Just what does it take to be considered unequivocally British?

Reading Kohinoor Sahota’s article (In Buckingham Palace and outside it, we know what it means when people ask ‘where are you from’, 30 November) brought to mind a jarring encounter some years back. As people gathered for a meeting in the panelled boardroom of a well-known cultural institution, one attender (whom I considered a colleague) handed me a Chinese newspaper article and asked me to relay its contents to them.

Nothing odd about that, you might say. Except that, aside from my name and skin colour, there was no reason whatsoever to assume I could read Chinese. I can, and did, but that’s beside the point. I am a child of the Commonwealth. My parents came to London from Singapore in the 1960s. They met and married in London. I grew up in a colourless north-west London suburb and attended an all-girls independent school. (It was a nicer house or a better school, my parents said. They couldn’t afford both.)

In due course, I went on to study classics (yes, Latin and Greek) at one of the ancient establishment universities of the land. Hear me speak, and I sound exactly as one would expect someone of my age and educational background to sound: standard received pronunciation English. And yet, see me as well as hear me, and the assumptions creep in.

I remember my parents’ seemingly endless strictures: “You are only welcome for as long as your hosts want or need you. Like a paying guest.” Also: “You must be able to speak, read and write Chinese. Or you will be laughed at and ridiculed by white people.” And the clincher: “Don’t forget, this is not really your country.” Outwardly, I acquiesced. Inwardly, I rebelled: “Why? I’m British too!”

Yet decades later, I tell my children exactly the same. When Covid-19 was found probably to have originated in China, I was in flight mode, considering whether we should relocate to Singapore or Hong Kong. My daughter’s peers taunted her, calling her a “bat eater”. She was defiant, but devastated.

And now? Now, as always, outwardly, I am philosophical. “This country has been good to me. I have done well. I am valued. I am content. If there are moments that jar, they are oh so very rare and certainly not intentional. Get a grip. Move on.” Inwardly, a small but insistent voice asks: “Just what does it take to be considered unequivocally British?”
Name and address supplied

• For many people of colour or anyone who doesn’t fit into the archetype of an artist, the question “Where are you from?” shouldn’t be a surprise. It is something that I have been questioned about for daring to draw the Angel of the North or the Tyne Bridge.

When I first started drawing and painting, it was a form of welcome therapy for postpartum depression. After friends started wanting to buy my art, I began selling at Tynemouth market. Locals will know of this market at a Victorian train station, and also of the Nazi memorabilia that’s sold there. So I wasn’t totally surprised when I was repeatedly asked where I was from. “I’m from Newcastle,” I’d exclaim, the Geordie accent coming out. It didn’t matter that I was there selling this local art. I wasn’t seen as a local.

I was asked this question by a local art gallery in the city centre when I asked if it would sell my work. “No, really, I was born here.” When asked by a buyer at a department store, I kind of lost it. “I was born here, I’m Punjabi, my parents immigrated in the 1960s.” But this explanation led to being ghosted – no one wants someone with a chip on their shoulder.

Eventually, the information sinks in. Other people’s view of you moves beyond the colour of skin to the talent and the work. I embraced my grandad’s collection of matchboxes from India, creating a series of work that is both unique and culturally rich. I facilitated workshops as part of a participatory arts project in Whitley Bay, being mansplained to about what a mandala means.

I became the artist for Northern Pride this year. I received racist abuse for being “foreign” when my artwork for the Metro trains came out. I kept going, with hope that I would succeed somewhere like my white counterparts. But at what price? Does being a northern artist mean you have to be white to succeed? Is it this racial packaging ultimately what sells the image of the north-east?
Sofia Barton
Newcastle upon Tyne

• The problem is not simple racism, it’s an expression of xenophobia, of a sense of superiority for being British. Even a white-skinned blonde Scandinavian can be a target. I have lived in England for most of my adult life. I have been married to an Englishman for nearly 40 years and a UK citizen for 25. The interrogation Ngozi Fulani suffered was painfully familiar. I have been asked, more times than I care to remember, “Where do you come from?”, and if I gave the name of the town where I lived, I was treated like an idiot who hadn’t understood the question.

My status of not belonging was also brought home to me if I dared express an opinion on British politics. Even in ordinary conversation, frequent references to “my country” emphasised my outsider status. I did not want to pretend to be British by birth – just a permanent member of the community in which I lived. I can appreciate that it is far worse for people born in Britain; I am, after all, an immigrant.

Twelve years ago, my husband and I retired to South Africa. Neither of us has encountered anything except a welcoming acceptance by South Africans of every race. My only reminder of life in England was when an English expat asked my husband where we came from. When he replied “England”, she looked down her nose at me and said: “But you weren’t born there, were you?”
Dr Kerstin Nyberg
Hoedspruit, South Africa

• In 2018, when the then Prince Charles was at a Commonwealth event in Manchester, he asked a woman – Anita Sethi, who has Guyanese heritage – where she was from. “Manchester,” she replied. “Well, you don’t look like it,” was Charles’s response (Dear Prince Charles, do you think my brown skin makes me unBritish?, 19 April 2018). The now King Charles is soon to be anointed thus by an archbishop of the Anglican church, which enjoys the support of a minority of the king’s subjects. A modern monarchy for our times?
Gary Agnew
Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland

• The question “Where are you really from?” is micro-racist. Behind that lies a worse question: “Why are you here?” And behind that lurks the openly racist “Why don’t you go back there?” For postwar immigrants and their descendants, such racism is never far below the surface. The questioner might reasonably be told to fuck off, or given the pithy retort: “We’re here because you were there.”
Chris Hughes

• The best answer is: “From my mother’s womb, exactly the same as every person on the planet.”
Roger Smith
Oving, Buckinghamshire

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