OPINION: “Where do you come from?” And other offensive language

When I was asked to write a few words for this website, as part of its Faces for Europe initiative, I was surprised to see ‘Whereabouts are you from?’ leading the points I was asked to address.

Traditionally, I see these words often uttered as a hand reaching out. I have been asked this question by Cairo street kids, picnicking Rajasthan farmers and Transylvanian monks. I have always understood as an ‘icebreaker’ starting a chance encounter, someone keen on a conversation that might lead anywhere, and have answered in that spirit, joining in on that very human intellectual adventure.

Plus, I have an accent. I came to the UK for my undergraduate studies. Having remained in the UK after graduation, having run several companies in the film industry and in higher education, and fathered children, in the decades since, I never developed the ambition to get rid of my accent.

I did lose the two dots on the ‘o’ of my surname, just because it quickly became dull to explain umlauts to customer service assistants. But as the drawl works well for Werner Herzog, it should be ok for me, too, right?

I was living in a city of accents: in 1990s London, any student or dinner party sported at least three continents and a dozen different accents, so it was an important part of the tapestry. No-one was too concerned about where anyone came from, no more than about last week’s weather: it was all about where we were going. Home was where the mobile phone bills arrived.

But this all changed after 23 June 2016, and I have been asked “Where do you come from?” more often in the past year than in the preceding three decades.

I was asked this question often by strangers: in pubs, on hikes, business meetings and even on a People’s Vote march. And I now heard an accusation in this question that I never heard before: ‘You are not from here. You are not one of us. You are different and will remain so.’ So, where has that shared humanity gone and who asked it to leave?

I never understood why anyone would use language, so evolutionary successful for the depth of communication that it provides, to keep anyone out.

But at least I can see now why such language feels like an exclusion, and threatening, so much more painful, just because of some physical, cultural or imagined difference. And I see this understanding as taking part in a deepened shared humanity, at least for myself.

Carl Schoenfeld is an independent filmmaker and educator, living in Oxfordshire with his wife and two sons.

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