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Maybe you should go back?


Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Matt Dunham

This week as Theresa May landed in Nigeria on the second leg of her trade mission in Africa to strengthen ties pre-Brexit, UK’s relationship with Nigeria is under the spotlight.

Interviewing the Nigerian filmmaker and London-trained lawyer Bolanle Austen-Peters about this, the BBC’s John Humphrys suggested she should “go back” home – even though she lives in Nigeria.

Humphrys’ ill-advised comment came as lawyer turned producer Austen-Peters was discussing disconnect between Britain and Nigeria, and suggested there has been “no relationship at all” between the two countries, despite colonial history and the Commonwealth, which she said doesn’t bring “privileges in terms of trade, in terms of immigration” to Nigeria.

“The truth of the matter is the UK is trying to get back through this relationship they’re trying to build now. And I’m sure that a lot of people will view it with scepticism,” said Austen-Peters and continued, “Yes, absolutely, because nothing has been going on for so long. And then all of a sudden Brexit happens, and then we find the UK trying to come back now and forge relationships that really were separated for a long time. That’s the way most people would view this.”

Humphrys responded with, “Well, you know what, tell me what you think about this Bolanle, you were born there of course, you trained as a lawyer, you came to this country. Maybe you should go back?” and was suitably set straight with Austen-Peters’ swift reply, “Yes, I don’t live here actually. I’m on vacation and I certainly don’t want to live here.”

Repeating once again she was in Britain on vacation in response to an incredulous Humphrys still coming to term with the fact that a successful Nigerian woman could happily live in Nigeria and wouldn’t dream of moving to the UK, she went on to make her point about how like any relationship, the one Britain is seeking to revive with Nigeria should be a mutually respectful one.

This brief exchange made me think of the kind of patronising statements from often clueless Brits, those of us who have made Britain home are used to hearing on a regular basis.
“Go back home.”

Humphrys is not alone of course. His brethren and sisters are often quick to remind us, often when displeased with our immigrant behaviour or opinions on Britain that they perceive as ungrateful, to go back to where we came from – even if that is just up the road. Which segues into a Brit’s favourite question to ask an immigrant.
“But where are you really from?”

This is often the one final exasperated attempt to detect the origins of the brown person who just won’t let up. The conversation casually begins with “Where are you from?” Upon getting a response like, “England” or “Manchester” or “Bradford”, the Brit persists to find out more about the brown person’s lineage. “But where are your parents from?” Still not getting an exotic enough place name in response, they keep pestering, “Where are you really from though?” I have a Pakistani friend, born and raised in England, who often sees through this and carries on with the mind game. Her response? “Oh yes I see… Well, actually, yes, I grew up in Bedford but really I was born in Gloucester and I did spend a couple of years in Wales.” At which point the frustrated Brit questioner just quits for good.
“You speak such good English.”

Often presented alongside, “Have you been here long?” or “Did you learn English here?” and peppered with a hearty dose of patronising admiration. The assumption is that, unless you are from a European country, you are a third world savage for whom a Western education is a luxury beyond financial means or even boundaries of imagination. It is a miracle that you speak English so well – even if you happen to be from a former colony, where by nature of a colonial past, English still happens to be the official language.

“You are a solicitor/doctor/teacher of English?”

The Brit asking you this question is in a state of shock, unable to contain their astonishment. Not only can this immigrant speak English well, but they are also in a high collar job, providing for the education and healthcare of the unemployed natives? A solicitor? A doctor? An engineer? Oh Lord! Back in the days, which feel a lifetime ago, when I was a teacher of English, I used to enjoy seeing this reaction. Often at the end of a conversation which began with where I was from, carried on to how well I speak English and ended with the question on what I do for a living. I would respond, “I am a teacher.” In response the clueless Brit would ask, “Oh marvellous? What do you teach?” Looking smug, I would respond with, “English Language and Literature at GCSE and A Level.” In my head thinking, yes, I, an immigrant, from Turkey, am teaching your children your language.” Mysteriously their line of questioning would abruptly end there.

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