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?

What's Your Opinion?

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139 Responses to Is it impolite to ask a person of colour where they’re ‘from’?
Darcy Ryan Darcy Ryan 7:32 am 13 Jan 22

I ask people where they are from. ….. why would colour make me change how I act towards someone?

Bruce Rossel Bruce Rossel 7:33 am 13 Jan 22

As a person with a 12 month tan, this article is 100% relatable content! Taken me a long time to be comfortable in my own skin in my own country.

But if I feel like being a smart arse when asked "where are you really from?", I reply with "I identify as smooth caramel"

Ardathia Sulkowski Ardathia Sulkowski 7:57 am 13 Jan 22

It's not just your colour, but your name as well. I get asked this same question even though I'm 5th generation Australian with English/Irish heritage only.

I've had people comment on how good my English is, and asked when did I arrive in Australia.

I take it as curiosity, not racism, and happy to give a humorous response.

Sam Smith Sam Smith 8:01 am 13 Jan 22

"where do you come from" is a ridiculous way to ask that question anyway. The alternative given of "what is your cultural background" makes much more sense, as that is exactly what you are really asking.

Robyn Ahlstedt Robyn Ahlstedt 8:02 am 13 Jan 22

I may ask what their heritage is because I'm genuinely interested in people's stories.

    Daniel Oyston Daniel Oyston 8:06 am 13 Jan 22

    Robyn Ahlstedt I use the word heritage as well because they can take that as recent or go back generations. It’s more open ended.

Vander Leal Vander Leal 8:10 am 13 Jan 22

When it's asked nicely no one will feel offended.

Shalini Nestor Shalini Nestor 8:22 am 13 Jan 22

When I reply “Canberra” and people get snarky; that’s annoying. I don’t owe you anything 😂

    Dom Huntman Dom Huntman 10:44 pm 13 Jan 22

    Shalini Nestor in Morocco it is the first question and is to understand where/why/how the person is coming from. I guess you would say stereotyping but in all the positive sense.

    For example, you are living in Rabat, a successful public servant but come from a close by small city called Ain Ouda, it means you come from a place with poverty, mostly agriculture and only government schools. It means you worked hard and are smart.

    If you are from Tanger in the North and over 30yrs old, we know they likely fluent in Spanish more than French. From Nador they are Berber etc, etc.

Helen Kvalheim Stephenson Helen Kvalheim Stephenson 8:30 am 13 Jan 22

Does everything have to come down to political correctness. Soon you won’t be able to ask any questions for fear of upsetting someone. People are just too sensitive these days!

    Kathleen Beck Kathleen Beck 8:56 am 13 Jan 22

    Helen Kvalheim StephensonHelen Kvalheim Stephenson I know of a particular YouTuber who is so sensitive when the ball is in his court. Can call people corrupt but 'I hate being sued because I had no proof'.

    Giles Tranter Giles Tranter 9:17 am 13 Jan 22

    Helen Kvalheim Stephenson sure, but when you're planning to ask that question, think about what has prompted you to ask it?

    My experience is certainly that unless there is an accent, the question of "where are you from" is rarely asked of white people. It makes people feel like there is an assumption that they aren't Australian.

    It could be as subtle a shift in your thinking and questioning as asking "what is your heritage?" And asking this of everyone you encounter.

    Suzanne Dwyer Suzanne Dwyer 9:18 am 13 Jan 22

    I don't get your point. It's just good manners to consider another person's perspective.

    Natasha Van Oudheusden Natasha Van Oudheusden 9:51 am 13 Jan 22

    Helen Kvalheim Stephenson you can ask me any time, I don’t mind at all

Antonietta Lavin Antonietta Lavin 8:39 am 13 Jan 22

Met people from All Walks of Life over time and love it. So if I ask it's out of Interest within a conversation no matter what colour or culture. Not Racism as this doesn't Exist in my Dictionary . ❤️

Canberra Multicultural Community Forum (CMCF) Inc Canberra Multicultural Community Forum (CMCF) Inc 8:40 am 13 Jan 22

Translate the question into different languages could be interpreted with different meanings .... for some - it could sensitive , for others - could be ‘intrusive’ . Multicultural communities are proud of their heritage and culture.. best is to introduce yourself first , so we can understand and learn from each other when the question is asked. 👍-

Tania Heuning Tania Heuning 8:45 am 13 Jan 22

It's not all about colour, accents are a give away too even if people get it wrong. I think you know when someone is being genuine in their interest or if they are not. I have shut down a few conversations very quickly when people start of you're from xxxx and I say yes and then they start being racist as all of us "white people" or "white looking people" from this country are racist. I don't take that well and I put them in their place very quickly. Sadly media has played into many people's ideas of countries of origin and its great to speak to people who are genuinely interested and willing to learn.

    Natasha Van Oudheusden Natasha Van Oudheusden 9:48 am 13 Jan 22

    I couldn’t agree more Tania

    Tania Heuning Tania Heuning 9:53 am 13 Jan 22

    Natasha that's because you've been in my shoes and can totally relate.

Judith White Judith White 8:45 am 13 Jan 22

I grew up with an ethnic name - very strange with all the English names in the 50's and 60's. People asked me all the time where my family came from. I didn't mind in the least. I was proud of my family history and my family's courage. I still am, although now, with my husband's surname, people just assume they all came from England. (At the time of my marriage, I was thrilled to have a name that didn't require an explanation. It was so much easier.) Now I think my single name is much more interesting, although my husband's family were and still are, very interesting people... Yeah, to be offended by someone asking that question is just pathetic... (imv)

Siwaporn Chuangching Siwaporn Chuangching 8:48 am 13 Jan 22

I got asked from my English speaking 😂 and writing 😅

    Mellissa Craft Mellissa Craft 9:37 am 13 Jan 22

    Siwaporn Chuangching 😀 a Korean hairdresser once told me he was embarrassed to speak too much because of his (perceived) bad English (he actually had very good English) I just said well your English is waaay better than my Korean 💁‍♀️ 😬

Line Marie Line Marie 8:48 am 13 Jan 22

Colour .. and / or accent .. I will never forget arriving in AU 13 years ago .. on my first shop at Coles, being asked by an Aussie about my strange accent .. to which once I explained, was told "so you're a mongrel" .. oh to be born and given a common and pronounceable name and remained in your birth country .. wow, too easy .. 😉

Roz Vardanega Roz Vardanega 8:49 am 13 Jan 22

I think it shows genuine interest. When I married I just had to remember how to spell it.

    Kylie O'Rourke Kylie O'Rourke 2:26 pm 13 Jan 22

    Roz Vardanega I know what you mean, my partners surname is Polish and 16 letters, I had to learn it in a pattern (lots of S, Z, Y,) only a few vowels.

    I kept my surname, too much for me.

Anura Samara Anura Samara 8:49 am 13 Jan 22

I prefer to ask people about their “family background” - this is a more polite conversation starter which makes no assumptions about individual themselves.

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.

Yolandi Vermaak Yolandi Vermaak 8:53 am 13 Jan 22

My South African accent led to questions like “are you russian/polish/german/french?”… yes Im French😂

    Tania Heuning Tania Heuning 8:54 am 13 Jan 22

    Yolandi Vermaak you know us South Africans we like it to speak foreign 😏

Tamika Madex Tamika Madex 8:55 am 13 Jan 22

It's uncomfortable when you reply with where you were born/grew up ie NSW and they respond with, 'But where are you really from?'

    Suzanne Dwyer Suzanne Dwyer 9:26 am 13 Jan 22

    Tamika, have you watched Michael Hing's - Where are you really from?

    Sher Bee Sher Bee 9:48 am 13 Jan 22

    Tamika Madex yeah that is rude to ask again

    Gary Keogh Gary Keogh 3:02 pm 14 Jan 22

    Tamika Madex I'm sure there is a more tactful way to ask. And if the person clearly doesn't want to answer it then it's usually best to not push it.

    Because of a million articles about this, I've taken the hint that it's best if I don't ask that question. Although I may indirectly approach it sometimes and if they tell me, they tell me. And if they don't then they don't.

James Daniels James Daniels 8:57 am 13 Jan 22

With so many people coming to Canberra from other places in Australia and overseas, it's a question that gets asked of many people and not just people of colour.

    Hannah Zurcher Hannah Zurcher 9:30 am 13 Jan 22

    I mean, yeah, but you can also say "did you grow up in Canberra?" and get the same information that way.

    Natasha Van Oudheusden Natasha Van Oudheusden 9:54 am 13 Jan 22

    Hannah Zurcher if you ask that of someone who clearly doesn’t have an Australian accent, you’ll just sound fake and make a fool of yourself.

    Hannah Zurcher Hannah Zurcher 10:04 am 13 Jan 22

    I... don't have an Australian accent and I grew up in Canberra...

    James Daniels James Daniels 10:48 am 13 Jan 22

    Hannah Zurcher its probably more about the tone and body language than the actual question itself. One of the reasons interactions on social media can get very heated very quickly is the lack of any context other than the words themselves.

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