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

Zoya Patel 12 January 2022 139
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?

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139 Responses to Is it impolite to ask a person of colour where they’re ‘from’?
Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton 5:32 pm 15 Jan 22

I worked with a lovely young man, who was very reserved. Once I asked him where he was born. He told me Holland.... Now I knew he wasn't Dutch, so when an appropriate time arose and he was speaking of his mother, I asked where was she from. India. Now I know it makes no difference - but I was happy when he wanted to share his story.

"We are one, but we are many. And from all the all the lands on earth we come. We'll share a dream and sing with one voice - I am, you are, we are Australian" (Songwriters: Bruce Woodley / Dobe Newton). Should be our national anthem.

Ryan Ceniza Ryan Ceniza 5:18 pm 15 Jan 22

Only two sources of where I came from. Either from my mother’s womb or from apes...😁

Rodney Weber Rodney Weber 9:15 pm 14 Jan 22

Growing up I got criticized, questioned and vilified and I'm white skinned of European origin; not Australian enough for some and not European enough for others. A modern, inclusive society might ask, but wouldn't mind what answer is given.

Darryl Watters Darryl Watters 12:21 pm 14 Jan 22

it's all in how the question is asked.....

Isabelle Vu Isabelle Vu 11:08 am 14 Jan 22

Alfred Le is it impolite to ask a POC where they’re from - Of course not.

Is it implicate to ask a POC where they’re ~really~ from. Well if you feel the need to ask, then yes, because if I wanted to tell you, I would have told you the first time.

Crease Coleslaw Crease Coleslaw 7:59 am 14 Jan 22

The act of asking a person of colour where they are from is not impolite.

The article is more about raising awareness of people in the community who do feel a negative association with this question (and other race-related contextual social inputs).

    Yinan Zhang Yinan Zhang 9:04 am 14 Jan 22

    Agreed. I feel the meaning of this article is lost on some readers and the justifications for why it isn't offensive are fundamentally flawed. Being asked 'where you're from' when one is traveling is clearly not offensive as you don't consider yourself a citizen of that country. The concept that someone else just shouldn't be offended by what's been said is a sign of self righteousness & ignorance. There is a time & place for not being PC, that's with your family & friends. When meeting someone for the first time, being PC means you are trying to show sensitivity & respect & gage how that person wants to be treated. The definition of humility and compassion is being able to see the perspective from another person's point of view. If someone can't be arsed to do that, then that's their prerogative but don't mock the people who want to put in the effort and make the world a kinder & more tolerant place for a greater number of people.

Patrice Gauthier Patrice Gauthier 5:30 am 14 Jan 22

I think it is very offensive.

I have been using what I think is an aboriginal term of "where's your mob from?"

This is a question of genetics. Which gives me a deeper understanding of them and who they are, not just where a person was born, travelled from or lives.

'Where are you from?

I'm from Sydney.

No what I'm asking is where are you from, because you're not white and you look different.

I was born in Sydney and I'm 3rd generation Australian.'

I think it shows a deeper questioning when asking about genetics which can make deeper stronger connections and hopefully understanding.

Cameron Murtagh Cameron Murtagh 11:20 pm 13 Jan 22

I'm generally curious about peoples backgrounds if I ask. Usually as a conversation starter

Jack Tha Jack Tha 8:17 pm 13 Jan 22

I’m more of a ‘person of pastel’ than colour. Feel free to ask me about my origin or ethnicity at any time. I won’t take exception to natural human curiosity.

Katy Did Katy Did 7:45 pm 13 Jan 22

Where do you live might be more pertinent

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.

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."

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.

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