Coleman Hughes: asking ‘where are you from?’ isn’t racist

January 12, 2023
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The controversy over Lady Susan Hussey, an 84-year-old lady in waiting accused by Kilburn-born charity worker Ngozi Fulani of insensitivity for asking ‘where she was really from’, led to Hussey’s resignation from the royal household and an apology from Buckingham Palace. This week, Prince Harry weighed in suggesting it was a matter of ‘racism and unconscious bias’.

At an UnHerd Club event in London last night, American writer and critic Coleman Hughes responded to the story and gave his emphatic perspective.

I find after ‘what’s your name?’, asking ‘where are you from?’ is one of the best questions to ask. I’m often in Ubers in New York (where I’m from) and I usually find the second or third question I will ask an Uber driver is: where are you from? If he has an accent — and it’s always a ‘he’ — I often want to know where they were born, where they came from, and when they came to America. I’ve never once got a complaint.

In fact, every time I’ve had a very interesting conversation where I learned something. I recently spoke to an Uber driver that, in response to the question, ‘where are you really from?’, gave me his take on Afghanistan and the US involvement from someone who grew up there. For the first time in my life I heard the take that you can be pro-US and pro-Taliban, and it kind of made sense!

The point is that this is one of the basic human questions that one can ask to another and despite this incident, I still feel that if 90% of people walking on the street were asked this question, they would not even think twice or get offended. The kind of people that get offended by this are a very loud minority that are given attention…

I have sympathy with people that want to reinvent themselves [such as Ngozi Fulani did by changing her name from Marlene Headley] and get in touch with their roots, however they perceive those to be. I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. I think that comes from a universal urge to have roots that you can trace to, and it’s something a certain kind of person looks to, or anyone might look to, in times of struggle in one’s personal life. 

If you’re going to do that, though, (i.e. if you’re going to adopt an African name), you can’t be surprised when people assume you’re from Africa, and you ought not get offended. But this is the world that migration and globalism and diversity is creating: where identities are going to get more complex. And that’s okay.

But it also means that people like this woman should be much more forgiving, and not seek to cancel someone for what is clearly a well-intentioned comment. No one believes that if she had answered ‘oh, I’m from Africa,’ that this 80-year-old woman would say, ‘oh no! Africa…’. She would have been curious and would have wanted to know more about the place. How many signals do you need to know that the intentions are good before you understand that you don’t have to rush to judgement of a person over such a benign question?

As for the Royals’ apology, the temptation to do something is deep and profound. This is as true of politicians as it is of institutions. But sometimes the best thing to do is to let it blow over. There are cases where if you hold the line people will forget. They will move on to the next issue. They will betray the fact that sometimes they didn’t really care so much about this to begin with. Sometimes it’s a kind of short-lived anger about these kinds of issues because most of the people getting mad in the back of their minds know that asking ‘where are you from’ is a normal question.

I think there is an incentive where if you apologise for things that are really not worth apologising for, you create more of this. Because it’s not a psychologically normal person that creates a campaign around condemning a person who asked, ‘Where are you from?’ This is not normal behaviour. Whatever you want to call this, this is not normal. And I think such people thrive on the attention and validation that is given when an institution says, ‘here’s an apology’, which is synonymous with saying ‘your concern is valid’. We are validating your right to be offended. And at a subconscious level, these people become more like the kind of person that gets offended because they see the rewards that go along with that offence.

Regarding Prince Harry specifically, I saw the Oprah interview. He’s never made it clear how he knows the comment about what colour his baby’s skin would be was made in a racist way. Wondering what a baby is going to look like is not such a bad thing. I talked to my girlfriend about what our babies are going to look like! Presumably, he believes it was meant in a racist way (i.e. that the baby’s not going to be too dark). But to my knowledge, he’s never said that. He just said, ‘someone wondered about what the baby was going to look like’, without naming that person, which then allows the mind to speculate and go wild about ‘oh, who was it?’ 

You ought to be really specific if you’re going to make an accusation about something like that… If someone casts a vague aspersion about a kid looking good or something, you really need to make the accusation or don’t. Because if you’re going to accuse someone of really not wanting the baby to be dark, that’s a very deep accusation to make about someone and it should be made seriously, with a name or not at all. The way he’s not pinning himself down to it being a racist comment — as opposed to a kind of curiosity of a sort that anyone might have — it seems fishy to me.

To watch the full conversation with Coleman Hughes, click HERE.


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