BEST OF 2022: Is it impolite to ask a person of colour where they're 'from'?

Join the conversation
Multi-coloured pens

In a country as diverse as Australia, is it OK to ask where someone’s really from? Photo: Sharon McCutcheon.

Year in Review: Region Media is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2022. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking in 2022. Today, Zoya Patel explains why asking where someone is ‘from’ can reinforce stereotypes of what an Australian looks like.

At family dinner this past weekend, a relatively heated discussion occurred about whether or not it was appropriate to describe someone by their ethnicity. The table was divided.

One sister said that she could see nothing wrong with referencing someone’s cultural background (ie, “Charlie is over there – he’s the Sudanese man”), but another sister and I felt it wasn’t appropriate (why can’t we say, “Charlie is the tall guy in the black t-shirt” instead?)

The crux of our difference was around how being described by our race has made us feel over the years.

My family came to Australia when I was three. My sister, the one on the affirmative side of the debate, has always felt a very strong sense of connection with our culture and birthplace, whereas I’ve always felt culturally confused, not quite Indian and not quite Australian. Having people reference my skin colour, ask where I’m from, and describe me as Indian and not Australian felt alienating when I was younger.

READ ALSO After 30-plus years, why isn’t Summernats embraced as a Canberra institution?

On the flip side, I’m not ashamed of being Indian, and it is a reasonable descriptor in the sense that I do, indeed, look Indian. Logically, I don’t actually have a problem with someone referring to my race in describing me.

The fact is that our reactions to our race being discussed or referred to are based not only on the immediate incident at hand, but also on the years of racism we’ve experienced since coming to Australia.

When someone calls me ‘that Indian girl’, it echoes the taunts of kids in primary school who wouldn’t allow me to play with them because I was brown (like poo, to be exact), or who made fun of Indian culture and accused me of smelling like curry.

I once worked at a doctor’s surgery as a receptionist and an Indian doctor joined the practice. Patients complained about having to see her, and referred to her as ‘the dark one’ (to which I liked to reply that she wasn’t Voldemort), and one patient complained after seeing her and coming back to find me at the reception that the practice was becoming an ‘Indian practice’, and he didn’t like that.

Similarly, being asked where we’re from echoes the shouts we’ve endured repeatedly to ‘go back to where you came from’. When someone asks me where I’m from, I used to tense up immediately, and often I’d respond with ‘Canberra’, hoping they’d get the message (they never did). This is a reaction many of my friends from different cultural backgrounds also have. Being asked where we’re from can sometimes feel like we’re actually being asked why we’re brown.

READ ALSO The strange and lovely world of Jeffrey Smart at the National Gallery

These days, I’ve been reassessing my frustration with this question. The reality is, most people who ask me where I’m from are genuinely interested. Even if they are reinforcing the misconception that people who look like me aren’t ‘from’ Australia, it’s unlikely they see it that way. In fact, a lot of the people who ask me where I’m from are other South Asians, and in all likelihood, they’re asking because they’re seeking a sense of solidarity and connection from me – someone who looks like them.

Perhaps it’s less about whether or not you ask the question and more about how you take the response. I’ve had people ask me where I’m really from when I’ve offered my ‘Canberra’ response, and that annoys me no end.

What I’d love is if people asked me, ‘What’s your cultural background?’, which is both more meaningful and more accurate. Do other culturally diverse Canberrans feel the same?

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

It’s amazingly ironic that the government can block foreign investment and run an anti-China policy and at the same time let in hundreds of thousands of Chinese into the country at the same time. You don’t think it’s a security risk to have a quarter of your population ethnic Chinese or with ties to communist China?

“person of colour”

That’s an objectionable USA term derived from their history and their unending and sick fixation on ‘race’. Even their census has race, and I’m told some other forms do too. We don’t need that divisionness here.

If a person has an Australian accent; clue, they are almost certainly Australian, and to ask such a question is weird and wrong. It’s not so bad to ask a person with a foreign accent where was their country of origin (if you know them well enough), but why would someone only ask darker skinned people, or even think to ask only them this question? I always thought of my grandmother as from the country she came from (UK), and I doubt she ever objected. It was the accent. It’s something people with the accent of their home country just have to accept will happen, but their children born here and with an Australian accent, should not get those questions.

There is nothing wrong with people being interested in other people and their ancestry, but you should be on reasonably close enough terms to bring this up, and with the right conversation, usually not with strangers, and I don’t see what shade of skin has to do with it. It’s a discussion anyone can have. I am of mixed European ancestry (DNA texting shows Irish, up to Scandinavia and across to Greece, and (unexpectedly) only 10% British, where my ancestors ALL came from). I never thought I looked as I stereotyped (yes, not right or accurate to do) the British look and the mere 10% was an explanation for that. I have been asked this question; even on two occasions when younger, by Chinese, if I had a Chinese ancestor (LOL, with age, looks change, and I no longer get asked that. Just look European now). I was taunted at school once, “chin chong, China woman”. DNA has found no Asian ancestry. Irish people thought I looked Irish; a Polish woman though “I was one of them”. I was once asked in Europe where my ancestors came from. Now, that I think was possibly for racist reasons (longer story), but I passed whatever their test was. To be asked about ancestry is not uncommon for whatever skin shade.
PS. My parent choice of doctor was an Indian doctor, and they had a very Australian upbringing. Me, I took the doctor I was allocated, whatever the ethnicity.

The difference is racism

It has nothing to do with PC. Asking a stranger or someone you barely know “where they are from” can and does make that person feel uncomfortable because of racism in this country. Whether that is the intent behind the question or not. Unless you have experienced racism, you can never fully understand. You may sympathise.

Aren’t we all people of colour?

I have been asked this qestion a million times and I happily tell the questioner that I was born and raised in Austria, hence my German accent. I am proud of my heritage and have no issue with people asking me and I also ask people where they are from. If, for example, I ask a black person, my question is not racially motivated, but rather based on my life-long interest in people from around the globe.

My father was Asian, mother Australian, me full-on Aussie accent. So with that lens I ask what’s wrong with asking someone of colour where they’re from. We naturally ask that question when we hear the slightest accent on a person not of colour. If I speak to a person of colour (with an accent) isn’t it natural and respectful to want to know which country they’re from. And from that you might gain an insight into their cultural background. From my experience I see Poms and New Zealanders get questioned about where they’re from more than I do. For people with the right intent I think accents are the natural door to that question not colour. The outcome of course depends on the attitudes of the asker AND the person who answers.

Aren’t we all people of colour?

Isn’t it racist to call some people of certain colour “people of colour” and others not?

Capital Retro8:13 am 17 Jan 22

Only if you are white.

As a white Australian born woman, that is exactly how I satisfy my curiosity. I ask the person what is their cultural background. There is so much we can learn if we are tactful. I don’t give a toss if they are black, brown, white, pink, green or yellow. Treat me right and I’ll treat you right.

I believe there is a way to tactfully ask this question but I tend to avoid it because many people are (understandably) sensitive about it.

Sometimes I can’t put my finger on where someone or their family are from (particularly if they’re mixed race). And so I may sometimes indirectly approach the subject.

I almost always ask. But, I begin with the point that we are a nation of immigrants – including the coories and the murries who arrived as much as 70,000 yrs ago.
I am getting sick to death of the way PC-ness is being imposed on all human interactions. I grew up in a family that had aboriginal, TSI, Indian, SE Asian, and African friends. We are all just folks!

Why do you feel the need to preface it by saying we are a nation of immigrants, that’s being PC in itself. Just ask where they are from, you have right to know who your neighbours are!

Work colleague is asked this often and he replies with humour “I’m from Gungahlin” and it stumps a few people expecting him to say a foreign country.

Frank Spencer10:05 pm 13 Jan 22

This whole article is PC gone mad. Get a grip people!

Capital Retro6:31 pm 15 Jan 22

When I saw the article title I knew: “here’s another click-bait offering from Zoya”.

The argument that it’s more PV to refer to a gentleman of Sudanese heritage as a tall guy in the black shirt is ridiculous.

Firstly, there was no need to refer to him as being tall, unless there was more than one person wearing a black shirt and secondly, define “tall”. To a short person, everyone is tall.

The politically correct sister still got it wrong by referring to this person as a guy?

A good PC person wouldn’t have assumed gender.
They would ask how or whether this person identified, and their choice of pronouns.

The PC sister should just accept that it’s
perfectly fine to refer to an someone as being of Indian, Asian or Sudanese appearance. The word “appearance” is the important word here. It’s non offensive.

Julie Patricia Smith3:01 pm 13 Jan 22

Well I am horrified at the experiences reported in the article.
As someone who was born in England but came here as a child and was a policeman’s daughter I know children can be cruel.
But also asking where someone is from can be friendliness, a conversation starter. Not necessarily racist.

Douglas Jacobs1:33 pm 13 Jan 22

Ahh yes I have seen a couple of articles already on Rioact about immigrants complaining about the racism of Australia – welcome to the reality of the only people from this land the Indigenous people who have had to survive through this treatment ever since the invaders came here – and guess what it continues. Where you from – yeah well we got no other overseas place, only here and yes interesting to see all the comments without one mention or consideration of the people from this land only – you all have other places you can and do call your place, we got no other, and many of you come here and forget that. The original invaders keep bringing more and more people here and yes it has more to do with the economy than anything else – pack em in and the economy is good. Of course we have no say in this and are still on the bottom in our own land so think about that before you start complaining – again we have had to endure ever since we were invaded!!!

The peoples we refer to as Indigenous also have ancestors who came from elsewhere. The history of how they managed to travel to Australia is a fascinating one.

So technically, asking an indigenous person where their ancestors are from before they came to Australia is as valid as asking anyone else.

They traveled here (a very impressive effort), they didn’t pop into existence here.

“ you all have other places you can and do call your place”

So very very wrong.

One of my parents emigrated here but I have no citizenship with that country and I have no more rights to move there then you do.

My father is of very mixed and unclear ancestry so we can only guess which countries his ancestry may be of.

There is no country in the world other than Australia that considers me to be one of their own and no country other than Australia that I have special rights to move to.

To suggest I have somewhere else to call “my place” is ignorant and offensive.

To suggest I should have less rights in the country of my birth because of the colour of my skin or where my ancestors came from is simply racism.

Political correctness is just a tad boring, no?!

As a guide here, I almost always ask visitors where they’re from.

My parents.
What about you?

Cheeky. Accurate but still cheeky!

Peter Graves9:54 am 13 Jan 22

I always ask – “what’s your birth background ?”

Recognising the person I’m addressing:
(1) may have been born in Australia, with an immigrant heritage;
(2) may have been born in another country.

Recognising that there are some heritages that it’s useful to distinguish e.g
Canadian from American
Serbian and Croatian
Indian and Sri Lankan

When I was hitch-hiking in Europe several decades ago, I was too-frequently asked if I was South African.

My mother’s family moved to Australia when she was five. Though all of her family speak great English (my grandparents got their kids to teach them what they learnt at school and were extremely vocal about immigrants who failed to learn the language), some of her older siblings have a noticeable accent.

Anyone unwise enough to ask her or her siblings where they came from originally, will probably regret it as they will be subjected to endless anecdotes about where they came from, what prompted the family to move here, the experiences (some funny, some quite bad) they had adjusting to life here etc.

They certainly don’t take offense at the question. They are Australian, and that often means they have an interesting background story. It doesn’t make them any less or more Australian.

As my grandfather liked to say. Being Australian isn’t defined by where you came from, that is just flavour.

That is awesome.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.