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Race is a state of mind

7 Mar

I’m serious.  I’m not just referencing old slogans for the fun of it, it’s too early in the day for that.  For a long time I’ve wanted to write a post fundamentally stating, without the merest hint of doubt, that race is a social construct with no basis in science.

Turns out Adam Rutherford has already written it!  In this post he straight up states that race, scientifically, does not exist.

Rutherford, who describes himself as “partly of Indian descent”, leaving the reader to assume that his ethnic heritage is otherwise white European, is a science writer and editor.  If I were to be flippant I would point out that he’s also rather handsome, ’cause, ya know, I’m also partly of Indian descent, and I’m damn cute.  Maybe it’s a thing?

HA NO!  It isn’t!  Just because Adam Rutherford and I are excellent eye candy* doesn’t mean that all European/Asian heritage people are because, get this, as Rutherford says in his post “There is no genetic basis that corresponds with any particular group of people”.  Yes, you can predict some things about a person’s genome from their phenotype (outward appearance) but you can’t predict someone’s race from their genome with any confidence.  You can make reasonable assessments of their ancestry, and some of their probable appearance, but the divisions of what makes someone one race or another, according to the phenotypic and cultural criteria most of us use, are not seen in the genes.  Within any single “race” is such variance as to render the racial categorisation unusable in science.

Rutherford gives some great examples of conditions and genetic factors, long thought to be consequences of racial heritage, which are more scientifically explained by geographic area and the populations that live there.  Ah, you might think, Ms Mongrel, surely those geographically defined populations can be called races?  Well sure, socially you can go with that, but there is no scientific definition to back you up.  As Rutherford rather bluntly and brilliantly points out, humans are “too horny and mobile to have stuck to our own kind for very long” meaning that virtually every population has “DNA mixed and remixed through endless sex and continuous migration”.

I think that this message about the arbitrary nature of racial ‘definition’ is really important.  Rutherford also points out the way that the early science of inheritance and then genetics attempted to find a scientific rationalisation for racism (including the genocide of native peoples by European empires, the subjugation of others, the transatlantic slave trade, and various 20th century eugenics schemes).  Somehow the educated, European elite felt that by scientifically showing that the other races were “lesser”, they could justify their murderous expansion and the imposition of their values on alien cultures – all driven by profit except perhaps for a minority of genuine adventurers or earnest missionaries.

If someone can show me that the human race can be scientifically subgrouped into subspecies or races, with a consistent definition that can be shown in the lab to be “nature” rather than based on the environment and cultures in which we are raised, I’ll change my mind, don’t you worry.  I’m all about evidence.  But, as someone whose existence already disproves a number of stereotypes pertaining to my racial heritage, I’ll continue to challenge any racial definitions based loosely on appearance, geography, religion, and old prejudices.

There’s no such thing as race people, unless you choose to believe in it.  If that’s your choice, fine.  Just don’t expect the rest of us to live by your definitions.

*okay well maybe Rutherford more than me.  It’s a matter of perspective!

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Finding yourself

13 Sep

One of the things that makes life more complicated for anyone, mixed race or not, is living up to the expectations of two families: that of your mother and that of your father. Now, both these families are YOUR family – and yet they can be wildly different from one another. For me, as a mixed race person, I find that having families from two vastly different cultures has often led to me feeling like I’m disappointing both of them, but that perhaps tells you more about my personality than about mixed race heritage!

I refer to this mismatch of family culture as living “cross-culturally”, and I don’t think it is an experience limited to mixed race people; firstly because a similar experience seems to be had by friends brought up in a minority religion or with minority traditions in the UK, and secondly because ALL families have their own “culture”. I like to think of a family’s culture as being at its most heightened around Christmas: do you all get together? Do you avoid each other? Are you interested in the religious aspect? Is it all about expensive gifts? Who gets offended if you don’t come for dinner? Who drinks and who doesn’t? Who cooks Christmas dinner? Do you watch the Queen’s speech? Do you watch the Dr Who Christmas Special? From what I’ve observed of friends, and family, no two families have Christmas in exactly the same way, and we all have our own little traditional rituals.

I imagine problems can occur even when things are as simple as having two Christian parents – if they are from different denominations do you go to midnight mass or church in the morning? I know friends who engage fully with fasting and tradition during Ramadan, but will also go carolling and have boozy Christmas nights out with work. For me: Dad’s family had no Christmas tree but when we were kids we were spoilt with gifts, Mum’s family had the tree and the decorations and when we were kids we were spoilt with gifts (fussing over the children was/is common to both families!) Nowadays my parents and siblings have a tradition of spending Christmas day together, having a breakfast Bellini, a massive dinner, eating too much chocolate, watching a film or two, and laughing all day. I know that one day if I end up with nieces and nephews these traditions will morph and adapt, and that those kids will have to connect our family’s culture with that of their other parent.

The challenge of trying to fit in with two family cultures is complicated further because some family members are sticklers for tradition, others couldn’t give a monkey’s earlobe, some you would choose as friends, and others you’re resigned to being related to, and to me this has sometimes felt like a special burden of being mixed race. Thinking about it these days I’ve started to see it as a separate, but linked, issue, because more and more mixed race kids in Britain have parents whose culture/religion/practises are closer in character, whatever colour the parents are. Of course, I’ve been thinking about this from the perspective of having parents who are together, I imagine it can sometimes get much more complicated when you have to consider the feelings and traditions of step families too.

I’ve been thinking about this not because Christmas is on the horizon (my work colleagues are starting to plan our Christmas party already) but because I’ve also been thinking about people from my parents’ lives and in my own who have made comments that amount to ‘having mixed race kids isn’t fair because life will be hard for them because they are mixed race’. Now I have no other experience than my own on which to draw, but I don’t feel that being mixed race is a burden in and of itself. In fact being mixed race has given me insight and perspective that I, someone naturally a bit stubborn, may not have had in another life. Having said that, I’ve faced some challenges that are unique to being mixed race, and others that are connected to living cross-culturally. As an adult, I’ve developed my own life traditions and I don’t feel that I live as a British Asian any more than I live as a British white, I live like me, and that’s that. As a younger person, however, it took me a long time to resolve my feelings about both sides of my extended family. For me the breakthrough came when I realised that living to make other people happy is like building castles out of soup – impossible, painful, and messy.

The trigger for this little thought-spurt of a blog was reading the story of a man brought up across two cultures so disparate as to make me look inbred – a researcher from the US and a tribeswoman from the Amazon. The story of this man’s journey to find his mother and reconnect with a heritage by which he was originally embarrassed and challenged is fascinating. I particularly like how, in the end, he is resolved to be his own person, even if it means disappointing both his parents. If you’re having trouble navigating the path of multiple cultures, being mixed race, or simply in knowing who you are for any reason, I suggest you have a read of this:
Return to the rainforest: A son’s search for his Amazonian mother

4 More Years

7 Nov

Photograph by Elizabeth Messina reproduced form The Huffington Post

I woke up to the news of Obama’s re-election. Like most of the world outside the USA this was good news to me.  I’m a total lefty, and although Obama is still right wing from my point of view, he was a far better option than the alternative.  Here are some thoughts I have on Obama’s re-election.

Firstly, as a Westerner and a citizen of a country that usually dances to the tune set by the USA, I hope that now Obama has his second term he becomes more bloody minded in affecting the change he originally seemed to stand for. This man won the Nobel Peace Prize and yet Pakistani civilians are still being maimed and killed by Western attacks, from drones or otherwise. The tension in the Middle East continues to be ramped up with Israel expecting US support should they wish to attack Iran – and personally I’m in no way going to support the UK government if it decides to wage war on another front (full disclosure – I didn’t support the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan either). We have to learn from the tragedies of Afghanistan and Iraq which have caused so much death for so little progress.  As Remembrance Day draws closer and every celeb and their dog dons a poppy to improve their PR I can only think of the phrase “never again”. Can Obama bring peace not war and justify that Nobel prize?

I am glad that the election of a non-white president has not been written off as an experiment, and the racism of the USA has been exposed by this electoral competition through dog whistles and outright shouts including Romney’s campaign insider’s reference to “anglo-saxon heritage” (headdesk). The twitter user @yesyoureracist had a full and busy election day with some staggering racism being flung around often tagged #notracist as if saying that negated the expressed racism.  I have a suggestion for the many twitter users who said something along the lines of ‘minorities/black Americans are only voting for Obama ‘cos he’s black’ – why do you think ethnic minorities or “people of colour” are more likely to vote for a black man and not for a white man? What does that say about race relations in the USA, and what can you yourself do to improve the situation?

The last thought I want to leave you with relates to Obama as a symbol – something that has caused him problems, since he was raised on a high pedastol that he could only fall from at the start of his presidency. He is referred to widely as black, but his mother is white. He is the most famous and powerful mixed race man in history and his presidency, however history judges his policy, represents something of phenomenal importance that I hope will continue to resonate throughout the world – especially wherever people are judged for their lack of racial “purity”. If an obviously mixed race man can overcome the odds to be the Leader of the Free World, twice, of what are the rest of us capable?

This is explained beautifully in an open letter to President Obama, by the white mother of a mixed race son. The associated picture, included above, gave me goosebumps. A president can only do so much, perhaps an icon can do more.  Here’s to hope, everyone.

Bring me my chariot of fire

29 Jul

I am usually somewhat of a cynic whenever there’s any flag-waving to be done.  I’m proud to be British but also aware that it’s kind of odd to be proud of anything that you never actually achieved.  I’m proud to be a woman, I’m proud to be mixed race, I’m even proud to be a brunette… but none of these things are achievements, they’re just the way things are.  Now, being proud of something you’ve worked for, like a qualification or a job or a successful event, makes more sense.  If I had been born a blonde boy in Australia I’d probably be proud to be all those things as well!  Anyway, despite nationality being somewhat arbitrary I am proud to be British, and proud of Britain.  The reason I don’t get behind the flag waving is that I also see Britain’s flaws and just past the glow of patriotism lies the spark of nationalism, xenophobia, and racism.

Despite my cynicism, I do want things to go well.  I want the Olympics to be a success for example, and I was really pleased at the spectacle of the Opening Ceremony.  It was magical and silly and the lighting of the cauldron flame, with all the “petals” of the sculpture representing the countries that were taking part coming together to form one great symbolic fire, was amazing.  From Twitter and from speaking to people in real life (I still do that sometimes) I think that the response has been overwhelmingly positive.  We Brits might be proud but we do sometimes find it hard to celebrate ourselves and our country, and I think the ceremony allowed us to do that without being too earnest or tacky.

There are those however who didn’t like the ceremony.  As the saying goes, haters gonna hate.  What interests me about this is the particular features of the ceremony they didn’t like, and why.  Top Tory Twat Aidan Burley, he of the Nazi stag do fame, has put his foot in it with some snidey comments about the “leftie multicultural crap” of the ceremony, in particular seeming to be offended by the celebration of the NHS in a sequence with glowing beds, dancing doctors, and all the children’s literature baddies being chased off by an army of Mary Poppinses-es.  es.  Many people have slated Burley, but Daily Mail hate-hack Rick Dewsbury has claimed his comments were spot on in a piece that is so staggeringly spiteful, as well as flagrantly racist, I find it hard to accept it isn’t a spoof.

Dewsbury used the personal tragedy of a family who lost someone due to neglect in a hospital as the jumping off point for a rant against the NHS as a whole, while dancing through a clear outrage that some of the people in the ceremony weren’t white.  It’s a nasty bit of writing.  One comment I’d like to address here is Dewsbury’s assertion that the mixed race family in the centre of the segment celebrating the internet and Britain’s great pop music history is “absurdly unrealistic”.  I actually think the original wording of the article was more extreme* but I didn’t think to screen print it.  His basic premise here is that the idea of a happy middle class mixed marriage is “absurd” and “unrealistic”.  I’ve got news for you Dewsbury: these people exist.  I should know, one such couple spawned me.  That’s right Rick, my existence AT ALL negates your argument.  It gets worse for you Ricky boy… I personally know many mixed race people and many couples who are not of the same race.  And by race I mean skin colour, because lets face it, you’ve got no issue with a fair ginger person marrying an olive skinned brunette, you only have a problem with whites marrying blacks.  Or asians. Or any of those “ethnic minorities”.

Back to Burley:  I spoke to my sister (another mixed race ethnic minority infiltrator RUN RICK RUN, THEY’RE EVERYWHERE!) about the MP’s tweet, and she made me laugh by pointing out that saying you’re glad the sportsmen and women are coming in marks the end of the “multicultural crap” is hilarious, because nothing says “no to multiculturalism” more than the assorted peoples of the 200 odd nations of the world competing in the Olympics walking by.  Some of them in variations on their traditional national dress, no less.  Burley, you really are thick, even for a nazi person who went to a Nazi-themed stag do.  Wanker.

And finally for Dewsbury.  You’ll probably never read this from your racial purity bunker in Midsomer village, but I want to say it anyway.  You say it was “shameful” to glorify the National Health Service, the only universal healthcare service in the world, but I say it is shameful to take a family’s loss and devastation, which should be fully investigated by inquest not by tabloid blather, and use it to launch a twisted attack on one of the building blocks of modern Britain via your own thinly veiled racism.  No one has ever said that the NHS is perfect, I’m still waiting for a knee op that has now been cancelled twice, but the fact that it is there at all saves lives and marks us out as a nation that will not leave strangers to die on the street.  This may shock you, but the fact that we have an NHS does not mean that you can’t pay for private healthcare if you wish, if I was an athlete I’d have gone private to have my knee fixed sooner, for example. Choose private if you prefer, but don’t then whinge about how ‘my taxes will still pay for it’ because even if you have private healthcare, if you ever need an ambulance it is the NHS who will come to your aid.  In this country, if you collapse on the street, someone will dial 999 without thinking twice, and an ambulance will come, and you will be treated regardless of whether you can afford private healthcare or not.  But if you really would rather die on the street in this scenario than have the doctors you so loathe try to treat you, please will you have that wish TATTOOED ON YOUR FACE so as not to waste the time of any well-meaning passers by.

In summary I would like to say to both Burley and Dewsbury and any other Alf Garnets out there who agree with them these two points:

1.  The NHS isn’t perfect but it is one of the things that I feel is a legitimate British achievement we can all be proud of, because we are the only nation that cares enough about each other to even try to make it work.  Slagging it off isn’t the way to fix its flaws, funding and managing it properly, investigating its failings and implementing policy to fix them, is, along with allowing good people to get and keep jobs in it.

2. Britain has black people.  Britain has brown people.  Britain has people of so many various shades that they couldn’t even fit on one dulux colour sheet.  Some of them meet people from different colour swatches and fall in love and have babies.  The age of Empire so many of the racist right bleat on about wistfully IS THE REASON that we have British people of African, West Indian, Near and Far Eastern and Asian descent, and more.  These people’s parents and grandparents are part of our nation’s history, part of our landscape.  If you have ever been to the area of London where the Olympics are held you would know that there are people there from all sorts of backgrounds, and that the young people growing up in cities like that don’t have the fear that you have.  You seem to panic that celebrating this somehow undermines the white ethnicities of Britain, and the people whose families have lived in the same areas since the domesday book, but it doesn’t at all.  No one is saying that Dizzee Rascal is a greater Brit than Brunel, or even Ethelred the Unready, just that he is another thread in the tapestry.  Deal with it.

*The article has definitely been tweaked post-publishing. Dewsbury’s comments about Dizzee Rascal and Grime music are gone, as is a statement complaining about seeing an ethnic minority face in nearly every camera shot. Also, some trite phrasing about the segment with the mixed race couple deserving praise “if it was that two people with different colour skin and different cultural heritages can live harmoniously together” has been shoe-horned in, and whereas before it said one would be hard pressed to find such a couple, it now says it “isn’t the norm”. Perhaps the PCC does still have some clout and the DM wanted to avoid crossing it. More likely they realised that the tone was extreme even for the DM readership and back pedalled. It’s pretty poor practice for a paper to edit published pieces and not record the changes, still, this is the DM we are talking about!

Mix-d: feelings

6 Jul

It has long been my intention to put together a list of resources that might be interesting or helpful to people in the UK who are mixed race, have mixed race kids, or are just curious about the largest growing ethnic minority in Britain. As usual I have been off on various tangents, but a recent post in my twitter feed has reminded me of this goal.

Bradley Lincoln set up Mix-d: as part of the Multiple Heritage Project which started in 2006. From what I can see Lincoln originally started with an aim of providing consultancy to schools with mixed race students, and more importantly with the aim of allowing mixed race students to speak for themselves and discuss their experiences and ideas.

I first found out about Mix-d: organisation through google when looking for online resources about/for mixed race people in the UK. Although I was pleased to see someone like Lincoln and his growing team creating a space for discussion, I wasn’t overly impressed by the management-speak name “Mix-d:” and the corporate styling of the website and organisation as it felt too polished and shiny, filled with marketing style. I realised later that perhaps this stylistic approach was meant to appeal more to schools and government organisations than to individuals who might be looking for some warmth and understanding about their particular experiences. I was particularly dismissive of the Mix-d: Face competition to find mixed race models, as I felt that this fed in to the idea of mixed race people as exotic and beautiful, when in fact we are just people, some of whom are beautiful, some of whom have radio faces, just like any other group.

Having said that, Mix-d: has organised numerous conferences for young mixed race people and their stated mission “To see mixed race people at the heart of mixed race discussions” is incredibly important. As Lincoln says “There were plenty of people and books that told me I was mixed race. They were right – I am mixed race – but that didn’t capture how I felt, or what I knew to be the experiences of other mixed-race friends and family members”. I have found myself that when discussing my ‘mixedness’ with other mixed race people I would feel understood in a way that didn’t happen when talking to people ‘of one race’ even if they were from multi-cultural backgrounds. A classic for us mixed race people is the “where are you from?” question which is often asked with the real meaning of “what are you?” something discussed brilliantly here. This is a question that the UK ethnic majority, the so called ‘white British’ population do not experience in the same way.

It has been really inspiring to see Mix-d: become what it is today, where other well-meaning projects have fallen by the wayside, Mix-d: is working towards offering information for organisations working with young mixed race people, and a “parent pack” for parents raising mixed race kids who may not have any experience of what it is like to be mixed race (or if they do don’t know how relevant it is to today’s youth growing up with the internet and smartphones and hovercars more high profile mixed race celebrities).

The latest project that Mix-d: have highlighted over Twitter (Lincoln, if you ever read this, get someone to update the Mix-d: Twitter account more often!) is fascinating. As part of a British Academy research project, which also formed the basis for the BBC2 documentary series “Mixed Britannia” back in Autumn, by Dr Chamion Caballero and Dr Peter Aspinall, a timeline showing the development of the mixed race community in Britain since the start of the last century has been put together. The timeline includes recorded mixed-race marriages amongst ordinary people as well as some who are famous, the creation of the eugenics society and so-called research supporting the idea that mixed race children were somehow of poorer stock than racially pure children, legal changes to the status of immigrants, race riots, studies into societal attitudes toward race, and pop-culture moments. I am really pleased to see this research presented in such an accessible way, and with such a diversity of events recorded.

One of my main issues with discussions about mixed race issues is the idea that mixed race people are a modern invention, and that relationships between people of different racial backgrounds NEVER used to happen. This is a blatant fallacy, and feeds in to the idea of racial purity that fuels white (or any other racial) supremacism. The timeline, although starting ostensibly at 1900, challenges that fallacy, recording the experiences and discussion of mixed race communities that have existed in Britain since then. The timeline project has made me revisit Mix-d: and review their approach. I think that Lincoln and his team are creating a positive space for discussion, without shame or recrimination. Theirs is a forward thinking organisation that looks to work toward encouraging mixed race young people to explore their heritage. The consultancy element is important, schools and other organisations do need resources to support them in the support of these students, and Lincoln is looking to fill that need. I am interested to see what Mix-d: becomes in the future.

I do think Mix-d: has a silly name, but I’m pretty sure that they would say the same about MsMongrel. I’d like to leave you with a song featuring my least favourite, but previously common, term for mixed race people by Thin Lizzy, fronted by Phil Lynott, a mixed race Irishman, something I learnt from the Mix-d: museum timeline.

Your own kind

14 May

Although Ms Mongrel’s age is a highly defended secret (or it will be after I turn 30 at the end of the month. Wait, what?) I would like to recount to you a moment from my childhood that defined for me how being mixed race, around people who aren’t, can be massively alienating.

Even if those people are your own family.

My father has 3 sisters and 3 brothers and they all have children, my mother has only one sister, and for a long time my parents were the only mixed race couple in our branch of the family. I may talk about that more at some point but for now I’m just going to talk about my perspective as the first mixed race kid in our family.

As well as having wildly different tanning abilities, my parents came from very different cultures, and my parents opted out of both of them. My mother rebelled against small Welsh mining town expectations by moving away whilst still unmarried, and studying Law in England. My father took the opportunity his Kenyan Indian-immigrant grammar school education had given him and came to the colonial mother land (again, England) to study Engineering. They both left the cultures of their hometowns (Nantgarw and Nairobi), lost their faiths (token Christianity, strong Jainism), met each other, and eventually married secretly with only two friends as witnesses.

When I was younger I used to ask them why they married each other. As if they had rehearsed they would each, separately, say “it seemed like a good idea at the time”. Nowadays I don’t bother asking, and if I want romantic stories I watch Love Actually instead.

So I tried very hard as a kid to show that I was normal, happy, well-adjusted and you know, just fine, and in no way evidence of some great failing of my parents as a mixed race couple who were, after all, warned when they married that it might be fine for them, but what about THE CHILDREN? Hmmm. Seems to me the ones who worry about the mixed race kids are the ones who cause the problem, but anyway, demonstrating that you are an acceptable specimen of neicehood/cousinability/granddaughterness is difficult. Especially when the grown up world is so bloody confusing before you try to get by being too tall and pale in one world, too exotic and dark in another, and always feeling like you’re being judged. Throw in a language barrier and two younger siblings you want to protect from all this insecurity, and hello, a Mongrel is born.

I remember once one of my aunts from Kenya was visiting. I was sat with her in my parent’s living room, the house being the kind of tidy it only ever was when there were visitors, listening to her tell me about her trip to India. I loved the idea of travelling, even then, and having such a strong connection to Wales I felt unbalanced, I wondered if I would have the same passion for India. I was curious about a country where I had blood relatives, but which I had never visited.

“Ah…” my aunt sighed, after discussing places and food and people “you have to go.” Yes I thought, I will one day…

“Because you see” she added, looking away dreamily and happily “there is nothing else like being amongst your own people.”

No, I thought, there probably isn’t anything like that. Not for mongrels like me.

History lesson

26 Mar

I’m a BBC Radio 4 afficionado, for many reasons, not least because 6.30pm comedy is a lifesaver when commuting home or doing the washing up, but also because I often learn something new just by having it on in the background.

(I also suffer an almost physical revulsion to Radio One, the sound of their presenters moronic chatter about the latest “amaze” track by some insipid autotuned airbrushed cashcow makes me want to vomit. Plus, they like to give air time to racists. Ugh, Radio One, *SHUDDERS*)

Today’s programme on the Asian Youth Movement in Britain in the late 70s/early 80s taught me a lot. It has often been a bugbear of mine that youngsters learn a massively generic portion of history at school. For me, not doing GCSE history meant that the history I learnt at secondary was 1) the industrial revolution and 2) the slave trade. That’s all. No wonder “ethnic minorities” or the descendants of recent immigrants can feel disconnected from mainstream Britishness. I think we should learn about the immigration caused by colonial legacy at school, why did Indian origin people from East Africa come to the UK, for example? What was the time and context of the largest West Indian immigration to the UK?

I knew relatively nothing of the youth movement amongst British Asians in the 80s, although I recognise that the term “British Asian” is from around that time. This Radio 4 programme was massively insightful, and touches on some recent history that should not be forgotten. The EDL out on the streets is an echo of the National Front rallies of past decades, and the response from ethnic minorities is more likely to be defiance and retaliation than it is to be turning the other cheek.

Grinning and bearing the entrenched racism was the way immigrants of Asian origin dealt with their new lives in the UK in the generation before the youth movement, a tactic of trying not to cause a fuss. I wonder nowadays if large parts of the Chinese origin community and those from areas such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan, in Britain are “putting up with” racism in that same way, and if eventually some outspoken second/third generation youngsters from those communities will stand up against it. Having said that, racist violence is explicitly dealt with by law in this country, and it is thanks to the generations past from different communities, black and white both, that this is so.

I don’t agree with responding to violence with violence, but I come from an immensely privileged position in that respect: I’ve never felt that my physical safety, or that of my family or friends, is under direct and immediate threat. I also feel that I can rely on the police to take my complaints seriously, and I’m confident enough to take a complaint further if they don’t. This assuredness is definitely something I take for granted, but it had to be fought for by campaigners who saw that police in the past didn’t take racist threats and violence seriously.

Every day’s a school day.