Is it impolite to ask a person of colour where they’re ‘from’?

Zoya Patel 12 January 2022 138
Multi-coloured pens

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

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.

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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.

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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?

What's Your Opinion?

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138 Responses to Is it impolite to ask a person of colour where they’re ‘from’?
Rob Mcgrath Rob Mcgrath 12:22 pm 13 Jan 22

I think if more of us who look bog standard European were asked this question we might start to understand the writers feelings a little more.

    Emilia Roberts Emilia Roberts 3:29 pm 13 Jan 22

    Rob Mcgrath exactly. Everyone assumes I'm Australian born because I'm white - but I'm a migrant from the UK.

    Onelia Herriot Onelia Herriot 5:28 pm 13 Jan 22

    Rob Mcgrath I must be wierd as I have been asked it many times in Canberra and elsewhere in Australia. White 5th Gen Aussie.

    Rob Mcgrath Rob Mcgrath 5:49 pm 13 Jan 22

    Onelia Herriot weirdly, I never have.

TimboinOz TimboinOz 12:21 pm 13 Jan 22

Political correctness is just a tad boring, no?!

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

Kim J Uriarau Kim J Uriarau 11:57 am 13 Jan 22

In my job as a casting agent it was unprofessional and impolite to assume, so I became very confident in asking for background/heritage for anyone who walked through the door, because movie roles were very specific and it was important to cast accurately and authentically. But since I'm not in that role any more I find I have no reason to enquire about a person's heritage.

phydeaux phydeaux 11:17 am 13 Jan 22

My parents.
What about you?

Peter James Peter James 11:12 am 13 Jan 22

I think a lot of the problem is our growing illiteracy. People lack the words to communicate what they are actually trying to communicate. I know a few people who told off about the "where are you from question?" get confused why "whats your heritage/where's your family from?" question is ok "I'm asking the same thing!" and they just...don't get it

The funny thing for me is when you ask white people. They look confused and go "Australian?" and you have to go no you're European mate, where in Europe etc is your family from? What's your heritage 😂

FYI there's a difference between European/European heritage, and what is colloquially called "white people" and I'm not explaining it if you don't understand 😘😂

    Giles Tranter Giles Tranter 12:47 pm 13 Jan 22

    Peter James I agree with all of that apart from the "growing illiteracy" part. I actually think the younger generations understand these subtle differences far better and handle it properly. It's the older generations that are set in their ways that don't understand the difference in the question.

    Peter James Peter James 1:22 pm 13 Jan 22

    Giles Tranter oh you'd think that but I know TONS of young racists 😂

    I remember that they used to say that about my lot before we finished school in the early 2000's 🤔 hmmm

    Giles Tranter Giles Tranter 1:24 pm 13 Jan 22

    Peter James us old folks finishing school in the early 2000s 👴🏾

    Peter James Peter James 1:35 pm 13 Jan 22

    Giles Tranter I prefer to describe my age "ancient" "Legendary" or "mythical"

    Emilia Roberts Emilia Roberts 3:28 pm 13 Jan 22

    Peter James then I'm definitely prehistoric!

Monty Ki Monty Ki 10:56 am 13 Jan 22

Maybe we should start asking the Anglo-looking people where they are from?

    Tegan McInnes Tegan McInnes 12:02 pm 13 Jan 22

    I'd actually love it if someone did ask me 🤣🤣 even thou I look plain Jane Anglo I'm not and I feel left out sometimes when people start talking about it

    Brenda Rae Brenda Rae 12:38 pm 13 Jan 22

    Monty Ki I mean I get it a lot but I have a non “

    Australian “ accent

    Giles Tranter Giles Tranter 12:45 pm 13 Jan 22

    Monty Ki love it. They say "Canberra" and you just keep asking "yeah, but where are you really from" until they tell you their great great great grandmother came here from Ireland. Then continue to refer to them as "that Irish guy" forever

    Leo Monus Leo Monus 2:27 pm 13 Jan 22

    Monty Ki I get that question a lot (where is your accent from etc), I just don't complain about it... there are a lot of people here who get offended... If you travel to Asia or other part of the World you are asked the same question all the time... and we still don't complain about that...

    Head Bone Head Bone 3:25 pm 13 Jan 22

    Brenda Rae well duhhhhhh! It's very obvious you come from Appleonia 🤣

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 4:48 pm 13 Jan 22

    Monty Ki They did ask when I was a kid in school in Cooma. We would ask where other children were from. There was no discrimination that I noticed from the children; just interest.

    Onelia Herriot Onelia Herriot 5:23 pm 13 Jan 22

    Monty Ki we get asked it all the time.

    Sam Micallef Sam Micallef 9:56 pm 16 Jan 22

    Nada Krstin we are all from somewhere

Yinan Zhang Yinan Zhang 10:48 am 13 Jan 22

Just use the term 'what's your background' or 'tell me about your family of origin' rather than where are you from, as I'm sick of answering this silly question 'I'm from Australia, I grew up here, but you're clearly asking me because you are wondering about my ethnicity.'

Just don't make assumptions based on someone's name or appearance as we are a multicultural country and people can have last names based on marriage & adoption.

    Onelia Herriot Onelia Herriot 5:23 pm 13 Jan 22

    Yinan Zhang 99% of the time they are asking which town in Australia you are from. Or even which government dept in Canberra.

    Yinan Zhang Yinan Zhang 6:46 pm 13 Jan 22

    That's very assumptive of you Onelia. Although I appreciate the positive sentiment of people trying to down play the remark by saying why be so PC? It's interesting those comments have come from many that do not have an obvious ethnic appearance themselves.

    I feel I am as Australia as can be having grown up in a first nations community in the outback, yet there are many incidences where I feel racism still exists in our country.

    Let me give you some incidences. I was trying to open a bank account at 18, the lady at the bank made me fill out all these forms and I didn't know the process, I finished it all, only for her to realise I had an Autraluan pass board & so did not need the form filled. I was walking around the lake trying to dodge a bike among a lot of foot traffic and a lady yelled out 'walk to the left, you're in Australia now!' or the time when I have called a govt dept to help a patient get registered for something and someone has said 'ni hao ma' because I had a Chinese last name. Your very comment suggests I am not interpreting what people are asking correctly. Maybe there is racial trauma & sensitivity from my personal experiences but they are hurtful & very real and I am not going to sweep how I feel about it under a carpet just because someone else says 'aren't you just being a bit touchy love?'

    All I am saying is, I have a preference regarding how I want to be treated & asked about my ancestory and I think everyone has the right to that. It's not about PC, it's about having humility for people. No different to how we approach gender for family status these days.

Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 10:37 am 13 Jan 22

Immigrants have always been described by where they come from. She's the English one, he's the German, he's Italian, she's Japanese, he's American, so what is wrong with saying, "he’s the Sudanese man". Even as a small child in Cooma, we would say, she's 'German.' (Cooma had immigrants.) No one seemed to mind. It's not race, it's nationality. My grandmother lived here in Australia for almost 60 years, but was always described as English. Accent does that. Loose the accent, as my Italian friend has, and people now no longer say he's Italian.

Somehow it seems racist to change that for someone just because he has a different skin shade. It's making him out as different. Ask yourself do you hesitate to describe someone as Sudanese, but have no problem when asked who you refer to, to say the German, etc person, or the one with the Japanese accent. But the later, only because most people would know a Japanese accent, but few would know a Sudanese accent. Sudanese is a nationality. Just as recently when asked about someone, I said an American. No mention of skin shade in either case.

When visiting other countries, I have been described as the Australian. That's fine.

Connor Thomas Connor Thomas 10:01 am 13 Jan 22

Many people do tend to get offended when asked this question. I personally don't and love to share about my background. I hope that more people become open to sharing where their blood comes from.

Peter Graves Peter Graves 9:54 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.

Sher Bee Sher Bee 9:51 am 13 Jan 22

What really annoys me is to have to answer Place of Birth on forms, it’s irrelevant. I’m an Australian citizen for 50 of my 60 on this planet. Venting ✅😊

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 11:54 am 13 Jan 22

    Sher Bee People born in Australia also get asked place of birth. So! It's one form of identification.

    Onelia Herriot Onelia Herriot 5:20 pm 13 Jan 22

    On Australian forms refer to town of birth. Else it will ask "Country of Birth"

Clare Hyden Clare Hyden 9:45 am 13 Jan 22

Ahh they might just mean "north side or southside", cause I'm willing to hangout if your less than a 10 minute drive, otherwise I'll see you on facebook. Also, some people are super proud of their heritage.

Guy Hosking Guy Hosking 9:42 am 13 Jan 22

With the lack of regional accents in Australia it has always been a standard question in a city like Canberra to ask where someone is from.

    Chris May Chris May 10:05 am 13 Jan 22

    Guy Hosking geez, where have you been? I was in the RAAF, and could always know what state they came from. In the 70s it was easy in Canberra to tell the States they came from and some regional areas.

    I have been asked what part of England I came from.

    Nope, born in Adelaide.

    Guy Hosking Guy Hosking 10:12 am 13 Jan 22

    Chris May I can pick different British and American accents but not Australian.

    Chris May Chris May 11:00 am 13 Jan 22

    Guy Hosking There is different names for Devon in each state, Paloni, WA, Fritz, SA, Devon, NSW, Vic has a different name.

    Queensland put an "eh" on the end of sentences. SA has a very English accent, as the early settlers were English, with a smattering of Cornish in the copper regions.

    SA country folk spoke with a drawl.

    Also, the school kids used different types of bags in each state.

    Canberra kids had small cases and backpacks when in High school.

    Guy Hosking Guy Hosking 11:24 am 13 Jan 22

    Chris May I am sure that back in the 1970s you would have known whether the public servant at the next desk came from Goulburn, Cowra, Wagga, Brisbane or Melbourne.

    Chris May Chris May 12:29 pm 13 Jan 22

    Guy Hosking Sure did, very interesting times.

    My wife came from Cooma, who I met in Department of Air at Russell.

    I'm from SA.

    Had never seen bread, jam and cream before. Only on scones.

Sher Bee Sher Bee 9:42 am 13 Jan 22

I disagree, I’m olive with blueish eyes and a dimple in my chin. Yes it confuses people. I’ve been in Aus since I was 10, I’m now 60. I was born in South Africa, I’m a Dutch French blend. I have always enjoyed sharing my genetic features.

Costanza Maffi Costanza Maffi 9:38 am 13 Jan 22

When people ask me where I'm from, I ask them how far back they mean. Both genuine questions that show interest. I wasn't born in Australia and I've lived in several different cities, states and countries. So the answer is not simple.

    Il Padrone Il Padrone 9:44 am 13 Jan 22

    Costanza Maffi people (mostly students) ask me where I am from and I reply “Australia”. They might then ask where I was born and I reply “Australia”. Then they ask where my parents were born and I reply “Australia”. This kinda stumps them! Eventually they have to get down to the grandparents 🤣

    Il Padrone Il Padrone 9:48 am 13 Jan 22

    If I feel cheeky enough I will tell them that my dad was born on a kitchen table in Rundle St, Adelaide (the main street in the CBD). True.

Sherlock Alexi Sherlock Alexi 9:27 am 13 Jan 22

Mizaan increidlbe thumbnail

David Malcolm David Malcolm 9:25 am 13 Jan 22

What's wrong with being proud of your background. Embrace the question rather than get offended.

    Giles Tranter Giles Tranter 12:50 pm 13 Jan 22

    David Malcolm probably because there's a heap of people that get asked this bloody question who were born in Australia, speak like an Aussie and yet still get asked it. And you absolutely know they aren't asking whether you were from Brissie or Canberra.

    David Malcolm David Malcolm 3:41 pm 13 Jan 22

    Giles Tranter, so what. Answer with I was born here, but my background is.....

    It's not hard to NOT be offended.

    Giles Tranter Giles Tranter 3:58 pm 13 Jan 22

    David Malcolm it's also not hard to imply that someone isn't Australian because they have a different skin colour

    David Malcolm David Malcolm 4:54 pm 13 Jan 22

    Giles Tranter, it's also a choice you make to be offended, especially where offence is not intended.

Kieran May Kieran May 9:20 am 13 Jan 22

Shows how we always look for the worst implication or a conspiracy in everything anyone says.

"I'm a politician and I'm here to help."

"Where are you from?"

"Covid-19 statistics are misleading."

Can you see a difference?🙂

Caroline Hennessy Caroline Hennessy 9:09 am 13 Jan 22

I just ask “what is your heritage” if I’m interested in that.

Asking where someone is from is confusing because it can mean anywhere from the suburb they live in, the city they last lived in, or any place from birth if a person has moved a lot in their life.

    Il Padrone Il Padrone 9:49 am 13 Jan 22

    Caroline Hennessy THIS is a good question to pose.

    Gary Keogh Gary Keogh 3:06 pm 14 Jan 22

    Caroline Hennessy Sometimes I'll start talking about my own heritage and it's up to them if they want to tell me their heritage.

    It probably goes against the rule that "interesting people ask about other people instead of talking about themselves" but whatever.

Boweavil Kat Boweavil Kat 9:08 am 13 Jan 22

It’s the accent that sparks the curiosity

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