So…Where are you from?

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Black History Month calls for a reflection on the rich history of a range of cultures, and we need not explain why there is a whole month dedicated to doing so. Looking back into the past at black history reminds us today how much has changed and progressed in Britain and worldwide and how interwoven our histories are. This encourages us to celebrate peoples roots and heritage both culturally and historically; whilst acknowledging all the events that have led us to way we live now. In this article The Gryphon explores the notion of cultural identity and diversity at university and our campus demographic in terms of Britain.

When getting acquainted with new people some of the first questions you ask are ‘What’s your name?’, perhaps ‘What do you study? and maybe ‘Where are you from?’ particularly at university where people have come from all over the UK and occasionally, the world.  When asked the question ‘Where are you from?’ do you think of your hometown, where you were born or your heritage? This raises various other questions to do with how you conceptualise your identity, the manner of the question asked and how you choose to answer it.

university-of-leeds-parkinson-building-1525-2While abroad this summer, I  was introduced to group of friends of friends, and after chatting for a bit was asked ‘Where are you from?’ to which I replied ‘London’ as its where I was born and grew up. However, when I was asked again and again by the same new acquaintance I had made and found my reply ‘London’ was met with a confused and unsatisfied ‘Right…’. I later realised they probably meant to ask where I was from ‘originally’, where my family may come from and why I have this mixture of features that make me look the way I do. I also realised I had replied with my hometown, not out of ignorance as to my background, but I felt had been asked the wrong question. The phrasing of a question therefore is important in asking individuals about their identity, asking   ‘Where is your family from?’ or ‘What’s your background?’  are perhaps more sensitive and considerate ways to respect individuals identities and begin to learn about people’s backgrounds;  without causing any confusion in an environment where people can come from a variety of places and make others feel  that theirs origins can be interesting to others. It’s not ideal that people ask, but if they’re going to ask, then it should be phrased in the right way,

In the same way, when these questions get asked, does this imply a sense of rootlessness? Does this disregard someone’s heritage? Or does this make Britain feel more like nation and more integrated?

Nicole who studies International Development at Leeds spoke to the Gryphon about her views on ethnicity and diversity at university ‘I think that people will ask where you’re from out of curiosity, but I also don’t think that there’s a good representation of ethnic minorities in higher education. Although  I don’t feel like I’m in a minority at uni , it is[evident that] there is one’.

 I don’t feel like I’m in a minority at uni

A student at Leeds from Bradford, with a Pakistani background, told The Gryphon, ‘It can be a bit annoying when people ask where exactly you’re from because essentially I’m British, but because I look different I’m assumed to be from somewhere else, it can feel like prying depending on how you ask, but I am happy to answer most of the time.’

I’m British, but because I look different I’m assumed to be from somewhere else

We decided to go around campus, investigating how random people reacted after being asked ‘Where are you from?’ Most replied with their hometown within Britain, some asked ‘what do you mean, background or hometown?’ and some replied with their ethnicity or nationality straight away, but all participants were open to answering.

This brings us to the question of how people choose to identify themselves. On a national scale, the 2011 National Census carried out by the Office for National Statistics was the first survey to question Britons on their national identity. The results showed that 96.2 percent of people identified with an English or British identity alongside any other ethnic identity, with 29.1 percent of those identifying as British with any other identity. So most of the population, even those from various ethnic backgrounds, identified themselves as British or English. The demographic of Britain is changing, and has been for decades, but this makes it evident that a sense of British identity is still prevalent in society.

BrothertonAccording to the last census carried out by ONS, 86 percent of Britain is Caucasian, with the other 14 percent making up other ethnic groups – the census also stating that Britain is becoming ‘more ethnically diverse’. However, in the context of higher education why is our increasingly multicultural society not reflected on university campuses across the UK?

A report published in 2013 by the Equality Challenge Unit on Equality in Higher Education found that a small minority of UK resident students were British ethnic minorities, a mere 19 percent. The report also stated that the ‘degree attainment gap was highest in England’ so in 2013 that for it was harder for BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students in England to achieve a first in their degree than other non-BME students. In addition to this, there has long been controversy as to the number of British ethnic minorities getting into Oxford and Russell Group universities, particularly those outside of London.

None the less, according to the Race into Higher Education report British ethnic minorities made up 11.3, percent of students at the University of Leeds in the years 2007-2008, which is small but growing. The report also states that ‘the proportion of ethnic minorities at university exceeds their share of the 18-24 year old population in the UK’ which rather positively reflects the presence of ethnic minorities in higher education on a national level.  The Equality Challenge Unit, a body who work to bring about long-term change and progress in racial equality in the workplace produced  Equality Charter statistics which demonstrate that more ethnic minority students (22.4 percent of them) are in taught post-graduate education. The ECU also affirm that ‘all individuals have multiple identities’ to account for further diversity in their findings. Not everything, especially something as individual and subjective like identity, is black or white; there are shades of grey.

The face of Britain is changing, the world we live in is changing, with increasing interconnectedness of people and places, we will see increasing diversity in the UK and further afield in years to come.

So the next time someone asks where you’re from, know that its one step closer to the wider population gaining an understanding of the multicultural society we live in and getting to know and understand you better as a human being.  Being asked ‘Where are you from?’ should be asked in a manner of polite curiousness and interest in order to integrate, to understand and to appreciate cultures other than your own and to begin to identify with them.

Stephanie Uwalaka

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