It is a question I have been asked often during my 40 years in Australia. When I am asked this question, my usual answer is that 'I am from Australia'. Then there is a follow up question: 'were you born in Australia?' When I answer no, the follow up question is again, 'then where are you from?' I then say to my questioner: you have asked the wrong question. I say to them, what you really want to know is where I was born originally? Then they say yes. I then say to them, I was born in Ghana, West Africa, originally, but I have lived, studied and worked in Australia for many, many years. Consequently, I consider myself Australian, and Australia is now my home. I do not have a Ghanaian passport. I travel around the world on an Australian passport.
I do not assume that the questioner is being racist or intend to be demeaning in anyway when they ask such a question. I put two interpretations to such lines of questioning. Firstly, the questioner genuinely wants to know about my cultural background because, I do not look like a typical Australian: Caucasian or First Nation. Secondly, the questioner is being a typical awkward white-Australian. Who although he or she wants to know about my cultural background, does not know how to ask the right question, in order to solicit the right answer.
In my 40 years experience in Australia (I first came to Australia - Perth - as student, on 15th February 1978), I have not encountered obvious racism from 'white Australia'. Indeed, my first experience with racism was from a First Nations person in one of the main streets of Perth. This person was angry because he asked me for money and I refused to give him any. His response was 'go back to where you came from.'
I have always considered Australia a land of genuine opportunities. I eschew the natural default of some migrants to blame their 'lack of progress' or any life challenges in Australia on racism.
Racism is part of humanity. Even in my own birth country of Ghana, those of us in the southern part of the country, especially my tribe the Ashantis, have discriminate against people from the north (mostly Islamic), and other non-Ashantis. Because of our rich-cultural history (one of the first to build an empire in the forest belt of modern day Ghana), we consider ourselves superior to all other tribes. My father, when he was alive, used to say to me and my siblings that 'we Ashantis are like peacocks: we like to show off'.
My message is that the question 'where do you come from?' does not always carry racial undertones. Some white Australians genuinely want to learn about new arrivals to this country. However, in most cases, they just simply ask the question or approach the subject the wrong way.
I have learnt that when I have been 'generous' and approached such line of questioning in a charitable manner, the questioner and I always end up as friends. They always accept that they have asked the question the wrong way.
I encourage all people of colour in Australia, when asked such a question, not to assume that the questioner is being racist. I met my loving partner on a trip overseas when she asked me a similar question. Had I assumed she was being racist, I would have missed the opportunity of meeting a loving, generous lady.