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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Playing White [20120412|11:37]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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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.)

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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-04-21 02:54 (UTC)
D'awwww. Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: cosmiccircus
2012-04-12 14:05 (UTC)
Your father was Asian, and your mother was caucasian?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-04-21 02:54 (UTC)
Yes, that's correct!
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[User Picture]From: cosmiccircus
2012-04-21 03:08 (UTC)
So out of curiosity, why do you think of yourself more in terms of being Asian, than white? I know you constantly refer to yourself as being "mixed", but you seem to gravitate more towards being Asian. Not that it's a big deal and others seem to be the same way, i.e. Obama, Halle Berry, etc all tend to think of themselves as being African American... Just curious - I don't think of you in either of those terms, I just think of you as being "hot" ;)
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[User Picture]From: ginasketch
2012-04-12 16:02 (UTC)
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.

Oh, this. I'm rather tired of it myself. When I was younger, I actually went through a big phase of thinking of myself as white. After all, my dad is white. It boggles my mind why I didn't think of myself from my mother's side until adulthood. I now refer to myself as Mestizo when filling out forms, which is a mix of European and Amerindian. I either consider myself to be POC or mixed. I do think it makes people really uncomfortable sometimes when they cannot fit people into nice, neat boxes. I once referred to myself as a POC in front of someone and they said "oh, come on, you're olive-skinned at best." WTF is that supposed to mean??!? Do these people have fucking skin swatches or something?

My identity, not yours.
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[User Picture]From: ginasketch
2012-04-12 16:42 (UTC)
I grew up in Central America and most of my family are not white. I suspect the reason I never paid attention to my ethnicity was that there were so many other people like me around me.

Once I moved back to England, I noticed that people kept asking me what my race was. In Belize nobody cared. I figure, fuck it. I am who I am. I'm tired of trying to make people feel comfortable. It bothers the hell out of me that it's the year 2012 and some people still can't get their head around the fact that people of mixed race exist.

(I work in the media: "of course you do!" they say.)

What is this I don't even.

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[User Picture]From: ginasketch
2012-04-12 17:02 (UTC)

"Are you sure you aren't Jewish? You look Jewish."

Being Jewish has a look now? Do all Christian or Muslim people look the same?
I get what you mean about the Mestiza thing. I think the reason I thought of myself as white for so long was people would notice my dad, but not my mum. After all, my mum didn't stand out in Belize, but my dad did. I remember being called white at school by kids who were paler than I was. I think race is an identity rather than what you "look" like. I'm not saying anyone can claim to be black/asian/whatever and have it just be so, but the rigidity some people have about race and what box it must fit into annoys the hell out of me. Like when people were saying Obama wasn't a true black man because his mum was white. Aggh.

I grew up in Mestizo culture, in a Central American country. Therefore I am comfortable referring to myself as Mestizo, despite many people telling me "no, you can only be one or the other."

Similarly, whatever you feel most comfortable referring to yourself as is your decision to make. And only yours.
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[User Picture]From: becala
2012-04-12 16:27 (UTC)
Yeah, wow. I assist people in being racist all the time, at least with my silence. *sigh* I probably need to do some thinking about this.

But then again, having extremely strict parents is a common experience at least to many full asians. Less so with the us hapas. I at least phrase it as a question, and only when it's fucking appropriate. I love how when people make race-based conjectures like this, it's usually in a situation where it's totally not appropriate to get that personal with someone. Seriously, I cannot believe people think that asking about your childhood is a good icebreaker.

Edited at 2012-04-12 04:28 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: dylsexia
2012-04-15 15:05 (UTC)
I tend to identify more with my nationality rather than my race, honestly:
I am an American/Brit living and working in Canada. I certainly empathize with identifying as white rather than as a POC, and I have my reasons.

-(English is my mother tongue and that when I think in words I think in English.)
-(My father is mix and is a Brit in my opinion.)
-(My father identifies as a Canadian now, as he is a Canadian citizen.)
-(No stereotypical Chinese upbringing for me, (although I do wish I could speak Cantonese and Mandarin and had Math tutoring and Piano tutoring and Violin tutoring and Art tutoring as a child.)

Granted, however, I often get questioned about my genetic makeup, often in a curious and amusing attempt at political correctness that ends up being mildly offensive in its ignorance.

"Where are you from?"
"Well, I was born in upstate New York, not 'the City'."
"No, no. Where are you FROM (pronunciation: frumm); like... originally."
*quizzical look as if I don't quite understand*
"Where are your parents FROM. You look Chin-ease (they always slow down their speaking and get louder now that I am a Foreigner)."
"No, I'm mix a mix of everything."
"Oh? So you're what..."
"My dad was born in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, formerly Mumbai, India from an Anglo-Indian father and an Anglo-Burmese mother. Granted his mother had a Portuguese maiden name; so my assumption is that she was Portuguese and Burmese. He moved to England when he was a few years old and was naturalized a Brit. My mother was born in Hong Kong and her father was from Canton and her mother is from Shanghai. I am an American/Brit."
"So you're a Filipino, right?"

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