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?
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.