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Dec 01 2011

“Colour blindness” is a disability

*I am being asked to check my ableist privilege in the comments because of my use of the term ‘disability’ in the title. While I disagree that my intended use of the term is ableist, I am also aware that intent is unimportant. The context in which I am attempting to use the word is to contrast it with the idea that colour blindness is better than colour awareness, and that adopting a posture of being less able to see it is negative because it robs one of the ability to see if when appropriate. My apologies if this use is pejorative. I will avoid using the term without context in the future.

I am reasonably fluent in English, which is lucky since it is the language of the internet. Sometimes, however, I wish I was more fluent in other languages as well. Not simply because I enjoy the phonics of exotic locales, although I definitely do. Not simply because there are some phrases (or bon mots, if you will) that can only be expressed in their native tongue, although that is certainly true. Not simply to appear more classy and well-traveled than I am, although that would be nice. No, the principal reason I wish I spoke more languages was so that I would have enough words to heap my contempt upon the idea of “colour blindness”.

Colour blindness is an arch-liberal invention that seems to be largely built from ignorance and guilt. The supposed ideal behaviour is to behave as though you do not see racial differences between people, so that you will treat everyone equally regardless of their ethnicity. Sounds pretty harmless, right?  For those of you unfamiliar with my stance on this particular attitude, the reason colour blindness fails as a useful method of achieving racial harmony is that it tends to blind people (white people principally) to instances of both covert and overt racism. Race has a real impact, and failing to recognize the role it plays in our interactions only serves to mask it behind good intentions rather than exposing it to the scrutiny it requires.

As I discussed this morning, there are types of racism that cannot be solved by simply wishing them away or attributing them to malice from “racists”. Racism should not be treated as merely a personal character flaw of a handful of backward people, but as a topic of conversation for all people to engage in and explore. It’s already happening in some (perhaps) unlikely places:

What accounts for the decidedly non-diverse results in places like Silicon Valley? We have two competing theories. One is that deliberate racisms keeps people out. Another is that white men are simply the ones that show up, because of some combination of aptitude and effort (which it is depends on who you ask), and that admissions to, say Y Combinator, simply reflect the lack of diversity of the applicant pool, nothing more.

The problem with both of these theories is that the math just doesn’t work.

It’s a fact that the applicant pool to most Silicon Valley startup schools and VCs is skewed. Could this be the result of innate differences between white men and other groups? The math simply doesn’t hold up to support this view. Think about two overlapping populations of people, like men and women. They would naturally be normally distributed in a bell curve around a mean aptitude. So picture those two bell curves. Here in Silicon Valley, we’re looking for the absolute best and brightest, the people far out on the tail end of aptitude. So imagine that region of the curve. How far apart would the two populations have to be to explain YC’s historical admission rate of 4% women? It would have to be really extreme.

(snip)

…what the grownups have discovered, through painstaking research, is that it is extremely easy forsystems to become biased, even if none of the individual people in those systems intends to be biased. This is partly a cognitive problem, that people harbor unconscious bias, and partly an organizational problem, that even a collection of unbiased actors can work together to accidentally create a biased system. And when those systems are examined scientifically, they can be reformed to reduce their bias.

This is actually a really powerful story, and I encourage you to click through and read the whole thing. The author confronts his own privilege by designing and carrying out an experiment in which he actually blinds himself to colour and, lo and behold, his hiring practices changed to include more minorities that would have otherwise not been hired. Despite our best efforts to rid ourselves of intentional racism, it’s the implicit stuff that often goes on beneath the level of our cognition that trips us up again and again. The only way to combat this kind of subconscious and systemic bias is to drag it, kicking and screaming, out into the open where it can be understood and dissected.

The author also makes some good points (good in the sense that they are the same points I’ve made elsewhere) about diversity and how it contributes not only to meritocracy, but increased overall performance of groups as a variety of perspectives are incorporated into the group’s thinking. Colour blindness would rob us of any kind of intentional importation of diversity, because it forces us to behave as though race and ethnicity “don’t matter”, even if they matter in a positive or useful way. While the author doesn’t specifically condemn a colour blind approach, he is essentially talking about the difference between colour-blind people and colour-blind systems, which is at least a step in the right direction.

While I disagree with the passive way in which the author proposes reducing anti-minority bias, as a passive process rather than an active one, I am happy to see these kinds of discussions happening outside of academia. It’s worth a read.

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48 comments

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  1. 1
    Tabby Lavalamp

    And it always seems to come from a place of privilege, which led to some self-examination recently. I used to be one of those people who droned on about being “colour blind”, but I got a taste of how obnoxious that sounds with all the recent arguments surrounding women and atheism/skepticism. As much as the outright misogynists angered me, it was the men going on about how “it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female” while somehow defending the status quo who really got under my skin.
    I’ve heard people of colour talk about how annoying “colour blindness” could be before, but unfortunately it took being confronted with a parallel that affected me and my own positions of privilege to really drive that home.

  2. 2
    Marnie

    One problem I have with the idea of “color blindness” is that it suggests that one’s nationality is somehow meaningless or worse, shameful. In a strictly scientific sense, race is a meaningless construct, especially now that groups of people are not isolated from each other.

    C0n0rdance did a few videos on the topic
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrKrGkgeww4
    And these follow ups
    http://www.youtube.com/user/C0nc0rdance#p/u/8/jyknbCLys_8
    http://www.youtube.com/user/C0nc0rdance#p/u/7/71piW8lSxw4

    It may be helpful to know more about your more recent family heritage for medical reasons, but “black” and “white” aren’t really meaningful categories in defining human beings.

    Understanding that race is pretty meaningless helps underscore that racism is pure ignorance, but the answer to racism is not colorblindness. Just as I might be, in some cases, disadvantaged because I am female, doesn’t mean I want someone to pretend I’m not female. I don’t want to be judged based on being female, nor do I want to pretend that fact is not true.

    What bothers me about the colorblind theory is it almost paints someone’s race as an embarrassment that must be ignored, like when your friend gets a black eye in a bar fight and you tell her it doesn’t look bad, it’s hardly noticeable. How you identify racial (and what gender you identify as and your sexual orientation) are all a part of who you are and are fine qualities about you, one just hopes they are not your defining characteristic. Colorblindness, like DADT, says that you refuse to acknowledge some aspect of the person and that isn’t liberation it’s just another way to ostracize a person.

  3. 3
    Bryony Vaughn

    Some people might claim “color blindness” as a way not to deal with racial disparities. I see a lot of white people, and my friends definitely skew progressive, who sincerely want racial, gender, and general social equality. The secret most don’t want to admit, even to themselves, is they are TERRIFIED at the thought of being accused of being racist. That keeps lots of them from entering into frank discussions of race with people of color.

    How I got over it and plowed courageously into conversations was to realize, despite my best intentions, I likely harbor some degree of racism. It made it easier after I considered all the people I know who claim not to be racist whom I still considered racist. I figured there’s no reason to believe I’m the only person in the world lacking blind spots. That gave me the psychological head space fearlessly dive into conversations on race. I highly recommend it.

  4. 4
    Sivi

    “How far apart would the two populations have to be to explain YC’s historical admission rate of 4% women? It would have to be really extreme.”

    And yet, for race, you have people like JP Rushton, Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, Satoshi Kanazawa, who believe this is true, without any further explanation required.

    Shockingly, some of them also believe it for women. Racist scientists, also being sexist? Who would have guessed?

  5. 5
    geocatherder

    I’m certainly not color-blind (forgive my for my American spelling). While my parents were generally good people, they were racists, and they passed some of that on to me. The best I can do is ask myself, how/why am I reacting to this person of color? How/why is such-and-such a system biased toward white people? Like Tabby, I’ve experienced prejudice because I’m female. I’d love to be truly color-blind, but I doubt I can ever achieve that — there’s always a small voice from my childhood in the back of my head saying, s/he’s part of them, not us. I do my damndest to ignore it. I’m not sure what else I can do.

  6. 6
    Brandon

    Nice post, and well said. Another thing that you hint at a bit, is the positives that we’d lose by being “color-blind”. As a white guy that works closely (and is close friends with) people from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, I think I’d really be missing out if I never tried to get perspective from these folks. Pretending to be completely oblivious to differences between people in some mistaken attempt to be as inoffensive as humanly possible seems incredibly counterproductive to me.

  7. 7
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    The “colour blindness” thing is really is a kind of utopia complex. Those people who claim to be egalitarians because “race/sex/ethnicity/sexual orientation doesn’t matter” want to act like they already live in a utopian society where they don’t. Of course only the people with privilege could possibly take such a stance. So in the end, all they’re saying is it’s utopia for them and they like the status quo.

  8. 8
    Will

    Good post, and I appreciate the discussion about postracial bullshit like color blindness. I do have a little bit of a quibble, though.

    Equating postracial color blindness with disability comes across as ableist. You are equating “disability” with “bad.” You do not explain anywhere in the article how being color blind is equal to being disabled. I am sure you do not intend for the title to be ableist, but that’s how it reads, and I am sure there are better ways to describe it that get your same point across.

  9. 9
    FeministWhore

    A good friend of mine says it like so: The only thing color blindness does is blind you to the struggles of people of color.

  10. 10
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    The only way to combat this kind of subconscious and systemic bias is to drag it, kicking and screaming, out into the open where it can be understood and dissected.

    QFT

    The problem with both of these theories is that the math just doesn’t work.

    No. No it does not.

    Aside: Strangely, I had expected a post about protanopy, etc., when I had seen only the post title. That may say something about expectations based on a first glance or brief description. Hm.

  11. 11
    Jim Baerg

    As I read your post & before I read the linked article I thought of the practice of auditioning behind a screen for orchestral positions. Having 2 sisters who are classical musicians had made me aware of that. It is rather like blinded studies of medical proceedures to eliminate confirmation bias for or against the hypothesis that the proceedure is effective.

  12. 12
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    Coming from a mixed-race family (via adoption), I find that FOR ME, skin color is just… irrelevant. I don’t give it much thought, because I’m primarily concerned with the PERSON, not the CATEGORY.

  13. 13
    Crommunist

    I am saying that adopting a colour blind attitude blinds you to legitimate issues of race. It is not a pejorative usage, it is simply stating a fact that being colour blind means that you cannot see colour when it is a legitimate concern.

  14. 14
    Crommunist

    Apologies to those who spent the day in moderation hell. I was away from my computer the whole day and couldn’t authorize comments.

  15. 15
    Will

    I understand what you’re saying. ;) What I am saying is that using the word “disability” in your title in this instance comes across as ableist, whether or not you intend it to. There is able-bodied privilege in equating being blind (a disability) with something bad or negative. There is no reason to use the word disability. Saying something blinds you is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, but when you equate being blind with something negative, that is ableist.

  16. 16
    Crommunist

    Then using the word ‘disability’ in any context is ableist. If actual colour blindness is a disability, insofar as one is unable to see colour, then metaphorical race “colour blindness” is just so – it is an adopted stance that makes you unable to see race when it is appropriate. By your logic the word “disability” is ableist as well, because you’re saying that someone has less ability, and less is bad. I am not denying the existence of able-body privilege or anything like that – what I am saying is that in this context the word ‘disability’ is contextually appropriate.

  17. 17
    Will

    Oh come now. What I am saying is exactly what I am saying, which is to equate “disability” with “bad” is ableist. Nowhere did I say that using the word “disability” is ableist in ANY context. You are being disingenuous.

    “By your logic the word “disability” is ableist as well, because you’re saying that someone has less ability, and less is bad.”

    Actually, that’s what I’m calling you out on. You are the one equating “less ability” with bad, not me.

    Let me try this another way. Being blind is a disability not because it is the lack of sight, but because society is not built for blind people. If the vast majority of people were blind, having sight would be a disability because society would be structured around the assumption that people are blind. This is the social model of disability (as opposed to the medical model of disability, which seems to be what you are working from). Under this model, being blind is not “bad,” it is just different, and it is a disability because of the way society is structured.

    I do not understand the resistance to this being pointed out, here and elsewhere. How would you react if you were explaining an unintentionally racist comment that someone then tried to explain away? Would you not want them to listen instead of being dismissive?

  18. 18
    NatalieB

    “Disability” is a meaningful concept only in relation to some kind of defined standard of health, ability, optimal performance, etc.

    That can make sense in describing physical disabilities, like blindness. In comparison to what we describe as optimal human ability, blindness is disability.

    But then taking the term “disability” from that usage, and applying it as a means of describing states you see as subjectively, socially less-than-optimal, or basically just using it as a pejorative, ends up…well… it ends up taking something that is an important element of some people’s identity and using it to denigrate something else. Not entirely unlike saying “psshhh… I hate priuses. Priuses are so gay.” Or using description of someone as feminine or female-like as an insult. “Randy, you’re such a little bitch sometimes. Stop being such a pussy, get the sand out of your vag and man-up”

    There’s nothing gay about a prius. Randy is not a woman. And someone having some simplistic, ignorant post-racial ideas is not a disability. Making those comparisons as a way of saying the prius is an unlikeable car, Randy is weak and overly sensitive, or that the simplistic concepts of race are fundamentally inadequate, is to implicitly state that gayness is unlikeable, women are weak and overly sensitive, and people with disabilitiews are fundamentally inadequate.

  19. 19
    Enkidum

    Hmmm… I can see that color blindness doesn’t make sense from an institutional or official perspective. But what about in terms of personal relationships? If I’m having a beer with someone after work, I don’t want to constantly be thinking about them as “the black guy” or “the white woman” or what have you. Surely there comes a point where one has to move beyond that? Of course this is coming from someone who sometimes does have those kind of thoughts, so maybe I’m just confused.

    Either way, you’re clearly right that from an institutional perspective, we need explicit discussion of race and adoption of targeted policies. No way around that one, I think.

  20. 20
    Crommunist

    Yes, if the majority of people were blind, then being blind wouldn’t be a disability. Just like not being prescient isn’t a disability in our societal context. My point is that being less able to interact with the world is problematic and, when it can be avoided, should. If someone was legitimately unable to see race (I have no idea how that would work, but let’s pretend) we would be right to call them disabled. It would not be ableist, it would be a reflection of reality.

    The ‘bad’ comes from the choice to blind one’s self. When someone chooses to engage in a behaviour or mindset that makes them less able to interact with the world, particularly one that has damaging effects on others, it is both a disability and bad. Maybe it is my failure to specifically delineate this argument, but I think in context it is fairly clear that I am not saying that blindness is bad, but that adopting an attitude of blindness in this way is destructive. I use the word ‘disability’ to contrast the idea of colour blindness as a virtue or a positive trait – the full phrase I suppose would be “Colour blindness is not something to which you should aspire – it is in fact a disability.” Unless your position is that saying that one should not seek out a disability is ableist.

    I am not ‘being dismissive’ because I am not listening. I am ‘being dismissive’ because I disagree with you. I understand ableism, and I have corrected myself and adjusted my language when it has been pointed out to me. I do not agree that this usage constitutes ableism.

  21. 21
    Crommunist

    The issue is not that you notice that the person is black, female, whatever. The issue is when that becomes the entirety of how you identify them. I am black. I am also a viola player and a blogger and a scientist and 6’3″ and a snappy dresser and a whole list of other things. When one of those characteristics becomes far more salient than the other ones (except in specific circumstances where my black identity, or my violist identity, or what-have-you), that’s when we get into trouble. We have to learn to see race in its appropriate context rather than trying to ignore it.

  22. 22
    Crommunist

    And someone having some simplistic, ignorant post-racial ideas is not a disability

    But it is in the sense that it means they are less able to deal with race than someone who is not colour blind. It is just as much as disability as someone with literal colour blindness.

    I have added a disclaimer to the top of the post. I am still not convinced that my use of the term disability in this context is ableist, but I’ve been blinded by privilege before. I will avoid using the term in this way in the future.

  23. 23
    Will

    Fair enough. Thanks for the disclaimer. ;)

  24. 24
    Enkidum

    OK, I just deleted a bunch of stuff I wrote here because I reread your reply and I think I get it.

    Enkidum (white dude) is having a beer after work with a black coworker. Pleasant conversation, race is not the topic. Should Enkidum be thinking about his coworker’s race in this context? If so, only in passing, maybe as a sort of internal check “hey, is there any reason I should be thinking explicitly about race here? uh… nope.”. And then move on to thinking about professional sports or women or whatever it is that guys think about in bars.

    The next week Enkidum has to fill out a performance evaluation of black coworker. Internal check “Should I be thinking explicitly about race here? Uh… well, actually, maybe I should take time to consider it, because biases have a way of creeping into these things and I need to make sure I’m being fair.”

    My concern was about constantly second-guessing oneself in a social context. But if all you’re doing is occasionally checking to see if this is a context where race is pertinent, or better yet just training yourself to automatically recognize such situations when they arise, then the rest of the time you can just chill out.

    (This is purely on a personal level. As I said before, I think on an institutional level you need much more explicit checks on behavior.)

    That sound right?

  25. 25
    Crommunist

    You’ve got the idea. There are times when race is an important variable to consider. There are other times when it’s not. In most social situations you’re better off not being preoccupied by it, unless there’s a very compelling reason, or if the other person brings it up. I’ll grant that it’s tricky to identify those appropriate times, but the more you do it the more automatic it becomes. Most of the time it’s better done in retrospect – ‘could I have been misinterpreted? Is there a better way of interacting with this person in the future?’

  26. 26
    ischemgeek

    I can see a lot of parallels to the gender issues I have to deal with as a female in a male-dominated field… specifically, that those who like tho think that if you’re damn good, your gender doesn’t matter won’t open their eyes to the fact that even if they’re the paragon of treating people with gender equality (and most of them aren’t), the majority of people aren’t and, further, don’t want to be (I won’t start listing examples because I’d be here all day and frankly it’s off topic). So gender does still matter. In some situations, it matters a lot.

    Am I right in thinking the same holds true for race?

    It holds true in my case regarding color-blindness. I won’t go into it too much because that would be making it about me and it’s not damn well about me but I’ll say this: I used to be a self-professed “color-blind” person. Thanks to working at a place where the ethnic makeup is more like that of the world than that of Canada, I’ve made a lot of friends I never would have if I’d stayed in my old community and realized that being “color-blind” was just an excuse to avoid critically looking at my own thought processes and pre-conceived notions.

  27. 27
    Crommunist

    The parallels between gender dynamics and race dynamics abound. It is no coincidence that the early black freethinkers and philosophers who began suing for civil rights were unabashed feminists – we’re essentially talking about combatting the same cognitive processes. It’s why I am optimistic that the skeptics movement is ready to deal in anti-racism – we’re gradually coming to terms with including feminist thought in our mental lexicon.

    I used to advocate “colour blindness” as well. For many years, in fact. It wasn’t until I began to understand the full implications of that philosophy that I abandoned it. Same with objectivism. It’s part of the reason why I am so scornful of it – it reminds me of a stupider me.

  28. 28
    NatalieB

    Actually, I feel a little bit bad for only commenting on the able-ism thing, because I think the substance of this post raises a very, very good point. And thank you very much for the disclaimer. I appreciate you taking Will’s point into consideration.

    Anyway, I absolutely agree with what was said above how the “colour blindness” arguments (“I don’t see black or white, I just see people”), which often go hand in hand with accusations of “reverse bigotry” in regards to things like affirmative action or pointing out privilege or saying that its more discriminatory for a white man to dress in black face than for vice versa or whatever, are absolutely steeped in assumptions that we live in some kind of utopian “post-racial” utopia where social inequities no longer exist, where we’ve completely transcended our biases, and there is no longer any difference in the experiences and opportunities of certain groups versus others. That kind of naivete can only come from an experience of never having actually had to deal with discrimination, or see how it effects things.

    I have actually, honestly heard people in the skeptic / humanist community makes the direct, literal claim that racism and sexism are a thing of the past, and that therefore organizations and movements dedicated to racial equality, feminism, and the various intitiatives to advance social justice, are now “no longer needed” or “doing more harm than good”. Like seriously. This isn’t even what I’ve seen people imply, it’s what I’ve seen people overtly say.

    African: “Hey, welcome to Africa. How’s it going?”
    First-Wave Racist: “YOU SAVAGES ARE BENEATH MY CONTEMPT. I’M GOING TO USE SOME OF YOU AS CATTLE AND COLONIZE AND SUBJUGATE THE REST THROUGH MEANS OF DIRECT VIOLENCE”

    Colonized African / Slave: “Okay, so… this really sucks.”
    Second-Wave Racist: “We’re doing it for your own good! Before we came along, you were living in darkness. We’re offering you savage heathens the salvation of Christ, and giving you the glory of European civilization and culture. Why are you complaining?”

    Freed Slave: “Right, so can we maybe get to participate in this society at all? Li’l help?”
    Third-Wave Racist: “We can’t give you the vote. If you look at the science, it demonstrates that you are of clearly inferior moral and intellectual character. Besides, society would break down! We’re fundamentally different, you and I, and nothing is ever going to change that, so we’re just going to have to keep you segregated.”

    Civil Rights Activist: “So we’ve earned the vote, have shown ourselves to be fully equal human beings who deserve equal rights, and have demonstrated that racism is messed up. So, are we good now? Can you stop being idiots about this”
    Fourth-Wave Racist: “Yeah, we’re cool now! After all, you’re all so exotic and soulful and cool! You make such great music and dance so well and have really big penises! I wish us white people had as much soul and intuition as you do, but we’re stuck with our uptight, rational, intelligent ways. *SIGH*. Say, you doing anything Friday night?”

    Modern Race Theorist / Activist : “This is getting really exhausting. And we’re still completely fucked over by the legacy of discrimination. It sure would be nice to have some social programs that actually address these inequities.”
    “Post-Racist”: “You know, I’d like to, but that would be reverse racism. See, I don’t look at things in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’, or ‘male’ and ‘female’, or ‘straight’ and ‘gay’, I just see people. Why is it such a big deal to you, anyway? Maybe you should grow up and get over it. If you keep acting like race is soooo important, that just perpetuates inequality. Obviously you don’t know what’s best for your own interest. Let me explain the nature of your oppression to you…”

  29. 29
    Crommunist

    It’s weird because I understand where they’re coming from, while still recognizing how little merit the argument has. I like that timeline a lot, btw.

  30. 30
    papango

    In an odd conincidence my grandmother was genuinely colour-blind (in that she couldn’t distinguish colours and had very poor eyesight generally) and was one of the most racist and prejudice people I ever met. She couldn’t tell a persons race just by looking at them so she was forever asking those around her (me, a lot of the time) what a person ‘was’. Awful woman.

  31. 31
    ischemgeek

    I’m not-quite scornful of it, but I suspect it’s because I’m with that sort of idea where I was with gender, alt-med, and religion issues about two years ago: Still working the years-of-upbringing-induced knots out of my thought processes.

    Give me a year or so of studying and ironing the wrinkles in that area out of my brain, and I might end up right there with you.

  32. 32
    ischemgeek

    Reminds me of my great-aunt. It’d be faster to list people she doesn’t hate than those she does.

  33. 33
    papango

    Ha. Yes. And God. Not in a Satanist kind of way, but as a believer who felt that her God had screwed her out of the life she deserved. Much as you might feel about a real estate agent or stock broker who ripped you off.

  34. 34
    Eh

    Colour blindness is an arch-liberal invention that seems to be largely built from ignorance and guilt.

    My temptation to respond to this is with a comment along the lines of “Thank heavens we’re leaving behind the backward ideas of judging people by the content of their character rather than colour of their skin.” However, that’s too flippant even for me.

    There is a real point here, that those people who are colourblind can miss the real thing because they no longer have the point-of-reference to access it. A good example would by Mel Gibson’s Passion – most Americans just didn’t have any knowledge of the antisemitic cues in it. I’ve met people from the subcontinent who don’t know about the Holocaust.

    I do think that racism is one of those ‘original sins’ that are the legacy of our evolutionary development. It’s part of the hideous darkness of our past. So while I agree with this:

    Despite our best efforts to rid ourselves of intentional racism, it’s the implicit stuff that often goes on beneath the level of our cognition that trips us up again and again.

    I also think that any policy based on this would lead to, not even convicting people of thoughtcrimes, but of thoughts that they didn’t even know they had. I am not saying that that’s what’s intended, it’s just the Law of Unintended Consequences.

    However, where I disagree is this:

    One is that deliberate racisms keeps people out. Another is that white men are simply the ones that show up, because of some combination of aptitude and effort (which it is depends on who you ask), and that admissions to, say Y Combinator, simply reflect the lack of diversity of the applicant pool, nothing more.

    That’s at best incomplete. First of all, it manages to ignore the very large numbers of other groups, in particularly people from the subcontinent, China, Japan, Korea, Singapore who manage. Second, it posits only two possible explanations. One could rather say that it’s a) racism, b) the legacy of racism, c) biology, d) social background and social practices, d) poverty, e) effort – you get the idea. Or some combination of the foregoing, which is the most likely. For example, poverty means poor diets which some studies show leads to reduction in IQ of children whose mothers are undernourished. And, of course, poverty and discrimination are linked.

    Then there’s this:

    How far apart would the two populations have to be to explain YC’s historical admission rate of 4% women? It would have to be really extreme.

    Actually, not. It would simply have to mean that the distribution was broader in one case than the other. For example, men are four times as likely to develop autism as are women. We also know that a subtype of autism – Asperger’s – correlates with high mathematical ability. The whole story? Unlikely, but it’s also unwise to dismiss it.

    I realize that I’m biased in this case, since I’m not an American and don’t have a stake in this. As an internationalist, I am more concerned, far more concerned, about the unspeakable horrors that keep going on while the great and the good sit around like potted plants. If one wants to discuss slavery, I’m more concerned with its abolition where it is still practiced today than worrying about the effects of it in the past.

    I’m not saying that everyone has to think like that; each of us has our own garden to ten. It’s just an open declaration of interest.

  35. 35
    NatalieB

    It’s not an issue of “judging people by the colour of their skin”, it’s about taking differing experiences and opportunities into consideration.

    One way of putting it:

    Race matters and is a “big deal” because for centuries race mattered and was treated like a big deal. That CREATED a situation where the culture, experience and opportunities of certain racial groups were different than others, where some races were granted more privilege than others. Now we have to address the consequences of that, not simply pretend the problem isn’t there, or has been “solved”. “Colour-blindness” would have maybe been an effective way of dealing with the problem of racism 400 years ago, but in our current situation, it perpetuates it.

    Or, to be more blunt, we made our bed and now we have to lie in it.

    A comparison might be homosexuality. It was through the medical pathologization of it that gay men and lesbians began to be seen and treated as a seperate category of human being, and that particular mode of behaviour as an inherent characteristic that made them fundamentally different from straight people. By now, we’ve managed to understand that is no longer a pathology or disorder, but it’s too late: by categorizing and othering a class of human beings for so long, we’ve created a separate set of identities, and a set of social inequities that go with it. And that needs to be addressed.

  36. 36
    NatalieB

    Ur… I mean, managed to understand that it’s NOT a pathology or disorder. “No longer” implies it once was. :p

  37. 37
    Eh

    Or, to be more blunt, we made our bed and now we have to lie in it.

    Who, exactly, is this “we”?

    Believe me, I have enough trouble as it is keeping things straight. I literally don’t have the time to perpetuate stuff from the stone-age. And yes, it is from the stone-age – the idea that this popped into existence ’400 years ago’ is ludicrous. Back to the point, who is this “we”, exactly?

  38. 38
    julian

    Back to the point, who is this “we”, exactly?

    Ahh baiting and pointless questions. Where would we be without you?

  39. 39
    julian

    For example, men are four times as likely to develop autism as are women.

    Do you mean to say that autism has been observed 4x as often among young boys then it has among women? The two are very different claims and because (to my knowledge) there is no real explanation for how or why children develop autism I don’t see how you could have literally meant what you wrote.

    We also know that a subtype of autism – Asperger’s – correlates with high mathematical ability.

    Has nothing to do with anything.

    The whole story?

    Your implication is noted.

    Unlikely, but it’s also unwise to dismiss it.

    Why?

    Does it contribute substantively to our understanding of the situation? Can it be shown to have had an affect on discriminatory practices? Is there any compelling evidence to show that the individuals could attribute their math ability to Aspergers? Do the rates of women with Aspergers going into these fields match the rate of men with Aspergers going into these fields?

    As an internationalist,

    Oh, lord…

    I am more concerned, far more concerned, about the unspeakable horrors that keep going on while the great and the good sit around like potted plants.

    Your implication is noted.

    If one wants to discuss slavery, I’m more concerned with its abolition where it is still practiced today than worrying about the effects of it in the past.

    As is you dismissal.

    It’s just an open declaration of interest.

    But you are a smug one.

  40. 40
    julian

    That’s at best incomplete.

    So what would it be at worst?

    First of all, it manages to ignore the very large numbers of other groups, in particularly people from the subcontinent, China, Japan, Korea, Singapore who manage.

    There are very different racial histories here. The stereotypes (which have been show to have some affect on everything from performance in sports to math) involved are entirely different beasts. Like a boy I knew in High School said to me after learning I had a great grandmother from India “That’s what got you that 80! If only you were full!” which I think captures the very different attitudes and expectations of the two groups.

    One could rather say that it’s a) racism, b) the legacy of racism, c) biology, d) social background and social practices, d) poverty, e) effort

    Why do you include biology? You have reason to believe biology plays a role in- well what? Motivation, math ability, reading ability, what?

    For example, poverty means poor diets which some studies show leads to reduction in IQ of children whose mothers are undernourished.

    I’m not in anyway qualified to evaluate such a study, but I’d still like to see it. The link between IQ and intelligence (from what I have read) in the vast majority of cases seems very week. (And I don’t know of any correlation between high IQ and success.) But what really gets me, what were these IQ’s? How was the mal nutrition measured? What was the living conditions of these children? Education?

    It seems like you’re overstating what these studies could have shown. (I am of course, not a scientist or anyone with any extensive scientific knowledge.)

  41. 41
    Eh

    Has nothing to do with anything.

    Actually, sunshine, it does. My point was that you do not need to have two populations to have a mean difference to have different spreads in them. This is about the extremes at both ends.

    I’m still waiting for an explanation of who this “we” is.

  42. 42
    Eh

    Why do you include biology? You have reason to believe biology plays a role in- well what? Motivation, math ability, reading ability, what?

    Because only a fool thinks that you can avoid biology completely. And by biology, I do mean biology – I am tired of people who think “biological”, “inborn”, “hereditary”, “genetic” and “racial” are interchangeable words.

    I gave a precise example, the effects that malnutrition can have on IQ, and that’s something that can have effects long after the cause has gone away. It’s not a hard equation: suppression => poverty => malnutrition => handicap a generation after the suppression has gone away . Or, if you want something that appeals to political conservatives, it’s true that having two parents strongly correlates with success in life, and illegitimacy is higher in the black American population than the white.

    As I said, this is very unlikely to be just one thing.

  43. 43
    NatalieB

    Racism, tribalist instincts, and “in group / out group” thinking have been around since the stone age, yes. But the creation of contemporary black identity and culture as we understand it, and the particular experiences of North American people of African descent versus the privileged experiences of North American people of European descent, dates back to European colonization of Africa, and the North American slave trade.

    By “we” I mean contemporary “western” society and culture, North America in particular, and to a less-important extent, white people. I’m making a slight, tentative assumption that you’re also white, and I genuinely, sincerely apologise if that assumption is incorrect, but “we” has multiple possible meanings… “we” as “you and I”, “we” as “you and I and a group to which we belong”, or “we” as “me and the group to which I belong”. Thanks to the ambiguity of “we”, the statement isn’t wholly reliant on my assumption. If you’re a POC, or not from North America, my phrasing still works in the third sense of “we”, the one that doesn’t include the second-person inclusion. But really, the racial aspect of “we” isn’t nearly as important as my reference to the society we all share and have all had a hand in created, and all have a responsibility to help move forward in the right direction.

  44. 44
    julian

    It’s not a hard equation: suppression => poverty => malnutrition => handicap a generation after the suppression has gone away .

    Then wouldn’t the same apply to, say, whites living in the US South since the Southern diet during the early 1900′s to 60′s or so was very unhealthy and likely to lead to malnutrition?

    From my very limited understanding, malnutrition isn’t just limited to low food supply. It’s essentially an overabundance or complete lack of necessary certain nutrients, correct? So given our lack of nutritional knowledge until the last half century, malnutrition is something we were all vulnerable to.

    Of course I’m no expert in, well, anything, so if someone more knowledgeable than I would like to correct me, I’d be very much in their debt.

  45. 45
    Eh

    Then wouldn’t the same apply to, say, whites living in the US South since the Southern diet during the early 1900′s to 60′s or so was very unhealthy and likely to lead to malnutrition?

    I’m sure it would. Another case where a population received a massive biological upgrade in terms of their cranial capacity was Europe, due to a) the abolition of relentless drinking (including drinking by pregnant women, which has a provable connection to lower intelligence in children), and later on b) the development of easier transport, especially the bicycle, that put a stop to massive inbreeding.

    From my very limited understanding, malnutrition isn’t just limited to low food supply. It’s essentially an overabundance or complete lack of necessary certain nutrients, correct? So given our lack of nutritional knowledge until the last half century, malnutrition is something we were all vulnerable to.

    True – but in the US, poverty very often means being overweight, and also correlates with junk-food diets, because they are so cheap.

    Here’s a google scholar search on the subject:
    http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?q=Malnutrition+and+IQ&hl=en&btnG=Search&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp=on

  46. 46
    gj

    How is it The Crommunist hasn’t addressed Eh’s observation that there is no particular reason to think the two populations in his initial example (male and female admittees at “Y Combinator”) are *normally distributed*? That blows TCs argument out of the water from the start. The variance of one population might be waaaaaay bigger than the other.

    And there is NO REASON to necessarily claim that such a difference is “innate”, however that is (poorly) defined. There could be a host of reasons, or combination of reasons, not a single one of which involve some ethereal “sexism” or “racism” on the part of the Proctors, or in the larger sense whichever authority figure is making these distinctions.

    Korean kids outperform others on standardized math test because their parents will kick their ass if they don’t, to site just one of a million other cultural variables among variously defined groups (…and why stop at culture?). Are we supposed to nevertheless assume that the assesors somehow unfairly favor Koreans?

  47. 47
    Crommunist

    Because the “girls are bad at math” myth is pretty thoroughly exploded? I didn’t think it was my job to address every nonsense notion that was floated across the comment threads. You’ll notice that when he actually blinded himself to race, he hired a lot more non-white staff? Did they suddenly become more able?

    Also the “Korean kids are good at math” thing is a myth too.

  48. 48
    julian

    It isn’t a myth. It’s what happens when you put vacuous thinkers in charge of interpreting results and leave it to even more vacuous thinkers to interpret and popularize them. It’s crap science. It’s crap science that seems to need debunking every new couple decades. First it’s cranial size, then it’s ovaries and now it’s a more developed left brain in men.

    Gag.

    It would be nice if these ‘forward thinking’ and not at all ‘sexist’ or ‘stereotype enforcing’ individuals would figure out just how ridiculous they’re being.

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