Sunday, January 4, 2015

Police and the Racism Discussion in the US

In the racial climate of America after Ferguson, after Eric Garner, and after the death of the two police officers in New York, it feels like we as a society are moving further from our country's stated goals of democracy and justice for a diverse citizenry.

There are lots of anecdotes that illustrate this, but I will just use this one I saw this morning as a starting point for talking about what is wrong and how we can become aware of it and improve, together.

According to this article, the photo on the right sparked outrage in the Pittsburgh Police Union. "FOP President Howard McQuillan [said] “The chief is calling us racists. He believes the Pittsburgh Police Department is racist. This has angered a lot of officers.”

Here is what the man in the photo says:
"I was hired to restore the legitimacy of the police department. I did not seek these young activists out. I was stopping for coffee at First Night. Their message is not anti-anybody. It is simply a call for awareness. The photo was a great, spontaneous moment in time. Please join dialogue for community healing."

"A source inside the Mayor Bill Peduto administration has called the photograph potentially very destructive, with no upside."

NO UPSIDE. So one side believes that all we have to do it talk about it, and it will get better. The other side believes that talking about it will only make it worse. Which one is right?


One of the biggest revolutions in Psychology had to do with Freud's idea that the unconscious is actually very powerful, and what we have access to, the conscious, is just the tip of the iceberg. Many psychological studies have then gone on to explore what exactly is happening under the surface, in all kinds of different scenarios and conditions.

One branch of this studies how the conscious tip of the iceberg may not be overtly racist, but we ALL have ways of processing the world according to race under the surface. Why? Well, when we have to react to the world in real time, and the most important thing is avoiding death, our brains have evolved to rely on shortcuts rather than process each person as the individual beautiful snowflake that they are. The people pushing for a conversation about race are hoping that becoming aware of what is under the surface of how our minds process the world will help us to become less racist.

It is important to understand that we are pretty much all racist at some level, and that level is subconscious. In the psychological studies testing this, reaction times reveal that some connections, such as black people and crime or violence, are more quickly made than the same kind of connections with white people. We shoot quicker when we see a black person holding a gun than a white person. We judge an ambiguous shove as more violent when it is done by a black person. And so on. Interestingly, though police officers make the same errors, they generally make them less. A great collection of summaries of relevant studies can be found here:

The lesson to take away here is that admitting that we are racist is a positive first step to challenging these culturally ingrained biases in our minds. It is not an accusation; it is the start of a conversation.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Purpose of Discussions About Privilege

Today I stopped commenting on a 600+ comment thread on my facebook wall in which I was trying to explain the idea of privilege and why it was important to some people who didn't want to hear it. The original post was about intersectionality, the idea that everyone has certain ways in which they are privileged, and certain ways in which they are underprivileged. We all agreed on the points made in the article (they're sort of undisputable), yet somehow we managed to have a giant comment war about it. I learned something from that.

It's true that we have made a lot of progress in equality in the eyes of the law such as abolishing slavery and forcing companies to not discriminate in the hiring process (next up: gay marriage, fixing the justice system and the war on drugs). So why bother talking about privilege?

For me, learning about privilege helped me to put myself into context. l realized that my feelings of unease at being called bossy when I didn't feel like I was any more bossy than the other kids who were taking charge (boys) were not necessarily just problems with myself, they were in part manifestations of larger patterns that all women had to deal with.

A similar transformation happened in college when I heard people talking about double standards for women; I had been struggling to figure out how to not be a prude and also not be a slut (and also not a tease). No matter what I did I seemed to fall into one of those categories. Every girl I knew had been called at least one of those terms, and we all took it personally, as if it were really an attack on us and we should reflect on it and change our actions. Well, this doesn't mean that we should brush it off and any criticisms of our sexual tendencies or our leadership abilities are simply sexism, but it does mean that we can trust our own feelings of what feels right a little bit more, since we know that generally, people's perceptions are a little bit skewed in certain ways.

And because I'm totally white, I never had to deal with racism, and naturally, didn't acknowledge that white privilege existed (or if it did, it was miniscule and really not worth worrying about). I grew up in a good neighborhood and thought that if everyone did their part and tried to be good people, that would be much more effective than teaching about sociological constructs.

I think the same idea applies here, and to every privilege. Learning about privilege should not be a way to devalue the actions of those in power. It's not about the people in power, it's about the people not in power. That's perhaps why it's a problematic word; it draws attention to the wrong side of the equation (or, inequality I guess). 

The point is, when black students are taught in school that the language that they use at home and at church with their loved ones is "incorrect" English and they are marked down for it and labeled "bad at English," that's reflective of the power dynamic, not of them.

Realizing that language is actually always evolving and that linguists would never say that there is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to speak, rather it is the existing power structures asserting their dominance through language that makes one way "right" and one way "wrong," empowers those who are in the position of less power to understand their place in society for what it is, and to claim agency and, if they so choose, learn the dialect that those in power deem to be correct so that they may enjoy more privileges than they currently do.

It's giving the people crushed by the system a map of the structure of the system, so that they can stop blaming themselves and climb up the hierarchy and break the cycle of living self fulfilling prophesies. (While it won't solve the larger problem of our systems being based on power imbalances, it will at least help the imbalance be a little more equally spread. Ideally once people achieve more privilege they will use it to help others and not just disconnect from their past, but this comes through true awareness of the system. If anyone knows of an alternate system in which inequality is not to some degree inevitable, let me know).

And there are all kinds of other privileges that are not in the typical canon. There are other power dynamics that are responsible for which are talked about and which aren't. That's empowering. Now that we know that, we can talk about any privilege that personally bothers us, and spread that understanding to those that need to hear it most.

So if you find yourself in a Facebook comment war about whether privilege exists, simply bow out as politely as you possibly can. The people who deny the existence of privilege or its severity are not going to change their minds because of a comment thread. But keep posting and spreading awareness, because it's reaching the people who really need to hear it that will have a positive effect on society. The people who need to hear it won't fight you on it, they'll appreciate it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Gaining Consciousness -- Hooray now what?

Imagine you are a point on a line in a plane in a space. But you don't know that since you're just a point. You don't even know you're a point.

So you're pushed and pulled but all the other points around you and you respond, according to the physical laws and your environment (made up of other points, just like you).

Somehow you gain consciousness. The exact process is hazy, since you were not conscious for at the beginning, and your conscious mind has no access to the mind that was before it.

First you realize that you are part of a line. This makes you feel happy. You belong in an infinitely large and united community. On your own you are each points, but together you are greater; you are a line.**

Next you realize that you are part of another line. While the first line you noticed still exists, it does feel slightly less special. Then another line, and suddenly you understand that you are not just the intersection of 3 or 4 lines, you are the intersection of an infinite number of lines. The slight loss you experienced in realizing that the line you were a part of was not unique is completely overshadowed by your newfound awe for your new community, which is made up of an infinite number of points. And this infinity is not like the previous infinity of the number of points in a line; it is a greater infinitiy: that of a plane.

Now you feel content. Until a familiar feeling creeps in. You realize you are the intersection of an infinite number of planes just as you are the intersection of an infinite number of lines. Another, greater, feeling of loss overwhelms you. Until another, greater feeling of oneness and community replaces it.

Now, finally, you must be content. You go on living this way for a while. Maybe you even realize that there are infinitely many volumes just as there were infinitely many lines and planes. Together, those make up something greater than the sum of its volumes. And of course there are infinitely many of those, and so on.

You are a point, but you are also an integral part of the larger wholes. And while you don't have access to it, it is completely consistent to assume that inside of you are an infinite number of things with an infinite number of things in them, etc.

Now what is your agency, considering you have just leveled up from the idea of levels itself? It is clear that the fractal goes on forever, in all directions. What does that make "you?"

Just as with every realization you have had, there have been two ways to look at it. The first is the negative one: your uniqueness (as a point, as a line, as a plane, etc.) is gone. There are infinitely many, just like you! And the second is the positive one: 'you' are not just a point, rather 'you' can be redefined as the larger whole. Since you are part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts (but is made up of only its parts), you must be important! Somehow this doesn't comfort you, however, and you look for another positive spin.

You try to consider each level on its own, but the interconnectedness you already understand undermines that attempt to self-censor.

You decide that if only all the points had this consciousness, you could all decide to do something together. But what would you do? If you are part of larger and larger wholes, you are equally insignificant to them. If you take this community organizing to the extreme, you run into the problem of context. Even if you somehow got ALL the other points and larger wholes conscious, what would you decide to do?

Good and bad only make sense in context, like direction only makes sense in a space. So you zoom out in search of context and orientation and realize you haven't gotten ALL the larger wholes.

Okay so then finally you do that and you really get all the larger wholes. You are the entire universe, constantly expanding at every point. What shall you decide to do? Expand faster? Contract? Try to remain in some dynamic equilibrium? Actions at that level are a bit meaningless too.

You decide to explore in another direction. The best you can do as a larger whole yourself is to do right by your parts. You do your very best to act in a way that is aligned with the way in which you are interconnected with everything, follow your inner compass, and in doing so, do your part.

Well isn't that what you were doing before you gained consciousness? Subject to the forces of the points around you, you simply responded, without over-thinking, to the larger and smaller forces.

It seems like you are back where you started, but a little more miserable. Maybe ignorance is really bliss, you wonder. No, it looks like the same place, but it is very different; you haven't gone in a circle, you've gone in a spiral.

Just as when learning to drive a car you first have to be conscious of every aspect, and when the skill is mastered conscious awareness is no longer necessary, so too here, consciousness has done its part and can relax.