Growing up in the inner city bayside of Melbourne, Sabina McKenna is a Melbourne-based curator, exhibitor. She is also the founder of the ‘Where are you from’ project, an online photo-journal that documents people of colour’s experiences with being asked “Where are you from”. While she shares many stories on her platform, we spoke to Sabina as part of ECCV’s All One Together campaign to hear her story.
“My ‘Where are you from story’ is less about a particular encounter with (being asked) ‘where are you from’ and [more] about all of the encounters I’ve had with (being asked) ‘where are you from’ my whole life.”
Being of Nigerian and Irish heritage, Sabina McKenna has constantly been asked the question, “where are you from?” throughout her life. Growing up with her Irish-Australian mother, the question often felt out of place. “I didn’t understand why it made me feel uncomfortable”, she said. In her teen years, this was coupled with experiences of passive racism.
This discomfort followed Sabina. She says that without the language and understanding to navigate and make sense of it all, it was in her late 20s that she sought to find out why this question didn’t sit well with her – so she turned to other people to hear their own ‘where are you from’ stories – “It was definitely about getting context of the connotations the question can carry”.
Deep down, Sabina felt this was ultimately because she wasn’t white, “The real question is ‘why are you brown’, because the wider understanding of what it is an Australian is someone who is white… I wanted to challenge that”.
She flips the question, “Imagine if we were sitting at a train station, thinking and saying out loud, ‘where is that white person from? Do you reckon they’re Irish, or Scottish’… they’re not racialized the way we are.”
“It’s quite funny how comfortable people are to ask something personal like that, as if it’s anyone’s business or an appropriate thing to do in public. There’s a level of entitlement that comes with asking that question,” said Sabina. While she recognises that this form of racism is covert, its impact is felt as this is a constant experience – “it’s cumulative, the small things add up”.
“The one thing many of the participants would like to absolve themselves from is the shame of talking about your experiences and having to tip toe before fully revealing the experience or opening up conversations like that because they don’t know other people will respond.”
Image from https://www.instagram.com/whereareyoufrom__/
The ‘Where are you from’ provides this space for people to be heard and share stories. So much so, that Sabina has seen an impact it has had on not only the project’s participants, but also on the wider Australian society.
“I definitely get people messaging me on Instagram saying, ‘thank you for making this project; it’s made me reflect on the times I’ve been asked that question.”
“There’s something to be said about someone not knowing how to interact with you because they can’t profile you racially… when I approach someone, I’m approaching a person, not a race. The way the project prompts people to reflect on that is a really important thing.”
Image from https://www.whereareyoufrm.com/
And what does a cohesive society look like to Sabina? “A cohesive society is one where people are aware of their privileges – or maybe there are no privileges. A step toward that would be people recognising their privilege and being aware of them and their biases and how that can inform decisions they make – and allowing them the tools to reflect on that, make decisions, and participate in society in way that doesn’t preference the default.”
To view the Where are you from Project, visit: https://www.whereareyoufrm.com/
You can view the project’s Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/whereareyoufrom__/
The ECCV’s vision for the All One Together campaign is to strengthen the foundations for a Victoria that is inclusive, socially cohesive and safe and vibrant for all of us to thrive together. Through the campaign, ECCV will be a platform to build a coalition of institutions and individuals to collaborate across sectors and facilitate a Victoria-wide anti-racism response built on integrity, respect, equality, empowerment, social cohesion, and innovation. Find out more and join us: https://allonetogether.org.au/