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’?
Oscar Mike Oscar Mike 9:40 pm 14 Jan 22

Aren’t we all people of colour?

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

Brianna Brianna 6:43 pm 14 Jan 22

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.

Gary Keogh Gary Keogh 2:50 pm 14 Jan 22

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.

TimboinOz TimboinOz 12:01 pm 14 Jan 22

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!

steve2020 steve2020 1:14 am 14 Jan 22

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 Spencer Frank Spencer 10:05 pm 13 Jan 22

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

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 6:31 pm 15 Jan 22

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

phydeaux phydeaux 11:17 am 13 Jan 22

My parents.
What about you?

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.

Spiral Spiral 8:51 am 13 Jan 22

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.

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