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.

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?

What's Your Opinion?

Please login to post your comments, or connect with
138 Responses to Is it impolite to ask a person of colour where they’re ‘from’?
Katy Did Katy Did 7:45 pm 13 Jan 22

Where do you live might be more pertinent

kenbehrens kenbehrens 6:51 pm 13 Jan 22

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.

Michael Inglis Michael Inglis 6:12 pm 13 Jan 22

The good answer is as the writer says - she's from Canberra, and if that upsets you, well that's one way to know you are a racist creep.

Amanda Lissarrague Amanda Lissarrague 5:45 pm 13 Jan 22

When one is 'from' the suburb down the road, it's a tiresome question.

angelad angelad 5:40 pm 13 Jan 22

I’ve lived on 4 continents and often find that I’ve been to the country of origin of a migrant. Sometimes I can tell where that person has come from, so if I ask it opens up an interesting conversation. I always preface the question by saying I’m a migrant myself, born and bred in London. I’ve never found anyone has had a problem with me asking.

Trev Forde Trev Forde 5:15 pm 13 Jan 22

Political correctness has gone way too far, whats the difference if I ask a white person where they’re from? This is ridiculous. I’ve been asked where I’m from at least 10 times on my holiday in the last 3 weeks from a few different races. Is it racist if a person of colour asks a white person where they’re from?

Onelia Herriot Onelia Herriot 5:15 pm 13 Jan 22

Live in Canberra and you are asked it because 90% of Canberra is from elsewhere. There are very few born and bred Canberrians.

    John Marshall John Marshall 10:57 pm 13 Jan 22

    Onelia Herriot I think you would be surprised how many of us are born and bred here.

Rodwell Faulkner Rodwell Faulkner 4:44 pm 13 Jan 22

As I general conversation starter, I usually ask where their NAME comes from. I've heard that a person's name can be the sweetest sound one can hear. This way, race or background don't come into it, unless they want to reveal more. When I take this approach, I've never heard the words "Mind your own business!" in response. Food for thought. :)

Alex Nicolson Alex Nicolson 4:39 pm 13 Jan 22

I find a genuine inquiry is well accepted, especially armed with a followup question like "Whereabouts in India?"

Shan Badowski Shan Badowski 4:23 pm 13 Jan 22

This is a pretty basic conversation starter. For eg if someone is white or indiginous with an Aussie accent I might ask are you Sydney born and bred? If there is an accent I might ask where they were from originally. If they have an Aussie accent but ethnic look I might ask what is your ethnic background? The aim of all these questions is just to get the person to talk about themselves and maybe find some common ground. It is a very confusing message when so often we hear people refer to themselves as "proud black " or proud brown. Be proud and start the conversation, even if that starts with " I was born in India but have lived here since I was 3 and now consider myself Aussie."

Julie Patricia Smith Julie Patricia Smith 3:01 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.

Martin Smith Martin Smith 2:55 pm 13 Jan 22

I'm a keen family genealogist and like to ask people about their heritage. In most cases their ancestors came from somewhere else. Even if they're indigenous to Australia, their ancestoral stories can be fascinating.

Sarah Fahey Sarah Fahey 2:44 pm 13 Jan 22

Your right on the mark there Julie Macklin (;

Amie Louise Amie Louise 2:43 pm 13 Jan 22

It seems like people are offended more than they are not. Maybe too much time is being spent 'reading into things' that isn't actually a problem. I think "where are you from?" is a lot nicer than "What nash are you?" which is what I was asked once. There wasn't any offence intended but at the same time who cares.

Antoinetta Borrello Antoinetta Borrello 2:32 pm 13 Jan 22

I know what a true blue aussie looks like, everyone else including myself is from here there and everywhere. And as for asking someone where they are from is it really such a big deal.

Cathy Koch Cathy Koch 2:24 pm 13 Jan 22

I ask about someone’s heritage and if I’m asking, it’s because I’m generally interested and it’s likely to be more interesting than mine.

Douglas Jacobs Douglas Jacobs 1:33 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!!!

    Spiral Spiral 4:07 pm 13 Jan 22

    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.

    Spiral Spiral 6:13 pm 13 Jan 22

    “ 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.

Charles Nicol Ironside Charles Nicol Ironside 1:15 pm 13 Jan 22

Too much offence is taken from innocent and well-meaning questions. I am seriously interested in the ethnic and regional origins of people I meet, regardless of colour. Sometimes a skin tinge prompts the questions, other times an eye angle, voice inflection, slight accent etc etc. Asking a question of itself should not be considered offensive. For example, I have a Scottish accent (sometimes mistaken as English, Irish, Canadian and US) but am an Australian citizen and have lived here for nearly 60 years. I don't find it offensive that people ask where I am from, and generally engage with them in a discussion on ethnicities. It is my experience that those who actually ask are not those who are being offensive, because they are actually showing interest.

    Shaun Hogan Shaun Hogan 3:57 pm 13 Jan 22

    Charles Nicol Ironside I agree 100%. Since when is caring and enquiring about someone’s past offensive. I find the fact that people think I am being rude asking that question offensive. Everyone has history, embrace it or shut up. I have thank you in 20 plus languages, use them regularly, always, always get smiles and it lifts someone day.

    Jess Oh Jess Oh 4:19 pm 13 Jan 22

    Charles Nicol Ironside quote from the article: “What I’d love is if people asked me, ‘What’s your cultural background?’, which is both more meaningful and more accurate.”

    You can still show interest in people by asking that question! Asking where someone is “from” implies that they’re not “from” Canberra/Australia/ wherever they are and could be taken to mean they don’t belong - even if that’s not how you meant it.

    Also people generally don’t ask a white person that question, if they don’t have an accent (And even if they have an accent- “where is your accent from” is a politer approach anyway).

    What Zoya has suggested at the end of the article is a great alternative 😊

    Jason Pover Jason Pover 4:31 pm 13 Jan 22

    Charles Nicol Ironside Like with many things, it's not what you're saying that is potentially offensive, it's how you're saying it and to whom. No one will be reasonably offended by a question like "where does your family originate?" or "what's your cultural heritage?". The problem with asking a PoC "where do you come from?" is that implicit in the question is the (unintended) assumption that they're not from here. This makes PoC feel like guests in their own country, and that can't be a pleasant feeling. Imagine being born and growing up in this country and then being asked "where are you from?"; the answer might be Sydney or Melbourne, but the questioner really wants to hear Vietnam or India. You and I don't experience that because no one is questioning the 'Australianness' of white people, even white migrants such as yourself.

Philip Vels Philip Vels 1:10 pm 13 Jan 22

I Am You Are We Are Australian

Brendon Bay Brendon Bay 1:08 pm 13 Jan 22

The day someone tells me to my face that it's rude, I'll stop.

CBR Tweets

Sign up to our newsletter

Region Group Pty Ltd

Search across the site