On the date of this historic election, I am reminded in a very personal way how far we have come as a country and as a society. Recently, I was copying my Michigan birth certificate (more on why below) when I noticed some of the boxes on the form.
I was born in 1966 and my parents had to fill out the field “Color or Race”. And while my father had an “Occupation” box to fill out, my mother didn’t have that.
This is a stark reminder that we are barely a generation into being a “post-racial” and equal rights society. It’s sometimes hard for me to remember this as I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is a racial melting pot with half of the population being non-white. Being a highly transient region also means that we are much more open to new people coming from different communities and cultures.
Given this context, it’s amazing that we are on the verge of electing either a non-white president, a woman vice-president, and had a strong showing from a woman presidential candidate. But is the rest of the country really that ready to accept a non-white or woman president? I would hope so, but given the proximity of our pre- post-racial, post-gender past, I’m pessimistic.
First, I work in the technology space, and the scarcity of women speakers and attendees in meetings and in conferences is a constant reminder that we have a long way to go. There is the usual uproar that there are so few women speakers at the upcoming Web 2.0 Summit conference. It’s not as if the organizers (very fine people, Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle) aren’t trying to get women on the stage they definitely are keen to include women. There just aren’t that many of us at the level that they are looking for, and we’re busy. busy, busy. (For example, I’m not going to the Web 2.0 Summit this year because of a family reunion out of town.) Without that visible leadership in the public eye, it’s hard to change misconceptions — just ask any woman engineer the looks they tell people what they do.
The flip side of working in the social media space is that it’s one of the most open, accepting communities I’ve ever been a part of. The barriers of race and gender are less visible in some ways because we interact with each other online — it’s less obvious in a twitter conversation than in person. And search engines don’t have a built-in bias, and although some the people creating inbound links may inadvertently overlook me, it’s compensated by the mass of other links that I get because of the quality of the content that I produce.
And on the race side, I’m even more pessimistic. Let me share with you the reason why I was photocopying my birth certificate. I travel quite a bit for professional and personal reasons and sometimes find myself in unfamiliar territory. Or at least, I’m unfamiliar to the people in these communities.
For example, this summer, I was buying something while on vacation and asked the shop owner to ship the item to me. I gave her my driver’s license, which had my address on it, and she remarked, “Oh, you were born here.” I didn’t know which was worse, that she thought you had to be born in the US to have a driver’s license or that she automatically assumed that I was foreign-born because I’m Asian.
And this isn’t an isolated case. On almost every trip, I’m asked where I’m from. And they aren’t interested in the state or city where I live but where “my people” are from. It’s often an innocent question and I don’t take it personally. And yet, it’s a constant reminder that in some people’s eyes, I don’t really fit in, don’t really belong.
So I copied my birth certificate, reduced it in size, and carry it in my wallet, just in case I ever need to prove the country of my birth. I think of it as my security blanket, my constant reminder that no matter what others may think, I am a citizen of this great country and that I have a right to be here.
I look forward to the day when I can toss that photocopy out of my wallet. And may that day come soon.