This is a question I routinely get from people I meet. When I say I’m from Melbourne (the city where I’ve lived most of my life), I get scoffed at and badgered: ‘No – where are you really from?’ People ask this question because I’m not White and I’m presumed to be not-Australian. Yes I was born in South America – but I have lived here for 24 years, since I was a child, and this is my home. I’ve devoted much of my adult life to researching and fighting this form of everyday racism. Almost everyday of my life, any time I meet new people. This has always made me feel as if my status as an Australian is continually being judged and categorised by people who feel they have more of a right to call themselves Australian because they are White and not obviously of migrant background. In a multicultural country in the year 2011 – this is astounding.
The above anonymous entry to Microaggressions.com is actually mine, from six years ago. I’ve lived in four cities since this submission. I still get this question routinely in all sorts of contexts, from professional meetings to social settings; whether I visit an art gallery, or if I’m a guest at a function.
Racial microaggressions are the brief and subtle daily insults that denigrate people of colour. This term was first conceptualised in 1977 by Chester Pierce and colleagues in a study of racism in television commercials.
“These are the subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’ of Blacks by offenders. The offensive mechanisms used against Blacks often are innocuous. The cumulative weight of their never-ending burden is the major ingredient in Black-White interactions.”
Microaggression is a term that Dr Derald Wing Sue and colleagues reinvigorated in 2007, to describe racist dynamics between White therapists and their clients who are people of colour. They note that microaggressions occur because White people lack awareness of how race affects their biases, stereotypes, behaviour and attitudes, and also because they lack an understanding of the experiences of people of colour.
Microaggressions can be delivered as an insult or an appeal for validation about White person’s beliefs. These may be verbal signs (words or tone) or physical cues (snubs, or dismissive looks, gestures). Racial microaggressions can also build up not by targeting a specific individual but through atmosphere, such as a hostile workplace, where a minority woman is excluded from social events.
Types of microaggressions
There are three types of microaggressions that can happen automatically or without the White person being aware of the origins and consequences of their racism.
- Microassault: purposeful discriminatory comments, such as racial epithets that are intended to demean.
- Microinsult: rude or insensitive comments that racial minorities hear frequently. This can be insinuations that minorities are only hired through affirmative action programs and that this makes them less worthy. Another example is a teacher who fails to pay attention to students of colour, sending a message that their contributions are less valued.
- Microinvalidation: comments that negate or nullify people of colour’s experiences of racism. This can be delivered as a masked “compliment” (“you speak good English!”), or as “well-meaning” push-back (“I don’t see colour/ we’re all just human beings”), or as a rebuke for pointing out racism (“don’t be so sensitive!”). Another example is the question, “Where are you from?,” which is a reminder that people of colour are seen as “perpetual foreigners.”
“Where are you from” is a question that migrant people of colour will be asked many times over their lives, which is a reminder that they are considered “Other,” or “different” to the majority group.
I have many ways of responding to the question “Where are you from?” which depends on my mood. It always annoys me. My culture is important and I love to share it with people when I start getting to know them. Yet when it’s the first thing people ask me, it’s a sign that they are cataloguing my race as “not Australian,” based on what I look like. This has the effect of them erasing my Australian identity and denigrating my Peruvian/Latin identities—as you’ll see below.
Sometimes I still answer “Melbourne,” because I’m a relative stranger in the city I’m currently in (Sydney), having lived here just shy of a year. I’m dreadfully homesick so missing Melbourne is often on my mind.
Clearly, that’s not the answer White people want to hear when they ask this question. Microaggressions expose dynamics of racism.
Experiences of everyday racism
Racism can be defined at three levels. First, racism can be defined at the individual level, and this refers to the way individual people express racist ideals. Second, racism can be defined at the institutional level, focusing on the institutional processes that systematically discriminate against racial categories. Third, Professor Philomena Essed identified everyday racism, a concept that is critical of the individual and institutional theories on racism and the distinctions between them. Everyday racism examines individuals’ lived experiences and knowledge of racism, and it connects routine situations to structural forces.
Beyond being a microaggression, “where are you from?” is an example of everyday racism, because it illustrates how structural factors inform interactions between individuals, even if they are not aware of this connection.
When I say I’m Peruvian-Australian or Latin-Australian, nine times out of ten, I get a belligerent answer:
- “Oooh, exotic!”
- “So colourful!”
- “Passionate people!”
- “Oh I went to Machu Pichu once! So beautiful. But so poor!”
- “Where’s that?”
People in Australia know little about Latin American cultures. If they do know something vaguely, it is mostly negative stereotypes. I’ve had people make jokes about me being able to get them drugs, or if I know someone in jail.
I am also treated to sexual racism. A couple of senior White men in professional contexts have launched into a reverie about all the women they slept with whilst backpacking through Latin America in their youth. When I was in my mid-20s and embedded with a client agency doing policy research, a very senior diplomat, aged in his 50s at the time, said to me while I was in his office for a meeting, with the door closed:
“Oh! Latin America – oh, I met loooots of women who were, you know, up for a good time in our tents! They were so [laughs] easy and fun and grateful! They loved us. [Laughs]”
White women will do a more muted, but similarly sexually coded response. “Oh, you’re from Latin America! I once dated a Latin man,” they tell me, as if it’s a life achievement. Learning my ethnicity is not an invitation to remind me that I’m considered a sexual “Other” in modern-day Australia. The average White woman will never remark to another White woman that they’ve dated a White man. It’s considered unremarkable and definitely inappropriate when you’re first introduced to divulge one’s romantic or sexual history. White women also understand it’s never okay sexualise another White woman, but they refrain from paying the same respect to women of colour. This serves to reinforce other forms of racism I experience as a Latin woman.
One of the most memorable responses is from an old friend (long since removed from my life). We met through work. I was 21 at the time, she was around 19. She’d been to a private school her entire life and was at a Group of Eight university (one of the eight most prestigious institutions) studying literature and feminism. She’d never had any friends who were people of colour. After knowing me for a year casually through work, we started hanging out with mutual friends. I was at her house when she asked me, “Where are you from?” out of the blue. I said, “Peru, Latin America.” She repeated:
Peru, Latin America. Is that in Spain?
No. An entire continent you don’t know about is not inside an European country you have heard about.
Sometimes I get the variation question, “Where is your name from?” The answer is: “My first name has Arabic and ‘Persian’ origins. My last name is Spanish.” So then they repeat, “Ohhh! Arabic-Persian-Spanish.” That means they’ve presumed my name is a stand-in for my ethnicity. It is not.
Regardless of how it’s asked, it is almost exclusively a microaggression because the question presumes I don’t belong. It is the twin side to another phrase I grew up hearing, and still receive as online abuse for my anti-racism research: “Go back to where you came from.”
This past week, a White supremacist male commentator, Rowan Dean, said on national TV that Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, DrTim Soutphommasane, should “hop on a plane and go back to Laos” (Soutphommasane was born in France and raised in Australia). Another White supremacist woman, Prue MacSween, went on national radio to celebrate engineer Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s announcement that she was leaving the country. Ridiculing Abdel-Magied’s safety fears (despite months of racist harassment), MacSween said she would like to run Abdel-Magied over. “Go back to where you came from” is a threat demonstrating the White supremacist mentality to control the nation’s population. Much like “where are you from?,” both phrases operate through racism, whether people understand this or not.
My research illustrates that the question “Where are you from?” reinforces more “overt” forms of discrimination that Latin women experience daily in Australia. My follow-up research showed that the question functions as a way to police race and ethnicity in Australia. Women were asked this question, even if they are Australia-born:
[Ien] Ang argued that the ‘apparently innocent’ question of ‘where are you from?’ may not be intended to be racist, but the ubiquity of this question in everyday social interaction positions ethnically and racially marked Australians as ‘other’ (Ang,1996: 43).
In a previous study, I found that the question ‘where are you from?’ entrenched my participants’ feeling of social exclusion from Australian identity. People assumed the women I interviewed were not Australian when they asked this question, and in reaction the women would say, ‘Well I’m not going to think of myself as Australian’ (Zevallos 2003: 89). […]
The question ‘where are you from?’ may not be racially motivated from the point of view of social actors who ask and respond to this question, but it nevertheless offers a challenging example of everyday racism. I have argued elsewhere that this question acts as a ‘double edged sword’ in light of multiculturalism because it promotes understanding and mutual respect between different cultures, but it also reaffirms racist constructions of national identity because it ‘reinforces that “being Australian” continues to be read as a physical ascription’ (Zevallos 2003: 94-95).
Everyday racism makes visible the ways in which racist ideas are socially reproduced in taken-for-granted ways through familiar everyday situations.
Is asking “where are you from?” ever okay?
My research indicates that, for some young migrant-background women, it can depend on who is asking and how it is asked. They don’t mind this question from other migrant-background people because it can be a source of bonding. In some cases, if it is asked respectfully, they may accept the question from White Australians—but, more generally, the question is an irritant affirmation that they are not being “seen” as Australian.
Then again, Dr Sue and colleagues point out that microaggressions depend on the “invisibility” of this type of racism. Most people think racism is “bad” forms of discrimination, like Nazi Germany or the KKK in the USA or One Nation in Australia. They don’t see that many small acts, words and attitudes reflect a system of structural and historical racism. They also think that because they get away with this behaviour in front of some minorities (“my wife is Asian and she thinks it’s funny!”) they should be allowed to speak or behave in whatever way they deem is “not racist.”
The power of racial microaggressions lies in their invisibility…
Most White people believe they are moral and decent. They understand that racism is “bad” and they are unwilling to accept they possess racial biases or that their behaviour may be discriminatory. Yet racism does not require conscious intent. Being a “good” or “bad” person is not the point; racism is embedded into socialisation and in systemic patterns in society. White people are heavily invested in explaining away racism. Racist microaggressions are diminished as if they are just a “joke” or an “unintended” comment (“I didn’t mean it like that!).
Looking to the academic literature, the question is problematic at its core. White people who ask this question presume that:
- they are arbitrators of race, as they only ask this of people whom they think are not Australian (that is, people of colour);
- they have a right to police other people’s backgrounds because they are White;
- race is something “other” people have, but they do not. Whiteness is something they don’t see in themselves. So their race is the taken-for-granted norm, and other races are deviations that need to be catalogued and registered into the “not Australian” bucket.
White people get flustered when this question is put on them. They might laugh incredulously if they are asked “Where are you from?” Or they will not hesitate to state the Australian town where they were grew up; an answer they would not accept of a person of colour. Some White people may say, “I’m sixth generation Australian,” or some variation of, “I’m one-quarter Irish, one-quarter German, and 50% Australian.” Even if they itemise their migrant ancestry, their Australian identity is not erased by their heritage. Their racial claim to being Australian remains undisturbed, because being White is positioned as the key way to claim cultural belonging to the nation.
As participants in my studies have pointed out, the only people with rightful claim to say they are “from” this land are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Yet White people also subject Indigenous people to institutional and everyday racism. White people have cultural amnesia about how national identity was founded (genocide, dispossession, slavery) and how White dominance is maintained (racist policies and other forms of institutional racism).
Migrant people of colour may have a strong or weak connection to their ethnic background. White Australians don’t care either way. They just want to categorise Others as “not Australian,” even if they are not cognisant about their motives and biases when doing so.
Even if ethnicity does meaningfully inform the identities of migrant-Australians, as is the case for me, decades of these interactions have taught me that a White person who asks “where are you from?” is unlikely to respect my answer and my culture.
I love talking about what being Peruvian-Australian means to me, but, like other aspects of my identity, I don’t particularly want to explain personal aspects of my life in my first interaction with other people. Again; White people would expect the same privacy about their identities and lives when they are introduced.
Still feel a need to ask this question?
Ask yourself why and what stereotypes and prejudices you are likely harbouring. Also consider that the person you’re speaking to probably hears this question dozens of times a year, with ridiculous follow-up badgering (”Where are you really from?”) and that they also field racist overtures following this question (stereotypes and sexual racism). Remember that the microaggression of “where are you from?” goes on top of receiving racist slurs, discrimination at work, as well as other forms of structural inequality (like sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, depending on their other minority statuses).
Respecting other cultures is important in a multicultural country like Australia; but respect goes both ways. White people do not have a monopoly on being Australian. Save the question for when you’re getting to know someone after you’ve built up mutual trust. Be prepared to really listen and accept the answer you’re given, including a refusal to answer the question in a way that makes you feel clever or comfortable, or perhaps you will receive no answer at all. People’s identities are personal. People of colour don’t exist to satisfy the fleeting curiosities, nor the sense of racial superiority, of White people.
There are lots of ways to look, feel and be Australian. We can celebrate differences in this country without putting Others in the “not Australian” category if they feel otherwise.