Why are you hitting yourself? Part 5: this post is entitled

This is part 5 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4.

We left off last week discussing the relationship between where one stands in the power dynamic, and how we see those at the top. If we are part of the high-status group, we have an implicit bias toward ourselves, where as those in the low-status group have an out-group – which also favours those at the top. When pressure is high to justify the status quo, we reach for stereotypes and facile explanations to rationalize why things are the way they are. Interestingly, insofar as this effect (called system justification) is identical to political conservativism, we see these biases exacerbated in people who confess to being conservative.

One of the advantages of having the kind of education I did (broad-based – a hard science candy shell with a delicious nougaty humanities core) is that I can draw on a variety of analogies when trying to impart unfamiliar concepts. Most of you have taken at least some science courses, so you will perhaps be familiar with Boyle’s Law which states, among other things, that gas will expand to fill its container. It’s that concept I want percolating in the back of your mind as we charge forward through our exploration of System Justification Theory. [Read more…]

Why are you hitting yourself? Part 3: this post contains implicit content

This is part 3 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1. Read Part 2.

We left off last week looking at the ways that factoring in someone’s desire to approve of the way the world works (“I like things the way they are”) will lead her to defend the status quo, even if that status quo puts her at a disadvantage. The authors suggest 5 different mechanisms by which this effect might be seen: 1) rationalizing observed events by seeing the likely as the desirable; 2) using stereotypes to rationalize differences in power between groups; 3) using stereotypes more often when there is a cognitive ‘threat’ to the status quo; 4) accepting explanations regardless of their legitimacy; and 5) misremembering those explanations as being more legitimate than they are. When these factors work in parallel, we can explain much of the seemingly-idiosyncratic ways in which members of disadvantaged groups will sometimes defend the very system that holds them down.

In this installment, I will be delving into their discussion of what is one of the recurrent themes within my own analysis of racism: the fact that many of these mechanisms operate below the level of conscious awareness. Freud postulated the existence of three separate agents within the mind: the ego, the superego, and the id. His argument was that while conscious beings were able to be aware of their actions, many of the things that influence our behaviour happen without our even realizing it. While this idea has been around for decades and has a great deal of face validity, it is often ignored when we examine why people around us behave the way they do (another psychological concept called the Fundamental Attribution Error). [Read more…]

Occupy Vancouver – a second perspective

This morning I alluded to a fact about the “Occupy Vancouver” movement, indeed the Occupy movement as a whole, that has not yet pierced the popular narrative – the fact that we are choosing to ‘occupy’ land that is already occupied in a very real way. Vancouver, the city I love, is basically existing in a perpetual and overblown state of “squatter’s rights”, wherein the land is governed by people who have no legal claim to it. The irony, therefore, is that the act of standing up for the little guy is happening on land that is owned by the littlest guys in society, by the same people who have a hand in that group’s oppression.

I consider myself a First Nations ally, in the same way that I consider myself a LGBT ally or a women’s rights ally – I am aware that there are serious problems about which I have a superficial understanding. I come to this particular position by recognizing the vast and numerous similarities between Canada’s First Nations and the struggle for mainstream acceptance of black people. My support for the recognition of their rights is, in my mind, no different than my fight for equality for myself. My role as an ally is simple: to advocate when I can, and listen when I am being spoken to. In that vein, I would like to offer this signal boost to what I think is a phenomenal article about some of the ‘forgotten’ issues underlying Occupy Vancouver:

[Read more…]

News blast: the race edition

Yesterday there were a bunch of stories that, each on their own, would have made for excellent blog posts. However, in the interest of not deleting them because of insufficient time to address them in depth, I presented them all to you with a brief comment. The week has not gotten any longer, nor my schedule any freer, so I am going to do the same this afternoon, this time about race stuff:

UC Berkeley Campus Republicans host racist bake sale:

Campus Republicans at the University of California Berkeley have cooked up a storm of controversy with their plans for a bake sale. But it’s not your everyday collegiate fundraiser they’ve got in mind. They’ve developed a sliding scale where the price of the cookie or brownie depends on your gender and the color of your skin. During the sale, scheduled for Tuesday, baked goods will be sold to white men for $2.00, Asian men for $1.50, Latino men for $1.00, black men for $0.75 and Native American men for $0.25. All women will get $0.25 off those prices.

“The pricing structure is there to bring attention, to cause people to get a little upset,” Campus Republican President Shawn Lewis, who planned the event, told CNN-affiliate KGO. “But it’s really there to cause people to think more critically about what this kind of policy would do in university admissions.”

Not being able to do this story full justice pains me, because nobody is more deserving of being torn a new asshole on the internet than Shawn Lewis right now. First of all, this isn’t an original idea – these kinds of bake sales happen all the damn time. But, because people are morons, they don’t bother to adapt their approach or their argument when it has been thoroughly skewered. Many people have been bringing up the idea that people should just round up a bunch of Native American women, take all the baked goods, and then sell them at a profit. That would, perhaps, better approximate the history of racial ‘fairness’ in the United States (albeit in reverse). Stunts like this, which are inaccurately named ‘satire’, serve to illustrate how lopsided the treatment of different racial groups has been throughout the history of the Americas, and how certain people simply refuse to get it.

Banana thrown at black hockey player

The NHL called it “stupid and ignorant.” Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds said he was “above this sort of stuff.” A banana came out of the stands in London, Ont., on Thursday night as Simmonds was skating towards Detroit goalie Jordan Pearce in a pre-season shootout. Simmonds is black.

This is the thing about racists: they’re just so funny! Hahaha! A banana! Get it? He’s black! Black people are like apes! Apes like bananas! HAHAHA!

The sigh-inducing aspect of this story is the number of people who took to the internet to defend the guy who threw the banana. “What if he was just planning on eating it, but then got angry and threw it?” Not only would it be a staggering coincidence that someone brought in a whole shit-ton of bananas to a hockey game and just happened to have one left right at the end of the game (through overtime, no less) when the only black person on the ice was taking a solo penalty shot, but who the fuck brings fruit to a hockey game? What is this guy, some kind of health nut with an anger-management problem and an ironic sense of timing?

On a positive note, it is being condemned by pretty much everyone in clear, unequivocal terms, and hasn’t seemed to phase faze Simmonds much [seriously, Crommunist? What the fuck, dude? – props to Beauxeau]. Also, he scored the goal, and Philadelphia won the game 4-3.

Africville Trust director loses her job

The controversial new executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust is out of the job already. Carole Nixon has stopped working for the organization, but trust chairwoman Daurene Lewis wouldn’t say Wednesday if Nixon had been fired. “She’s no longer with the organization, and this is a personnel matter and any speculation (on that) would have to remain confidential,” Lewis said in an interview.

Regular readers will remember this story from last week. Carole Nixon was appointed the director of the Africville Trust in Halifax. One of the issues swirling around the appointment is that while the story of Africville is essentially the generations-long oppression of a black minority by an unforgiving white majority, Carole Nixon is a white woman. It is an interesting story where compelling arguments can be made on both sides: can an outsider truly represent the values of a community, particularly this one? Is it right to restrict jobs to only those of the ‘correct’ race or nationality?

All that discussion has been rendered hypothetical by this dismissal, which may not be for the reason you suspect:

Newspaper clippings from the St. Catharines Standard in Ontario outlined Nixon’s departure from four jobs, including her firing as executive director of the Burlington (Ont.) Downtown Business Improvement Association in 1989 and the City of Toronto’s employees association in 1995. In 2000, the Standard reported, she abruptly stepped down as executive director of the St. Catharines Downtown Association, and in 2002, she was reportedly fired as development director in Watertown, N.Y.

This one’s going to court, I’d imagine.

If someone wants to pay me to do this full-time, I will be able to devote the requisite amount of attention to each of these stories and more that cross my desktop. Until such time, you’ll just have to make do with these brief summaries and my sincere apologies.

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Liberal privilege and tragic epiphanies

I am one of (I think) few people who can look at where my life is and who I am as a person and be satisfied. Hell, even happy most of the time. In a culture where we are constantly bombarded with images and ideas that serve to undermine our self-confidence and constantly question our self-worth (which, according to advertisers, can only be enhanced by buying whatever product they are selling at that moment), I know how tough it can be to feel good about who you are. Right now I am working competently at a job where I make a positive impact, living in a city where I have lots of leisure activities and great friends to do those activities with, and have realistic prospects for growth in the not-too-distant future. I do not profit from the misery of others, and have regular opportunities to give back. I don’t have any major moral quandaries or vices that I have to keep hidden from the world or my family. All in all, I don’t really have anything substantive to complain about.

It was not always this way, to be sure. Like most people, my teenage years were a miserable and clumsy affair*. I used to be known as a joke killer – people would be laughing and having a good time, I’d try to join in, everyone would stop laughing. I spent virtually my entire teen years completely undateable for reasons that I could never quite figure out. I had very few friends before the age of 17/18. I would always somehow find the exact wrong thing to say (a fact that gives me a wry sense of satisfaction whenever anyone praises my speaking or writing skills). I am reminded of a party I was at where a guy I didn’t care for was having a conversation with a girl I was quite smitten with. He was relating to her that he didn’t have many friends. In an effort to be nice, she said “I’ll be your friend!” I, visited by a bout of assholery, blurted out “yeah, if you pay her!”

Conversation at the party stopped. Shocked and hurt, the girl looked at me. I quickly realized that in addition to being a petty douche, I had implied that she was some kind of prostitute. Not one of my finest moments, I will readily admit.

I’ve definitely come a long way since then. I still say dumb things, but I am at least aware that they’re dumb before I say them, and nobody’s feelings get seriously hurt. Sometimes though, I will be strolling along my merry way, and a memory like this from my past will float across my conscious mind, completely knocking me on my ass. I will feel so ashamed of the things I’ve said – a feeling that is palpable and stays with me. There’s nothing in particular that will bring one of these episodes on, I’ll just get totally blindsided by what an asshat I was, or how foolish I looked. It’s not a pleasant experience.

From time to time I have a similar experience when I consider people’s religious beliefs. While I am obviously aware that people believe ridiculous superstitions and allow their actions to be guided by them, on rare occasions I will be struck by a deep realization that this is not simply a fun thing to argue about on the internet. Somewhere in the world right now there is a young woman married to a grotesque old man that she doesn’t love, who honestly believes that her fate is justified by the will of her deity. Somewhere else, a young gay man contemplates suicide because he honestly believes that the way he feels is an abomination in the eyes of his creator. Somewhere else, a world leader with access to a massive arsenal of weapons makes his decisions guided by his interpretation of an ancient book. Somewhere else, a mother instructs her children that their neighbours deserve to die because they worship the wrong gods.

These are things that happen every day. They’re so wildly surreal that my brain doesn’t seem to connect them to reality, treating them as abstractions much the same way it copes with the physical laws of the universe – things that are true, but not viscerally so. Occasionally their deeper semantic truth pokes through for a moment and completely throws me for a loop, but most of the time they just putter away in the background.

I can only surmise that this comes from the fact that I am surrounded, for the most part, by people for whom faith is either a non-issue, or who agree with my position on it. I don’t really get into religious debates often, and even when I do I don’t really connect with the fact that this person actually thinks this is true. It’s operating from a position of priviliege, wherein I can’t even start to see what colour the sky is on their planet, because their entire way of belief is foreign to me. Even when I was a believer, I wasn’t so completely god-swarmed that my faith meaningfully coloured my day-to-day reality. I have never believed in the way that someone who is willing to strap a bomb to her/his chest and detonate it in a crowded market believes. That kind of blind faith is beyond me.

Reading over that last passage, it makes it sound as though believers have something I don’t, and that I wish at some level that I had. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any belief, religious or not, that completely blinds you to possibility and forces you to rewrite or ignore facts is dangerous, and I want no part of it. If someone could present me with compelling evidence of the validity of palm-reading, or the existence of ghosts, or the efficacy of rolfing, I’d certainly entertain it, and would be forced to revise my understanding of the world. I see that kind of flexibility as a strength, and the kind of rigidity needed to maintain a belief that runs contrary to the evidence (or forces you to torture the evidence into position) as a weakness.

That being said, until I can see religious faith in the way that those who believe do, I will be horribly handicapped in my understanding of how to disabuse them of their delusions. Of course, that’s not my job, so I’m not going to lose too much sleep over it.

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*I am definitely aware of the fact that some people have legitimate problems during their teen years. I am not trying to say either directly or by implication that I suffered in a way that is comparable to people who were bullied or ostracized or any of the really damaging things that can happen to you during adolescence.

Privilege: making it up as we go along


I’m not sure how much background everyone reading this has had in the concept of privilege. I recognize that atheists, for example, have been recently introduced to the term as feminist voices within organized atheism have become more vocal. Those of you coming from anti-racist or feminist blogs could probably teach me a thing or two about privilege and how it manifests itself. Those who stumble on this blog from somewhere else may be facing the term for the first time (if that is legitimately the case, you should probably start with this article). Privilege, briefly, describes the set of advantages that one has merely by being a member of a group, operating through how society perceives that group. So if, for example, you are a man who is firmly trying to make a point, you are seen as ‘assertive’; if you’re a woman, you’re ‘bitchy’. Those two evaluations for identical behaviour put one group (men) at a significant advantage compared to those others, due to nothing more than how we stereotype that group.

One of the most insidious aspects of privilege is that, if you have it, it’s practically invisible. Privilege is most often held by the majority group, meaning that it is simply seen as ‘normal’. Whenever you look around, your explanation of the way the world works matches pretty much everyone else’s. It’s what’s in the media, in the classroom, it’s the way your friends and family see things – there’s very rarely any disconfirming evidence. Unless someone takes the time to point it out to you, there’s really no reason to suspect that there’s any other way of looking at the world.

On its own, privilege might not be so bad. Yes, it represents an inaccurate and nuance-free view of the world, but that on its own isn’t necessarily a problem. Where the negative aspect arises is when we use our privileged position to explain the world around us. If we’re trying to construct a narrative about how we came to be where we are, and by extension where we are headed or how we should behave, we need to ensure that we have our facts straight. When all of our facts come from a single perspective that necessarily neglects the number of other valid perspectives in existence, we get an incomplete picture. Thus, any narrative we build is going to neglect big chunks of information.

Even that on its own isn’t that dangerous. Any narrative is going to be missing pieces of information. After all, we can’t possibly know everything. What’s the big deal if we’ve missed a couple of perspectives, so long as we keep our facts straight?

Earlier this year [Michelle Bachmann] told an audience that the United States, at its founding, was a bastion of fairness and opportunity for “different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions.” She went on to say (in an awkward sort of way) that the U.S. was a “resting point from people groups all across the world. It didn’t matter the color of their skin … [or] language … or economic status.” She was on a roll: “Once you got here, we were all the same.” Even assuming that she was talking only about the men, I still say, uh, no.

It’s easy (and fun!) to pick on Michelle Bachmann, because her relationship with reality is one of those late-night booty call arrangements where they don’t see much of each other, and when they do there’s nobody else around. It’s fairly unnecessary to pick on her specifically, since I’m sure everyone reading this already more or less agrees with my stance on her. What I will do, however, is use her as an illustration of exactly how dangerous it is to be so blissfully unaware of your privilege.

Bachmann’s positions are polluted by ‘research’ from ‘historian’ David Barton, who had an idea fixed in his head and then went out and found evidence to support it. Her approach is the same as his: decide what is true, and then backfill an explanation for how it came to be. Of course, my position on backfilling is pretty clear: if you do it, I stop listening to you. This is something we all do from time to time, out of convenience. After all, we’re not all historians, and we don’t always have all the facts. It’s a useful heuristic when used sparingly and only in cases where the stakes are low. However, when trying to decide national policy that will affect millions of people, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you presuppositions are accurate.

In Bachmann’s case specifically, and in the case of privilege generally, there is the potential to do serious damage when employing this tactic. After all, if Bachmann’s assertion of fundamental equality upon arrival in America is true, then we have to assume that everyone who isn’t successful is that way through their own laziness (which is certainly the way those on the right explain racial disparities). And when you are as ignorant of history as Bachmann is, then you wind up saying really stupid stuff:

Bachmann says that European immigrants “did not come here for the promise of a federal handout … or a welfare payment.” Instead, they came here for the “limitless opportunity” that the “most magnificent country” in history afforded them.

Well, actually, European immigrants did get special federal handouts in the form of white-only citizenship rights: Germans, Greeks, Jews, Irish, Poles and Italians were never barred from the “white only” military, voter rolls, juries or federal jobs, unlike people of color. Keep in mind that citizenship itself was limited to “free white persons.” When more than 90 percent of black people were enslaved in the U.S., the Homestead Act of 1862 gave millions of acres of land to white immigrants. Yep, federal handouts.

The bootstraps myth is a pervasive and powerful one. Its appeal is that it removes the onus of having to do anything to reduce disparities from those who are at the top. Despite their repeated calls for “personal responsibility”, this myth requires everyone else to be “personally responsible”, while allowing the myth-holder to hang on to all the advantages they’ve gained through privilege. It permits us to crane our necks such that we don’t see the scales as tilted in anyone’s favour, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

So we can (and should) deride people like Michelle Bachmann and David Barton for their eager willingness to abdicate any professional responsibility to ensure their depiction of history is based in fact rather than ideology. But we should also use them as an example of what happens when we allow our own privilege to run away unchecked. The picture of the world that remains when we remove the blinders of privilege might be much different from the one we’re used to seeing.

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Can you hear me now?

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big fan of Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog. While I may not necessarily agree with everything he says (although I do most of the time), I find him to be a great writer who somehow finds time to post regular high-quality content (this past couple of months have been testament to how difficult it is to post regularly). It was therefore a great pleasure to see him take some time for himself and have a vacation. During that time, he invited a number of members of the Secular Student Alliance to post on his blog, which I thought was a nice touch. Some of them were funny, some of them were very serious, and some of them weren’t that great.

Only one of them actually made me angry:

These are daunting numbers, particularly after taking into account statistically lower high school graduation and college enrollment rates among African-Americans. It is likely that the main reason college non-theist groups are having trouble recruiting black atheists is that there simply aren’t very many – and probably even fewer willing to admit it. That being said, we still have to face the original issue: after recognizing the immense social pressure black atheists face, what can we do to attract the ones that are on our campuses? I argue that the method for attracting black students is no different than the method for attracting members in general.

Before I delve into this too deeply, I want to make a couple of things clear. First, nothing I write here should be interpreted as an attack on Derek Miller (the post’s author). I’m sure he’s a well-meaning and passionate advocate who has, in all probability, done far more for the skeptic cause than I have. Second, I do not believe that Mr. Miller’s post was written out of malice or any kind of ill will towards people of colour (PoCs). There’s nothing at all in his piece to suggest anything like that, and I don’t want my response to be interpreted as me being spikey about someone else’s racism. I will call out racism when I see it – I don’t see it here.

Now that I’ve said that, can I begin tearing him a new asshole?

First of all, if your position is that there’s no point in putting any extra effort into inviting PoCs to the secular movement, why on EARTH would you title your blog post “Inviting Black Americans to the Secular Table”? This is exactly the opposite of your conclusion. It would be like me titling this post “Derek Miller has a really good point”. Mr. Miller refers to a session he attended at a secular student conference wherein the presenter discusses the fact that there are a large number of challenges that are unique to the black community, and that there may not be a surefire way of targeting recruitment to black students. There may be some truth to that (I don’t agree, but what do I know?), but the conclusion to that argument in either case is not ‘so we should stop trying’. It means not only that our recruitment efforts can stand to be refined, but also that the issues that we focus on need to change.

Speaking to that last issue for a second – the secular community’s focus has been largely focussed on issues of church/state separation, scientific education, and general skepticism. These are fantastic and crucially important topics. They are topics that I care deeply and passionately about. However, they are also rather esoteric and highfalutin topics of interest that don’t really track with the general public. As I try to do every day on the pages of this blog, I think we can apply the same principles of skepticism and secular humanism to topics like poverty, justice, employment, politics… things that are far more relevant to the average person, particularly the average black American. Throw in discussing racism as a priority for the secular movement and you’re probably far more likely to appeal to members of minority groups, for whom those are constantly relevant topics in a palpable sense. Make the mountain come to Mohammed, so to speak.

Third, Mr. Miller’s position completely neglects the success that the atheist/secular/skeptic/freethinker movement(s) has had in making inroads with women and LGBT folks. Now more than ever, embracing feminism and pro-gay humanism is part of the central identity of this movement. This didn’t happen by accident, or because we made secularism super-nice for all people equally, it’s because we buckled down and actively changed the way we talk about those issues. We stopped ignoring them, and instead grabbed them as banner issues to attract women and gays/lesbians/transpeople to the movement. It is due to purposeful and targeted effort on behalf of people within the secular movement that we see a very different demographic makeup today than we did 10 years ago. Mr. Miller would prefer, it seems, to throw his hands helplessly in the air and completely ignore that success.

Finally, and most importantly (hence the title of this post), it is clear from his response that Mr. Miller has not been listening at all to people who are talking about the challenges of attracting minority members to secularism. While we have not yet reached the prominence that feminists have (and even they are fighting and scrambling to establish their legitimacy, making huge successes as they do), we are out there and constantly advocating real, concrete methods of increasing diversity. Mr. Miller’s post completely fails to even pay lip service to any of those, including the person who runs the blog his post went up at. Nothing says “I’m not listening” quite like saying “there’s nothing we can do to solve this problem.”

It would have been an entirely different situation if Mr. Miller had said, for example, “there are issues within the black community that the secular community cannot fix”, or “I’m not sure how to attract minority members, so I’m going to focus my efforts on making it more attractive to everyone”. That is not at all what he said. What he said is “no effort is needed to attract members of minority groups, so that’s that”. He’s ignorant, he’s wrong, and he’s clearly not listening.

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Race transforming: more than meets the eye

This post was intended to go up on Monday. My apologies for the past month of shakiness. I am hoping to see things settle down in the next couple of weeks.

I left a somewhat cryptic message for you on Monday:

I want to remind people that it’s not okay to dress up as a First Nations person. While it might be a totally cute costume, it’s incredibly disrespectful to wear a feathered headdress and “war paint” to a bar, particularly if you’re going to forgo a shirt for simply a bra, get up on stage and sing a song about fucking guys in exchange for alcohol.

Some of you inquired as to what exactly I was talking about. It seemed like an oddly-specific caution to give – who would actually do something like this? Well, I can report with more than a little sighing and eye-rolling that this is something that I witnessed on Sunday night. A duo of women who called what they were doing “parody” got up on stage at the open mic I host with my band and did some rapping that was offensive not only because of how bad it was, but because of how they were dressed while performing. I mentioned to their friends that they might want to let these ladies know that what they’re doing is incredibly racist – the response was “well she was given that headdress as a gift from a First Nations person.”

A reader contacted me by e-mail to ask a follow-up question about my ‘positive stereotypes’ post last week:

…do you think the desirability of full lips and ample bottoms should be discouraged in the white community? (Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, etc.) I understand how it could be problematic- that these women made a feature that typically “belongs” to a minority group suddenly desirous when the minority group has had it for many years without it being remarked or noticed. Yet, are physical features different than culture theft?

I sent a reply along the lines that features on their own aren’t necessarily the problem – it’s when those features are racialized (like having “a black girl ass”) that I start to get uncomfortable. Reducing members of minority groups to sexual characteristics is incredibly dehumanizing. While that’s enough of a reason to be suspicious of that kind of fetishization, there was a larger issue that I felt deserved some discussion.

Another reader sent me an e-mail asking for my response to a blog post he had written:

On August 3rd, I came across a news report on MSNBC about Quera Pruitt, a Black student suing her old high school over a homecoming celebration known as “Wigger Wednesday”  by students while she attended.

The story in question concerns a school in Minnesota where the student body held a day when the student body was supposed to dress up as “wiggers” – a contraction of the words “white” and “nigger”. I pointed out that above and beyond my objections to using the inherently-racist word “wigger”, it was an event that by definition excludes any student that isn’t white, since there is already a word for a black person that “dresses like a nigger”. Even beyond that, though, there’s another problem that his discussion missed that I think is salient.

All three of these examples speak to an issue that I have alluded to before but never made explicit: race transforming. That is, dressing up or in another way appropriating the hallmarks of another ethnocultural group. I want to first be clear about what I’m not talking about. I am not talking about making an effort to participate in the practices of another group, or trying to incorporate the traditions of another group into your daily life. I think it’s great when people break out of their cultural silos, particularly when it comes to innovating new types of music or food (yum!). Provided that your participation is respectful and you engage in due diligence about the context of whatever tradition you’re involved in, then go nuts.

When I talk about ‘race transforming’, I am talking about taking an image or feature that is specifically associated with one group, and divorcing it of its context. There are a variety of reasons why people do this. In the case of the ladies at the open mic, I guess they thought it was sexy – completely ignoring the fact that those headdresses aren’t just a fashion accessory and have deep cultural significance (to say nothing of the sexualization of the “squaw” image that flies insultingly in the face of the disproportionately high rates of sexual abuse faced by First Nations women). In the case of “black girl asses” or “Puerto Rican eyes” it’s usually intended as some kind of compliment, but is inappropriate for reasons I discussed in my post last week. In the case of “wigger Wednesday” it’s intentional mockery of an already-marginalized group – playing up their poverty for laughs.

The other side of this issue is the fact that while the rappers can slip back into their Lululemon and American Apparel, Scarlett Johansson is a blonde bombshell, and the Minnesota students will go back to being just regular students once they doff their basketball jerseys and chains, the groups they are lampooning have no such recourse. First Nations women have to deal with the double whammy of being sexualized as women and as First Nations people, regardless of what they say, do or wear. Black women might have great asses, but those ‘positive’ features also come alongside a whole host of decidedly-negative stereotypes about black women that are intrinsically-tied to skin colour. “Wiggers” might be comical, but when dressing that way in earnest makes you a target for police profiling and not dressing like that makes you a social outcast, you’re stuck in a bit of a Catch-22.

Of course, this entire line of reasoning assumes that people actually bother to take the time to sit, reflect, and listen to the points of view of other groups. By and large, anyone who thinks that these behaviours/attitudes are acceptable aren’t the kind to really give it a whole lot of thought. They have the ability to ignore the racial marginalization of other groups (gosh, if only there was a word for that), and when confronted about their behaviour they usually pivot to blaming their critics of being “too sensitive”. Perhaps the problem is not an excess of sensitivity, but exactly the opposite.

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Today’s edition of “totally unshocking news”

I hope you’re all sitting down, because I’m about to drop a knowledge bomb on you that will completely and irrevocably shatter your view about the way the world works:

336 Share The 2011 edition of the National Journal survey of “Hill people”—that is, high-level staffers to members of Congress—revealed something we probably already knew: Capitol Hill is really white and really male. Now, the question among some is how that indisputable fact may impact policies for women and people of color. According to the survey, which occurs every three years, fully 93 percent of top staffers on the Hill are white. Nearly 70 percent are male. While Democrats have a slightly more equitable gender ratio—62 percent male, 38 percent female—their staff is still 91 percent white.

White people disproportionately control the reins of political power!

Yes, we’re all very surprised over here at the Manifesto. It turns out that in addition to the fact that fewer than 10% of members of Congress in the United States are people of colour (PoCs), their staff members are also predominantly white. I am really ignorant about how people make it into the job of a Congress staffer, but I’d imagine it has a lot to do with lobbying, influence peddling, and favours for old acquaintances from school. Anyone who talks about affirmative action policies taking spaces away from equally-qualified white students are now invited to suck it long and deep, because this goes way beyond who gets the data entry job or the scholarship – systemic racism is placing white people and only white people in the positions of power and influence.

“Hill staff—particularly those who serve with committees—are the gatekeepers to a very important part of the democratic process,” Rockeymoore says. She says that all-white staffers often lead to “mainstream” experts being called to testify at hearings, and in this case, “mainstream” translates into “white” experts speaking on issues that disproportionately affect people of color, women, and the poor. When policy is being crafted post-hearing, the lack of diversity on staff “creates sub-optimal policies that create sub-optimal results for people of color,” Rockeymoore says, which affect everything from education to job creation. “What you get is a biased policy-making process that ends up undermining people of color.”

An argument supporting the morality of affirmative action policies that I’ve found particularly compelling in the past is that being a PoC is in itself a qualification – that you have experiences and insight that are not commonly found in non-PoCs. This is a kind of ‘soft skill’ that doesn’t really fit on a resume, but is particularly relevant when your job is to propose and implement policies that are targeted at issues facing PoCs. To be sure, being a black person doesn’t necessarily give you insight into issues facing Latino immigrants orFirst Nations people (or vice versa), but there is something common in the experience of not being part of the majority that may give you particular sensitivity to problems apparent in other groups.

Also, considering issues of privilege and the completely messed up ideas that people tend to develop when they grow up in an environment completely separated (one might say segregated) from people who aren’t part of their in-group, it might be an absolutely terrible idea to give absolute power to that one group. If the only black people you’ve ever seen are on TV, you’re probably going to make more than a couple of mistakes when you try to write and enact policies that are intended for those people.

And of course, in the same way that educational disparities can echo through generations, lack of political influence can do the same. When policies are enacted that fail to address underlying disparities in access to opportunities and/or ability to achieve success, it becomes unlikely for the next generation of PoCs to rise to the levels of financial and political opportunity that are required to enter the halls of power:

[Washington lawyer Ami] Sanchez diagnoses the lack of diversity on the Hill as a multi-part problem. First, she says, there’s a high bar to entry. Most interns don’t get paid, which limits the pool of those who can access Hill internships. “I would have to leave every day to make it to my job that paid, so I could pay my rent,” she says of her intern days on the Hill. “It’s a huge burden, and those decisions are very real.” Second, people of color who don’t have a family history of higher education often lack the networks and professional connections you need to get opportunities in Washington. “Among folks who have parents who went to college, and had that kind of white-collar professional experience—there’s a real awareness and understanding of what it takes to get on the Hill,” Sanchez says.

Again, the kind of approach we have to take if we’re interested in seeing these disparities decrease requires us to actively change our recruitment strategies in such a way that encourages the hiring of more minority candidates. It is not enough to simply blame, or say “maybe there aren’t enough candidates who qualify” or leave it up to the free market to solve the problem for us – this is simply ideological refusal to engage with the problem.

What I would like to stress with both today’s story and yesterday’s is that these kinds of effects happen even in the absence of active race hatred. We’re not talking about a group of people that hate black and brown people and are actively trying to keep them (us) oppressed. This isn’t an old boy’s club that will disappear on its own in a few years – this is the result of a system that is structurally positioned to benefit the white majority. I do believe that there are a number of well-intentioned white people who truly do wish to see the eradication of racism in our lifetime, but so long as we continue to treat it as simply the active hatred of a tiny handful of people rather than a deeper cognitive and psychological flaw that exists in all of us, we won’t see much progress toward that goal.

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Mining the depths of “reverse racism”

A version of this post appears at Phil Ferguson’s ‘Skeptic Money’ blog.

In the past I have spoken, a couple of times actually, about the phenomenon of “regression to the mean”. Basically, this describes the process where repeated observations tend to distribute around the average value. Extreme values – those that lie far away from the average – tend to ‘move’ toward the middle. However, if you’re looking from the perspective of this extreme value, it might look like movement toward the middle is you losing something. It’s a completely understandable misapprehension, borne from a lack of ability to see the full field from any perspective other than your own (also known as privilege).

I’ve talked about this issue in terms of religious privilege – the mistaken belief that religious people are being “persecuted” when secular authority insists on enforcing laws equally for everyone, instead of giving the majority religious group their accustomed preferential treatment. However, it’s easier to spot this phenomenon in the case of what is called “reverse racism”. My problem with this term is twofold: first, it makes the assumption that “racism” is from white people to people of colour (PoCs), and anything else is the “reverse” of normal; second, it’s patently ridiculous. While it is undoubtedly true that white people face racial discrimination at an individual level, they still comprise the majority group in this part of the world (and hold a great deal of power in others).

And yet, whenever one talks about any step being taken to either treat white people according to the same standard that everyone else is treated, or to allow targeted preferential treatment for marginalized ethnic groups, the cry of “reverse racism” goes up, and it appears to have taken deep root in the common psyche:

Whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America, according to a new study from researchers at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School. The findings, say the authors, show that America has not achieved the “post-racial” society that some predicted in the wake of Barack Obama’s election.

Both whites and blacks agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last 60 years, according to the study. However, whites believe that anti-white racism has increased and is now a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t think that the average person was this dumb. Given what we know about rates of incarceration, employment, home ownership, relative wealth, and proposed legislations that disproportionately target PoCs, I thought for sure that people would realize that it’s still a burden to be dark-skinned in the United States. However, it seems as though white America (if you’ll forgive the term) has bought wholesale into the idea that, despite all indications, they are the group most discriminated against.

It is centrally important to note that this about perceived racial discrimination, not observed. This cannot be used to demonstrate the actual existence of racism against white people, let alone to the extent that it outweighs racism against blacks or latinos. These kinds of findings are useful only in understanding what the public perception of a phenomenon is – not the strength of the phenomenon. We should be, and have reason to be, extremely skeptical of the claim that white people are the most discriminated against ethnic group – they disproportionately represent the political and economic power in the United States, and it would be quite something if that’s somehow completely reversed out among ‘the little people’.

Perhaps the most interesting and potentially revealing finding from the study, and potentially a place where work can be done, is this:

Both within each decade and across time, White respondents were more likely to see decreases in bias against Blacks as related to increases in bias against Whites—consistent with a zero- sum view of racism among Whites—whereas Blacks were less likely to see the two as linked.

Whereas both groups tended to see anti-black discrimination decreasing over the years, blacks saw this as the two groups getting closer together. Whites, on the other hand, seem to view any improvement of non-white groups as taking ‘their’ resources away. In essence, there have to be winners and losers in the game of life, and if black people are getting closer to winning then whites must be losing by definition.

The problem with this type of reasoning is that it is entirely possible for groups to grow and improve together. A higher rate of, for example, black home ownership means a reduction in crime, improvements in education, and increased entrepreneurship. This means a stronger economy, as white and black consumers alike begin innovating and producing more wealth. Having a large group of poor black people means not only that racial groups stay segregated, but that the status quo of black people on the bottom remains (with all the negative aspects associated with that).

It is entirely possible that minority ethnic groups have become more vocal in their criticism of white people. Most of this criticism comes in the form that you see here – description of phenomena that fall along racial lines that are not due to inherent genetic differences between groups but where those trivial genetic differences collide with social structures. Some of this is due to the fact that PoCs are less afraid of speaking up and becoming politically active. Some of it, to be sure, is legitimate anti-white racism based on resentment or misunderstandings of history or whatever dumb reasons anyone has to be racist.

However, the mere existence of legitimate anti-white racism does not grant the majority group the victim status. What we’re seeing is the idea of “reverse racism” coming to full fruition – white people aren’t supposed to be discriminated against, and therefore any discrimination is the worst thing that’s ever happened. Hopefully by learning to re-frame racial issues in terms of mutual benefit for all groups, we can begin to finally do away with this oh-so-stupid of ideas.

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