My ethnic story, part I

Some events combined last week to make me feel like ScienceBlogs needs to have a serious discussion about race and science. Here's a place to start - how do white people tell their own racial or ethnic stories?

More below the fold...

So last week, Monday afternoon through Wednesday afternoon, I was at my university's Multicultural Forum. While it is required for some of us to go, and while it looked like a lot of the material was going to be familiar to me already, I decided to use the 2.5 days as a time to gauge this new city I'm living in - as staff, faculty and alums attend this forum, I could see how my coworkers think about race.

I witnessed a bunch of white people suddenly realize that the reason they thought they were "just people" and "just normal" and "just humans" and never thought about their ethnicity was both a sign of white privilege and a sign that they have perhaps lost something with respect to their ethnic pasts. Over and over again I heard people say "wow, I never even thought about it." or "wow, I didn't realize." I saw people in tears because they suddenly felt like perhaps their feeling "normal" hurt other people. I saw people realize that calling everyone "just humans" was not something that was desirable for many who wanted to keep a connection with their family histories. Suddenly, white folks from central Indiana who thought "ethnic" was equal to fake Chinese food and dark skin said they were now calling their parents and asking them "where did we come from?" and being upset with the fact that they didn't know. This was a new experience for them. And about time.

At the same time, this post was made, pointing out the overwhelming whiteness of bloggers blogging at ScienceBlogs. At first, some of my fellow Scibloggers made light of the fact that of 70 some Scienceblogs, only 3 (says the link) are not white (determined by photos). Yours truly is included in the "white" category.

There have been other connections made between this rather uncomfortable post and the viral blog "Stuff White People Like." But in fact, I think the joking that has occurred around the topic of race is getting in the way of our having a real conversation about what it means to be white - in the US, in science, in the blog world.

There have been other conversations about race and science before on ScienceBlogs - like Zuska asking why there aren't "race and science" blogs like there are "gender and science" blogs (which there are, but less so - see the comments), the kerfuffle over James Watson (particularly his connection to Seed) and more recently ScienceWoman asking why her students are so white. (Note she's also already got a post on race up today - she's beaten me!) But these stories don't try to make visible whiteness per se - arguably, blogs written by white people that don't explicitly talk about race ever are absolutely about whiteness, as part of what it means to be white in the US is to not ever have to think about it. (Note razib also blogged about this story, and is apparently counting himself as pretty white by the WWPL list...)

The Multicultural Forum made me realize how powerful telling one's own story about one's ethnic past can be for displacing "white" from "normal." I am going to tell you my story, and what it means for me to be white here, and I think some of my Sciblings are going to do similarly.

I am a first generation US citizen. I am also a triple citizen - Canadian, English, and US. My dad is a dual citizen, Canadian and English - my mom is dual too, US and English, but I get both my "Canadianness" and "Englishness" from my dad for the purposes of my passports.

On my dad's side - my grandfather was born in India, part of that whole British colonialism thing, and worked in China for Shell Oil. He married four times, and my grandmother was the second marriage - the first was to a woman who was almost immediately kidnapped by Chinese bandits, no kidding, and was ransomed through help from the Times of London, writing a book about it later which I confess not to have read (although I looked at the scary photos). Upon her cruise back to England, she met her second husband, and filed for divorce from my grandfather.

I'm not sure how he met my grandmother, who was indeed upper crust in England - her father was a violinist and a conductor, and she went to the Royal Academy of Music in London. They were constantly having famous performers and composers of the time through their house in England, and my grandmother, when she lived with us, always connected this to my love for playing the violin. My grandmother used to tell a story at Christmastime which involved her family's servants failing to light the Christmas pudding properly even when they had bought the best brandy because the cat had knocked the brandy over and they had to use the old kind again. This story always drove my mother crazy, but was very much my grandmother. And it was told as a class-based story, as all the players were "white" in the British sense. But the fact that all the actors are white doesn't make it less of an ethnic story.

My dad's parents were married, and he was born in England. However, my grandmother's sister had immigrated to Canada with her husband to live on a chicken farm near Vancouver, and the husband had just died, so my grandparents immigrated to Canada to help them out. They went on a boat to Montreal, and then by train, I think - all the way carting a baby Steinway piano that still sits in my parents' living room. My grandmother told me stories of washing her hair with eggs from the chickens, a far cry from being paraded in front of Europe's (white) musical literati.

At some point, my grandparents moved into Vancouver proper, and sent my dad to boarding school, because that's what people of their class did, never mind that the boarding school was also in Vancouver.

At some point when my dad was getting towards high school, they decided to move to California. My dad tells a story of the move where my grandmother decided to throw out a huge collection of cigarette cards in favor of her business's stationary (with the wrong address on it), which my dad is convinced could have been the financial success of my family. Ah well. So my dad went to high school outside of Santa Cruz, my grandmother developed her business, and my grandfather met wife number three and got divorced again. My grandfather died of cancer when my dad was almost done with his PhD - my mom never met him.

So far, this story has been a lot about education and moving for family reasons. My dad decided to go to college on the East Coast, where he had never been, and to which he drove in a mini. He went to graduate school back in California, and post-docs too - he says he would have remained a post-doc for ever if someone hadn't put together an application package for him to get a faculty position where he still is.

One of his post-docs brought him to England, however, for a year, where he met my mom. It didn't take them long to decide to get married (a couple of months, I think?) - they had the ceremony in England, and a big reception in both London and California.

My mom's side of the story is in the next post. Thanks for reading so long!!


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Hi, thanks for an interesting post.

I posted an article you might be interested in last night, about a review of the Annals of Eugenics from 1927. I plan on writing a follow up exploring post-war eugenics and race issues in science later this week, which might be of even more interest.

I know your post isn't about eugenics per se, but it's an important part of the history of race-relations and science that ran on to some extent until disturbingly recently. I do think that if people are serious about understanding these issues, they need to appreciate the history behind them.

You mean British citizenship? I don't think there is such a thing as English citizenship.