Zaibatsu was a hidden black man on Digg.

Zaibatsu, a.k.a. Reg Saddler, is best known for being the #4 Digg user of all time (despite being arbitrarily banned from Digg since September 2008). A political progressive, Zaibatsu had the power to collect Internet news stories that were ignored by mainstream media and bring it to the web’s attention.1 (Zaibatsu contends that he is even more influential now, since he has relocated on to Twitter.)

A lesser-known fact about Zaibatsu is that he was a top Digg user for a long time before he outed himself in 2007, revealing himself to be a black man who had previously kept his racial identity hidden.2

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On the Internet, I can pass as white, but at a cost.

Even now, when I am part of the anti-racist blogosphere with supposed anti-racist allies, I avoid mentioning my ethnicity on the Internet, because I don’t want people to use that knowledge to guess where I’m coming from, even empathetically. Because they would guess wrong.

A few months ago, I browsed the submissions of the first Asian Women Blog Carnival, and in a post titled On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re Chinese, aozhoux articulated how I used to feel, and still feel (emphasis mine):

Because there are, in my opinion, possible downsides to owning my Asian-ness. I worry – accurately or inaccurately – that people’s impressions of me might change should they be confronted with the realisation that I am, after all, not white. That anything I say or do may henceforth be conveniently attributed to my Chinese-ness, especially if any of my personal quirks should happen to fall into certain common stereotypes (and oh, some of them do *g*). Even worse, people might go so far as to start projecting their language biases onto me, and then I’d start getting the equivalent of “but you write so well (considering your ethnicity, never mind the fact that you grew up exclusively in white-dominated, English-speaking countries)”, and then I’d… have to kill them.

Perhaps this last point sounds a little absurd, but let’s just say it isn’t coming out of nowhere. I’ve seen a milder variation of this kind of language assumption happen right in front of me on lj, and while the corrections and apologies were gracious all around, it still kind of hurt. And in my personal experience many people, of all ethnicities, still seem to have problems with the idea that someone with Asian features and language ability could possibly be a competent, educated, native speaker of English. While I do understand the balance of probabilities backing that assumption, I’d really rather not have to prove myself every time I attempt to construct a sentence.

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Feynman was asked to join an anti-Semitic club.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter The Dignified Professor, one of Feynman’s memories of his early days as a professor at Cornell University included the following:

Then another guy came into my office. He wanted to talk to me about philosophy, and I can’t really quite remember what he said, but he wanted me to join some kind of a club of professors. The club was some sort of anti-Semitic club that thought the Nazis weren’t so bad. He tried to explain to me how there were too many Jews doing this and that — some crazy thing. So I waited until he got all finished, and said to him, “You know, you made a big mistake: I was brought up in a Jewish family.” He went out, and that was the beginning of my loss of respect for some of the professors in the humanities, and other areas, at Cornell University.

Feynman was an avowed atheist, and here he even described himself as being “brought up in a Jewish family” instead of being “Jewish”. Being Jewish was not an important part of his identity, except in cases where he experienced discrimination.

Experiences of discrimination, not one’s culture, is the most powerful reinforcement of one’s ethnic identity, one’s identity as the Other. Regardless, people of the ethnic majority continue to believe that ethnic minorities identify with their ethnicity due to some perceived cultural staticism.

Related post:

“Non-whites” versus “Visible Minorities” versus “People of Colour”

The terms “non-white”, “person of colour”, and “visible minority” mean different things. These categories overlap, but these terms are not interchangeable.

A non-white is a person who is not white. Mixed-raced individuals who are “part white” or “also white” are not “non-white”; however, they may be visible minorities or people of colour.

A person of colour is a person who self-identifies as a person of colour. A person of colour may pass as white. Mariah Carey self-identifies as black, and she may self-identify as a person of colour. However, she can pass for white and is not a visible minority. She may be white as well, if she self-identifies as white.

A visible minority is a person who cannot pass as white. A visible minority may be white, in the case of mixed-raced individuals with white ancestry. A visible minority may not necessarily be a person of colour, as there are some visible minorities that do not self-identify as a person of colour. In the Canadian Census, aboriginals are excluded from the “visible minority” category, which is problematic.

Some people think that the term “visible minority” is racist, but the concept of “visible minority” is important to understanding racism. People of colour who can pass for white have fewer barriers compared to people of colour who are visible minorities.