Election day thoughts on race and gender

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.


  1. This year is indeed a watershed event for both race and gender politics. What I’m hoping for is the end of identity politics and instead more of a issues based politics. I’m tired of politicians using race, gender type issues to play to the most wretched elements of humanity.
    While the US has made a lot of progress in the last few decades – there is still a long way to go – but having traveled to so many different places and interacted with so many cultures – at the human level there is always suspicion and misunderstanding of those who don’t “look” like us, “talk” like us or, “think” like us. The us of course being the majority culture.
    I’ve lived in a bi-cultural, inter-racial environment for a greater part of my adult life and I find that both the cultures and races I interact with have a certain degree of distance with each other. There is a gap that exists and while the ugly displays – like in the past – have disappeared – basic human mis-understanding remains. The saddest part is the unspoken gap, the distance, the shying away that bothers me. I just hope that while time and understanding and greater interaction we’ll be able to collectively get better at it with each passing generation.
    I will say one thing though. Even though progress has been made there is no excuse to justify the feelings you or I harbor regarding those different in race and gender. It has to be a significant priority in my interactions with others that I make an explicit effort in my heart and mind to rise above them.

  2. Since I travel quite a bit I have a United 1K card. Its amazing that every time I go to the East coast and try to get on any of the “frequent flyer” lines at security, I am given a second screening and asked to verify my United Card with a driver’s license.
    The thing is, I get it a lot less now than 15 years ago, and have never felt it in SF.

  3. Hi Charlene,
    Change is slow to happen.
    Nevertheless it happens. : )
    Personal predjudices are very hard to eradicate.
    Cultural acceptances are sometimes very difficult if people dont move around and get to see beyond their home towns.
    And yes there are very few Women in the technology space that is Web 2.0. Try the Web 3.0 space where there is even less of us (and this is the future allegedly). Its depressing.
    It starts in the schools.
    This is where the change needs to happen and more female role models are needed. Maybe we need another Hedy Lamarr for our celebrity obsessed society?
    Who knows.

  4. In reading and watching the news coverage of the election, I felt the media got it wrong in saying over and over that we had elected the first African-American president.
    Barack Obama won because he is the first post-racial presidential candidate. That is, he inspired people who didn’t care what color he was. Including a lot of traditional old white people.
    This gives me hope that we will continue moving to a society where these things don’t matter very much.
    When people ask me to describe you, the first word that comes to mind is “smart.” Also up there are “personable” and . . . well, “short.” Asian and woman don’t seem to be the most important descriptors. Hopefully, this means I’m a post-racist, post-sexist [white] guy. Still heightist, I’m afraid . . .
    We’re going to have to add “visionary” next week, too.

  5. Larissa Fair says:

    Hi Charlene,
    I completely understand and often receive the same questions (“Where are you from? No…where are you FROM?”).
    It’s amazing that this nation has come so far – yet as many of us (unfortunately) know, there is a long way to go. We’ve come a long way from Jim Crow laws and Japanese Internment camps, but there is always more that can be done to improve racial (and gender) stereotypes within this country.
    The great thing about Obama’s win is it was not only due to the African-American vote, but the fact that he brought people together, no matter their race and color.

  6. Charlene,
    Let’s hope that the Obama win is a step in the right direction. I have the luxury of working with many great woman as colleagues at Leverage Software and within the industry. Just yesterday, I was on a panel with Clara Shih of Salesforce.com. It was a breath of fresh air to have Clara moderate the discussion. I hope and believe that we will see more of this at a greater rate of change.

  7. Luanne Mattson says:

    I often ask the question “where are your people from?” And I ask because I am curious about people who have different backgrounds. I even ask white people. I know that some will ask that question with lots of baggage built in, quick to judge the person you are now because of the people who came before you. But sometimes the question is entirely innocent. I am white, and I am sure I don’t entirely understand your perspective. But I am interested.
    And I agree with Larissa’s comment. Obama brought people together. It’s a great new start!

  8. I often think about how our grandchildren will incredulously look back at the divisive concept of “demographics” that categorized (and marginalized) people throughout the 20th century. Social media enables us to connect and collaborate by interest and enables marketers to reach us individually rather than by demographic groups. No one likes demographics. No one wants demographics. They are just a 20th century proxy for the holy grail: the ability to reach individuals. It is my belief that the cultural shift towards collaboration that is catalyzed by social media tools and Web 2.0 technologies will, ultimately, render demographics obsolete.

  9. Nice post – I am far from being Gloria Steinem, but agree. The Valley is lacking great women thinkers and speakers. We’ve had our share, but they seem to come with their own drama and are either loved or loathed. Simply, I’d settle for smart, fun, and someone I’d like to grab coffee with if either one of us had more than 10 minutes. Keep paving the road for us. There’s strength in numbers.

  10. Just saw this article now. There is definitely a long way to go where we will treat all people as equals, however Barack’s win is an important first step and I believe it’s a message of our potential.
    I wrote a few posts about Barack during the campaign http://www.spiritinthevillage.com/obama.