Recently, my mum has taken to a new hobby: compiling her family tree. It’s a dynamic document, regularly updated with annotations about siblings of great-great grandparents. It lives on the kitchen bench, I suspect so that it can be easily accessed in the event that some new tidbit about a distant relative materialises without warning.
Much of the hype is lost on me: because I’m adopted, I don't have a great deal of personal investment in the family tree. Nevertheless, I continue to entertain my mum’s fascination—it's evidently important to her.
For her, "where are you from?" means exploring the family tree to discern just how Irish she is and pinpointing the point in history where her Dutch heritage was introduced (even though she's a fifth-generation Australian).
When I'm asked the same question, the process of answering it is much more convoluted.
I've given up on performing conversational gymnastics and answering "where are you from?" by saying Western Sydney or explaining that I've grown up in Australia. There's little point in trying to manoeuvre my way out of the real question.
When I'm asked "where are you from?", it really means "why are you black?". I've learned that people feel so entitled to this knowledge that their persistence becomes shameless.
When someone asks me, I’ll respond to the question by telling them I was born in Colombia. They’ll protest, explaining that people in Colombia are lighter skinned. Sometimes they’ll even embellish their explanation, describing Colombians as a caramel colour, like Sofia Vergara. I’ll sigh, and begrudgingly remind them that the transatlantic slave trade happened.
Awkward silence ensues.
"But what about before that?"
"Where are you from?" means different things to me and my mum (and, more broadly, white people and people of colour), but our ability to answer the question thoroughly is also pretty disparate.
The systematic destruction of documents, histories, and families is a symptom of colonialism that plagues most communities of colour. It might mean that people of colour aren't able to create elaborate family trees or perform an ethnic breakdown by percentage and present it in a tidy pie chart. It might mean we aren't able to answer "where are you from?" in a way that satisfactorily explains to overly curious, white, wannabe genealogists why we look the way we do.
But the fact that we are here to answer it means that each of us is from a place that resisted and survived colonialism and imperialism.
And I think that's more revealing than any other answer to the dreaded question.