A recent ABC article posed the question, why are we still asking people where they come from?

Australia is a multicultural nation, home to the world’s oldest continuous cultures as well as Australians who identify with over 270 ancestries[1]. Over 7 million people have migrated to Australia since the end of World War 2, with the vast majority of Australians (84%) viewing multiculturalism as a good thing. And most migrants say that they feel a real sense of belonging to Australia, which gets stronger over time. This all sounds positive then, but the article raises the question of whether it’s appropriate to ask people where they’re from, particularly when they were born in Australia and identify as Australian.

The subject of the ABC article, Amishah – though proud of her heritage of being a woman of colour and how it defines her – wants people to realise what they are implying and how it feels when they ask the question “where are you from”.

“When I get asked where I’m from, it makes me feel different — and not different in a good way. It makes me feel like they just want me to tell them I’m not from here, that I’m not normal.”

She points out that rather than coming from a place of genuine curiosity about her heritage and cultural ancestry, asking her ‘where she’s from’ is actually a way of asking why she looks the way she does and is a way of ‘othering’ her. This sense of being “other” is backed up by the 2016 census which showed that while Australia is a “fast-changing, culturally diverse nation”, it also confirmed that white ancestries were still the most common. As Amishah puts it, “If you’re not white, you attract attention”.

For Dr Donna Starks, La Trobe University associate professor of language in education, Amishah’s interpretation of the question is a familiar one, with many associating it with appearance, or a focus on a past – less multicultural – Australia. Others see context as important in being able to work out how best to answer the question, as there are so many different ways to answer it: should you answer with where you live, where your parents are from, where you were born?

So, how do we move this conversation on? According to Dr Jessica Walton, a senior research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, it’s key that people of colours’ stories continue to be told. She believes that structural and systemic reform that challenges the idea that whiteness is the norm, is how real change will be achieved.

As Dr Walton says, “Indigenous people have been here for tens of thousands of years. People of colour have been here for many years”, and their stories need to be heard.

[1] Australian Human Rights Commission

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