I’ll never understand the pride people take in saying, “I was born and bred here” or the use of the same phrase to defend one’s perceived superiority or deservingness of housing, health care or other basic human rights.

I mean, what did you, yourself, actually do to influence where you were born or bred? Unless you were a particularly ambitious embryo, the answer is “nothing”. Sure, your parents might have made some kind of effort to select your place of birth. Maybe they strove to move to better housing in a neighbourhood with better services and schools. Maybe they’re even immigrants, like my dad, and they struggled long and hard to learn their fourth language in order to integrate into their adopted country. But you? You didn’t do anything. Why are you so proud of that? Think of the things you've accomplished in your life. Isn't it far more fitting and fulfilling to be proud of those?

And why the obsession with asserting the superiority of a single identity over the others? “I’m English first and then British.” Pro-tip: Most of the rest of the world considers both of those to be synonymous with “ex-colonialist imperialist arsehole” so it doesn’t really matter which one you choose. ^.^

Here is a list of the geographically-linked identities that I consider myself able to lay claim to. I’m proud of some and not others.

  • American
  • British
  • European
  • Hawai’ian
  • Filipino
  • Olympian
  • Seattleite
  • Angeleno
  • San Diegan
  • Londoner
  • Brummie (this is a new one; still feels a little odd)

Today, I think I’m proudest of being European. I earned that identity and that passport, and I’m still very pissed off that some people want to take it away.

Today is also, weirdly, simultaneously:

  • the anniversary of Brexit, aka the Colossal Waste of Time and Money Foisted Upon Us by a Generation That Tore Down Decades of Painstakingly Won Goodwill with Our Neighbours and Won’t Live to Experience the Disastrous Consequences, Thanks a Lot, Dickheads.


  • International Women in Engineering Day

So, to close this post, here is a peaceful photo of a woman doing some engineering.

Scientist at work
My friend Holly ([personal profile] hollymath) is writing a book about being an immigrant. Like me, Holly has lived in the UK for many years as an immigrant and has written poignant posts on the subject, as can be seen the foreignness tag on her DW. She has a gift for voicing thoughts for which I often struggle to find the words.

The Kickstarter for her book, Duel for Citizenship, has just 12 hours left. It can be found here. Most levels of support include a copy of the book as an incentive. If you can support her project, which I see as a vital response to the clamour of toxic and xenophobic anti-immigrant/refugee rhetoric currently dominating the public narrative, I would appreciate it too.
nanila: me (Default)
( Apr. 12th, 2012 11:37 am)
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.)
The final installment of Mixed Race Britannia, presented by George Alagiah, aired last Thursday. I couldn’t watch it then, so I viewed it on iPlayer. My notes from the first and second episodes are here and here.

Mixed Race Britannia: 3 of 3 )

Conclusion of the series: The famed pragmatism of British people (“Oh sit down & have a cup of tea, love.”) has thus far largely won out over rabid racism and xenophobia. George Alagiah clearly thinks it’s likely to continue to do so as Britain becomes more racially diverse.

I was left wondering why it seemed that, in cases where one parent was opposed to a mixed marriage, it was usually the father, while mothers were mostly quite sanguine. Possibly this was the effect of Alagiah’s choice of interviewees? The ones who weren’t adoptive children were largely in long-lasting mixed marriages. Or is there some weird psychological thing about wanting grandchildren that obviously resemble you?

I should have liked it if the series had covered more mixed communities in the UK. It seemed mostly to be focused on Liverpool and London - places which have a long history of successful integration. But surely there are stories to be told - perhaps ones in which racial integration has foundered - about Bradford, Sheffield, Birmingham and Manchester. There were hints of this in Clement Cooper’s story. I suspect this might have spoiled the rather rosy conclusions of the programme.
Last Thursday, I watched Part 2 of 3 episodes on the history of mixed race people in Britain. Behind the cut are the notes I wrote while watching it. (Notes and conclusion from episode 1 can be viewed here.)

Mixed Race Britannia: 2 of 3 )

This series has been building up to a “total integration these days” perspective on the status of mixed race people over the decades in Britain. I’m a little skeptical about it. I agree that socioeconomic class and immigration status seem to matter more than race here generally, but I think it’s disingenuous to gloss over or avoid some of the more repugnant bits of history so that an upbeat perspective can be maintained. The series failed to mention, for instance, the deportation of thousands of illegitimate mixed-race babies to the US post-WWII, which since it had anti-miscegenation laws could have been supposed to be an even less supportive environment than the UK at the time.
So I sent off this e-mail a week ago, to the Communications and PR office at NPL.

Today, I finally got a response.

Thank you for your email.
We take diversity very seriously and have taken not [sic] of your comments.

Kind regards,

Is that it?! Really?

I think I feel slightly insulted that it is a two-sentence e-mail and it still contains a misspelling.

If anyone needs me, I'll be in my corner, sulking.
Last night I watched Part 1 of 3 episodes on the history of mixed race people in Britain. Behind the cut are the notes I wrote while watching it.

Mixed Race Britannia: 1 of 3 )

I have long wondered why Britain, especially in the cities, seemed to be better racially integrated than a lot of the US. Britain is still majority white, while the US is much more diverse. From this programme I inferred that, at least in the early twentieth century, it was because the first group of persons of colour to arrive in Britain were pretty much all male, and their numbers tiny in comparison to the overall population. When they decided to settle, they had to integrate. The only ladies around for them to date/have sexy tiems with/marry were white girls. So the second generation were pretty much immediately mixed-race, and immersed into both cultures directly through their family. Since the proportion of persons of colour was small enough to be fairly non-threatening, integration was a good deal smoother than in countries where communities were larger and already organised into families. Those tended to stay segregated for longer.
It's 2011. I'm seriously annoyed that I even felt compelled to write this letter. When I was a child, I'm pretty sure I was promised a world free from gender and race inequality by the time I was an adult. Why is it not here? Dammit, why am I still trapped in a world run by a bunch of white dudes who can't see what the problem is because they have everything they want?

No wonder escapist media is so popular.

To whom it may concern:

Recently, my partner brought home The Little Big Book of Metrology, an accessible and appealing piece of outreach material produced by the National Physical Laboratory about the history and development of measuring units, from a conference. I was delighted, until I had finished reading it and realised that something was bothering me.

I went through it again and carefully counted up the number of scientist and engineers portrayed in The Little Big Book. Of the 15 photos containing humans in the book, three contained identifiably female humans. Of those three, one showed a woman in the background at a tea party, one was of the women’s hockey team and only the last showed a female scientist or engineer at work - helping a male colleague.

I then counted up the cartoon portrayals of humans in The Little Big Book. Here, I think, there is no rationale for not portraying a balance between the sexes. Here again, however, I found that of the 18 cartoons showing humans, 17 contained male humans and three contained female humans. Of those three, one was actually measuring something (the length of a queue of male humans), one was of a mixed group looking at a candle and one was of a woman shopping.*

It also concerned me that the photographs did not seem to contain any persons of colour. Amongst the cartoons, there was only one portrayal, in the group looking at the candle.

I do not feel that this is a balance of images that will engender inspiration among women to work in the field of metrology, or indeed in science and engineering generally. I realise that historical photographic material cannot be edited to contain women or persons of colour when it does not. However, I can’t help feeling that more of an effort could have been made to portray an equal gender balance and more diversity in modern science and engineering. If the ratio is indeed still so skewed at NPL, it risks projecting an image that is unlikely to appeal to any persons who are not both male and white.

I hope that future published materials from NPL will endeavour to portray a more diverse working culture, for the sake of female scientists and engineers everywhere.


Dr [personal profile] nanila (a female person of colour and a scientist working as an engineer)
[real name and work address will be supplied, of course.]

* I was seriously pissed off when I saw this, but I’m not sure how to express this without being dismissed as strident...?

I plan to send this to the NPL Communications and PR office. Does anyone have other suggestions? I have a complete list of the page numbers for the statistics on photographs & cartoons - should I append that?
Algerian man in restaurant: You look Algerian, actually.
Me: No no. I'm half southeast Asian.
AM: You're sure you aren't part Algerian?
Me: Yes.
AM, looking disbelievingly at me: Hm...I'll have to get you tell my fortune later.
Me: ?!

You could replace "Algerian" in that story with just about any nationality or ethnic group on Earth and I will have experienced it previously. Okay, you couldn't replace the part about the fortune-telling. Are mixed-race people renowned for their psychic powers? If so, how come no one told me earlier? I could have made my fortune as Madame Nanila by now. Curses.

Here are the groups to which people have not only insisted I must belong, but gotten upset with me to some degree for not belonging to them, over the years.

  • Moroccan
  • Thai
  • Jewish
  • Spanish
  • Vietnamese
  • Samoan
  • Indonesian
  • Indian
  • Japanese
  • Mexican
  • Italian
  • Cuban
  • Unmixed white

I don't mind being difficult to pigeonhole. I do mind, however, when people get peeved because I don't fit into the preconceived identity box they made for me. How on Earth is that offensive?
Shipping container, with bear

I have accomplished the primary objective of this trip to the States. All the stuff that was in storage in the US is now in this shipping container and on its way to the UK.

This is it. This feels final. None of my belongings will reside in this country once that ship has gotten underway to Southampton, where it will arrive in 12 weeks, creating a whole new logistical headache for me to enjoy. I’m committing to being an expat for the long term.

Being here makes me feel adrift. When I’m in Britain, I know I’m an expat. I have a solid understanding of what that means, the perpetual uncertainty of my welcome and heightened cultural awareness that it involves. When I’m in the US, I no longer feel like I’m home. I don’t fit in completely here any more than I do in Britain. The Americans I meet assume I’m British. When I checked in at the storage space for the last time, the girl at the desk confided to me, “I love your accent.”

Committing to becoming a dual national doesn’t make me feel accepted in both cultures. It makes me feel like I’m barred from ever being fully comfortable again in either. That sounds negative, but I don’t mean it entirely in that way. I think the increased consciousness and observation of propriety that being an expat have given me are positive qualities. I just don’t know how to belong any more - if, indeed, I ever did. I could be romanticizing and missing something I never had in the first place (see: my complex racial/ethnic identity issues).