The “Where Are You Really From” Power Dynamic

by Guest Contributor Ramesh Fernandez

Two days ago I was walking on my way to work and, as always, I have my coffee on Flinders Lane in central Melbourne. While waiting for my coffee, a well-meaning Australian came up to me and asked me what my ethnicity was. I had no idea who he was nor did I know what he wanted. Who is he, and why is he so enthusiastic to ascertain my identity–where I come from?

Did I find him racist and condescending? Yes.

Was there a power dynamic inherent to this question? Yes, there was.

On this occasion, I pondered the situation silently, which put the questioner in an awkward position. “Here we go again,” I told myself. Do I answer this, or tell him what I think, that he is just another racist trying to judge people by where they come from or what they look like? If I were to question or argue with him, would my actions be interpreted as reverse racism on my part? I chose to simply walk away rather than answer the question.

I found myself in a similar situation two months later. I was in an elevator with a friend and colleague, a fellow Melbournian who was born in West Papua. A lady entered, looked at us, and, with no hesitation, she straight away asked “Where do you blokes come from?” I replied with “I’m from North Melbourne and my friend’s from Thornbury.” She responded with “No, I mean where you are originally from?” I told her that I found it condescending to be asked where I came from, and she said she was just trying to be nice. Is she?

Then why is she labeling me?

“Where do you come from?” is a common question that some Anglo-Australians use to interrogate the identities of people of colour the moment that they meet them. I am a brown man and have experienced this sort of behavior all my life. This is what I have to put up with every single day and I find it very irritating. Do you realise that the question “where do you come from?” immediately sets in place a structure that excludes people, rejecting them with a form of passive racism?

It does.

The question itself automatically assumes that the person you are demanding this information from could not possibly be from “here.” They must be the “other,” from somewhere else.

I don’t blame the individual: I blame the society which, led by politicians, enables passive racism to be acceptable. In a friendly conversation, let alone a political one, a person of colour–whether they are born in Australia or not–is obliged to automatically go through this process of questioning. It is demeaning and makes you feel that you don’t belong here.

Australia has a way of segregating cultures, looking down on people, giving them labels, putting them in boxes. Day to day this manifests through questions and comments like, “Where are you from?” Not all white Australians fit into this category, of course. Those who are politically conscious or aware will say it is not acceptable. If I were to say that in Australia there is passive racism and uninformed racism everywhere, there would be mass rebuttals; confusion and questions would fly everywhere. One of those questions would inevitably be “If you hate Australia this much, why you are here?” I could easily say the same thing: “Why are you wasting your time here, oppressing people?” But of course I don’t, because I’m neither ignorant nor do I go about not accepting people based on their colour.

In Australia there is a pattern of racism and it pervades all aspects of society: the non-profit sector, the private sector, governments, hospitals, schools, and elsewhere. A perfect example is the treatment of Indigenous peoples as second-class citizens; not to mention the locking up of asylum seekers and refugees who arrive to Australia by boat while there are thousands of backpackers in this country without valid visas. Some call it cold punishment, and it is a dishonourable treatment of people.

One should not forget this land was stolen, and not in the past only; a modern-day indigenous land grab is happening around the country so don’t tell me to stop living in the past.

“Where do you come from?” is a question that you should ask yourself first before you ask others.

Ramesh Fernandez is an ex-detainee and founder of RISE. You can follow him on Twitter at @RameshFernandez.

  • Saturn

    I am half Indian and half English and I have been asked this question far more times than I can remember, especially when I lived in London. Often in London the asker would be non-white themselves. When this is the case you could well think this would have nothing to do with the power structure and they are just trying to connect on common ground. However at least two incidents I can recall suggest differently. On both occasions I was asked this question by people of colour. Sometimes I get so fed up with question, regardless of who is asking, that I just tell them I am not going to say, which I did on these occasions. The responses both times were ‘Why, are you ashamed of your identity?’ I find this extremely racist. Of course there is no power DYNAMIC in play here, because we were all non-white, but at the same time I felt they were perpetuating the system of white supremacy. One, by insisting that I am obliged to divulge my heritage to perfect strangers, and two, because of their own internalised racism, where they had absorbed the idea that it is just not ok to be any kind of European other than fully European, and if you’re not this, there must surely at some level be a sense of shame. Horrible to see POC oppressing other POC Grrr!!!

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  • Dot

    As a brown person, I find the best way to shut down the ‘Where are you from? Like originally?’ question is to pause and then turn it around on the questioner. Asking the (most of the time, white) questioner, ‘Umm where are YOU originally from dude?’ and watch them squirm. If they say, ‘from here of course!’ or America, Australia etc. ask them ‘So that means you’re Native/Indigenous?’ and watch the total awkwardness unfold. If you get them to admit their own immigrant ancestry (etc. Irish/English/German whatever) bonus points. Get a taste of their own nosiness.

    Hopefully that’s the last time they question strangers again.

    • Anonymous

      I think your answer and “my mother’s vagina” are my favorite ever and I’ll have to steal them or tell other people tagged as “foreign” to try them out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cmwan Carol M. Wan

    In the psychology world, being asked “Where are you really from?” is called a microagression and considered a form of racism. Thanks for writing this piece – for the lay and everyday people to see the other perspective. Why do they feel the need to know…why are they so curious…what kind of need is it fulfilling??? A need to dismiss minorities? A need to feel superior? – Yes, racism…

  • Litenarata

    I get asked this question periodically even though I’m white, because I’m half Mexican and have a Spanish first and last name. I guess since my name doesn’t sound “American”, people will sometimes ask where I’m from. Unfortunately, when I choose to share that my father is from Mexico, some of them will follow up with “But you don’t look Mexican”. As if there’s a certain color cut-off point between “Mexican” and “real American”.

    • Mickey

      Next time someone says, “But you don’t look Mexican”, ask them “Well, what the hell is a Mexican supposed to look like?” I bet they’ll never ask that question again.

  • Anonymous

    Approving this, but that second to last paragraph is a long documented falsehood. That “theory” has been around forever. According to Geraldine Heng’s academic paper “The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages”:

    Cultural practices across a range of registers also disclose historical thinking that pronounces decisively on the ethical, ontological, and moral value of black and white. The 13th century encyclopedia of Bartholomeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, offers a theory of climate in which cold lands produce white folk, and hot lands produce black: white being, we are told, a visual marker of inner courage, while the men of Africa, possessing black faces, short bodies, and crisp hair are ‘cowards of heart’ and ‘guileful’.

    Be careful about repeating false information. This is like the evolutionary version of the Willie Lynch letter.

  • niainneon

    I along with my other friends of colour get asked the “Where are you from question” by white people all too often. This question time and time again angers me a lot. To even ask this question already suggests I am not from my home Country (Canada). And then to NOT believe me when I tell them and ask “No, I mean where are you REALLY from?” angers me even more. So now I just don’t answer and also walk away or say “Tell me, cause obviously you know”.
    Maybe it’s not the best response but I am sick and tired of hearing this question or their response “I don’t have a problem with telling you where I am from , why are you so upset?”

  • Yonnie

    I’m an African-American woman. I love to travel internationally. I am interested in different cultures. And I love the sound of most non-American accents. I always wonder to myself “What is this person’s ethnicity?” but b/c of things I’ve read on this site, I do not ask more often than I do ask. The only time I feel comfortable asking is when the person has an accent. Then I say, “I love your accent, where is it from?” Hopefully I’ve never offended anyone. I do not entirely understand why it is offensive. I do understand why it is offensive for a stranger to walk up to you on the street (like in the situation described in this article). And I definitely understand why “What are you,” is offensive. But in a social setting, someone I’ve been interacting with… sometimes I’m just curious to know. I wonder if the person, or their ethnicity, is from a country that I’ve been to… or want to go to. I would assume that it is a little different coming from me than it would be from a non-POC, but most times I just err on the side of caution.

  • http://twitter.com/themiddlespaces Osvaldo Oyola

    For me it is often a result of hearing my name. (white) people will reply by asking, “What is that?” or “What kind of name is that?” or a pointed “Where are you from?”

  • Q

    I’ve found that answering, “from my mother’s vagina,” immediately shocks the questioner, puts a halt to their curiosity, and forces them to stop and ponder if there was something wrong with their question — which there was.

  • I’m from Sydney. Yes really.

    Thank you for this, it really speaks to my own experience. Australians in particular have no idea why this question baffles and offends me, or why I get _really_ offended when I’m told I speak English “so well.” They think I’m oversensitive which makes me think I’m oversensitive.

  • amanda tveidt

    I am often asked the same question. However I try to understand the intent behind it. I live in a rather large tourist oriented city, so sometimes what they really mean is “Are you from Seattle” meaning “Are you a tourist”.

  • evd

    Power dynamic, exactly. The white people who ask you this question usually (not always, some are just ill-mannered and nosy) believe you are required to answer them. I’m a black American, and in my experience, that inquisition most often takes the form of “Where do you live?”, especially if they encounter you someplace where they didn’t expect to see any black folks.

  • Elton

    Where are you really from/what are you is a pretty useless question. What does it even mean? Does it refer to your birthplace? Does it refer to your citizenship? Does it refer to your ancestry?

    Why does it even matter?

    If someone asks me where I’m from, I usually say “Arkansas.” That’s according to my birth certificate.

    If someone asks my nationality, I say “American.” I am a citizen of the United States of America.

    If someone asks my ethnicity, I say “Chinese,” although technically the People’s Republic of China, which had only existed for 10 years when my mother was born there, recognizes 56 Chinese ethnicities. There are also several different places which might be referred to as China, including Taiwan and Hong Kong. At the time that my father was born in Hong Kong, it was a British colony. Does that mean I’m half British? It would explain the name.

    If my parents will forever be Chinese, even though they’ve made their permanent home in the United States for decades and decades, then does that mean what’s on your birth certificate will determine your identity forever? If I move to a different country, will my grandkids be a quarter American? Doesn’t anyone realize there is a logical problem? If you are defined as what your parents were, and your parents are defined as what their parents were, where does it end? Where does it begin?

    Everyone came from somewhere else originally, all the way back to the dawn of humankind. (And where were the first humans “really from”? Africa? Obviously, Africa didn’t exist back then. Well, the land did, but land is just dirt and rocks that only have a location in relation to human concepts like the North and South poles. We’re whizzing through the universe at millions of miles an hour, if you take relativity into account.)

    If you’re an American and trace your ancestry back to the country now known as Ireland, well, where did your ancestors come from before they moved to Ireland? Surely you don’t believe that Irish people just came out of the soil. Before they were Irish, where were they “really from”? How did your family change from being “really from” where they were before they travelled to Ireland to being “really from” Ireland? At what point did they stop being Irish and become “really from” the United States? What will happen in the distant future when our current political states no longer exist? When the current continents no longer exist? Where will your descendants say they’re “really from”?

  • http://twitter.com/mixxie143 Maxine

    I have an interesting experience with this question–I am a white-skinned Native Hawaiian (along with a bunch of other ethnicities), and as such I get that question all the time when I’m home in Hawaii, but never when I spent 6 years in New York going to school. This has put me in an interesting position on the mainland–I identified much more strongly with POC, yet received (occasionally blatant) white privilege due to the color of my skin. At home, I feel more othered for my white skin, but also more comfortable in a society which recognizes that I can be visually different from most of my peers, but still a legitimate member of the community.

    • Kari

      Wow I can totally relate! I’m a white skinned Native and grew up in NA communities so I strongly identify as a POC but then again I do and recognize I have white privilege.

  • BlitheAcrimony

    Ugh. My dad does this all the time, especially cab drivers. When my mother or I try to call him out on it, he argues that he’s just being friendly and that people like it when others take an interest in them.

    • Litenarata

      I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Some people really DO like it when you ask where they are from and you show a sincere interest in hearing their story. Like someone mentioned in a comment above, it’s often just a matter of assessing their motive in asking.

  • Dmitri DB

    I’m a half chilean, half norweigian canadian who has people ask me this question (Usually when they see my name, which is Russian). If I detect a hint of condescension in their voice, though, I will start saying things like I’m half greek half black just to throw their superficial way of seeing things so far off kilter that when they cataclysmically realize how dumb/shallow they are when someones all ‘dude hes definitely not from mongolia’ – Joke is on them!

    • Kate S.

      Heh, I usually say I am from *insert random imaginary country. Unfortunately enough, people have no idea about the rest of the world, it’s just “not west” so they know the same amount of info about Wacanda and Latveria than they know about real countries.

      • Elton

        Nice Marvel references.

        “Me? I’m from downtown Doomstadt.”

  • BeesNi

    A good friend of mine (from Houston, TX, USA) has spent most of his life dodging the question, “What are you?” When he was a child, this question was considerably damaging to his sense of self-worth. It amazes me that people can say something so dehumanizing and think they are just being “friendly.”

  • Jay

    An Asian-American friend of mine experiences this all the time where he currently lives, in Texas. It’s the same pattern. They ask where he’s from, which could be a valid question if they’re hearing him speak, because he doesn’t have a Texan accent, but it is never about that. He answers “San Diego, California”, and they say, “But where are you ORIGINALLY from?” or sometimes “Where are your parents from?” (to which he answers that they also grew up in California). Obviously the answer they are looking for is that he’s Japanese.

    Sometimes he tries to turn it around by saying “I’m from San Diego, where are you from?” as though he doesn’t understand the real implication behind the question. Sometimes that shuts them up.