“But where are you really from?”– I have been thinking about this question a lot lately.
If there was an algorithm that could reveal an individual’s most frequently asked question, mine would easily be “Where are you from?” or some variation. After a recent encounter that was particularly frustrating and unsettling, I realised just how regular this occurrence was for me, and presumably for numerous others who do not fit into the ‘whiteness’ that currently forms the core of the Australian national ideal.
Replying with “I am Australian”, only invites the following question “But where are you really from?”.
Replying with, “I am Australian”, only invites the following question “But where are you really from?”. If I ever stray from the default reaction of gritting my teeth, taking a deep breath and politely breaking down my biological makeup, I am immediately criticised for being defensive and overly sensitive. As a teenager, this question would leave me relatively unscathed. But the more I am asked, and the more aware I become of what the underlying motivation is behind this interaction, the less I am willing to serve their demands.
Sitting at my usual sunny spot at a local café, headphones in, and typing frantically, a middle-aged white male walks towards me, pulls out the chair across from me and takes a seat.
“Excuse me…I’ve been watching you for the last week or so. Is this your regular spot as well?”
Hesitating before removing my headphones, he repeats the question.
“Yeah, I’m a freelance writer and this is my office at the moment,” I respond.
“Right…right…well, I am an anthropologist and I must ask, where are you from originally? I’ve thought about the endless possibilities and just need some confirmation”
I take a shallow breath and consciously tell myself not to flare my nostrils, “Australia.”
He nods, and his stare becomes increasingly impatient.
“Yes, yes of course…but you’ve got Anglo in you?”
I tilt my head, and answer abruptly, “Yep”, realising now that he won’t return to his table without the answer he seeks.
“But that’s not all, surely. Where is your family from? I’m really having trouble to pin it down. I must know!”
I am still in shock that a complete stranger has actively entered my space, sat opposite me without question, invitation, or consent, and clearly not reading my signals and demanding an answer to my FAQ.
Realising now that he won’t leave until I satisfy his craving for a racial pie-chart I rattle off the answers he is after... Aboriginal, Malay ... Scottish, English, Swedish, Tahitian, Cuban.
Then comes the next bit that is nauseatingly predictable; the widening of the eyes, the slight drop of the jaw, the raised eyebrows. All too familiar with this response, I resist being framed as an exhibit at the British Museum, the subject of a staged colonial photograph.
“Fascinating, that is truly fantastic. I would never have guessed! And have you ever considered getting a DNA test? Do you know how much Aboriginal you have in you?”
Shaking my head in absolute amazement that this man can manage to find an increasingly offensive question each time, I make eye contact with one of the staff who has been observing from afar.
“Sir, we’ve got a table for you, if you’d like to follow me this way.”
While this incident may seem like an extreme account, by large it is the same question. It's the same intrigue and the same disbelief that comes with my FAQ, "Where are you really from?”.
So let's break this down, for some validation, right?
In assuming that I’ve got Anglo in me, you question my authenticity as an Aboriginal woman. In asking for the rest of my biological makeup, you are questioning me, my background, my identity, in the same way that the assimilation policy wanted to compartmentalise. And in the instance at the cafe, asserting yourself as an anthropologist, treats me like I am a modern day subject for one of your studies. What exactly did this so-called ‘anthropologist’ want from our interaction – simplicity, certainty, satisfaction in a direct encounter with an ‘exotic other’.
The FAQ, whether intended or not, will always have its roots deeply embedded in the white, naturalised self who occupies the discursive position of power. The power to ask the question, inspect, control and assess. The power to define and validate a person’s identity solely on blood content and science is harking back to an imperial age, only proving how far we have to go.
The whole concept of authenticity stems from the racial purity theories that continue to dictate. To be ‘othered’ as an Aboriginal woman in Australia takes it to another level. Much more than the interaction, the behavioural gestures of intrigue and disbelief, you are not only questioning me of my identity. You are questioning my family, my elders, my ancestors, of their identity, black and white. Asking for this sort of validation is bringing colonial notions of the blood quantum directly into a contemporary interaction.
After this interaction, and the countless others with complete strangers asking my FAQ, the more it appears as a contemporary manifestation of the colonial imagery that fetishised and exoticised Indigenous peoples.
If not to emphasise difference, why is this question continuously aimed at people outside of what is seen as the Australian national ideal?
Whiteness forms the core of the Australian national ideal, making everything ‘other’ than this ideal, excluded and posited as ‘un-Australian’. If not to emphasise difference, why is this question continuously aimed at people outside of what is seen as the Australian national ideal? In asking a person where they are from, you are immediately ‘othering’ that individual and implying that they are less Australian than those who have not been selected to answer this question, intentional or unintentional.
Perhaps some are sincerely interested in knowing a person’s background without any further intention. Regardless of the intention, this is not a matter of being politically correct or sensitive. It is about acknowledging that race is not about biology, it is a social construct. It is about acknowledging where the deep seeded history of this question is coming from and that when you open a conversation with ‘where are you from?’ you are perpetuating the continuing transaction of power, privilege and othering.
Georgia Mokak is Djugun and a member of Yawuru. She writes about art, education and identity.