“Where are you from?”

July 21, 2011 § 9 Comments

In response to your question: “Where are you from?”

Why do you ask?

Is it your curiosity in the ‘origin of my features’?
Is it your fascination for ‘other’ cultures and what they have to offer you?

Why do you desire an exact definition of my difference?
Why do you assume I desire, and am able, to define this difference to you?

Do you show the same interest in determining the ‘ethnic make-up’ of every white face that you see?
Isn’t everyone from somewhere?
Don’t you have a heritage?
Why does whiteness make yours invisible yet my brownness make mine subject to your anthropological investigation?

Do you believe that I should be delighted to personally inform and educate you?
Do you think it is my responsibility to know, and always be ready to impart, the details of my cultural heritage?
Do you apply these same standards to yourself?

Why do you assume that I’d love to reminisce about what my family, or I, left to come here?
Didn’t it cross your mind that we may have left for good reasons that I do not wish to reminisce about, especially with a stranger?

Do you believe your curiosity is commendable?
Do you think I should be grateful for your ‘tolerance’ and interest in ‘diversity’?

Do you believe this is YOUR country to welcome me to?

While brownness prompts
“Where are you from?”
Your whiteness prompts
“What do you do?”
You wish to define me by my physicality but you expect to be defined by your actions and your intellect.

Have you travelled the world and been asked the same question?
It isn’t the same experience in a place where you had expected to be treated as a visitor.
Perhaps your whiteness provided a fascination, but wasn’t it also exalted?
Weren’t you still treated like a speaker at a podium?
Or don’t you see this because you are so used to being heard from that position?

Don’t you realise that in expecting to discuss my brownness as subject of your fascination you position me as an exotic curio on a pedestal?

Do you think I wish to be a talking doll, spilling my secrets each time yet another curious child pulls my cord demanding that I politely answer your question?


I performed the above piece at the RISE 40Hands book launch and poetry slam on the weekend. The publication features poems, mostly by detainees and ex-detainees, with additional contributions by people from POC migrant backgrounds, such as myself. I was lucky to participate in the series of RISE poetry workshops hosted by Pataphysics. Pata and many of the workshop participants performed on the night, as well as the always amazing Candy Bowers, the cutting Kojo, and the witty and charming Marissa Johnpillai, visiting from Aotearoa.

My poem is addressed to white people, like most of my poetry, but it’s not for them. Judging from the laughter it received from many people of colour in the audience (POCS made up the majority of attendees), the people I had hoped would get it, really got it. I did see some uncomfortable white people and this was unfortunately acknowledged by the MC, Victor Victor, after I left the stage, when he apologised if anyone was offended, because that wasn’t ‘our’ intention as it was a night about ‘positivity’. Ramesh, CEO and co-founder of RISE, did ask him to take back the apology, which he did the next time he was on stage. Is there any person, especially any white person, who couldn’t do with being challenged on their less obvious (to them) racisms? And how, and why, should I do that without making some people uncomfortable? Especially considering, as a person of colour living in a white-centric world, I’m always adapting to ‘uncomfortable’ circumstances.

I want to print the poem as a handbill, a kind of none-of-your-business card, to give out every time I get asked this question, à la Adrian Piper. I’d like to just walk away without having to verbally explain each time why that question is so loaded and why I am so reluctant to indulge the curiousity of the questioner.

I’d been having relevant correspondence with Wai Ho, who is part of  Mellow Yellow blog, among other things. I sent them the poem and their email response ponders where that question comes from…

White people, especially in colonial settler societies, ask that question because it’s like closet homos that bully queers. Colonial settler society imbibes amnesia, because they would like to forget that they did indeed “come from” somewhere not so long ago, and that their “coming” was an invasion (which is why they get so touchy with Asian invasion). Also the shame/guilt they feel from leaving UK/Europe makes them extra touchy about things… They actively forget their shameful colonial histories, which is why they like to think they have no culture, because they’ve cut off their ethnic cultural limbs along with their colonial imperial invader hands.

White Australia makes such a big deal about ‘letting’ certain people into this country, actively forgetting this is not their country either.

RISE is a not-for-profit organisation founded and run by ex-detainees for refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees, making a rare, empowering structural choice of striving to function with little involvement by white ‘benevolence’ (which always enacts a power dynamic). Government policies and ‘Go back to where you came from’ attitudes are the obvious racisms that do-gooder white people love to point their fingers at, but institutional racism affects and infects us all. Finger pointing white people who wish to claim they are ‘not racist’ need to question their place in a system that places whiteness in the magnanimous ‘helping hand’ position and Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of colour as the should-be-grateful recipients of ‘tolerance’ and charity.

White people need to ask themselves why they expect gratitude for ‘giving’ access to the benefits of a country that white people stole and now most assume as their own. I don’t hear do-gooder white people who mostly call themselves ‘Australian’ even use the qualifier of ‘non-Indigenous Australian’ (though the term ‘Indigenous’ is also a white construct).

White Australia may forever be defining people who have come here because of circumstances they would probably rather not remember, as ‘refugees’. White people wish to forever remind people of their experiences of trauma, escape, re-location, and detention because it reminds themselves of their own ‘generosity’ in allowing people who ‘needed them’ to let them into ‘their’ country.

White people need to question their very curiousity in ‘other cultures’, because it’s a white-centric viewpoint that places people of colour as curious, unknown ‘other’ waiting to be ‘discovered’ by them, and the ways of whiteness as expected knowledge. No gratitude should be expected for this dehumanising other-ing of people of colour that comes with the normalization of whiteness.

White people recognise only the symptoms of systemic racism that register to their own perspective; physical violence, government policies, verbal intolerance and abuse, ‘obvious’ exclusion and discrimination; but there are other often indescribable power dynamics that I register in my daily lived experience which white people do not recognise, especially in their own behaviour. A white person may ask “Where are you from?” with ‘good intentions’, but ‘good intentions’ have always attempted to justify the oppression of people of colour. I recognise their invasive and other-ing curiousity in ‘different’ physicality as yet another symptom of a white supremacy in which I am made aware of my position within, and am expected to tolerate, every day.


Where Am I?

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