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 come 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.
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