On Our Radar

Meet the Writer Changing Perceptions Of Australian Cultural Identity

Chronicling the lived experiences of multiracial Australians, Sabina McKenna uses Instagram to bring the conversation of cultural identity to the masses.
April 17, 2020, 9:19am
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(L) Photo by Jess Brohier. (R) Photo by Georgia R Haynes

On Our Radar is a VICE Asia series that profiles young, upcoming creatives across the Asia-Pacific, giving an inside look into their interests, communities and inspirations.

The question, "Where are you from?" might seem harmless, but for racial minorities or people of mixed ethnic backgrounds, it can have a more isolating and exclusionary connotation. As Atia, one of the models on photojournalistic project Where Are You From puts it, “Being asked where you’re from is othering dressed up as curiosity.”

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Run by Australian activist, writer and model Sabina McKenna, Where Are You From, or WAYF for short, aims to challenge notions of belonging and identity against a predominantly white ethnic landscape through portraits and short interviews posted on Instagram. The account chronicles the thoughts and feelings of racially diverse Australians who often get asked that question, and feel like strangers in their own community.

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Sabina McKenna. Photo by Sister Studios.

Growing up as a minority can be difficult, especially when you don’t look like the people you surround yourself with. For Sabina, finding a tribe to call her own meant acknowledging how she’s different and taking cue from friends who understood that experience.

In 2018, Sabina enlisted the help of one such friend and fellow person of colour Jess Brohier, to help with photographing the subjects on WAYF.

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"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." - Adam, WAYF

“It's important to find people who understand you and what you’re going through. Later in life, I found that I had a lot of friends, particularly older women of colour, who I've learnt a lot from. Whatever I was going through, it's likely that they had been there or confronted something similar.”

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"When I respond with the name of my suburb, they always look incredulous as if to say 'No, but really where?'." - Flex Mami, WAYF

Although the question doesn’t seem harmful in and of itself, there is a shared sentiment that those who become the object of such inquiry are asked because they “look different.” Whereas if they were part of a racial majority, there would be no question as to what their ethnic background is. When it comes to satisfying one's curiosity, Sabina thinks self reflection is more important than self indulgence.

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"Being asked 'Where are you from?' takes away my humanity and makes me feel token." - Jaycee, WAYF

“There are a few people who will say ‘I don’t understand why it’s so bad to ask about someone’s beautiful or interesting appearance.’ I learnt that it’s important to reflect on the intention when you’re asking people that question, especially when not everyone is racialised or identified by their race,” she said.

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"I wonder what my genealogy would say, percentage wise, but does it really matter?" - Milan, WAYF

“The reason why I created the project is ultimately because I want people to understand that there isn’t one face that is the image of what it is to be Australian, there isn’t one face that belongs. We are all migrants unless we’re indigenous, and we need to unify and learn from each other, and stop trying to elbow past each other… Sometimes because we’re in this white landscape and we’re all trying to survive and fit in, we can lose sight of community and how remarkable it is to be united despite our differences.”

Sabina aims to champion inclusive dialogue and give a platform to people of colour to voice their opinions on institutionalised concepts of what it means to belong. Promoting a community dedicated to empathy and healing, WAYF fosters support via storytelling, and for this reason, Sabina has popped up On Our Radar.

I believe in… equality. Because that's the only way we’re gonna be able to move forward. Especially with the climate crisis that we’re facing right now, I think the only way that we’re going to be able to overcome that would be to trust the people that came before us and recognise that we have things to learn from them as equals. Equality will be the answer because we have to let go of all our ego and our privilege in order to welcome knowledge and guidance from people that are different from us.

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My friends say I am… a workaholic. Really ambitious.

But I like to think I am… deeply compassionate and understanding.

I've been working on… an exhibition for WAYF in Paris. We’re still in the planning stages but we’re planning on having it in October this year.

I am inspired by… the people who came before me.

Recently I've been really into… Solange, because I saw her perform at the Opera House the other night and it was the most breathtaking and life changing experience. She is just doing so much for the world and she’s an amazing performer, so I’ve been obsessed with her album.

I’ve also been really into this wellness chef Sophia Roe. I love her because she talks about her upbringing and she's had a lot of childhood trauma, but she is just killing it now. She’s all about wellness and equality, and I think that’s an important introspection to explore for the wellness community because it can be very white and classist. So It’s really nice to see her bridging that gap, and it’s amazing to see that she is someone who has built her career from the ground up.

I'm also so amazed by the Warriors for Aboriginal Resistance and the rally that they put on every year. I’m a big follower of their movement and I think there’s a lot of power behind what they do. It’s about time.

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Sabina McKenna. Photo by Jess Brohier.

You can usually find me at… the gallery. I love MoMA in New York, it’s one of my favourite places, I think it’s so beautiful.

On bad days, I… look after myself. Eat good food, be around people I love, sleep, exercise, move my body, and give myself the time to be OK and to actually just exist. A lot of our inclinations these days are to keep moving and to keep doing. But I think taking a break and just being still is what helps on a bad day.

I live for… other people. Making other people's lives better, wherever I can.

In five years… I see myself continuing with WAYF and establishing it as an organisation, maybe moving to somewhere like New York and sharing the culture everywhere we can. To have the support and recognition for that work, not just for me but for all the people involved in the project.