My name is Mahalia. I am an African-Pakeha woman born and raised in rural New Zealand.
I have endured uncountable incidents of “casual and quiet” racism in the form of verbal abuse, sneers, being spat at, pushed off the sidewalk, intimidated, ignored by salespeople and more. However, one less visible form of racism I often encounter is the need for others to define who I am and where I belong within society based on my racial appearance.
The seemingly innocent question “Where are you from?” inevitably leads to my displacement from being a genuine New Zealander. My response of “I’m from NZ”, or " I’m an African-Pakeha New Zealander" invokes further attempts at clarification from the asker (often accompanied with a ‘she doesn’t understand the question, maybe I should talk slower’ stare).
“No, but I mean originally, where were you born? Where are your parents from? (New Zealand) No, but before that ( NZ ) I like your accent, is that South African? (No, South Waikato) But where are you f-r-o-m”?? I have learned that the only acceptable answer to end the conversation is to state any country other than New Zealand.
An answer of “Africa” is accepted, with a knowing smile (I knew it…finally, she understood the question!) an answer of “Japan, China, or India” is also immediately accepted with a look of surprise (I would never have guessed - finally she understood the question!). It is only Pakeha that have instigated this type of conversation with me. It is only Pakeha who do not take my first response as truth.
It is only Pakeha who approach me as a stranger, just to ask. And it is only Pakeha who, when I have asked the question of them, give me an incredulous look, state “I'm a Kiwi” or “I’m a New Zealander of course” and walk away shaking their head.
Yes, people from other cultural/racial groups have asked me if I am a New Zealander, but it has never been the first thing they have said to me and is motivated by a need to make connections rather than to have their curiosity satiated. I would like people to consider their motivation behind the question “Where are you from” before they ask.
I would like people to consider if they are entitled to ask at all. And if so, I would like people to look at how this question may impact on the recipient's sense of self and belonging.