In an attempt to do my part to displace whiteness from “normal” in terms of thinking about diversity and science, I’m telling my ethnic story. This is part II; part I is here.
More below the fold…
The story of my mom’s side of the family is quite different from my dad’s. My mom’s parents both grew up in the North of England, with my grandmother’s family being coalminers. My grandmother went to school until the equivalent of 8th grade, and then she came home and helped look after her 9 siblings. I’m not sure where my grandparents met, or how they came to live in London. That’s where my mom was born – when World War II was finishing up, in the midst of rationing, with an older sister and a bomb shelter in the backyard. I believe my grandfather taught physics at a university in London, and when I asked him what he did during the war, terrified that he had had to kill people, he told me he helped teach soldiers how to diffuse bombs. My grandfather had only one brother, I think; one of my grandmother’s brothers died in the war.
My mom tested her way into a good secondary school (all girls, of course), went to Oxford for her undergraduate, and then York for a master’s degree, and was teaching sociology at a secondary school when she met my dad at a party in London. My mom was the first in her family to own a car, and I think she gave my dad a ride home. He was about done with his post-doc, so when he went home, I think they corresponded on the pretext of getting his gas bill sorted out or something. He came back to visit once or twice, and then she went to visit him in California, and that’s when they got engaged. She says California was like another planet compared to mid-70s England, in the midst of its energy crisis, in the dark and the cold. Their first flat in Berkeley had a view of the ocean, and the house they had had a lemon tree in the back yard. That’s the house I was born into.
So in effect, my mom moved half-way across the world to live in a city where she knew almost nobody, almost no family who could help her look after me either (as my dad’s mom was not in town). I think she was really lonely.
After a year, my dad got that faculty position in Wisconsin, and we moved to the midwest, to the coldest and snowiest winter on record (until this year w.r.t. snow) – my mom couldn’t believe what she had gotten herself into. Another place where she knew nobody. My parents had two more kids, and then my mom started meeting people through us and our school friends. We started going to the Episcopal church down the street because I had asked what that “t” on the top of that building was – that was another place my mother made friends, plus Episcopalianism was like American Anglicism. We were faculty kids in the faculty neighborhood, so we went to those fabled “exceptional” faculty kid schools.
My mom went back to England every year or so once my grandparents could no longer travel to visit us, and she took a kid or two with her. My memories of my grandparents always involve lots of smoke (she, cigarettes; he, pipe), a stifling back room where the gas fire was always on, the mound in the backyard where the bomb shelter had been filled in and my grandfather now grew roses, eating tea at 4 (fruitcake with marzipan, and toasted teacakes) and dinner at 10 pm with the news, and my grandmother tutting the BBC announcers who mispronounced (in her opinion) words. She made allowances for my bad pronunciation on account of my being American, she said. I also got to visit with my aunt and cousins who I thought were so cool because they had accents, and I wanted one too. Of course, I had one, it was just a crummy American accent. It reminded me I was less English, although I didn’t feel American either.
My dad’s mother came to live with us from California when I was 11 – she lived upstairs, and kept running her business until the day she died at 91. Living with us was a trial for my mom, but also allowed us kids to connect with our family that otherwise we couldn’t really do, as the rest were so far away. My mom’s parents died when I was in college.
So. A long couple of posts, thanks for making it this far.
And what do I see in my story? I see a story of English colonialism and cultural values. I see a story of multiplicity – my triple citizenship, my dispersed family history, my English cultural upbringing have always made me feel not quite the same as everyone else. I used different words than my school friends. My mom tells of not knowing about what to do at Thanksgiving, and visiting my grandparents for holidays only happened the year we lived in England. I learned French in school rather than Spanish. I spent my summers in the backwaters of British Columbia, so I didn’t really go to summer camps (except for church camp twice) or be in the girl scouts, or celebrate the 4th of July.
So even though I looked white, and benefited from being white (note not a lot of articulated racial discrimination in my story, note a lot of associated class-related benefits in terms of education in my story), I have a different heritage of whiteness. My story is not that of the Civil War, or of racial segregation in schools per se, but one of immigration and the sense of education as a route to upward mobility, even though many may presume my connection to the Civil War and racial segregation, and even though I benefit from an economy that was set up around slavery, a set of racial schemas that set me up as able to be smart and pretty but were more problematic for my friends, and a set of laws that protect the values that I grew up with understanding were most reasonable and rational. I never had to feel that the reason my teacher didn’t advance me to the upper level of math was because I wasn’t white and he was, or that I couldn’t eat certain foods (like watermelon or fried chicken) or wear what I wanted or smile how I wanted (showing my teeth) in case people made fun of my ethnicity. And perhaps most relevant to this discussion on ScienceBlogs, I never ever felt like I couldn’t be a scientist or an engineer because I had never seen one why had my skin colour. Indeed, my dad is both an engineer and a scientist.
At the same time, my ethnicity has always sat in front of my nose in contrast to some of my friends, as I ate different food, used different words, spelled things “wrong,” heard my mom speak with a different accent and my dad talk about himself as a Canadian, visited my grandmother who told me the difference between “alternate” and “alternative” and taught me how to drink tea. Always sat in front of my nose, and yet I didn’t even realize that’s what it was, that sense of discomfort, displacement. Is that something people of colour feel all the time? Or do they get “used” to it?
Whiteness, too, has changed in the US over time. The Irish used to be considered “ethnic” on the East Coast but “white” on the West Coast where they were situated in contrast with Chinese immigrants. Arab used to “count” as white, until September 11 when suddenly they’re made “other.” In other countries, whiteness means different things again, and for different cultural histories.
I’d like to encourage other folks – readers, Sciblings, and particularly people who identify as white – to tell/blog about their own ethnic stories, to start exploring what their culture and history is, with then a next step being to please note (obviously!) that other people have different cultures that they value and they don’t want to have to ignore their histories in order to become “human” in the white definition. Rather than playing with steretyped lists, let’s displace “white” from the default position (for example, saying that the Democratic presidential contest is between not a woman and a black man, but a white woman and a black man). Let’s have white people stop presuming their experience is the universal experience, and that it’s okay to leave all the blogging about race to the (few?) bloggers of colour. I think that would be a better response than making fun of a legitimate critique of ScienceBlogs, and would go further to actually improving the climate for bloggers of color.
Are you up for the challenge? If so, add links to your posts on your ethnicity to the comments – I can’t wait to read them.
Anyone else going to join me?
(And to those trolls out there, drooling at the chance to start a flame war? I’ll delete you.)