Identity, or How I Learned to Balance on One Foot on a Small Piece of Earth

I was born female. I'm starting out on pretty firm ground. 
But girls aren't supposed to have short hair. 
Dig a circular hole around me.

I liked watching "The Smurfs" and "Scooby-Doo" and "The Dukes of Hazard" and "CHiPS" when I was a kid. 
But Indians have no claim to American 80s culture. 
Dig another hole.

I love Star Wars with the passion of a thousand fiery suns.
But Star Wars is for boys. 
Dig another hole.

I love books by Asimov, Herbert, Clarke, Bradbury. I liked Timothy Zahn's first Star Wars sequel books. I subscribed to Analog, Asimov's, and SF&F for years.
But hard science-fiction is not for liberals. 
Dig another hole.

I studied physics and astronomy. I love math. I have degrees in electrical engineering. I work in the tech sector where I'm often the only woman in the room.
But women don't like STEM fields. 
Dig the holes a little deeper.

I like to paint and draw and dance.
But engineers aren't creative. 
Dig the holes a little wider.

I like parties and books by Jane Austen and wine.
But that's not geeky. 
Dig them deeper still.

I've played Master of Orion and World of Warcraft, Halo and Portal, Pac-Man and Tetris.
But girls aren't gamers.
Dig them wider still.

I speak Tamil. I know how to wear a sari and cook sambar.
But that's not American. 
Turn the holes into pits.

I dated before marriage. I married a white man.
But that's not Indian. 
Turn the pits into craters.

I took his last name. I had his child.
But that's not feminist. 
Turn the craters into canyons.

I was happy to leave the child and go to work every day.
But that's not motherly. 
The canyons grow deeper.

I hate shopping. I like romantic comedies. I hate high heels. I love dressing up.
But that's not ... anything! 
The canyons look bottomless.

Now I'm standing on a tiny bit of land, enough to balance on one foot, and staring into the abyss. Everything that's part of who I am is falling away.

typedef void  ME;

So to all the lonely, sad [your identities here*] who are feeling marginalized right now, who feel like everything they believe in is being taken away, I have this to say: Guess what? 


But I am stronger than the abyss.
I can dance on foot and be who I am.
So can you.

And if we stand together, side by side, we'll find ourselves together on level ground, and we can stop shouting at each other across chasms.

*Possible examples:

  • white male nerd
  • gay conservative
  • geeky black woman
  • female atheist
  • LEGO-loving princess

All Mixed Up

Skin color is a hot topic right now. The police shooting(s) of unarmed black men is the main impetus and raises some interesting questions about the future of race relations in ethnically diverse neighborhoods. I happen to live in a place where many couples are "mixed" which means that our children have skin colors ranging from very dark to very light. You'd be hard pressed to tell what ethnic background some of these kids have by looking at them. You'd also guess wrongly about what many of their parents look like.

This is, I hope, a peek into the near term future of humanity. Genetic research has shown the falsity of the concept of "race" based distinctions as they are usually defined: by skin color, language, or region. The texture of our hair and the shape of our eyes has no bearing on any other aspect of our bodies. So why are we still obsessed over cultural or "racial" purity? Why do people assume that children must look like their parents? What will happen when we can engineer ourselves, or our children, to a particular appearance?

The typical dystopian vision of humanity is that everyone would cleave to the Northern European ideal, but I think we need to give people more credit. We'll always have rebels who want to violate norms and rock the boat. We'll have the arbitrariness of human chemistry and parents who want their children to resemble themselves. This means that we'll always have people who look different from each other, which begs the question, what will we do with these differences once they are consciously chosen?

Here's a possible scenario: a group of police officers of varied appearance encounters an unarmed, male youth. Today, they'd make assumptions about him based on his appearance versus their own. In the future, they won't be able to do that. A dark skinned youth could have light skinned parents, or dark skinned parents, or something in between. The police officers would have to stop, think, and assess their danger level based on other factors.  The most salient will likely be economic class and the appearance of the neighborhood to which the police are called.

In our long history, in plenty of societies where everyone basically looked the same, the people with power still found ways to abuse those without. That aspect of our nature, I suspect, will not go away even in our post-human, post-racial future. The sad truth of today is that many poor neighborhoods in the U.S.A. are populated by people with dark skin. It's going to be interesting to witness a future when that's no longer the case.

Less Is More

Ah, suburbia, that wonderful invention for the average American which has gone so terribly wrong and yet so many still embrace. At a time when we are worrying about the future generation’s digital overload, we’re making such little effort to move away from this living structure that only perpetuates our physical isolation. Urban planners and visionaries have created some incredible ideas for solutions, but none seem to stick. We need to find a way to break free from the false promises of a home and a yard of one's own.

The people who fall the hardest for the suburban dream are usually families, or couples planning to start a family. If you’re going for the trifecta - a baby, a dog, and a lawn - the suburban tract home is still your easiest route. As someone with two of the three, however, I can tell you that this checklist is misleading at best and outright counter-productive at worst.

What families really need to raise strong, resilient, and independent children is a neighborhood and a sense of community. It really does take a village, and not necessarily one with separate, isolated huts fenced off from each other. The modern village would be a place with open, natural space that’s accessible by foot without having to navigate the same streets as cars driving 40 MPH. It’s a place where parents can be at home with their windows open to hear if someone’s child needs help. It’s a place with common areas for dogs to run, for people to grow flowers and vegetables and fruits, and for people to gather socially.

This might seem like too much to ask, but this was the original intention and promise of creating a suburban landscape. Along the way, however, we traded prestige in the form of ever more magnificent homes for land and community. We traded open spaces for giant roads. Even in planned neighborhoods with amazing parks, most people have to get in a car and drive their children or dogs to reach them. It’s quintessentially American to think that Bigger is Better, but perhaps it’s time to redefine that aspect of the American dream before we’re lost in a nightmare.

The digital world, which is the latest scapegoat for What’s Wrong With Kids Today, may end up being our salvation. If the promise of virtual reality can be translated to the working world without the pitfalls of the uncanny valley, parents could work effectively from home. This would alleviate traffic and the need for ever larger roads and faster cars. We could turn that extra space into communal open spaces for play, exercise and gardening. Always-on communication can ease the modern fears of sending children out on their own. It isn’t the same level of risk/reward that kids used to have, but at least they could be free to play without the immediacy of adult eyes.

We are in the middle of a great social experiment, and the coming decades will show us the consequences of virtual versus physical socialization. More than likely, the kids will be alright no matter what path we take, and humanity will survive because we are an inventive species with a great tenacity for life. That said, the increasing signal in the noise of the internet indicates a dissatisfaction with suburban family life in its current form. If change must come, let it be in a direction that brings us closer to each other even as we find it ever harder to tear our eyes away from a screen.