My ethnic story, part II

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.)


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I do not have my own blog, but I will accept your challenge if posting a comment will do.

I am, I suppose, as white as white gets, having Scandinavian ancestors on my fathers side and English on my mothers. But my mother was English Quaker. Try that one for a feeling of community disassociation, especially considering I grew up in California. In second grade, which would have been 1965, we had but one black girl at our school. My mom made a special effort to befriend her family and she made me a special protector for Beulah as she was so shy. I was to make sure she was not hassled and that she came with me to the Brownie (Girl Scout) meetings of which my mother was the leader. Some of the girls, some of my friends, were not allowed to attend as long as that girl was there. But Beulahs mother became the assistant leader of the troop. We had maybe eight to ten girls who got together each week and had a great time.

As I grew up, I never really belonged to any group. We did not attend meeting, for my mother, Friends was more a lifes philosophy than a religion. Which sums it up quite well for me too. We did not go to church. (My grandfather was reputed to joke, the only church Ill attend is a round one, so the devil cant corner me.) Our friends were a mix of all backgrounds. My mothers closest friend was Hispanic. One of my best friends in junior high was from India. (I thought her mother was the most beautiful woman I ever met.) I did not, and still dont, wear makeup. That really set me apart in high school, and in college, and it still does.

It was gratifying to see racial hatred retreat as I grew older, though I see it raise its ugly head time and again. Religious hatred, however, is in full advance. In the seventies, gender discrimination was still prevalent. I wanted to study mathematics or science, but was counseled by two different counselors not to consider it. They were both men, I might add. I majored in Business Accounting instead. After several years as an accountant and becoming greatly BORED, I returned to school and I now have a BS and an almost MS in Biology. My husband is an accountant, but my son wants to be a Paleontologist.

What I have learned to live with is that I do not belong to any group based on the social structure of today. I have nothing in common with my husbands business associates and their spouses, predominately white I might add, if that makes any difference. We live outside a small town where I raise horses and chickens, and my husband commutes. The towns residents are quite mid-west with a growing population of people of Hispanic descent. The two groups keep a distance from each other. I have already been ostracized from the Jesus-is-God group, because I wont accept that, or buy any herbal remedies from the local JuicePlus lady. The talk often surrounds the benefits of the newest woo center that has opened in town. The centers come and go, the current number stands at three, I think. I need to improve my Spanish, for sure, but even so I feel like I grow a second head whenever I go into a bodega. I love to cook and prefer the right ingredients. I also prefer Coke bottled in Mexico as it is made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup and just plain tastes better. So I am too white for the Hispanic world, but not white enough for the white world.

I have been a computer geek since the time I helped run punch cards across the college campus. But high-speed internet was unavailable in my neighborhood until late 2006. I think I was first on the list of installations. Anyway, it was not until recently that I have discovered the blogosphere. Science blogs are fun, but I dont think I belong here either. Atheism leaves me feeling empty, but apparently it is a prerequisite. Is a Quaker Scientist an oxymoron? Or just a moron? I dont need the vitriol. I keep thinking, do these guys realize that fundamentalism does not have to be about religion? When I think of scientist, I think of the politeness and pure class that Einstein evinced. I have had a rude awakening.

So I keep my head low wherever I go. Well, mostly anyway. Pot shots away!

Doh - should have read Part II before commenting on the first post. You can delete the original if you like. Here's my entry into the challenge:

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 its bearing on 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.

I'd blog about it, but there doesn't seem enough to tell.

On either parent's side, you have to travel back a few hundred years to get outside the U.S. Either way, it's to England/Ireland. If I want to talk about "diversity" in my family, it's the fact that my dad's family is Southern (grew up in Florida, currently in NC) and my mom's is Californian (with brief sojourns in Michigan and Switzerland). When I was in high school, I wrote a "historical documents" paper about a letter my grandmother wrote describing the Watts riots from the POV of a white woman with three or four young children at home. That is probably as interesting as my genealogy gets.

My life is more interesting than my ancestry. My father was in the military growing up, which is considerably more diverse than anywhere else in America I might have lived. In 3rd grade, on a base in Germany, my two best friends were Hispanic and Black/multiracial (as far as I can tell from names and photos - it's not something that was ever talked about). We spent three years in England, which was not racially diverse at all but had lots of culture shock (I knew I had an accent. I was not allowed to forget it) that heavily contributed to my acceptance of different lifestyles.

For a while in high school I was annoyed at having no family history worth mentioning. It's my own life that makes me anything other than basic whitebread American. I am certainly envious of people who have that kind of connection to the past or a broader community (army brats don't grow roots), but I'm appreciative enough of my personal "culture" now that it's a decade in the past.

My ancestry is also lily-white. Pure Danish on my father's side. Mother's side is part Swedish, part Danish, and one branch that we've traced all the way back to mid-17th century Connecticut. We've lost the ancestral language: all of my grandparents were born in the US (of the previous generation 7 of 8--all but the Colonial branch--were immigrants). However, we still have retained a few family traditions which are recognizably Danish.

Then, during my first grade year, we moved to Miami. That gave me significant exposure to Hispanic (mostly Cuban, but a fair amount of upper class Central and South American as well) culture--Hispanics outnumbered blacks in my schools. I took Spanish starting in grade 8 and by senior year of high school was reading Borges in the original (I'm not sure I could do that now as I am badly out of practice). There was also a significant Jewish population in my area. In those days I didn't pay much attention to ethnic or religious background ; if you were good at what you did, that was good enough for me. But the issue of race was clearly out there; one year we had school cancelled for two or three days due to riots (cops who had beaten a black man to death were acquitted even though it was clear they were not justified in using excessive force). And there was still de facto segregation in the public schools: my high school was about 70 percent white, while at least one high school in the county (in Florida school district = county) was more than 99 percent black.

I think that on balance the Miami experience is helpful in dealing with other scientists. Many of my colleagues are foreign-born, and I try to respect the cultural differences. By now I know too much to completely ignore ethnic background, but the question for me is still whether somebody does good work.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 10 Mar 2008 #permalink

I'd like to make a distinction here. What you and others are describing is more about ethnicity and less about race. Both White people and people of color could describe their ethnic roots and that would be interesting but I don't think it would lead us very deep into the issues of race. I agree with you when you say not to leave all the blogging about race to the (few) bloggers of color. The open discussion of race in this country is the responsibility of all people.

Telling the tale of White ethnicity is great but it doesn't really get at the race issue. Instead I think having White people discuss how being a White person in America has effected their life would be far more helpful.

I'll give an example of what I mean. In the 2nd grade my family relocated from a blue-collar White neighborhood to an "inner-city" neighborhood with mostly Black and Latino families. My mother took us in to register at the local public school. She had no school records for us at that time. The secretary (White woman) looked at my sister and I from over the counter and announced that since we were good readers we should go into the most advanced class. Obviously this is just one small incident of racial privilege in my life and I could come up with dozens more. I guess what bothers me is that we don't usually take the time to do so.

Everyone experiences race everyday in America. For White people it can be hard to see but all the more important that we try.

Here are my own two cents.

One interesting point about discussing ethnicity, I guess, Bringindo, is that it makes us realize that we all have a complex family history. Regarding the white vs. non-white racial privileges, I've never really experienced it (except for agents in an airport being less mean to me than to Latino people) - but I've been in the US only for a bit more than 2 years. I think I've experienced more positive discrimination for showing some cleavage than for being white... and that's a whole story in itself.

I think people commenting on this post would benefit from reading some of the literature on so-called "whiteness" studies, and on re-thinking the concept of 'race' generally. A good place to start is the work of Barbara J. Fields, a historian at Columbia University who has argued that the term 'race' itself is always a proxy for racism. Here's a short excerpt from an essay of hers posted online:

Substituted for racism, race transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of the object. And because race denotes a state of mind, feeling or being, rather than a program or pattern of action, it radiates a semantic and grammatical ambiguity that helps to restore an appearance of symmetry, especially with the help of some sort of concept such as whiteness that imperceptibly moves the pea from race to racial identity. Whiteness, and I think this is going to be even if you never use that word it's going to be out there in the audience that you reach with this film - it operates by a series of displacements. First it substitutes race for racism. Then it postulates identity as the social substance of race. And finally it attributes racial identity to persons of European descent and indeed other persons of non-European and non-African descent. By these maneuvers it is possible to reinstate, at least it would appear to reinstate agency and identity.

Whiteness and just ordinary white people with agency even if only agency in doing evil, and furthermore by equating race with identity and attributing it to white persons, whiteness seems to banish the asymmetry that is so troubling but that is also the essence of racism. The vagueness of the concept and its ability to cross back and forth across the border between individual and collective, between subjective and objective and between optional and compulsory have tempted scholars to collapse racism, which is a forcible and authoritative assignment of race from outside, into racial identity. Once racism - having passed through what I call a buffer zone of whiteness - crosses the border into identity and volunteerism it returns to a starting point with an alias. Which is race and a new passport. The blurred photograph seems to show a neutral face and the impostor goes surrounded by the benevolent trappings of agency. What is actually a brand becomes an identity and those who wear the brand become agents of its burning into their own flesh. This is a quotation from a recently well-regarded historical scholar. `Race as an embodied category of difference and a constructed aspect of identity is not imposed by one group upon another. It is a product of an ongoing dialogue. Racial identifications function as tools above domination and resistance.' This is what I call gelding and taming the rogue elephant. So that once the domestication is complete, those to whom race has been attached as a stigma instead appear as its willing coauthors and the coauthorship has been popularized as an act of resistance.

You've opened quite a can of worms here. My ancestry is so mixed in the past 3 of 4 generations, that things would get totally out of hand if I went back any further.

I'm confused by what you are trying to do here Alice.

In an attempt to do my part to displace whiteness from "normal,"

OK, a laudable goal, for sure. But what you seem to be doing here is encouraging the sort of thing that makes Zuska go bonkers when observed in her comments. It seems as though you are trying to get people to say "yeah but I'm not really part of white privilege because I'm descended from X, Y or Z group of phenotypic "whites" that experienced discrimination".

I tend to see this like I viewed the Jim Watson resignation letter:

�I belong to a group of whites which has historically been looked down upon by, discriminated against by and suffered hardship under the boot heel of, some other group of whites. Usually those bastards, the English. Therefore I stand in refutation against every possible bit of evidence that environmental and discriminatory factors might be relevant to group differences in performance found between white and black Americans.�

How is this any different from men explaining how they shouldn't be tagged with the male-privilege label because of various faked-up equivalencies?

I'm with DrugMonkey. This is confusing. You seem to be confusing family heritage with ethnicity and they are not the same thing. An exercise in tracing back ones family tree does not make one any more aware of their 'white privilege' or ethnicity (whatever that even means). It is typical of North America to go searching for some kind of deeper heritage that goes beyond the continent. Why can't you all just say you are American or Canadian because you live in America or Canada instead of this 'my grandmother was half Irish and half Scottish' so I'm really 1/8 Scottish and 1/8 Irish, and whatever. Is it a reflection on the lack of resonant tradition within North American culture? Does this impinge on your sense of ethnicity? If North Americans were better at accepting that they now live side by side with people of all races and were united in the notion of being North American rather than 'whatever', perhaps many of these racism issues would disappear or be alleviated in some way.

I just don't understand how you expect to improve a situation by encouraging people to magnify their 'ethnic origins' in this manner. Everyone is unique in their family heritage, everyone is identical in being a human being. Identifying historical family discriminations to wave around doesn't help anyone. Perhaps if you're trying to have more empathy for immigrants in America this would be the way to go - a country descended from immigrants is remarkably intolerant to those seeking sanctuary.

Whatever the absolute value of family history, as an outsider (of the North American continent), I mostly agree with Propter Doc. I always found extremely puzzling the fact that Americans would claim to be Irish, English, German, Scottish,... when their ancestors arrived in the US in some cases well over a century ago, and when their present is far from what people in those countries are experiencing now (for an example look at tours organized for Americans in Ireland). I don't mean there's no point on knowing this and integrating this in one's identity, but... puzzling. Then again thinking of different countries, different reasons for migration, different groups,... there is such a wide spectrum of situations and of ways of dealing with them...

What is the policy here on deleting comments?

I posted a comment rather pointedly skeptical of this project here which has apparently been eliminated.

Or perhaps it was a technology snafu rather than an editorial decision?

Oran, I deleted your comment. I didn't interpret it so much as "pointedly skeptical" as "insulting" and "troll-like." I said above that I would delete such comments.

If you want to reframe and resubmit your comment, you are welcome to. But I am really not interested in putting my story out there to have people come and insult me, let alone the other commenters.

I'm not intending to subvert ScienceWoman's general comment policy. But I did put a warning on this post.

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