After work one day, I sat at a bar in the Sydney suburb I’ve lived in for years. It’s a “nice” neighbourhood. Not necessarily exclusively upper class but it does remind me of the Hamptons in New York. It’s very pretty, near the water and there are a lot of mansions and rich people walking around in loafers and sweaters tied around their necks.
In this bar, I was doing my best to be left alone as I listened to music, ate and drank a beer. Normally, the fact that I had headphones on would indicate that I didn’t feel like talking, but the middle aged white man sitting next to me at the bar did not take the hint. He was in the mood for a conversation. A very serious conversation, as it happened, about our relationship with technology and how we’re all helplessly tethered to our phones. Why don’t we read newspapers anymore, he wanted to know. What ever happened to books?
I could have worked harder to stop the conversation. But I could listen to music and read anytime - this was a chance to make a connection with my fellow man. With a neighbour. For whatever reason, I wanted him to feel heard. Like what he had to say was important. Maybe he didn’t have friends and family that would listen to this kind of ranting. Maybe all he heard at home was “Shut up, grandpa” or “Why don’t you take your dinner in the garage, you old gas bag?”
After trying to assure him that I still read newspapers and books digitally and that I appreciated his concerns about device dependence, I finished up and prepared to leave. He did not like that.
“I guess we’re done with our conversation,” he said.
“Yes, well, it’s been interesting, but I have to go home,” I said.
“Where’s that?” he said. “Bangladesh?”
And there it was.
You see, even though I had just given up 45 minutes of my life to listen to this guy lecture me about how bad technology is, I was not white. So I couldn’t live in the area. I lived somewhere brown people were from, even though he had just heard me speaking in my distinctly American accent.
Immediately, my blood started to boil... I had been perfectly polite to this crank and yet he still felt the need to feel superior to me - and the best way he knew how to do that was to make me feel foreign. I wanted to tell him a lot of horrible things about himself and how he confirmed a lot of my feelings about this neighbourhood. But, as often happens in situations like this, I didn’t.
I smiled politely and said, “No. I live around the corner.”
Then I paid and left and spent the rest of the night thinking about all the things I wished I had said to him.
This, I believe, is what the kids call a microaggression (the term is from the 70s, so it's not actually a product of "political correctness gone mad"). It’s a minor little racial joke that seems harmless on the face of it, but it can, at least, ruin your day, and, at most, contribute to the feeling that you, non-white person, do not belong. You are not normal and you are not welcome.
It’s infuriating and dehumanising and it’s the kind of thing a lot of people of colour hear all the time, like “Where are you really from?”. (Incidentally, this phrase is so common it was used as the title of an SBS series, which introduces us to communities filled with people that don’t “look Australian”, but have actually been here for generations. It’s streaming now at SBS On Demand.)
But what are other examples of things people of colour in Australia hear regularly?
To find out, I asked an online group of non-white Australians what sort of questions or comments they encountered. The response was overwhelming. From ethnic sexual fetishisation to "compliments" on English-speaking to being treated as less intelligent and just incapable of knowing things, it became clear that there is a very long list of things non-white Australians have gotten used to hearing.
Here are some of the most common…
“Where are you really from?”
Usually directed at a person of colour who’s indicated that he or she is from Australia, this is very common. The message? If you’re not white, there’s no way you could be Australian.
Most people seem to agree that this isn’t cool, but they are divided over intent. Some think that a genuinely curious, two way conversation should be allowed to arise out of a question like “Where are you from?” or “What’s your background?” But others think the question, especially when posed by a white person, is completely unacceptable because white people are never asked.
It’s clearly complicated and situation-dependent, but I think the question (without the patronising “really”) can be a genial conversation starter. But even when it comes from a well-meaning place, it can be tiring to be repeatedly treated like an anthropological curiosity…
Follow up comment:
“I had to ask where you were from because you don’t look Australian.”
“You speak English so well.”
This was very popular among the respondents. Despite a variety of academic pedigree, this is usually delivered with strong, condescending “good for you…” vibes. Like a lot of this stuff, it’s not a slur or an out and out racist attack, but it's still demeaning.
"But you're not like the others"
Another classic. In the “You’re one of the good ones” family.
“You must be used to this heat.”
The idea that a person has heritage originating in another country is truly wild for some people. They just can’t fathom it - to the point that they imagine that there might be superpowers that come along with being even mildly associated with that country.
“You must've developed so many antibodies where you come from.”
“You’re the hottest ['ethnic'] person I’ve ever met.”
Translation: “People who are not white are usually not attractive. But you have somehow bucked that trend.”
“Are you a refugee?”
Delivered with a genuine concern or kindness, this one came from someone discovering that the person is from a country that has been experiencing unrest. But it reflected a minimal understanding of what was going on in that country.
“Are you Chinese?”
“My wife is from China.”
“You live in the city, so you’re not a real Aborigine.”
For the Aboriginal respondents to my callout, the “things they hear” were more menacing and actually dangerous...
From police: "You fit the description."
While waiting for a bus: "What are you doing there?"
While walking to school in school uniform: “Where are you going?"
At home, tending to the garden: “Do you live here?".
And, just for good measure, some Indigenous Australians are apparently very familiar with the “Where are you from?” question. Some have even been told to “go back to where they came from”.
"Are you an exchange student?"
“I love [insert 'ethnic' food]!”
First of all, we all need to stop saying "ethnic food" as a catch all term for "food that comes from a non-white country". In fact, we should probably stop using "ethnic" all together. It's otherising and dumb, especially when used to describe people.
As for professing love for a food, it does seem like a perfectly nice thing to say. You just found out that I’m Lebanese and you like Lebanese food? Great! It’s probably better than saying you hate Lebanese food. And it kind of seems like you’re trying to find something in common. But it’s also reductive, treating someone as a representative of their culture. Korean people might like Korean food, but they also probably like a lot of other kinds of food too - just like anyone else.
In fact, some people might have a minimal connection to the culture that’s being lauded. Some “ethnics” (see how uncomfortable that sounds?) have been in this country for multiple generations, so their connection to that culture may vary. Their first language is probably English and they’ve grown up knowing only Australia. Learning a language and a culture takes effort and time - and maybe these people have other interests.
This enthusiasm to relate on a cultural level can also lead to a "I know more about your culture than you do" area, which is bad news for all concerned.
“I love [insert other cultural phenomenon like yoga, karate, mariachis, etc.]!”
“I had such a wonderful time in [that particular country].”
“You have really liberal views for an Asian girl.”
“You may be Indian, but I know more about India than you.”
Or, as one respondent put it: “White people who crow that they’re better at Mandarin than (some) Chinese people are the f---ing worst.”
“What happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?!”
“Oh, you don’t look Cambodian.”
This was a big one. A lot of surprise at finding out that someone was from somewhere and apparently didn’t look like it.
Follow up comments based on appearance included…
“I have a friend from that country and they don’t look like you.”
"Oh I just knew you were Indian because of your nose.”
“Wait! Don’t tell me [where you’re really from]! I want to guess!”
"You aren't Asian! Asians are yellow!"
“I think multiculturalism / immigration is just great.”
Thank you. And you're welcome.
“Do you go back often [to that place you’ve never lived]?”
"Can I touch your hair?"
A few others:
"Do you know any black guys you could hook me up with?"
"I love black men/women."
"I don't see colour."
"Aboriginal people look less evolved."
"You're not black, you're American."
“We’re all human.”
The people who responded to my callout also touched on a trend of white people getting defensive or trying to derail or defuse conversations about racism by using expressions like the above or this one:
“I don't care whether they're black, white, yellow, purple…”
Sounds like all those purple people have nothing to worry about then...
“Mmm, you’re exotic.”
"I've never f---ed a brown/black/colour variation chick before."
"I love darker women."
"So, can you be my very own Thai masseuse?"
“Slightly ethnic people are so hot”
"Oh you are dating a white Australian? Oh my god your kids will be so hot!"
The "What the F--- Are You Talking About? F--- Off" Section
Some of the things people told me they heard were very specific and strange, so I thought they merited their own section!
"Your culture must be so oppressive. You must find it really liberating to live here."
"I've heard that immigrants get a mansion and a job upon arrival, is that true?"
“Girls that have your skin colour don’t get work” - modelling agent
“Nobody can tell how old you Indian girls are. If you were our girlfriend, we’d just tell everyone you’re in your twenties.”
“So your parents will probably be getting you an arranged marriage huh?”
"You're from India? I went to India once ten years ago. I stopped in Mumbai airport for 4 hours on my way through to London. It was terrible. So hot and smelly. I don't know how you can live like that. And all the poverty."
"It must have been so hard for your husband to marry into your family. Did they hate him because he's white?"
"I am so jealous of your skin colour - you can wear anything!"
“Oh how do you know about Bob Dylan?"
“You’re Palestinian. Do you like throwing stones?”
"So how do you pronounce your name? Can I call you [shortened version]? No? Well, that’s unAustralian and you’re a bitch.”
The "Well This Is Just Racist" Section
And, of course, some of the things people told me were obvious attacks fueled by racism - so they get their own section too!
“The thing I hate about Indians is the saving face.”
I don’t even know what this means, but if a statement starts with “The thing I hate about Indians”, odds are we're getting into controversial territory.
“We built your railroads.”
Again, I don’t understand, but I suppose a thank you is in order.
“Which boat did you come on?”
And sometimes the xenophobia just gets put out there, politicised and aggressive...
Just like these:
"Why do you feel you can come here and take our jobs?"
"You should be grateful that you're allowed in this country at all."
“You haven’t assimilated well.”
And, in case the hint has not been taken, there's the direct approach...
“Do you eat dog?”
“You’re really loud for an Asian girl. Most of them are really quiet.”
“Chinese people are savages.”
“Chinese people are rude.”
“I’d hate to be Indian right now.”
Have a great day.
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The 4-part documentary series 'Where Are You Really From?' premieres Wednesday, 19 June at 8pm on SBS