Thursday, May 16, 2013

Scratching the Surface and Finding *-Ism

Two separate articles came out in the Atlantic yesterday. One talked about the disparity in IQ tests between racial groups. The other was about the financial effects of increased female representation in the corporate boardroom. Both of them dealt with the issue of identity and its observable effects. And both of them also deal with two types of isms: Racism and sexism.

Jason Richwine was a former policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He resigned his position after information surfaced that his doctoral paper argued Hispanic immigrants tended to have lower IQ and drew a disproportionate amount of government benefits. At its face, it's a topic of poor taste. People on the left will cry racism. People on the right will say "he was only pointing out what we all knew to be true". As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Those crying racism are wrong in that Richwine is a racist. And this is the big thing that conservatives hate about liberals. They don't want their prejudices being called racist, because racism is an extremely offensive charge. But Richwine is prejudiced. And this is what infuriates liberals. They can't believe that conservatives can't admit to their own intellectual bias and prejudice.

To abstract the issue somewhat, let's look at something that generates a little less controversy: food deserts. A food desert is a term urban planners use to describe an area that has a lack of grocery stores serving fresh produce and an abundance of fast food restaurants and convenience stores selling prepackaged junk food. Such areas tend to be in the inner city, with above average poverty rates, and also predominantly black.

Let's say there are two people looking at a detailed map of food deserts with the city. The first person, noticing that all of the food deserts are overwhelmingly black and have a disproportionate number of fast food chains that specialize in fried chicken, says "This isn't surprising. Most black people love fried chicken." The second person tells the first person "You're being racist!"

The first person is baffled (and a little angry). He saw an area that is disproportionately black and has a disproportionate number of fast food restaurants that specialize in fried chicken. He thinks it's merely pointing out the obvious that black people love fried chicken. But the problem is the sentiment behind the thought is prejudiced. The second person wants the first person to realize he's being prejudiced (although not racist, that is an overreaction by the second person).

And it's prejudiced because nobody would ever say something like "white people love fast food". If you look at cities whose population is still heavily white, you'd notice that poorer white neighborhoods also are food deserts. And they happen to have a lot of fast food joints as well. But you'll never see anybody saying anything to the effect of "most white people like fast food". You will, however, see a lot of "poorer Americans consume a disproportionate amount of junk food and fast food".

The difference is that people consider a white person the "default" person. So when they describe the habits of some other group, they use a different, nonracial adjective to describe it. When they start using racial adjectives, what they are doing is they are thinking of an "abnormal" group and then ascribing attributes to that group based solely on physical appearance. That is the definition of prejudice.

I'm ethnically Chinese and nobody would ever mistake me for anything other than an "Asian". So when I meet new people and they hear my accent (general American, ie neutral or "accentless"), many ask me "so were you born here or...?" The implication is that my English is too well spoken for a non-native American (who's Asian) so therefore they want to know whether I was born and raised here. But if I were white, I would never be asked that specific question. Because being white is the default and people assume that all white people are from the US.

That's a relatively harmless example. I certainly don't take any offense to it. But there are many examples of conspicuous identity that have deleterious effects to the people made aware of the fact that they're different. Girls in school, for example, perform worse in math exams when they are reminded of the stereotype that "girls aren't good at math".

Think of the reason why people wear suits to interviews. The expectation of the vast majority of society is that if you're interviewing for a career-track position at a company, you should wear a suit. What's the reasoning behind it? Let's examine the reasoning by counterexample. Let's say you're the interviewer and the person you are interviewing came in wearing shorts, flip flops, and a ratty t-shirt with some semi-witty slogan on it. What would you do? You would immediately begin thinking "why is he dressed like some stupid hipster?" And then you wouldn't be able to stop thinking about him being a hipster and what being a hipster represents.

Because the interviewee is, in the mind of the interviewer, a hipster, the interviewer already has already formed an opinion of the interviewee without the interviewee doing anything except showing up. The job could be extremely technical and you're interested in finding a candidate who's truly qualified for doing the job....but you still can't get over the fact that the guy dressed like a hipster. Ultimately you pass on the candidate.

You might be thinking to yourself "but we all know you're supposed to wear a suit. The guy made a conscious choice to dress casually and he paid the price for it". But that's the thing about race. You can't choose the color of your skin. And if it's different from what's expected (which is white, let's be honest here), then already you've identified something to the interviewer. And with that comes the tyranny of pre-formed opinions. You might want to be judged solely on your merit, but nobody is ever judged solely on their merit. It just happens to get even harder to get judged solely on your merit if you identify yourself as something other than the norm. As Louis CK once put it, "Never identify yourself! Are you crazy?"

This is the thing about white privilege. It drives some people (almost exclusively white) crazy, because they don't perceive themselves as having any sort of advantage. But, as a comedy writer once put it, "You didn't perceive yourself as being in a position of power because that is the main advantage of power -- that you don't have to think about it."

One timeless Hollywood trope is the out-of-touch rich/popular guy. They can't see what everybody else plainly sees because their money and their popularity shield them from the harsh reality that everybody else experiences. But in the case of racism, or sexism, or basically any *-ism, the harsh reality is that there is a default/normal option and everything else that's different automatically has a host of expectations and pre-judging built in. Pointing that out isn't *-ist. But it sure as hell doesn't win you any empathy points.

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