Friday, January 23, 2009

On Not Quite Passing

Helping to moderate the panel on Race in Science at ScienceOnline'09 reminded me that I have not written all that much about my experience of race on this blog. This is certainly not because I never think about it, or am not impacted by it in my life. It's just complicated for me, and, so, hard to write about.

Though I am very light-skinned, I don't think that when people meet me they think that I am white. But, I also know for certain that a lot of people do not immediately think that I am black, either. And not being able to immediately pigeon-hole me makes some people very uncomfortable. I can tell when it is happening because they will circle around and around the question they'd really like to ask. They will start by asking me where I am from. The answer is usually unsatisfactory, since I was born and lived in the Midwest region of America until I graduated high school. So, then they will ask me where my parents are from. Again, the answer provides no satisfactory explanation for my appearance, since my my mother was born in the same town I grew up in, and my father was from a town only 50 miles away. What happens next is usually interesting.

Some people drop it completely, and that is just fine.

But some people then ask me, "What is your national heritage?". If I'm in still in a good mood, I will go ahead and answer them. If they have annoyed me along the way with their questioning (like when it has completely derailed an otherwise productive conversation, and has nothing to do with the topic it has supplanted) I will fuck with them, and answer, "I am an American," which is a perfectly true and accurate answer to that question.

Sometimes people ask, "What is your ethnic background?" or some other such carefully constructed question. These people I usually answer directly, but, again, if they have annoyed me, I will fuck with them, and ask them what they think it is.

Some people guess before things get to this point. I've been asked if I was Hispanic (all possible flavors), Asian Indian, a Sephardi Jew, Turkish, Southern Italian, and probably loads of other nationalities I can't remember. If the people of a region have olive skin and very dark hair and eyes, I have probably had somebody ask me if I am from that region. And be really convinced that they must be right. To the point where I have had more people than I can count walk up to me and start speaking Spanish without so much as an introduction, and I have even insulted a taxi driver in India because I "refused" to speak Hindi to him (because I don't know how).

Nobody ever guesses correctly. My father was of mainly German descent with a fair bit of Irish mixed in, and my mother was an African American with a several Native Americans on the nearby branches of her family tree. So, though I don't think anyone really thinks that I am white, I do often pass for being "not black".

So why do I fuck with people? Let me make it clear which people I will fuck with. The people who I become annoyed with are the ones who really want to ask me, "What are you?". Before the whole PC movement, when I was growing up in the seventies, that was a question that I got asked on a regular basis. And when I would give the most obvious answer, "a person" it would really not go down well. For nearly a year in elementary school, this gang of kids would make a game of asking me. "What are you? Are you black or are you white?" They never accepted any of my answers. When I tried saying, "I'm both," they insisted that I had to choose. When I tried saying, "I'm neither," they still insisted that EVERYONE is one or the other. So, I had to choose. They would push, and push, and push, and push, until, at some point, I'd just completely lose it, and become irrational. I got in many, many schoolyard fights during this time. And it began to feel as though my very person-hood was being questioned on a daily basis.

So, now that it's not considered polite conversation to ask someone if they are an "Oreo", a "domino", "caramel", "half-baked", a "half-breed", a "half cast", "Halfrican", a "mulatto", a "mongrel", a "mutt", "newspaper", a "skunk", or a "zebra"*, people dance around those questions, but there is still a population of people who are just looking for a slightly nicer way to ask the same thing. They are the grown up version of those kids who taunted me in elementary school. I'm an adult, now, too, and much better at keeping my temper (though if you really want to see me go ballistic, just call me "high yellow"). But I do enjoy letting people know that I know what they are trying to do, and I am not going to let them get away with pretending to be polite.

This is not to say that I don't like people who are merely curious about what ingredients went into the mysterious potion of genetics that created my exquisite and unique appearance. In fact, I'm happy to discuss all the details I know with those people. I just think it's their job to identify themselves clearly as such, and make sure I know they are not a member of the other group.

Sometimes it is hard to tell. I have been coveted by white men as an exotic trophy. I have been told off by black men for thinking I'm too good for them (never mind that I am already married). I have been questioned by girlfriends as to why I didn't date more black men. I have been asked what I was doing at a black student group function. I have had the motivation and appropriateness of my parents' marriage questioned to my face. I have had people suggest that I must have been looking to "marry up" when I became engaged to my white, European husband. And I have had people ask me if I was remarried because Thing 1 is so much more similar in coloring to me than to her father, my current and only husband. Yes, among all that noise, sometimes it is very hard to tell.

*There are lots of the other, oh-so-amusing epithets that have been created especially for those of us who are not of a single racial lineage. You can see an amazing list of such terms at the Racial Slur Database. Some of the ones I have never actually heard, but found amusing were: "brass ankle", "calf", "halfro", and "Halfula".


Comrade PhysioProf said...

It never ceases to amaze me that so many people feel so much entitlement to pose such questions to relative strangers.

Anonymous said...

People usually try to guess for me--usually Filipino. (I'm half Chinese.)

Things are better now, and probably never were as bad for the "half-Chinks" (shiver) as they were for you, but I certainly remember days when I overheard people saying that my father shouldn't have married my mother, etc.

Frankly, I just wish the whole question would just go away. Why does it matter what ethnic background people are from? It matters to the person in question, of course, if they want to keep up cultural traditions, but why should it matter to anyone else? If they like your looks, why can't they tell you that you must have two beautiful parents instead of trying to ask what ethnic mix you are?


All I can do is wish for a better world for my children. I hope I've taught them to view people as humans rather than African, Chinese, Hindu, etc.

Nicky said...

My husband's family is Japanese, but they've lived for several generations in Hawaii, where almost everybody on the island is a mix of backgrounds. The term there is "hapa" which literally means "half" but is used whenever there's a mix of cultural heritages. It's a term of pride, though, and isn't at all negative.

My background is entirely white European, but since taking my husband's unusual Japanese last name, people have become confused by me. Most seem to suddenly think I'm Native American, which is odd.

My son, who is half Japanese, half white, and 100% Jewish, is also a mystery to most people. Our little hapa. But he doesn't even make people bat an eye in Hawaii.

Abel Pharmboy said...

What in the living fuck is wrong with people??? And I'll bet these are the same kind of fuckers who came up to you in public while pregnant and touched your belly.

But then again, this is a country that didn't legally address "mixed race" marriages until Loving v. Virginia in 67 or 68.

I am so, so grateful for you writing about your experiences because I suspect that it does not come easy to have to revisit all this shit. I've developed a friendship with a mid-60s gentleman who has also educated me about the additional fucked-up-ness of being light-skinned - but here in the South it often carries the weight of forced mixed "unions" that date back to slavery.

Good, I'm glad you make people feel uncomfortable with their own ignorance and stupidity. For fuck's sake, you are acmegirl and that's all people should care about. You're a kickass scientist, mother, wife, and friend. I am so much richer for knowing you.

This new year's theme of being out there cannot be easy - but I am so glad you're doing it.

acmegirl said...

CPP - yes, entitlement is exactly the right word. And it is shocking, sometimes.

unlikelygrad - I totally agree. I am raising my kids simply as people. Things are changing, and hopefully they will never have to deal with this kind of shit.

Nicky - now you've made me want to move to Hawaii!

Abel - Thank you! You are totally awesome, and I'm so glad to know you! And you make an excellent point - most black people in America have some white ancestry thanks to the fact that slave owners often took advantage of their ownership position, but, of course, did not often treat the offspring as their own children. Funny thing - I have heard this fact used as a reason for why black women shouldn't date or marry white men.

EcoGeoFemme said...

What a great post. Thanks for sharing.

Do you think your children are having a similar experience?

Anonymous said...

I get asked 'what am I?" too. It. pisses. me. off. I'm white female but my last name throws people off. You should see how fun it is for job interviews. After several times of prying about my origin, marital status, kids, I told one fucker to fuck off. and then I called a cab and caught an early flight home.
the latest thing is 'is that your married name?' and 'what name are your kids?'
I'm going to start carrying 'my personal business cards' in my purse that say 'my business is none of your fucking business'
thanks for posting this!

Juniper Shoemaker said...

Acmegirl, you have described my entire racial experience to a T.

In addition to being black and Korean, my sister and I were raised in pretty white communities. The result is that many people, white, black, and Asian alike, regularly question and judge us with impunity. (Personally, I think a lot of it is jealousy. My sister and I are pretty attractive, in addition to interesting.) We also tend to date white men.

My parents have faced racism from both blacks and whites, too. Questions I get about my parents all the time, usually asked by perfect strangers: "Ohhhhh, so your parents are two different races! They're divorced now, right?" No, ass clowns. They've been married for thirty-one years. And counting. "But was your mom pregnant when they married?" Um. No. My mom gave birth to me, the oldest child, two full years after her marriage to my dad. They'd had difficulty conceiving, at first.

And then, the ever priceless interjection: "Well, I just don't know about that. You know, there's not a lot of good black men to go around, and they oughta stick to black women, not marry white or Asian women." Needless to say, this last never elicits an amiable response from me. What's with all these people telling us what to do, and how to think?!

After I found your blog months ago, through Scientiae, and eventually discovered that you're not only a "non-traditional" scientist, but also part of an interracial marriage, I was even more thrilled. Frankly, I'm predisposed to like people in interracial romantic relationships. That's wrong, but I am. They're making the world a better place for people like me, who are made tremendously aware of our "race", not by "choice", but because other random people make such a fuss about it, EVERY DAY.

That last is not necessarily bad, no. It just means I lose my junk when people sniff, "You know, if you would just shut up about race, you wouldn't give racism so much power." Right. Because I control everyone else's conception and attendant treatment of me, and because, even if I didn't have this magical power, I don't have the right to make others uncomfortable by examining my anomalous racial identity that practically no one in my life can relate to before an audience, right? People "don't want to hear it". I should stay quiet if I want people to like me.

I don't feel "martyred". I don't feel unduly put upon. I just want to tell my side of the story, and tell it my way.

Anyway. Thanks for writing this. I think you're awesome. And, at some point, there'll be so many of us mixed 'uns all over the planet that people will just have to shut the fuck up and mind their own business for a change!

Juniper Shoemaker said...

I'm going to start carrying 'my personal business cards' in my purse that say 'my business is none of your fucking business'

LOL! Great idea . . .

chall said...

wow. interesting (yet very annoying) to read. i love the saying "I am a person, thank you very much".

I've become use to some very strange comments since i moved to the South. I'm white, nonblonde and have a nonAmerican name. I'm also Scandinavian. Let's just say that if I have had a dollar for every time people state "you don't look swedish" and "you are a bit strange in your own country right" and (my fave) "not both fo your parents are swedish right" I'd be rich.

I never really got why it is so important to question where I am from. not to mention the whole "you don't look..." really? who decided that? And then of course I hear some of my friends/collegues who get the same attitude you write about. That it is so interesting to know "what they are" (most often the Aussies who aren't white since they might have some abo/asian/somewhere else in the families) and people aren't satisfied with "Australian" but want to know exactly why they don't look like Nicole Kidman or so.

I still don't get it though. And I am trying not to get offended by the whole 'really, you don't look like one'...

BikeMonkey said...

oh that was a classic acmegirl! HAHAHHAHA! I've had dozens of those conversations and I fuck with 'em just like you!

PP, I don't know what kinda rock you are living under.....if people look at you and the percept doesn't fit their preconceptions it really gets up under their saddle. The look in their eye is an absolute classic, I can see the questions coming a mile away.

Abel, I for one go easy on 'em and have a little sympathy. After I'm done fucking with them anyway. I find most of it to be a relatively benign pigeon holing anyway. honestly, for the real bigots they don't really care what variety of tan you are because it is all bad anyway. if you see what I'm sayin....

and the rest of 'em just want to know why you look so hawt 'cause tanfolk are objectively teh hott you know....

acmegirl said...

EGF: No, I don't think so. At least not yet. I sincerely hope they never do.

Anonymous: Don't get me started on the whole married name/kids' name thing. That is a whole 'nother post!

Juniper: Excellent point. Ignoring a two ton gorilla won't keep it from messing up the place.

chall: That is pretty ridiculous for people to tell you how unusual you are in your own country. Isn't it funny how people who have never left this country can be experts on these things?

Bikemonkey: "tanfolk are objectively teh hott"
I love it! Can I use that line?

BikeMonkey said...

It is an observation about the state of Nature, acmegirl, I can't possibly own that line...

Comrade PhysioProf said...

PP, I don't know what kinda rock you are living under.....if people look at you and the percept doesn't fit their preconceptions it really gets up under their saddle. The look in their eye is an absolute classic, I can see the questions coming a mile away.

It doesn't amaze me that it gets under their saddles. It amazes me that people who are otherwise not apparently deranged psychopaths feel entitled to ask such questions.

PalMD said...

I frequently ask patients what they consider their ethnicity to be, and that of their parents, but this is a constant discussion in medicine. It is not clear exactly how self-reported ethnicity will affect care...we know that latinos, native americans, and self-identified african americans have an increased incidence of certain diseases and this sometimes, but not always, affects how we do things. For example, we often screen african-american men for prostate cancer earlier than white men.

Until medical genomics become more sophisticated, we may be stuck with some of this. There is not yet a great deal of agreement in the medical community.

I gotta admit, though, that i'd feel pretty stupid if a fair-skinned african american came to me with anemia, and i didn't even consider sickle cell disease because i didn't bother to hunt down their ethnicity (it's vanishingly rare in self-identified caucasians).

BikeMonkey said...

look, would you feel it was such a big deal when they were clearly asking what US state you came from? Or which college you attended or some shit like that?

people are quite naturally curious about other people they run across in life. me, I see someone who is clearly mixed and I might just be curious myself.

is it rude to interrogate? a bit. is it impolite to fuck with people and pretend to not understand what they are really asking? a bit.

I don't find either side to be deranged psychopaths. people come up with all kinds of insensitive shit to say. like asking the fertility-troubled when they are going to have a kid. like asking the dude anyone with half a brain knows is gay when he's going to 'settle down'. ignorant, generally. insensitive. hurtful in impact, quite frequently. but 'deranged psychopath'?

PalMD said...

oops, forgot to give you some citations:



as a start.

Also, because there are significant racial disparities in medical care, we certainly need to track data, but it is unclear if knowing an individual's ethnicity is important for that (as in a clinical situation).

acmegirl said...

Pal: I think the situation is completely different when you talk about the patient doctor relationship. I would like to see ALL doctors ask ALL patients about their ethnic background - precisely because you can't tell by looking in so many cases!

Isis the Scientist said...

I think that what makes this so difficult, BM, is that in this situation is becomes evident that the first thing strangers identify in Acmegirl is her apparent mixed heritage/non-white heritage. Over and over and over again.

acmegirl said...

Isis, you are right - that is a big part of the problem. There are so many other things you might want to find out about a person you have just met. If I'm being interrogated about my race to the point that anything else interesting about me is being ignored, then I find that extremely annoying.

BikeMonkey said...

Yeh, I think I have some grasp of the situation Isis. Being the recipient is annoying. This does not make each individual who contributes a deranged psychopath.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Dude, I know Comrade PhysioProf never engages in rhetorical hyperbole, which is why it must have been difficult for you to realize that I was not asserting that people who perseverate on "what are you?" are literally deranged psychopaths. But hey, there's a first time for everything, right?

The point is that people who--as emphasized by Isis and Acmegirl--perseverate on "what are you?" to the exclusion of any satisfying human contact are tone-deaf assholes repeated contact with whom is exhausting.

Abel Pharmboy said...

I think that what makes this so difficult, BM, is that in this situation is becomes evident that the first thing strangers identify in Acmegirl is her apparent mixed heritage/non-white heritage.

I'd be very interested to know what kind of first impressions you drew at SO'09.

I first felt that I should hug you (I also hug Bora and Bill Hooker for reference - I believe I've also hugged Comrade PhysioProf), then noticed that you have brilliant insights and are incredibly well-spoken, and was subsequently blown away with discussion of science you do that I could only dream of doing.

acmegirl said...

Abel, I should have said this earlier - I did not have any issue with anyone acting this way at ScienceOnline'09.

And, I must say, I am really impressed to hear that you have hugged PhysioProf. That is, just, WOW!

Abel Pharmboy said...

Abel, I should have said this earlier - I did not have any issue with anyone acting this way at ScienceOnline'09.

Although I doubted you would (most people I talked to said stuff like, "it was so awesome to meet acmegirl!"), I'm disappointed that we didn't quite have the level of diversity I've been aiming for - perhaps the new Diversity in Science carnival will bring more broadly representative sci/med bloggers to our attention.

Oh yeah, PhysioProf is a total sweetheart of a guy - I'm sure the influence of Teh Awesomez PhysioWife helps.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

A little late to this from not blogging all week, but thanks for this post.

The thing that makes me nervous is that I genuinely like to ask people where they grew up--not so much as a sneaky means of identifying their racial heritage, but as a conversation booster, and also as a bit of insight into their person. (e.g. during grad school recruitment, I might respond with, "Oh, AcrosstheCountryState, that's cool, so how are your parents dealing with the prospect of you moving across the country for grad school? Mine totally freaked out...")

And when the answer tells me something about the person's heritage ("I was born in Cairo but mostly grew up in France"), that's a bonus. Being in a "mixed" marriage myself, I'm always fascinated by the genetic combinations that produce our appearances (especially as I think about the production of our own Thing 1...). I like knowing this stuff about all-whiteys too--my favorite is when white Europeans look distinctly TheirCountry, though it's sometimes hard to say why (what is it about the French? They just look....French).

Anyhow, this is a long-winded way of saying I don't know what the secret codeword is to try to tell someone that I'm just curious about people's origins, but I hope it comes through when I ask follow up questions about what it was like to grow up in Iowa (or whatever), rather than, "Yeah, but what are you REALLY?" :)

BikeMonkey said...

Abel, you hugged PeePee? Dude I think that makes you a definitive muppethugger!