This is a reflection for my "Class, Race, and Gender in Engineering Education" course with Alice Pawley. This week's topic: race.

But first: a sidestep into disability. It's hard to understate how thankful I am to Alice for getting transcripts for the radio shows the class listened to this week. I know it's sad that my expectations for access are wired so low that the prospect of being able to do (not fake!) my audio-visual homework sends me into a thrall of joy, but it's only through the actions of teachers like Alice, workshops like NextProf, hosts like Hacker School, and so forth that I'm able to recalibrate myself towards the notion that sometimes, the world can accommodate me. It's hard, this rewiring into privilege. You don't want to cause trouble; you know access that comes from outside you can also be removed from you at any time, and you don't want to be reliant on them because -- what if?

I know that there are echoes of some these things in racial privilege, and also that race and disability are completely different (but intersecting) form of kyriarchy -- and I'll leave you to your own thoughts on that. This is as good a way as any to launch into my reflections on the topic at hand.

Who decides who gets to belong to a racial group?

One radio show explored the Chukchansi, a Native American tribe with many poverty-stricken members, a casino, and the power to determine its own membership -- situations not unique among Native American peoples, situations that emerged from government and tribe decisions over many years. It's a math problem: if the casino earns $X, and there are Y members of the tribe, each member gets $X/Y in income. It's also a membership problem: if a certain council decides that certain people are no longer tribe members, Y decreases, $X/Y increases, and the remaining tribe members earn more money. And so they do -- person after person after person, decimating the tribe, multiplying their profits.

We'll state -- but leave aside for the moment -- the question whether this contributes to a stereotypical portrayal of Native peoples as poor and viciously desperate for money.

But there's the question of racial membership determination. If we assume Native peoples should have the power to determine their own membership -- we could just as well assume otherwise, but let's say we do -- then who decides when "they" (a boundary -- who's the "they" who get to do deciding?) are using this "power" the "right" way? Whose values ought to be imposed? If there "should" be oversight, who "should" provide it? The tribe itself? The kicked-out former members? Other Native groups? Non-Native peoples? (How do we draw and determine and renegotiate the boundaries for all the groups we've just invoked?)

And what does it mean, getting "kicked out" of the tribe, when those people so ejected see it as an injustice, a misstatement of the "truth" of things? They speak their Native language, practice their Native ways; their own choice of identity remains solidly Native.

What if your race identity differs from your family's?

Another radio show featured a family that was part black -- but such a small part black that they could "pass" as white. Some of the children self-identified as black, others as white. It's an old tradition dating back to before some of Thomas Jefferson's part-black kids decided they were going to pass for white like dad. It's also a good example of how race isn't constructed by physical features; look, a white-skinned black person, an asian who looks hispanic, a native american with red hair. (I know one typically capitalizes "Asian" and "Hispanic" and so forth, but halfway through typing this sentence realized "wait, I didn't do that for 'white' and 'black,' so what would happen if...?)

We pick our categories all the time. We know how other people see the groups we're going to choose to identify with. I can be Asian, American, Asian-American, Chinese, Chinese-Filipino, Chinese-Filipino-American... which one gets me treated like an immigrant to my own country? Am I trying just a little bit too hard to assimilate? Which plays the sympathy your-family-comes-from-the-third-world card, and which makes people think I'm a rich foreign student? What language do I speak? Am I good at math? So, Mel/Mallory, what's your real name -- your Chinese name? (I sometimes have a hard time remembering what my Chinese name is.) Where are you from? No, I mean where are you from? No, I mean where are you really from? (Record so far: 5 times in a row before "Illinois" was accepted as an answer.) And it's not just the social capital: what scholarship category are you going to lump me into?

With race, I have the luxury of choosing my descriptive word (sometimes), but I'll always look Asian. With disability, I have the choice of which way to appear; I lipread well enough to play a (somewhat clueless) hearing person with an accent. Or I can say I have "a little hearing loss, but I'm ok." Or that I'm hard-of-hearing or hearing impaired. Or deaf, or Deaf (the two are different). I have the privilege of saying nothing and having people assume I'm hearing by default, and oftentimes -- as outspoken as I can be about my hearing now -- I'll take that privilege, because it's much less effort in so many ways. (But: Scholarships! and Resources! for Disabled People! and also: Stereotypes! and Untrue Things! about Disabled People!)

And what can we choose about the race of others?

I get to choose, to some extent, the race my kids will be. They're going to look part-Asian (assuming they are biological and not adopted), but the other part... Asian? Or something else? They'll grow up with some Chinese-Filipino traditions, mostly because I like diniguan and think Simbang Gabi is beautiful and want to teach them through the burning of incense that we honor our ancestors the way the ancestors asked to be honored. But they'll also grow up speaking English as one of their mother tongues, because it is their mother's tongue -- and they'll grow up signing because otherwise I won't be able to have conversations with my offspring until they're 5 or so (I can't hear kids' voices) -- and they'll probably grow up in Western culture of some sort because I will go crazy in an Asian country.

But I can choose whether they get exposed to Mandarin as kids to forestall the dirty looks I've gotten as a Chinese-looking person who speaks awful, American-accented Chinese. And I can choose whether they look to all the world like mixed-race kids, or whether they look like they come from a Specific Somewhere larger than the home their father and I make for them. And if they're mixed, I have the luxury of choosing which country they look mixed in, whether they're surrounded by people who regard them as anomalies that should-not-quite-be, or whether mixed is normal. One of the weirdest parts of being in Germany this summer was realizing that nobody was staring at my half-Chinese, half-white-American nephew when we went out. Part of me wanted to shout "Hey, people! Do you not see this kid's half-Asian?" and the other half was going "YES! It doesn't MATTER here!"

It's resource allocation time!

They'll be my kids, no matter what race they are. But it does matter -- at least for the census bureau, for school funding, for how the neighbor kids will treat them, for a lot of things -- what race they are. Omi & Winant's book Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed.) makes the point that race categorization (and other sorts of categorization, such as gender, sexuality, etc.) is important in our society because we've decided it partially determines how resources are allocated.

Of course, it takes a Really Dang Long Time to allocate resources to individuals. Too long. So we say all Black people are Black and all Hispanic people are Hispanic and so on, despite the tremendous range of diversity within each of those categories. And the categories are made up! "Hispanics" used to be "Persons of Spanish Mother Tongue" in the 1950 census, when the category was first created. The concept of the "Hispanic vote" did not exist, because "Hispanics" as a group did not exist; the individuals did, but they hadn't assembled into the political power block they are today.

Which brings up another point: the lumping-together is a disempowering thing, but it can also be an empowering thing. "Asian Americans" united Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, etc. in the 1960's who formerly didn't see their interests as aligned. But by the 1980's, they could protest the secret "Asian quota" (maximum) set by university admissions offices. And they could be incredibly stereotyped as studious and Good At Math... and if the Asians could do well in school despite a terrible school system, and the Jews could too, then the Chicanos must be lazy bums whose group norms don't encourage academic performance. (I'm being sarcastic, by the way. This is the same argument that made me cross my own culture's line of respect-to-elders and publicly contradict my grandmother.)

Categorization is a double-edged sword; you can put yourself in a box with some other people, but you don't always get to choose the other things that other-other people throw into the box with you.

Why don't they all assimilate? I mean, the Europeans did it.

Omi and Winant's book explains something called "ethnicity theory," which is based on the "immigrant analogy," which was based on Europeans; if all these different Europeans integrated into America, can't Black/Red/Yellow/Brown/etc people do the same?

Um, no. "American" culture was made by Europeans. Guess who's going to have an easier time assimilating into it? Yep. Europeans. (I mean, eventually. Let's not forget the way this country used to treat Irish. Or the Italians. Or the Polish, or the...) The argument "the white people did it, why can't you?" sounds to me like the argument of "well, all these guys fit into engineering just fine, why can't all these women?", which in turn sounds to me like "I got this suit custom-tailored to my individual body shape! Why can't you wear it and look awesome? Wait, why... why don't you want to wear it? It looks great on me!"

Further uncomfortable thoughts await!

But I don't have time/room/space/RSI-buffer left to write about them here and now. A sample, though:

  • Is race/class a zero-sum game? If rich (or white) people win, do poor (or colored) people always lose the same amount? (What does it look like in a world(view) that is not zero-sum?)
  • How bothered I always am in Manila when I, a casually-dressed Chinese-looking stranger, stroll through the gates of my grandmother's subdivision... as Filipino workers, some of whom are more well-dressed than I, some of whom probably pass these gates far more often than I do, are stopped by the gun-wielding guard at the door for an ID check.
  • The phenomena (described by Omi & Winant) of wealthy whites moving into suburbs where they can take care of themselves -- local property taxes support local schools and so on -- leaving racial minorities and the poor behind in the big cities and effectively withdrawing federal support from them. For one: is that "bad"? (Why? What's "bad" about it?) and two: I keep seeing the shiny subdivisions in the Philippines where my family lives in nice houses behind barbed wire.
  • Omi & Winant also point out that viewing racial status as "victimization" was actually a triumph -- before then, killing/enslaving natives/Africans/etc. was just the natural order of things, something those people deserved. Seeing it as wrong and victimizing was a step forward. I see it as only a starting point, though (and I think they do as well).

I say "uncomfortable" because I was surprised at how strong my emotional reactions on this topic have been -- in an academic discussion, where the readings and the conversation came from the safe place of intellect, these things have still found ways to reach me. And "race" isn't even my biggest bugaboo; I'm from a privileged class (the middle one) and a privileged race (Asians have "positive" stereotypes compared to most racial minorities). What's going to happen when we hit gender? What's going to happen if I try to tackle disability? (We've seen these two are like a giant volcano locked behind a thick steel door for me. Oh, yeah. STEEL DOOR.)

I found that in order to engage intellectually, I had to let myself feel emotionally. That I could not only engage intellectually -- that cutting off that part of my humanity would be a different sort of wrong. And so I had to read slowly, and pause, and let myself race through parts, and let myself loop back through parts, and let myself stop and rant and rage and then go back and circle through and ask "why are you so bothered by this, Mel Self?" It's not that "self-therapy" was the goal, but... I found that it was a means, a necessary stage and step and tool, towards my actual goal of the beginnings of good solid intellectual engagement.

Because my brain is connected to the rest of me.

And because the rest of me -- actually, all of me -- has a race, and experiences shaped and defined by that race, and how other people have seen and treated that race.  And I like being all of me at once, all that I am.

I'll end with one of my favorite quotes from Omi & Winant (p. 158): To oppose racism one must notice race.

Aaaand... that's a wrap.

Citations (for Alice)

Tribes (Part 1: I know I am, but what are you?). (2013, March 29). This American Life. WBEZ. Retrieved from

As Black As We Wish To Be. (2012, November 28). State Of The Re:Union. Retrieved from

Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.