Go Home, Arab

One of my favourite standup comedians is a guy called Hari Kondabolu. He talks about race from a non black/white standpoint, and does so in a way that is consistently hilarious. Yesterday, he Tweeted this:

I'm a brown dude in New York City & I'm nervous to walk around alone today. This is how racism works.

“I’m a brown dude in New York City & I’m nervous to walk around alone today. This is how racism works.”

I thought this was a particularly sad commentary on reality for many Asian Americans, forced to pay the price for the ignorance of the violent reactionaries among their countrymen. Hari, born in New York, has Indian ancestry, which would (in an even slightly less-insane world) preclude him from being suspected for a crime – a crime whose author we don’t know. However, because those who would reflexively blame “Muslims” for pretty much everything aren’t going to spend a whole lot of time studying the history of India, or devote too many brain cells to the parsing of the likelihood of a random person with brown skin being actually connected to anything unsavoury, Hari’s caution is warranted.

Especially in the wake of how even people who are supposed to be responsible adults are behaving: [Read more...]

Possibly foreign

As you’ve no doubt heard from countless media sources, two devices exploded yesterday at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing two and wounding dozens. No group or individual has claimed responsibility for what appears to be an attack. I am trying to cage my language as much as possible here, for reasons I will make obvious over the course of this post.

Boston is my favourite city in the United States. It is also home to my closest friend, who was thankfully nowhere near the site when the explosions happened (although he had biked the route earlier in the day). Obviously there are no words sufficient to the task of expressing the shock and grief that Bostonians and Americans are feeling today, so I won’t waste much time in trying.

I did get a bit of a taste of it yesterday though, when I wasn’t sure if my friend was okay – standing at a marathon finish line sounds like something he’d be into, and when he didn’t answer his phone a part of my brain decided, despite having zero evidence, that he had been killed. The next half hour was black hell for me, as the thought refused to be shouted down by the voices of reason detailing the 90,000 other places he was more likely to be than at the epicentre of a bomb blast. He was fine. Working in his lab (a logical place for him to be on a Monday), with no phone reception.

That fear, that grief, that terror that was rampaging through my brain and playing fun percussive tricks with my autonomic nervous system, is not something I would wish on anyone – not even whoever is responsible for engendering it in me. [Read more...]

Vanity Friday – This Love

Haven’t done one of these in a while. I have a gig with the band tonight and a solo gig tomorrow at the King’s Head Pub, the place where I got my start in Vancouver. Should be interesting. I also bought a new effects pedal that I am slowly learning to use (so many options, so little knowledge).

I will try to get some electric stuff recorded soon, but until then, here’s a new acoustic cover I’ve been working on:

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Justice for Rehteah

I mentioned this story briefly in passing on Tuesday, but an atrocity has occurred in Nova Scotia (trigger warning for suicide):

Rehtaeh Parsons had a goofy sense of humour and loved playing with her little sisters. She wore glasses, had long, dark hair and was a straight-A student whose favourite subject was science. On Sunday night, the 17-year-old’s family took her off life-support. Three days earlier, on Thursday night, she hanged herself in the bathroom.

Suicide of a young person is always tragic (of course I would be remiss if I failed to point out that suicide rates are highest among Canada’s Aboriginal youth, and highest in the world among Inuit youth), but in this case the details are particularly gruesome (trigger warning for pretty much everything): [Read more...]

Pride goeth before…

It has become a sort of pop-psychology truism that people who engage in prejudicial behaviour are doing so from a place of insecurity. It makes intuitive sense that if you don’t feel good about yourself, you can bring yourself up by tearing others down. Indeed, there is some evidence that threats to self-concept are likely to result in a preference bias toward the majority group (even among minority group members).

In a study by Ashton-James and Tracy, the authors propose a new hypothesis. They refer to the psychological literature that suggests that pride has two basic forms: hubristic and authentic. Hubristic pride refers to the kind of pride that is directed at one’s innate self-worth and deservedness – a kind of self-congratulatory, self-centred pride that is associated with narcissism and defensive self-esteem. Authentic pride, on the other hand, refers to pride taken in one’s accomplishments based on hard work rather than, for lack of a better term, special snowflakeness – it is associated with secure self-esteem.

The authors posit that hubristic pride will lead to increased prejudicial attitudes and behaviours, whereas authentic pride will lead to more compassionate attitudes and behaviours. They arrive at this hypothesis based on literature that suggests a relationship between self-esteem insecurity and prejudice. They go on to suggest that empathic concern is the mechanism by which this relationship manifests itself, since people who are more secure in their self-esteem are more likely to be able to be outwardly focussed and respond to the needs of others.

In order to test this hypothesis, the authors conducted three experiments, as well as a pilot study. [Read more...]

“Accidental” racism and intentional brilliance

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows what my position is on “intent” when it comes to things like racism and misogyny. Intent lies on an orthogonal axis to racism – someone doing something intentionally racist just adds bad intent to bad action. If we are of the opinion that racism is harmful in and of itself, we have to identify something as ‘racist’ or ‘not racist’ based on its own merits, regardless of whether the person “meant to”.

This appears to be a major sticking point for people. They have bought, either consciously or unconsciously, into the myth that racism is something perpetuated by “racists”, and that if someone didn’t mean to do it then it can’t really be racist – just “ignorant” or “an accident” or whatever euphemism they prefer. This myth has a lot of popular currency and is fairly ubiquitous within North American discussions of race. The problem, of course, is that people can be and are discriminated against based on their race in ways that have nothing to do with ill intent all the time. Demanding that intent be consubstantial with racism precludes us from taking any action against these kinds of racism.

In a stunning display of well-intentioned cluelessness (and what could be called willful ignorance), country star Brad Paisley has decided to step into the fray by teaming up with LL Cool J in a ballad called “Accidental Racist”. Here’s a sample: [Read more...]

Segregation in 2013

I went to a high school with an incredibly diverse student body. While I didn’t really recognize it at the time, I was incredibly lucky: I was surrounded at all times by people from all over the world with a wide variety of experiences and beliefs. It didn’t “force me” to be tolerant or anything like that – like all things that happen during youth I just took it in stride. It wasn’t really until I got to the largely monochromatic environs of my undergraduate program* that I realized what it was like for major parts of the rest of the country – surrounded by people who look like you, and taking it in the same stride that I took my variety of classmate.

The idea that someone would want to segregate schools is, thus, very foreign to me. My education benefitted immensely from being cheek-by-jowl with people whose backgrounds were dissimilar to my own. It broadened my world view and allowed me to reflexively challenge a lot of racist and xenophobic assumptions about people who weren’t born in Canada in a way that the classes I took couldn’t hope to approach. The idea of someone choosing to rob someone of that kind of opportunity is baffling.

And yet, we find pretty much exactly that happening in Georgia: [Read more...]

Rose DiManno, rape culture ambassador

I had an MRA show up in the comments yesterday. In between the bluster and the self-aggrandizing and the laughable talking points, he did manage to slip in the kernel of an actual point (I know – nobody was more shocked than I was). He reminded me of the claim that I made a couple of weeks ago about the role that male feminists ought to play:

The task falls to male feminists to learn to identify and advocate these ideas, pulling from our own experiences as the above authors have. Like religion, the entire philosophical edifice of gender needs to be critiqued and pulled apart in order to rob it of the power to hurt us in the many ways it does. Not in exclusion to discussions of how patriarchy hurts women, but in addition to it.

Male feminists have a duty to support our female and gender-queer allies, and to use our male privilege as a method to amplify their voices. Beyond that, however, we also have an opportunity to vocalize, perhaps better than anyone else (and certainly better than MRAs), the ways in which our understandings of gender not only hurt women, but hurt men too. There are a variety of experiences and emotions and ways of living that rigid gender roles make socially unacceptable for men, and a number of unacceptable situations that men are forced into for the simple fact of their (our) gender. There is no valid reason for such prohibition, and therefore no justification for its associated harms.

The specific form of the reminder from the commenter was regarding this story (TW for sexual abuse): [Read more...]

Glimmers of secular hope

There has been a great fracas recently within atheist/secularist circles as ‘Horseman’ Sam Harris has been subjected to repeated critique* as the avatar of a disturbing trend within atheist circles: using “reason” to mask anti-Muslim sentiment in politically pallatable language. I have noted this tendency previously:

I don’t think anyone could confuse me with someone who is pro-Islam. As much as I find all religions repugnant, the face of Islam we see today is one of repressive fanaticism that stifles human progress. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of fanaticism in Christianity as well, to say nothing of Hindu and Buddhist repression happening in India and other parts of Asia. Whether it is due to anti-Muslim bias and the collision of Islam and secularism in Europe, or a reflection of the true excess of Islamic regimes, the news consistently carries stories of Muslim-dominated countries carrying out horrible acts with the excuses of Qur’anic license on their lips. I will not relent or shrink from criticizing this inhuman (or perhaps all-too-human) display of authoritarianism with claimed divine mandate.

That being said, there is a backlash against Muslims that is not based on their beliefs per se, but about our attitude about the danger that Muslims (and Islam) pose to the world. This attitude is not informed by evidence, but fueled by paranoia and misinformation. It qualifies, by every comparative standard that I can think of, as just as worthy of criticism as racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, take your pick.

My concern is that atheists find it far too tempting to single out Islam for particular opprobium because the stories we hear about Islamist-dominated countries are so dramatic. We conclude from the drama that Islam per se is a particularly twisted ideology, above and beyond the ideology of, say, Christianity. My counter-claim to this assertion is that Christianity contains essentially all of the same commandments and prohibitions and exhortations that Islam does, but time and the rise of secular society have rendered it, in the aggregate, less overtly oppressive than the current incarnation of Islam (again, in the aggregate). [Read more...]

Asking for a friend…

When I was a little kid, people (including family and teachers) made a big deal about my intelligence. In strong contrast to what I understand to be the experience of many black children in white-dominated environments, I was always complimented for my intellect and encouraged to push further. It was a rare occasion, however, that my physical appearance or size was made an issue (except in the sense of “you’re bigger than the other kids, so be more careful”).

There was a recent dust-up when the President attempted to crack a joke while fundraising for an attorney general in California:

President Barack Obama has apologised to the California attorney general for remarking on her appearance at a fundraising event on Thursday. Mr Obama described Kamala Harris, a long-time friend, as “the best-looking attorney general in the country”. Ms Harris’s spokesman said she strongly supported Mr Obama but would not say whether she had accepted his apology. Critics have cited the remark as an example of the ongoing hurdles women face in the workplace.

Speaking after Ms Harris at the fundraising event in California on Thursday, Mr Obama said she was “brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake”. Then he added: “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country… It’s true. Come on. And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years.”

On its own, divorced from context, this is exactly the kind of compliment you would like to receive from a friend – that you are hard-working and capable, and attractive to boot. However, eyebrows were of course raised because this isn’t just one buddy saying a nice thing about another – this is the President of the United States making the physical appearance of the Attorney General of California an issue. It is somewhat inconceivable that he would give a man the same kind of compliment in that situation. And in an environment where women’s appearance is used to dismiss or denigrate their competence – regardless of their station – the comment takes on a disturbing element.

Black feminists, however, have noted that there is an unexplored phenomenon in this story: Ms. Harris is a black woman. The well-worn stereotype about black femininity does not often include the possibilty of being competent and attractive. In the realm of black femininity, they say, the compliment tacks sharply against both the stereotype of black women as not competent and as not attractive. Far from being troubling, some black feminists have found the comment a welcome one, and have criticized white feminists for failing to take the racial element into account when parsing the president’s words.

In the spirit of honouring that type of intersectionality, friend of the blog Slignot has reached out and made the following request:

I was writing about the importance of complimenting children on things they do rather than things they are when I realized I had a deeply limited experience as a white woman who grew up in an overwhelmingly white place (Utah). As I made a generalized background point about boys more commonly being complimented for being smart & girls for being pretty, I realized I have no idea whether this is remotely true when you’re not assuming white experiences being the default or norm.

As soon as I recognized my mistake, I tried to see if anyone had done any sort of discussion of this when talking about the pretty/smart gender divide but either it’s not readily available or my google-fu just was lousy today. So I decided to ask Crommunist on Twitter if he’d be willing to tell me about his experiences with compliments growing up. However, this ran into the problem of his experiences not being necessarily representative outside of the particular circumstances of his upbringing in Canada. I was able to get a few other answers from people through Twitter that lead me to believe that there’s probably a whole lot more going on here with other stereotype threats that need recognition when we talk about inequitable treatment of kids based on gender.

So if you’re willing to share your experiences, I very much want to know what sort of compliments you received growing up, who gave them to you and honestly how much of the time they doubled as microaggressions. (As someone pointed out to me, people told him he was smart, but in tones that conveyed this was surprising to them.) Does the smart/pretty gender divide apply?

Because my audience is a bit larger and more diverse than hers (I think), I’m boosting the signal for this request to see if others can bring their personal experiences to bear and help to flesh out her piece. Please leave a comment here, or contact her on Twitter.

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UPDATE: Kevin Drum posts an analysis of this worthwhile empirical exploration of the effect that introducing appearance has in these kinds of discussion.