States writes

One of the most challenging aspects of anti-racism is the fact that we can only usually measure racism as an absence of a better explanation. We see an inequality and then we try to rule out the other plausible explanations, and then say “it’s got to be explained by racism”. Because there is no objective test – no screen or marker or physical indicator – that positively identifies racist intent (or even racism that happens unintentionally), it is usually left to anti-racist educators to make a case through narrative explanation rather than through empirical observation.

Their (our) task is made even more difficult by the fact that, partially because people are defensive and partially because people are assholes, any claim that racism plays a role in any event is met with a howling chorus of denials and demands for the kind of rock-solid proof that is so rarely available when discussing these kinds of social/psychological issues. When these demands cannot be readily met (‘my racism detector is on the fritz’), these voices devolve into smug pronouncements of ‘race cards’ being played, or perhaps a ‘playing the victim’ gambit being used.

Which is why it’s always interesting and gratifying to see exercises like this one: [Read more...]

Looking at it sideways

We often use college course abbreviations to describe the various levels of social justice discussion. Someone might refer to a “101-level” conversation when we’re talking about identifying racism as a social construct rather than a biological reality. Trying to access the specific ways in which racial constructs impact the lived experiences of people might qualify for “200-level” status, since it requires us to understand and accept the conclusions from the 100-level stuff before we can move on to the real-world implications. Discussing things like intersectionality and the consequences of multiple identities that intersect race is maybe your “300-level” stuff, which is more or less the level I think I can comfortably converse.

But then there’s other stuff that, quite frankly, baffles and confounds even me: [Read more...]

Making it count

One of the most frustrating aspects of being involved in a social justice movement is coming to grips with the sheer scope of the problem. Social inequalities are grounded, more often than not, in centuries of history and the evolutionary detritus of human cognition. We can point to a handful of successes like the American civil rights movement, but those were foughts that people literally bled and died for, and resulted in a system that almost immediately adapted to restore as much of the racist status quo as was legally permissible. The fact is that the fight for equality is gigantic, and it’s easy to feel as though one person can’t do much to move the massive edifice the dictates the roles of various groups in power dynamics.

Indeed, even if one wasn’t so overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the problem, it’s hard to conceive of what actionable solutions are available. The whole Occupy movement was heavily criticized for even trying to get together and spell out all of the problems. When solutions were offered (and they were offered), their very existence was denied or ignored because it fit into the more easily-digested narrative that we live in a world where people cannot solve big, diffuse problems. Certainly those who are sincerely interested in, say, seeing the end of racism can see few avenues toward true progress: the problem is inside people’s heads. How can we fix the ever-warping landscape of human psychology aside from waiting for the ‘racists’ to die off and hope that the next generation does a better job?

While I agree the task is daunting, there may be one specific lever we can exploit: [Read more...]

Sikivu Hutchinson in Vancouver this Saturday

If you’re not reading the Black Skeptics blog, I have just one question.

If you are reading, you’re already well acquainted with the perfect blend of passion, fact, and relentless courage that is the writing of Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson. You may have even seen her in this discussion with Richard Dawkins:

If you’re in the Vancouver area, this Saturday (September 29th) is an opportunity to see Sikivu live, and to meet her. You can imagine how I felt when I first found out:

A man shocked at winning at the Price is Right

So if you’re free on Saturday at 4 pm, head down to UBC Campus to see Dr. Hutchinson speak about humanism, gender politics, and racism:

According to an African proverb, “until the lion learns how to speak the hunter will always be a hero.” In the U.S., the right wing conservative backlash against social justice, abortion, family planning, undocumented immigrant rights, and ethnic studies tells the same old hunter’s tale of American “exceptionalism” under siege.  Much of this propaganda relies on racist stereotypes that criminalize communities of color, demonizes women of color and undermines their right to self-determination.  On the other hand, culturally relevant humanism challenges traditional Western notions of what it means to be human.  By building on the lived experiences, cultural knowledge, and social history of people of color it explicitly rejects colorblindness and myths of meritocracy.  This talk will explore how culturally relevant approaches to humanism can inform feminist pedagogy and youth leadership.

There is a reception happening afterwards, where you will get a chance to meet not only Sikivu, but myself as well (if that’s a draw for you at all).

This event is sponsored by the BC Humanist Association, and more information about the event is available on their website.

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More divisiveness: my conversation with Tauriq Moosa continues

Last week I posted an e-mail correspondence between myself and South African BigThink skeptic blogger Tauriq Moosa. He was kind enough to follow up his e-mail, and I am posting my response here. You will notice that I am quoting from his e-mail without printing it in its entirety. I am hoping to avoid a nightmare of indented quotations. I will provide the full e-mail in another post if there are issues.

Hey T,

Was a busy weekend spent mostly with my lovely ladyfriend, so sorry that this response has taken so long.

I suppose as he’s equated “the movement” with “organisational membership”, the continuing framework that he operates in will be slightly narrowed (ignores those instances where divisive behaviour does occur because they’re not part of “the movement”). I assume this is what you mean?

In the statement of his thesis, Mr. Lindsay posits that the reason why misogyny isn’t divisive within the community is that the major organizations have come out against it. If you keep in mind that the orgs are not representative of the movement, nor do they set its direction, then the entire argument is a non-sequitur. It would be just as effective if he had said “We know that global warming isn’t a threat because the ice cubes in my gin & tonic haven’t melted yet”. It’s a nonsensical conclusion to draw from the premise. [Read more...]

My application to BigThink

Some of you may remember the story of Satoshi Kanazawa, a “scientist” and “researcher” who made fame by raising some “tough questions” about the relationship between race, IQ, and health outcomes. He also pondered the evolutionary reasons why black women are just so damn unattractive (hint: it’s because they have so much testosterone – I’m not making that up). There was a predictable backlash against this brave scholar simply for asking “the tough questions”, and he was drummed out of academia, never to be heard from again.

But the career necromancers that are the BigThink editorial board have raised this errant genius from the depths of oblivion and have restored him to prominence on their group blog site:

Without a doubt, Satoshi Kanasawa is a willful, and highly effective, intellectual provocateur.  In his scholarship, he has boldly overstepped traditional academic disciplinary bounds to posit interconnections and relationships between our evolutionary past and psychological present that address questions very few of his colleagues are even asking, let alone attempting to answer.  In daring to ask these questions, Satoshi has made us think more than most.

His passion for endeavoring to think bigger and his deep-seeded contempt for the constraints of orthodoxy have informed a diverse body of scholarship that have turned a scientific light on an array of taboos, sacred assumptions and unquestioned — even unnoticed — realities.  Like all heretics, Satoshi has become a lightning rod for criticisms across the spectrum which has only hardened his resolve to defy convention and expectation.  In his public writing and blogging, he doesn’t posture or hedge to insulate himself from attack; on the contrary, he opts for the most extreme hypotheticals couched in the most sensitive, real-world contexts — he then stands firm and unflinching against the blowback.

Such a brave maverick! Not letting little things like “proper research design” or “understanding the topic” or “restricting your conclusions to the strength of the data” get in the way of preaching bold truths! Fuck your taboos of scientific rigour, squares! Satoshi is here to blow to roof off your narrow-minded “needing to do things correctly”! [Read more...]

The eye of the beholder

One common claim that comes up in discussions of social justice issues is the following, predominantly uttered by a member of the majority group:

I am against all kinds of discrimination. In fact, I am never hesitant to call others on their own prejudiced behaviours!

What usually follows is the word ‘but’, and then some explanation of how ze is the real victim of discrimination because people keep telling hir to check hir privilege, often with accusations of being bigoted* or something of that nature. The reasoning, I imagine, goes something like this:

I believe myself to be opposed to discrimination
I behave in a way that is consistent with someone who is opposed to discrimination
Therefore your accusations of my prejudice are misplaced

I can certainly appreciate how much it sucks to have someone call you a bigot when all you’re trying to do is express reasonable skepticism about something. This is especially true when you are a passionate defender of the very people making the accusation. From an outsider’s perspective, it can certainly seem as though the name-calling is completely offside – they should recognize that you are an ally and you are doing your best.

Maybe the following expansion of the above syllogism can help flesh out why this attitude is problematic and will lead you into more trouble: [Read more...]

Today’s word-boner: Ta-Nehisi Coates

One of the great tragedies of my life is that while I love language, I can barely find enough time to write as much as I want, let alone read. There are writers out there like Teju Cole, Amanda Marcotte, Jamelle Bouie, Sikivu Hutchinson, Touré, Greta Christina, Tim Wise, and countless others whose ability to work the language makes me feel like a rank amateur, scribbling with my own feces on the wall of a cave*. From time to time though, I manage to get myself organized enough (or, more often, I decide to let another aspect of my life slide enough) to read the latest offering from my favourite writers, but more often I watch yet another masterwork sail past me, like I was a goldfish intently watching Shark Week.

Happily, today was one of those days when I managed to scrape together a few minutes, and I was rewarded handsomely:

But it would be wrong to attribute the burgeoning support for Zimmerman to the blunders of Spike Lee or an NBC producer. Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such. [Read more...]

Movie Friday: Picking cotton on a racist field trip

On Wednesday my girlfriend and I went to a live comedy show at a place called Falconetti’s in Vancouver. The comedian was talking about babysitting his nephew (who is of Chinese descent) and hearing his wife sing to the toddler the kid’s song “I’ve been working on the railroad“, and expressing his comical shock and dismay at the idea of singing a song about railroad construction to a Chinese child in British Columbia*.

It reminded me of a summer job I had at Toronto’s Wild Water Kingdom where the inside parks (clean-up) staff was almost entirely black. We were working during the pre-season on resurfacing the stage, a job that we were nowhere near properly-trained or equipped to perform, when the park owner decided to try out some new “island” music. One of the songs that came on was “Pick a Bale of Cotton**”. I looked around and realized I was part of an all-black work gang, doing work that usually requires skilled workers, for which we were being paid minimum wage.

I made the owner throw out the CD.

I’m not the only one who’s had this experience:

While the story is funny, it does highlight the fact that racism often happens in an entirely accidental way, borne of lazy thinking and a lack of perspective. Understanding racism therefore requires the engagement of an active and informed mind, much like we hope to do in the skeptical and atheist world. We want people to be thinking about stuff rather than just patting themselves on the back for all the times they happened not to do something racist.

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*Although the joke misses the mark a bit, since “working on the railroad” actually means working as a porter. The song has racist connotations, but for black kids more so than Chinese ones (the Wikipedia article has the original lyrics – bonus points for noticing where it was originally published).

**Interestingly, I recognized this song from singing it in choir as a kid, at my nearly-all-white school. I didn’t understand what it meant then. If I heard it today, I’d throw some shit.

Movie Friday: @Toure and microaggressions

One of the things we discussed in the interview I posted yesterday is the power that the internet has to democratize the flow of information. I used the term ‘anarchic’ intentionally, because when nearly everyone can access the mechanisms of broadcast, the hierarchy of media enterprise is quickly obliterated. All of a sudden, the size of a media organization becomes only as important as whether or not they are able to reliably deliver accurate information and analysis in a timely way (sorry, CNN). Of course, this is based on the assumption that people are critical consumers of information, and there’s certainly plenty of information to suggest that this is not the case.

One of the other advantages to this media explosion, as I summarized with Jamila, is that minority voices will disproportionately benefit. Rather than all voices needing to go through a fixed number of filters that throttle content based on how much ‘general interest’ it will garner (i.e., will white men like it), every person becomes a broadcaster. This not only means that you as a consumer of media are more likely to run across ideas that lie outside the mainstream, but that you can tailor your consumption to a degree that is unprecedented in human history – if all you want to take in is brony slash fiction, I’m confident you’ll find what you’re looking for.

One of the voices that I’ve come across perhaps solely as a result of the anarchic delivery of media is writer, television personality, and host of MSNBC’s new daytime show ‘The Cycle’* Touré. While he’s well-known in general circles, I don’t watch any of the channels he’s on, nor do I read many magazines. I do, however, spend a lot of time on Twitter, where Touré is prolific. It was from his feed that I got today’s video: [Read more...]