Sunday, 16 October 2011

On Being Mixed Race and Quantum Physics

The BBC is currently showing a major series on Mixed Race Britain, fronted by George Alagiah.

I have a particular interested in this give that I am "mixed race". I am also a physicist (or at least I read physics at University) (by which I mean I occasionally turned up to lectures that had the word "physics" in the title - much to the surprise of the lecturers). As a mixed race physicist, I naturally find myself asking what being mixed race has in common with quantum physics.

The conclusion that I come to is that the aspect of quantum physics that best helps to explain the experience of being mixed race is wave/particle duality. It's obvious when you think about it.

To provide a one line explanation of wave/particle duality (that will be immediately debunked by anyone reading this who has any knowledge of quantum physics, and such clever people I am sure will provide a much clearly and correct explanation rather than just saying "that's not right")...the principle states that matter (stuff)  and light-waves behave like both waves and particles, depending on whether they are being watched. Or to put it another way, look at the behaviour of something like an electron. Does it behave like a particle? YES. Does it behave like a wave? YES. What? Did you just answer yes to both questions? YES. That's confusing. YES. Does it depend on how it is being observed? YES. Do you answer all questions in capital letters? YES.

As I mentioned, I am mixed race. White mother, black father. Mixed Tom.

Growing up in the UK (mostly) in the 60's and 70's was interesting. In those days, we knew how to "do" racism properly. Who doesn't remember having 20 kids standing around you in a circle chanting that inspiring song

"Hey Tom
Wogs the matter?
Feeling a bit Browned off?
Didn't have your Coon-flakes?
Nigger mind
Go Black to bed
You'll feel all White in the morning"


So, as I entered my teens, I was very clear that being "mixed race" in London meant being black. I began to shape my confused teenage identity in this context.

Then, when I was in my mid-teens, my Dad took me to live in Nigeria, West Africa and I discovered something rather confusing to a sensitive teenager wrestling with issues of identity. I changed colour. Who doesn't remember being followed up the road by groups of small, smiling children chanting

"Oyibo pepe
If-e-eat-e-pepe
You go yellow more more"

(rough transation: White man, pepper. If you eat pepper, you will turn that funny yellow colour that white people become in the sun)

Followed by shrieks of laughter as the whiteman in question (me in this case, in case you have got confused) turned around and chased them away. I lived as an Oyibo for about eight years before returning to the UK and switching back to being black again.

Even today, when I travel to Uganda, in East Africa, for my African Gifted Foundation, I am generally referred to as a Muzungu  i.e. white man in Swahili. My Ugandan sister is known in her village as the woman with the muzungu brother.

Tom, are you black? YES. Okay, are you white? YES. What? Did you just answer yes to both questions? YES. That's confusing. YES. Does it depend on how you are being observed? YES. Do you answer all questions in capital letters? YES.

Wave/particle duality explains being mixed race perfectly. It's really very clear. I don't know why George Alagiah needs a whole BBC series to explain it. Understand quantum physics and wave/particle duality and you will understand me completely. It's that simple.

1 comment:

tialaramex said...

If I remember my quantum theory correctly (and perhaps I don't), it's not so much that the sub-atomic world is strange, but more that our view of the universe is strange. It's normal for things to have both particle-like and wave-like aspects, and only at our relatively huge size does one or the other dominate. Beach balls would diffract just like light does, if only they would fit through a diffraction grating.

Maybe that makes a pretty good analogy with race too. Duality is normal, everyone is the child of two very different people - but we've tricked ourselves into thinking the duality is exceptional because we don't see it so blatantly most of the time.