There’s an American video on YouTube called ‘Where are you from?’ which offers an insight into the insidious nature of racism in contemporary society. A woman has paused by the side of the road and is stretching. A man jogging past her decides to strike up a conversation. They talk about the weather. Then he asks, ‘Where are you from? Your English is perfect.’ The woman – who has a strong American accent – replies, ‘San Diego. We speak English there.’ He rephrases the question, ‘Where are your people from?’ and is only satisfied when she relents, ‘My great-grandma was from Seoul.’

In Australia, I am asked this question frequently. I have often tried to explain to people why this is annoying and inappropritae, only to be accused of being overly sensitive. ‘That person,’ they will say, taking the side of someone who is a stranger to both of us, ‘is just curious about you.’ The problem with this line of argument is that it refuses to acknowledge the codes of race and gender implicit in the exchange.

In a racial context, the question ‘Where are you from?’ is so much more than the manifestation of a benign curiosity one stranger may have for another. It does not exist in a historical vacuum. One of the first acts passed in the newly formed Federation of Australia of 1901 was the restriction of ‘non-white’ immigration. This heralded the start of the White Australia policy, which prohibited Asian immigration to Australia. Indeed, it was not until 1973 that the Whitlam government finally removed race as a factor in Australia’s immigration provisions.

These days, Australia prides itself in being multicultural and tolerant of other races. And yet, although overt racism may be met with opprobrium, the subtle alienation of ‘non-white’ Australians remains very much a reality. In her article ‘The Curse of the Smile’ (available in Feminist Review 52), Ien Ang goes so far as to argue that there is a widespread insistence that Australia is no longer a racist country, despite evidence to the contrary. ‘Australia’s desire to be [seen as] a tolerant, multi-cultural nation,’ she writes, ‘tends to vindicate a redemptive national narrative designed to come to terms with its explicitly racist history of Aboriginal annihilation and the White Australia Policy.’

However, issues of race are more complex and ambiguous than calling a country or an individual racist or not racist, and this sort of simplification breeds a wilful ignorance of the finer complexities of race issues. Australians are often frustrated at the suggestion that the ‘Where are you from?’ exchange I am familiar with may be fraught with racist undertones, that by accentuating the differences between a ‘white’ and a ‘non-white’ Australian, it risks contributing to what Ang refers to as ‘a denaturalisation of [Asian Australian] status as co-inhabitants of this country’. They are frustrated by my unhappy reaction to the question ‘Where are you from?’ because they do not think of themselves as racist, and because my attempt to start a dialogue about racism denies their fantasy of living in a post-racist society.

The experience of an Asian woman living in Australia is different from that of an Asian man. There is a stereotype that Asian women are simultaneously submissive and hypersexual, rendering them more pliable in the face of male desire than their non-Asian counterparts. The historical events upon which this stereotype is founded are complex and manifold, taking in Western imperialism in Asia and the emergence of sex tourism as a key economic driver for developing nations, such as Thailand and the Philippines. The supposed promiscuity and submissiveness of Asian women also derives from the mail-order bride phenomenon and the higher incidence of domestic violence associated with such marriages; and the fetishisation of Asian women and their racialised representation in pornography.

This stereotype has wide-reaching effects on the female Asian diaspora living in Australia today. The ‘Where are you from?’ YouTube video captures this perfectly. When the woman replies, ‘San Diego. We speak English there,’ she is sarcastically commenting on his ignorance. For the man, the notion that an Asian woman might be both asserting herself and subtly insulting him is so farfetched that he does not even consider it a possibility. In his mind, she remains the stereotype of the passive Asian woman personified. In his mind, the only possible explanation for her not doting on him and dutifully answering his abrupt questions is that she may not understand English. He repeats the question, this time more slowly.

Finally, he pries from her information regarding her distant Korean heritage. He then delights in speaking Korean and talking about the Korean restaurants he frequents, attempting to impress her with how racially tolerant, how interested in other cultures he is. In reality, he is communicating to her that she is different from him, and that he finds this difference exciting and exotic. Saying to someone, ‘I love how different you are!’ carries the corollary, ‘You don’t belong here’.

In her essay, ‘A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories’, Roxane Gay discusses the relationship between privacy and privilege. She’s speaking specifically about public figures being questioned over their sexuality, but the same argument can be applied to racial Othering. She writes:

Any time your body represents some kind of difference, your privacy is compromised to some degree. A surfeit of privacy is just one more benefit the privileged class enjoys and often takes for granted.

The ‘Where are you from?’ exchange marks a similar invasion of privacy. It throws into relief power structures related to both sex and race. The Asian woman is included in Australian (or American) society, but she has the obligation entertain ‘real’ Australian men with exotic tales of her ancestry, and her acceptance depends on her difference and her novelty.