27 May 2018 by Roy Preece
Ah! Your Highness, I learned long ago the pitfalls of asking someone “where do you come from?” And when a person of colour says, London, or Manchester, don’t make it worse by saying ‘You don’t look like it!’ even if it’s natural to want to excuse your first mistake. When in a hole stop digging! I seem to remember the old conversational French we learnt at school went 1. How are you? 2. What is your name? and 3. Where do you live?
Where do you live does allow a certain flexibility in answering; but even so. some English (white) people may be embarrassed if their address is not fashionable. Some years ago I was conducting a survey which involved asking people their perceptions of where they lived. I noticed how the wives would often correct their husbands first answer to make it sound more rural. City became ‘well, suburb really’; large town became ‘quite small town really’; small town became ‘more like a village’. Village even became ‘small village’.
Perhaps Prince Charles may be excused as it was a Commonwealth meeting with people from many countries, but you can never be too careful. For some years I was a tutor to post-graduate students from overseas. At first they were referred to as ‘foreign students’. Oh dear! Then as ‘overseas students’. Better. And eventually as ‘international students’. Since they were all international it was perhaps not unreasonable to ask what country they came from. Most of them were proud to name their country and delighted if I could show any little interest and knowledge of their country and its history. I remember discussing the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with a Persian student: Persian, he preferred, not Iranian. He was visibly pleased that someone knew there was more to the long story of ‘Iran’ than the current mad mullahs, and I believe he felt keenly the pariah status of Iran at that time.
One day a gentleman of colour sat down beside me to ask some advice. I asked “So where do you come from?” “Well, London, actually.” Sensing some resentment, I didn’t say ‘Well you don’t look like it’. But to make matters worse, he was also a member of the university’s academic staff! After that day I never asked anyone where they came from. I later learned he was a refugee from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
As in the traditional Chinese story of Nine Son's of the Dragon, the Dragon's nine sons look all different but they are all noble dragons!