“Solving” the Poverty and “Secret Millionare”

I’m sitting around enjoying my Sunday afternoon. I enjoyed some quality (ahem) reality show America’s Next Top Model: Cycle 2.0 (with boyz!!), but I was all caught up, so there was only one episode. And I had a sleeping roommate on me, so I was too limited in my movement* to read articles, so I began exploring Hulu in search of other great shows (previous contenders have included House Hunters, but also Holidate, whose contract with Hulu has sadly expired). I had heard of Shark Tank and was sort of curious about it, since I’m getting to be a bit more interested in start ups, start up culture and the mechanics behind investment in them. Perhaps this show is a good way to explore that, even though it’s still reality. It was interesting, and I discovered that I MUST FIND THESE SWEET BALLZ, but there was also only one episode. Hulu recommended to me a show I had not heard of, ABC’s Secret Millionaire. So I watched the first episode.

I’m so conflicted. Continue reading

A Recommendation of the Literary Kind

So, after illustrating how older folks are racist, I wanted to discuss one of the best books I’ve read in a while, called Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele.

The masterfully written book walks the reader step-by-step through his and other prominent behavioral psychologist’s research on what he calls “stereotype threat,” which, by Steele’s definition is the threat of “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.Continue reading

Racism and Murder

Today at work, I was meeting and brainstorming with a couple of coworkers. Both are women. Both are black. One is Jamaican–we’ll call her B, the other we’ll call A. We were talking about another coworker, and whether I’d described A as a “little black girl,” which I told them I didn’t need to, since he’d known who I was talking about. I added that white people didn’t like talking about race, though, and A started to joke about hoodies, iced tea and skittles, referencing the recent events of Trayvon Martin’s murder. While some people are busy worrying about hoodies, it is interesting to have this conversation with people who are not white. B and A both immediately had stories where they had experienced some sort of clearly out of touch comments by white people–one where someone at a meeting claimed that on a federal report, blacks were identified as “negroid,” to which she (and to their credit, the rest of the meeting), collectively said, “huh???!” The woman quickly corrected herself. The other coworker had a story about reviewing charts at a different organization and finding documentation with race listed as “other: colored.” She brought this to the attention of a white director, who was astonished and shocked, so both situations, other people were clearly as disturbed as A and B, but it’s just further proof that racism is alive and well.

I told them that that was the reason, too, though that white people are afraid to talk about race. We’re afraid to say something that offends someone, and that we won’t even know it offends them. But we have to. Trayvon Martin is another reason why we must discuss race, however uncomfortable it may be. We have to be willing to be called racist, and know that in certain ways, we probably are, but that that doesn’t mean something about our character or intentions. I have tried to be brave and to not shy away from race, as a topic of conversation, as a part of a description of someone, etc. I do notice when someone is black, white or Hispanic or Asian, or anything else. I’m always curious about people. And sometimes, I will offend people. But if I’m not willing to be corrected, how can I ever learn what individual people are offended by? I won’t say it doesn’t still make me nervous–I still have a visceral reaction, and sense that before I describe someone as black, I should mention something else about them, or maybe that I shouldn’t mention their skin color at all. But I’m a lot more comfortable talking about race with people who are not white because I’ve practiced, especially with people who already knew me, with whom I had established a relationship, and who knew already that I thought of and respected them as people.

I feel lucky to work with people of different backgrounds–who are not like me, and yet who are. And I am so proud that for the first time, when a horrific tragedy like the one that happened in Florida happens, we have a president who is able to say, “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” This shit is hard, but we have to keep talking.


I have always argued that choices are not as simple as they first appear. No, this is not about abortion. Certainly not just abortion. I am pro-choice, as a life-stance, not having to do with abortion, but including abortion. But also there’s this article in Slate about biases that are hidden. It is particularly about the biases “against” women going into math and sciences, but I definitely think it has broader implications.

I’m fascinated by this because as a woman and someone who is pretty mathematical and scientific, but for some reason, and despite the support of my mother in sending me to earth science camp at age 11 and computer science camp at age 13, “when it came time to pick a profession, ….[found my heart was] not in science and engineering.” Despite having built my own website via HTML coding by the age of 13 (which, to be honest, doesn’t feel like that big of an accomplishment these days, but still), when I got to high school, something shifted for me. Obviously, this is a personal experience. It is extremely anecdotal, and only one piece of anecdotal datum at that. But it IS my experience. And after reading an article like the one in Slate, and just generally hearing how few women there are in the math and sciences, I can’t help but wonder what my experience would’ve been like as a guy. I do remember feeling that even though my mom supported me, when my brother was doing less complicated computer stuff when he was 17, family members aside from my mom saying things that indicated that he “was” a computer person. And I remember thinking, “Hey! I did shit WAY more complicated than that 2 years ago. And I’m younger. And no one identified ME as a computer person!” Now, I don’t remember why I thought that. And I can’t blame my extended family for leading me away from being into computers. But I just know that for some reason, people couldn’t see me as someone who was a computer person. And I think this is talking about something really similar. It wasn’t that people didn’t WANT me to be into computers, it was just that my brother was introverted and male, liked to play video games. I was social and outgoing, and enjoyed being with friends, talking about intellectual things, and was articulate. He fit a lot more closely into the mold of who is “into” computers.

What I think this article points out is that making a decision to do something, whether it be which career to choose, or where to go to college, or whether to go to college, involves so many more factors, and is more psychologically complicated, than we give credit for. We want to believe, especially in the United States, that people have equal opportunity. And maybe they do, in a sort of technical way. But opportunity is sort of shaded, in that you can only take advantage of the opportunities that you can actually see. In the Slate article, Vedantam describes a recent study. I’ll quote.

Stout, Dasgupta, and their colleagues wanted to find out why women’s outstanding performance on science and math tests in high school and college correlates so weakly with their eventual interest in pursuing careers in those fields. In high school and college, girls increasingly earn math and science grades equal to or better than the grades of their male peers. But when it comes to choosing a career in math or science, more men than women choose to walk through those open doors.

The psychologists asked female students studying biology, chemistry, and engineering to take a very tough math test. All the students were greeted by a senior math major who wore a T-shirt displaying Einstein’s E=mc2 equation. For some volunteers, the math major was male. For others, the math major was female. This tiny tweak made a difference: Women attempted more questions on the tough math test when they were greeted by a female math major rather than a male math major. On psychological tests that measured their unconscious attitudes toward math, the female students showed a stronger self-identification with math when the math major who had greeted them was female. When they were greeted by the male math major, women had significantly higher negative attitudes toward math.

(emphasis mine)

This sounds familiar, now, doesn’t it?? I don’t think I there were any women who were into making websites. And I do remember that even at the computer programming camp I went to, the female friend I remember having was only there because her brother was there, not because SHE was interested in computer programming.

Even more astounding, “when Stout and Dasgupta evaluated how much the students identified with mathematics, they found that women ended up with less confidence in their mathematical abilities when their teachers were men rather than women. This happened even when women outperformed men on actual tests of math performance.” This is crazy–as Vedantam points out, even when women were outperforming men, they were less confident if their teacher was male. The context in which we live severely influences our views of ourselves/identity and I’m guessing our willingness to work at something. I think this has profound implications not just regarding gender, but race and even probably class. It is an issue of identity, and being able to identify with something, with being a college graduate, or a mathematician or a computer scientist or a programmer. Choice is a funny thing–it isn’t something that happens in a vacuum, but rather with so many factors weighing in, often factors we have little or no awareness of.

I remember being aware of this phenomenon of women being interested in the sciences and then uninterested later on when I was 13. I remember thinking, “I won’t let that happen to me! I love science!” and then it happening anyway. I got interested in chorus, and then by the time I got to college I feared I was so far behind that I would be terrible in science, so I avoided it like the plague until I HAD to take biology. And then I loved it but felt like it was too late. I keep gravitating toward science and math-y things, and so I think I need to just embrace it, and fuck the stereotypes. But maybe we all need to work to help the people around us identify themselves in a different way, a more positive and useful way.

Psych-Out Sexism [Slate]

No Envy and No Fear

This is the title of a beautiful song by Joshua Radin, whose music I really like–it’s calming, sweet, gentle and relaxing.  Very nice.  And I’m needing that these days.  And I like that–have no envy, and no fear.  Good words to live by.

This year has been challenging, as I’ve said before.  The past few weeks have been such a mixed bag.  I’ve felt very up and down, frustrated I think overall more than I’ve been excited, unfortunately.  I’m extremely upset about what’s been going on in the House of Representatives, since on Friday, they voted to defund both public broadcasting AND Title X funds, which supports STI testing, cancer screening, family planning (at least contraception) and health education. Though neither of these incidents of defunding are expected to be approved by either the Senate nor the President, it is still disturbing to me. Though it has been really refreshing to see so many people on my Facebook wall posting about supporting Planned Parenthood, and seeing some incredible speeches where women explain from their personal perspectives why abortion must remain accessible to all women, and how ridiculous it is to call it genocide or ethnic cleansing of black babies. Though there are certainly issues with both these women’s speeches, fallacies in their logic, I think it sheds some light on the ridiculous of white men discussing these issues, claiming that this is a ploy to convince women to have abortions, or to kill black babies. As I’ve read about on the various fantastic blogs I peruse, it is important to recognize that abortion does not happen out of the context of culture. Perhaps more black women get abortions, but more black women are poor. And Republicans do such a great job supporting poor folks, right??! They offer a lot of options in terms of flexibility to raise your children the way you want, and support them financially, right?

I’m super sick of Republicans focusing on this instead of real issues, creating jobs, as Spier points out. Defunding Title X means removing funding from a program that has shown to SAVE the government over $4 for every $1 they spend. So, really, this is NOT about getting rid of the deficit.

Anyway, that’s all been quite disheartening, and I’m happy to see that it’s not just me who is paying attention, taking action and is outraged (somewhat related: see Wisconsin).

I’m excited about the energy I feel growing about these issues on the Left, that we need to fight for our right to control our bodies, to receive adequate health care, something we ALL need. So, as much as you are able, please speak out, donate, call your representatives. Show them you are paying attention. This shit absolutely affects us all.

Side Note

Kanye’s new album is vulgar, hilarious, poignant, enchanting and totally listen-able.  Love.

The strange world of race

I have decided I might adopt a dog. Which is both thrilling and frightening. But while looking for possible said dog on Craigslist, I encountered a posting that I almost don’t want to link to to give it more access than it deserves.  But I do think it’s worth talking about, in the sense that it is so untrue, and frightening that people possibly believe shit like this (link no longer available). The author of the random Craigslist post (which appeared when I searched for “dog”) argues that people of African descent evolved to be more “wild,” or, to quote this author:

-have poor impulse control
-cannot concieve of the future as a real event which must planned for (e.g. leasing an Escalade instead of buying health insurace)
-do not invest or nurture their young to the extent Whites or Asians do
-are more sociopathic

S/he argues that additionally, people of European descent have evolved to harvest crops, “domesticate” things (the word, in and of itself, contains a bias), and “behave and work hard. Those who were bad for the group/clan, were kicked out and ultimately could not survive on their own. Survival was a group effort in Northern Europe.” As if that weren’t true in Africa??

Full disclosure–I am of entirely European descent–some combination of German, Norwegian, Czech, English, French, Scots-Irish and who knows what else.  But since living in New York City and working with “underserved populations,” the empathy I have always felt towards people who are being given the short end of the stick has shifted strongly toward people of African descent living in the United States.  I’ve always been fascinated by race relations–by white inability and intimidation in discussing them to the undercurrent of racism that still (uhm, obviously) pervades our society, even as the first black president holds residence in the nation’s capital.  It would be naive to believe that I understand, in really, any fundamental way, the struggles that people of any African descent face in this nation.  However; as a white woman in a society where being white does, in fact, still mean something, I believe using the power that I DO have to speak up against racism is the only thing I can do.  To work with people, both white and black, in whatever way I can to at least level the “playing field” for our children.  I don’t want my children to have an advantage because they are white.  Or from a middle-class home.  I want all children to have a future where they are armed to contribute to society.  Where they have many opportunities to better the world.  We need everyone.  That includes the children of African descent.  The America I see fails tremendously at this, every day, in so many classrooms, so many police stations, so many cities and so many ways.  I don’t pretend to know the answer, or to even truly understand the problem.  But I’m making an effort to be aware of it.  To recognize my privilege and both be grateful for all that I have but also speak out against it.  It isn’t something I deserve.

Back to the article.

I’m so confused by this person’s logic, and/or what evidence s/he is using. Different societies have different expectations, sure. Some societies are more accepting of violence, other eschew the use of it. Those are cultures, and perhaps over time they are selected for as genotypes. The problem is that neither European nor African society evolved in a homogenous way–each had countless clans/tribes/whatever you want to call them with their own cultures and expectations of appropriate behavior. A recent RadioLab episode explores what types of behavior “win out” in computer generated trials of war-like encounters and finds that the idea of “tit-for-tat” or “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” is the most effective way to fight, in that it leaves you alive most often. It stands to reason that this would make sense in any context–regardless of whether it happened to be in Africa or Europe.

I don’t think this person is really and truly a thoughtful, logical person, despite his/her closing claim that “This is Race Realism. It is science. It is logic. It’s really very obvious.” And I would like to say to this person–“Really?? THIS is science?! Do you have studies?” Facts can be interpreted in differing ways. But given that this argument includes ONLY European vs African human evolution (and strangely leaves out Asian, South American, Middle Eastern, etc), I just can’t take it seriously.

Ultimately, the argument boils down to trying to answer this question: “How many billions in tax dollars must be wasted trying to improve Black nature before we realize that it is absolutely to no end?” The fact is, there may not be an organized conspiracy against people of African descent in this country, but there certainly is a faction of people whose sentiment is extremely negative towards those of African descent. Even more disturbing is the view of the success of people of African descent (many many of whom in this country share the genes of Europeans!!) in zero sum terms. The author asks, “How many more safe and clean neighborhoods (re: White) must be we lose, being ghettoized and destroyed by Blacks before we can break with the illusion that they are “bad” because of environmental factors? How long can we blame colonialism, Jim Crow, Slavery or whatever for the failure of Africans to behave and adapt in modern societies?”  Because obviously, if black people succeed, whites will be fucked, right??!!!

But if we are all better off, we are ALL better off.  We can’t live in a society where things are sectioned off the way they are.  Where black people are 12% of the national population but make up nearly 40% of the prison population.  This is NOT because they are of African descent.  This is because we arrest people of African descent at higher rates for crimes that we ALL commit (I’m looking at you, drugs).  Black people have become a scape goat for our unwillingness to actually truly help other people that we don’t know on a personal level.  Who seem like “other.”

The author of the Race Realism post attempts to make a reasoned, logical argument but fails miserably.  It ends up being just an excuse for being too lazy and greedy to clean up the mess that is our ridiculously unequal society, where people are too stupid to realize they will never, in fact, be rich and therefore yes!! We SHOULD tax the wealthy more!  Clearly, there are many Americans to DO get it, at least when Social Security is held over their heads.  But we need people to use their brains a bit more often and support candidates that are in line with what they tell pollsters from 60 minutes.  Race plays into this because it gives people an excuse not to support more socially liberal welfare programs.

We need to get beyond this.  We must be willing to help people who don’t look like us, who we’ve never met.  How can we do that when people are still making arguments that Africans are genetically, across the board, different than Europeans, and comparing them to coyotes?  How do we have a conversation with people who so clearly do not live in the world of science and logic, yet claim their argument is based in these things?  Why didn’t the North just let the South succeed?  Because, let’s be serious, who would be better off now?