my grandparents are Guyanese and they cut me off with an aha before I have finished. Secondly, it just takes ages to explain! 🙂 Sometimes I laugh and say “you want to know why I am brown?” when I get that dissatisfied look after I have replied “London”, and the questioner often looks relieved that I have understood. But I think what really annoys me is that my black side is my English side. It is my white side that is most foreign, but people that ask these questions have zero interest in that at all 🙂

    I enjoy your articles in the guardian. Keep writing, you’re very good at it 🙂 I find your take on mixed race ness and Irish culture particularly interesting as I have an Irish partner and have been living here for three years. I have to say I have never been so acutely aware of my race since moving to Ireland… but that’s a whole other blog post!

    All the best
    Yasmine

  5. I’m quite a bit older than you and I’ve had it all my life, oddly though my brothers never did. My daughter whose further diluted, as she calls it, gets it a lot and simply answers everywhere and nowhere. Again her brother doesn’t get asked and wouldn’t explain if he did. I’ve been called exotic, been the only brown girl in a small town, turned heads in pubs because I was unusual, not so much now, mixed kids are plentiful in the uk. Abroad, well they’ve got a lot of catching up to do ….embrace your uniqueness and remember you owe no one an explanation. Everywhere and nowhere.❤️

  6. I’m quite a bit older than you and I’ve had it all my life, oddly though my brothers never did. My daughter whose further diluted, as she calls it, gets it a lot and simply answers everywhere and nowhere. Again her brother doesn’t get asked and wouldn’t explain if he did. I’ve been called exotic, been the only brown girl in a small town, turned heads in pubs because I was unusual, not so much now, mixed kids are plentiful in the uk. Abroad, well they’ve got a lot of catching up to do ….embrace your uniqueness and remember you owe no one an explanation. Everywhere and nowhere.❤️

  7. Hi Georgina, I kind of like Cheryl’s simple reply Everywhere and Nowhere😁. I should try it out and see if it works. But frankly I don’t think you owe anyone an explanation. I’m half German and Nigerian. I get asked quite often in both of my countries, although I was born in Germany and spent most of my life Nigeria. When I get asked in Nigeria, I simply say I’m Nigerian. Then the person begins to point out that I don’t look Nigerian or something silly like that. Depending on my mood, I might give further explanations or just look at them like whatever you think, I don’t care. Funnily I never ask them back, maybe I should.
    Growing up on either side of the continents wasn’t easy as I encountered a lot of racists remarks in Germany. In Nigeria I wasn’t allowed to fit in completely as I’m constantly reminded that I look different, but mostly they don’t mean it in an offensive way though it is just as annoying. I think as humans, we should let people be and focus on the person and not on their skin tone or colour. Afterall I’m more than just a colour. And Georgina I think your writings are great, have fun while you travel, embrace your Irish heritage and the mystery one. Don’t let anyone box you into a corner because there’s so much more of you than your looks or skin colour. Love Sabine

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