The Lathe of California

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven, the protagonist, who can re-shape the world with his subconscious, is guided to dream of a world without racism. And rather than change peoples’ minds, he creates a world in which everyone is grey – no different races equals no possibility of racism.

I thought about this when I saw the results of a Public Policy Polling survey of likely Republican voters in Mississippi that reported that 46% of the respondents thought that inter-racial marriage should be illegal.  That poll was taken in April, 2011 – not April, 1911.  I should say that I was “outraged”, but I think the more appropriate word is “dumbfounded”.  Clearly, none of those Republicans have spent a lot of time in California.


I don’t want to sound too-PC, but I don’t think about race that much.  Working as a professional scientist, the labs I’ve worked in have been filled with people from all over the globe, all creeds and colors – and the California I’ve seen isn’t that much different.  For the last decade, non-hispanic whites have been the plurality in the state, but are no longer the majority.  And even that will likely change in the next decade due to a rapidly growing Hispanic population.  Asians also make up ~13% of the state’s population – four times the national average.


Of course, with all these “different” people running around, some of them are bound to start falling in love and having babies. Babies that caused the number of census boxes labeled “two or more races” checked to skyrocket in the most recent census.  I think about the houses on my street: mixed, mixed, white (us), Asian, white, Asian, mixed, white – and it seems perfectly normal to me.  Last weekend, I attended a kid’s birthday bash – his father is Mexican-Asian, and his mother is Pilipino-Anglo.  So what box does THAT kid check? But of course, I didn’t think about that then – I thought, what a great heritage this kid is inheriting because the collection of food here is awesome.


I don’t want to make it sound like we live some corny utopia where we’re all singing “Kumbaya”, but in my daily life, no one I know seems to think about it very much – or at least there isn’t a need to quantify it.  Diversity and different heritages seem made for great cocktail conversation rather than for divisiveness. It makes me hope that in a couple of generations, I can imagine the “race question” may have so many convoluted “answers” that the question itself becomes meaningless.


Though I think LeGuin got it wrong, we’re not going to end up grey, but tannish-brown.  I wonder how that’ll play in Mississippi.


36 thoughts on “The Lathe of California

  1. I love this!
    Isn’t tannish brown a beautiful color?
    I don’t mean to sound all “kumbaya-ish”, either, but I was very happy when I was in Chicago a few weeks ago to see the busses and sidewalks filled with all colors and all combinations of couples…all happy and enjoying life.
    It made me hopeful for most of the future!

    • L — I get the same feeling walking around SoCal. You get the feeling that people are people — regardless of background, history, religion — etc. That sort of ideal IS possible.

  2. I get geek points for knowing the reference before clicking over! :)

    I’m v. White-looking but I am 1/2 Jewess. Thus mattered for my family that had to live in the Black section of town (read: NOT in town–up through the 1960s, they weren’t allowed within the town after sundown ).

    My mother grew up this way, where “Nigger Joe” cut their hair and pulled their teeth. They LOVED him but that’s what they [all] called him.

    Freaks me out & it’s still very much here. My goddaughter tells me regularly about who called her coon to her face (and more).

    So, it’s still going strong.

    • MT — sometimes I think all this talk about “two Americas” is a bunch of crap, but then you see something like the Mississippi poll and what you describe and it makes me think that it really is true. I don’t want America to be that way.

  3. Bless you undifferentiated heart!
    I live in a small, rural, Mid-western town that has changed from a prosperous manufacturing/business community to a blue collar town with many unemployed. I have to physically shut my yap when I hear folks at the coffee shop (largely Republican and fundamental Christian) blame our town’s downturn on “those Mexicans.”
    I *don’t get* how that mind-set can still prevail. I mean, didn’t any of those people watch Star Trek?

    • SS — I know my folks weren’t as open as they could have been and their parents less than them — I think each generation is getting better, but some folks/places have a better head start than others.

  4. Tannish-brown seems healthier and is much better looking than grey. Though grey has a history in the south…no, tannish-brown is better.
    BTW…there are enough shades of grey to keep the “miss-reps” riled up for generations to come!

  5. It is weird. A lot of the time, I don’t think of my wife as being any different than me. What makes me think of it is when she brings it up. She is over sensitive and thinks everyone is out to get her, though. My kids think of themselves as white but will tell you that they are half and take pride on both sides.

    Who is the track star, not that I am going to google her, but I am and in both senses of the word.

    • It’s weird to come at embracing diversity from the “white guy” side — I’m sure from the minority end it’s not all sunshine and rainbows — and probably a fair bit of “took you long enough”.

      The track athlete is Olympian Lori “LoLo” Jones.

  6. Holy simoleons! Those poll results are dumb-founding. And I want them to release the comprable results for the Democrats in the survey.

    It gobsmacks me that more than forty years after Loving v. Virginia we are still fighting this battle. Then again, given the idjit in Louisiana (yes, they only have the one – but they take turns being him), perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised.

    • Wow — i hadn’t heard of that case in LA. Maybe it’s a good thing that a story like that can make news and not fly under the radar as I’m sure it has for generations.

  7. I’ll take some of those geek points!

    My older son married his long time partner in CA 3 days before Prop 8 was passed.

    My younger son is married to a bi-racial woman.

    When showing some photos to an old college buddy of mine he said “You really hit the diversity jackpot!”. And he’s right in so many ways.

    Those folks in Mississippi are, sadly, way on the wrong side of history.

  8. I was a little taken aback when I saw the title of your post, Steve. I’d just come back from the library where I’d checked out The Lathe of Heaven, my favorite book by Ursula LeGuin. I realized it had been such a long time since I’d read it, I no longer could recall details in the plot. But the “greying of humanity”—that part I can recall very strongly, if only because LeGuin asks sotto voce if that’s how we really want to be, a grey-skinned, not especially interesting species.

    It is interesting how a generation of mixed-raced young adults have changed the way we address issues of race. My children are half Japanese, half Minnesota Scandinavian (the group Garrison Keillor loves to pillory in “Prairie Home Companion”). It’s odd how the genetic dice laid out their features. My older daughter is tannish-brown with somewhat Asian features. When she visited China several years ago, she said people gawked at her in the street, obviously thinking, “WHAT are you?” Now she’s married to a man whose parents are from northern India, and whose skin is medium brown. I wonder, if they ever have children, how their genetic heritage will appear in them.

    On the other hand, my two younger children have facial features that favor their Scandinavian forebears—the long, sloping “ski jump” nose, light brown eyes, fair skin, and reddish brown-to-black wavy hair. Because their father’s last name resembles a common Spanish one, they’re often mistaken for white Hispanics. I’ve joked that they could game the system and apply for all sorts of scholarships aimed at various ethnic groups, but they insist on marking their Census and “racial data” forms as “Mixed race, decline to specify.” To them the subject of race is ridiculous—“That’s your generation, not ours.” I wasn’t sure how to react the first time they said this, but now I realize it’s good. We should be glad when race becomes a moot subject.

    • We most definitely should be glad when race becomes a moot subject. I love the fact that your kids (and mine, too, now that I think about it) think the subject of race is ridiculous!

      • L — I was once watching a basketball game with a child and she’d asked, ” Who scored?” and I said “That black guy.” and she looked at me confused and said, “Who?” and I said, “That black guy.” and she looked at me exasperatedly and said, “STEVE, there are no black guys playing — only the blue team and the white team.”

    • HG — glad to see that we were operating on the same wavelengths yesterday! As a white male, I think I have a skewed perspective even though I’ve tried to have an open mind. Fortunately, I think your kids — and their experience — is going to become more the norm than the exception.

      • That always makes me wonder what people mean when they say someone “looks Hispanic.” Tan brown skin, dark brown eyes and black hair? That fits a lot of ethnic groups, including a many Asians. Spanish-speaking? Many Filipinos still speak Spanish at home, but they’re considered Asian/South Pacific Islander.

        Then there’s my brother, who was pulled over twice by state police in Arizona for a “citizenship check.” He’s full-blooded Japanese but born here in the States. He thought it was funny, though I asked him what would he have done if he was asked to prove he was American. We don’t require national identity cards in this country, and Arizona says a driver’s license and even a Social Security card aren’t proof of citizenship. But apparently “looking Hispanic” gives Arizona the right to stop you for questioning.

      • My older two kids are pale and blond. My youngest has beautiful dark hair and eyes, and tans very deeply.
        I was showing a picture of all three kids when we were on a cruise and a co-worker asked of the youngest “Is that someone who works on the ship?”
        I got the biggest laugh out of that!

  9. Great post. I don’t know what to say about the goofiness of people living in the 1800s but most times I take the extremist views (which always get the media headlines) as a sign that things are really changing and the racists just wish to go down in a ball of goofy flames. I agree somewhat with Lauri and Hangaku if it means the end of racism. On the other hand my sister is married to a gorgeous, large Black man who visits Africa often (for work) and has the most wonderful stories to tell. To me race has always been about learning the myriad of ways to live on this earth and to use our imaginations, what it would be like to live in another country or another time (for those of us with no Tardis, that is). Our differences make for the best dinner conversations, I think.

    • Emmy — I want to begin to think of our society as “post-racial”, though I’m not so naive as to think that we’re there yet. But each generation I know is more open-minded than the previous one, so there’s hope. I also agree that a lot of what we think of as “race” is ethnicity — which is fascinating when dealing with a large (but variable) Latino population.

  10. Nice post. I hope we all end up tannish brown. Grey seems too blah! As the great MLK said, hopefully in time people will be truly measured by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

  11. I should add that technically, what I was speaking of was ethnicity, not race. And the oral stories passed down through the generations. /end nitpicking/

  12. I wish I knew how to insert a picture of myself on this comment box, so instead, let’s pretend i did: [insert pic of Jenn here] and the caption would read “YEP”

    I’m mixed! My father is African American and my mother is half Irish, half Swedish or as we Southerners like to say “white.”

    Thank you for writing this blog, sir. :)

    • J — that’s awesome. It’s strange to write as someone that’s coming through the white, Christian male perspective (since I should be the one getting dis-empowered) — but I’m really think appreciating diversity in our population is so important.

  13. Dumbfounded is right. Especially out here in CA, I am so used to seeing every skin color imaginable (including that Silver Man in SF) that I rarely take notice. I was in Iowa a while back and I remember it be so WHITE (and overweight). The lack of color was more noticable to me.

    Dare I point out to these Christians that Jesus was not “white” but most likely olive-skinned? Do they ignore the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the “outsider” was the only one to help the guy who had been beaten up? Then again, I guess most of them are the people who pass along the other side of the road…

  14. I still remember very clearly a woman telling me before my wedding that a (at that time hypothetical) child of a white American woman (me) and an African immigrant father, with an Arabic last name, would never be president of this country.

    That was in 2001, or as I now like to say, Pre-Barack. ;-)

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