Mad Scientess Jane Expat (nanila) wrote,
Mad Scientess Jane Expat

Playing White

This Eastercon business has got me thinking about race and the perception of it. One more post on the topic and then I promise it's back to photography, kitties and anecdotes for a while.

I've gotten so used to passing for white among unobservant people that it's still a bit of a shock to me to think of myself as a Person of Colour. I would even go so far as to say I feel awkward labeling myself as such in public, even though it's true and I identify (mostly inside my head) as one. In fact, I suspect a good many of my friends would probably feel uncomfortable if I started making it more obvious that I don't consider myself white. I have spent my entire life teaching myself to behave in a manner that makes people fail to notice that I'm a PoC. This is probably why I got really into the industrial scene as a teenager and into being a geek as an adult, as these are subcultures with carefully defined parameters that are relatively easy to follow if you pay attention. I'm so good at "playing white" that often people who are of the same racial extraction as I am (southeast Asian) sometimes don't even see it.

The social system that exists for middle-class people in America and Britain rewards silence - and humour - on the subject of race, especially when it comes from someone who is visibly a Person of Colour. It does not reward serious attempts to engage people on the subject of racial stereotyping. For instance, upon telling someone that my father is Asian, I have heard many variations on the following responses:

"You must have had a really strict upbringing."
"No wonder you're so good at science/maths."

I have learned through experimentation over the years that the following are acceptable replies.

"Yes I did." [This is a lie.]
"Nah, he only locked me in the shed for three hours a day. I was lucky! Most kids got six!" [This is also a lie.]
"Actually, I'm just a genius." [Said in a joking manner that makes it blindingly obvious this is Lie Number Three.]
"Oh, I always liked counting." [Actually, this one is true.]

What is not an acceptable response:

"Please can you not make assumptions about my parents and my abilities based on racial stereotypes?"

That'll put people right off their canapés. It might even cause them to walk away if I were to allow my anger to show. So I've learnt to keep quiet, to deflect the tension these remarks cause inside me away from myself - and away from the people who've inflicted it, because it makes life easier. Sadly, it doesn't make life better, for me or for other POCs. I would love to stop. It's difficult to figure out how to do that without earning the labels "confrontational" and "aggressive". That may not sound like much of a cross to bear, but in cultures that thrive on keeping everyone in the conversation comfortable (and when you're female, in which case this becomes a double burden), it could cost a person a lot.

The lesson for Eastercon is, I think, that if there are PoCs in attendance and they are minorities, they may be the type, like me, that have conditioned themselves so well that they can't bring themselves to be critical, even if they do hear racist remarks. I certainly wouldn't be at all comfortable doing so in a feedback session that consisted of a room full of white people. It may take an ally - say, someone like [personal profile] foxfinial - to point it out for them. It may also be that such people are only willing to make remarks from a degree of removal, say, in a written survey or in the comfort zone of a blog post in a sympathetic community. (Hi, sympathetic community! I love you.)
Tags: eastercon, identity, london, navel-gazing, racism sucks

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