Race and Nationality

February 19, 2021

Here are some questions people have asked me. They all happened in meatspace, with people who could see my skin and hear my accent.

In Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands, the English adventurer recounts of his journey among the Bedu of the Arabian Peninsula. His journeys took place between 1945 and 1950. The Bedu killed non-Muslims. How did the white Oxford-educated Brit navigate Arabia?

He claimed he was a Muslim from Syria.

My favorite thing about racial and nationalist classifications is how flexible they are. Your apparent race isn't just determined by your skin color, but also by how you act. With an ambiguous skin color and sufficient cultural awareness you can change your apparent race just by subtly modifying the implications of your speech. I often change my implied race and nationality several times in a single conversation, all under the cover of change blindness. I have reframed my ethnicity so frequently the art has become an unconscious habit.

Sometimes it doesn't even take speech. Just by changing the way I sit on a Shanghai subway I have scaled all the way from "locals taking pictures of the white laowai" to becoming the grey man. I didn't even have to change my clothes.