Friday, August 14, 2009

Racism is Perpetuated by Anti-Racism", or "Refusing to Acknowledge the Effects of Race Inhibits Interpersonal Relationships", or "Rainbows Are Pretty"

Every single person belongs to a certain race. This fact is unavoidable, as racial differences are clearly visible. However, race is often an issue which is avoided in polite conversation since it is considered a controversial topic. Emotions run high when overtly discussing racism because people identify so strongly with their race; after all, what is closer to you that your own skin? Because it is so visible, race is also one of the most immediate ways we judge each other. First impressions are not only made by our handshake, the amount of wrinkles in our shirt, and the sincerity of our smile. No matter how much we would like people to judge us based on such personal details, the unfortunate truth is that stereotypes are formed about race just as readily as they are for such things as gender, disability, and age. But, like other ways we tend to group people, looks can be deceiving: Although being part of a particular ethnicity means you are more likely to be informed by the accompanying culture, this is not necessarily true. Race is merely an externalized likelihood that someone interacts with the world in a particular way, but it does not define who we are as individuals.

I live near San Francisco, a mecca of liberal politics and socially progressive policies, but even here we are not immune to the effects of racism. This spring, I worked in a program where I was one of only two white people in a room filled with 27 students and staff. I never experienced obvious racism in my students, but I did experience it with my fellow co-workers. One day as we had a music activity, I modeled different kinds of dancing for the students, focusing on maintaining rhythm and controlling body movements. A fellow coworker (who I didn’t get along with) danced by me, saying “You dance like a white girl!” The comment was surely meant innocuously, but I didn’t experience it that way. I experienced it as a judgement and an accusation, and it made me feel even more estranged from my coworker. While it wasn’t constructive of me to ignore the effects of race and culture on my students’ dancing and my own, my coworker’s comment was surely destructive. I never interacted with her in a meaningful way again.

Racism is not simply demeaning another race. It is any judgement - positive or negative - formed about someone purely because they look a certain way. By judging a person based on their heredity - something they have no personal control over - racism alienates people and inhibits relationships. Introducing the divisiveness of racism into interpersonal relations makes a personal connection nearly impossible, since it makes it clear that there is nothing the person you are interacting with can do to change your mind; You have judged them based on the color of their skin and the shape of their bones - things they did nothing to receive, and over which they have no control. Examples of the effects of racism abound: they can be found in personal anecdotes, cross-cultural studies, economic opportunity, and even art.

One piece of art I experienced recently was Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel, “Shortcomings.” In this book, Tomine deals with the effects of racism on relationships by illustrating the characters’ ideals and (more hypocritical) behaviours concerning race. Two main characters, Ben and Miko, have been in a long-term relationship but they are clearly becoming increasingly distant from each other. Part of the reason for their distance is Ben’s lack of awareness about racial issues and their effects on the experiences of the people around him.

Although some cases of racism are obvious, some are not so clear. For example, “Shortcomings” begins as Ben and Miko watch a movie about a girl who has assimilated into the American culture, and as a result feels distant from her immigrant grandfather. As they leave the theater, Miko notes that the movie was the best of a series of submissions for an Asian film festival, and Ben gripes that it was actually a poorly done movie. He rants that it only received accolades because it had an Asian director, and that it didn’t deserve any recognition since, on the whole, it was not a good movie. Miko, who helped organize the festival, is clearly upset at his criticism. As Ben continues to complain about the quality of the movie, Miko accuses him of being racist, saying, “it’s almost like you’re ashamed to be Asian." While Miko is proud to be part of increasing the legitimacy and opportunity for people of her own race in the film industry, Ben refuses to view the movie within the context of race. This kind of discrimination is insidious, but not entirely misplaced. I agree with Ben: art is art, and good art should not be defined by culture or race. However, denying the effects of race is not the complete truth either. The fact that the best film in an Asian film festival was not of a high-enough quality to be shown in a theater may not indicate that Asians are bad directors, but rather that their opportunities in the field are inhibited by discrimination. However, this idea was not addressed in the book. Just like I never had a conversation with my coworker about how her comment about my dancing made me feel, Miko avoided pursuing the issue. Rather than initiating a discussion about race and its influence on opportunity, Ben and Miko simply stopped talking.

This failure to pursue the mine-field of racism is not peculiar to Tomine’s book. Even in situations where you would think an open discussion would be encouraged, it does not always happen. This summer, I took an upper-division ethnic studies course. One day I brought up an issue I was confused about; I repeated something I had heard about an ethnic group, and asked why it was true. My professor became upset, and said that it was not true at all, and that the stereotype I had repeated was the result of intolerance, or judging one culture in the context of another. But she did not elucidate beyond that. I became excited, and since it was a college class I expected that the discussion would continue beyond “right” and “wrong.” However, like Miko, my instructor refused to continue the discussion. Rather than pursue the nature of the discrepancy, thereby possibly ameliorating a racist belief I myself held, she perpetuated a segregation of ideas. Both my professor and Miko were more aware than Ben and I to racial judgements and barriers, but neither one of them helped to further any sense of understanding. In this way, they both played a complacent part in continuing the racism that they seem to be trying to combat.

While most people may be able to agree that racism should be ameliorated, it is difficult to completely eradicate because it is actually part of human nature. Everyone is more comfortable with their in-group than they are with anyone else. For most people, this in-group is made up mostly of people who look like them, and act like them, and think like them. This type of behavior is not racist or intolerant or mean; it is simply the way people negotiate interpersonal relationships. Ben has lived most of his life with Asians. His girlfriend is Asian, his best friend is Asian. Even his arch-enemy in college was Asian. Ben’s lack of racial awareness is not only a result of his self-absorption (although that certainly encourages it), but also the fact that he doesn’t have a very diverse in-group. Ben’s intolerance is a product of his environment as much as it is a product of his insensitivity.

Like Ben, we are all a product of our environment. If we continue to segregate each other not only by race but also by “right” and “wrong,” we cannot hope to overcome the misunderstandings and incomplete truths that water the seeds of racism. Overcoming racism will not be achieved by merely stating opinions or truth-telling. Because it is an attitude that is intertwined with very human instincts, open dialogue and validation of everyone’s experiences is most effective in directly addressing racism. Avoiding the topic by encouraging “color-blindness” is not enough. Advocating for minority rights to the exclusion of acknowledging the experiences of the majority is not enough. Attributing harmful stereotypes to individuals without awareness of cultural biases is not enough. What is enough is to keep talking; to continue the conversation as we explore ourselves and our experiences together. Ben and Miko lost their relationship because they couldn’t communicate with each other. May our own society avoid the same fate.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Slow down. My philosophy for life also applies to the road.

I have been requested to post something positive.
In light of that request, I am putting a positive spin on what I was going to write anyway.

While I am generally good at pointing out problems and at complaining, I don't generally offer much by way of solutions.
This time I have a very concrete solution, which is within easy reach of ordinary Americans, with no risk, no cost, and a negligible amount of inconvenience.
It is something you, the reader, can do.

But first, a short history lesson:
In October of 1973 a group of nations got sick of the US "foreign policy" of military intervention, and, knowing we had developed a lifestyle totally dependent on oil, they agreed not to sell us any.
This caused massive and immediate affects throughout the US economy. Buying fuel, at any price, meant waiting in long lines - on those days you were even allowed to buy gas at all (hmm, so maybe Soviet era lines for goods were not caused by the distribution system of communism, but by a plain lack of resources...)

The government took steps to encourage conservation, which (unlike sourcing new oil) could be done immediately, such as banning Christmas lights.

Another major step they took was to enact a national speed limit of 55mph.

The reason for this is that at higher speeds air resistance increases exponentially* relative to speed. Going twice as fast requires 4 times the energy. This is as true of modern vehicles as it was in 1973. All vehicles, small or large, gas or alternative fuel, use more energy at speeds above 60mph. In fact, going from 55 to 70mph typically uses between 20% and 25% more fuel to go the same distance.**

Next, a physics lesson:
Similar to the relationship between wind resistance and speed, momentum varies with the square of speed.
This means that if you are going twice as fast, it will take 4 times as much force to stop - and therefor 4 times the braking distance in an emergency.
It also means that if you do end up in a crash, at twice the speed you will have 4 times the impact. At 4 times the impact, crumple zones and airbags can't stop your organs from hitting your ribs hard enough to explode.

I realize (from the almost universal comment I get when I mention I have a motorcycle) that people actually believe they are safe when they are driving a car.
The number one cause of death of youth in the US in car crashes. It causes more deaths among young people than murder, suicide, cancer, and heart disease combined. It is the number one cause of death up until age 40, at which point it is still in the top 3.
We don't hear about it much in the news precisely because it is so common. There are roughly 16,500 accidents significant enough to be reported in the U.S. EVERY DAY. Of these, roughly 1/3 result in permanent injuries. Every 12 minutes, an American dies in a car crash. Every time you get into a car, you may die.

The number one factor in causing all of these deaths and injuries? It isn't alcohol. It isn't teen drivers or cell phones. Its speeding. Speeding is the single largest factor in injury and fatality collisions. Contrary to popular belief, driving slower is safer even when other cars around you are speeding.****

Note a couple studies on the issue:
"risk of involvement in a casualty crash, relative to the risk for a car traveling at 60 km/h, increased at an exponential rate for free traveling speeds above 60 km/h [37mph]"**

“First, the probability of a crash is approximately proportional to the square of the travel speed. Second, in a crash, injury risk is approximately proportional to the impact forces on a person, which in turn are proportional to the square of the impact speed. These two effects can be summarized in a general rule of thumb: When travel speed increases by 1%, the injury crash rate increases by about 2%, the serious injury crash rate increases by about 3%, and the fatal crash rate increases by about 4% “**

There is, of course, an obvious drawback to driving slower: it takes more time to get somewhere. If you do the math, you discover that slowing down from 75mph to 65mph means it will take you an additional 7 seconds to go a mile. (Slowing down to 55 will cost another 10 seconds)

What all this means is, over a 10 mile commute, you will waste 25% more gas (which also means you spend 25% more money), and increase your risk of death by 160%, all to save 2 minutes.

I am not asking you to give up your car and rely solely on bicycles and public transportation.
I am not asking you to buy an experimental electric or alternative fuel car, an expensive new hybrid, or even a smaller more efficient car.
I am not suggesting you go to the lengths I do and remove your power steering pump and alternator, or drive 45mph on the freeway.

All I am asking is that you slow down.

If you value your own money.
If you value the environment.
If you value national security and energy independence.
If you value the lives of those around you.
If you value your own life.

You don't even have to care about all of those things. Any one of them of them is reason enough.

Leave the house 2 minutes sooner, and slow down.

This will not, all by itself, save the world. But it will make a difference.

Thank you.

"No one can cut you off if you choose to slow down and let them in"

*Disclaimer for math and physics people: I know, technically the curve is parabolic, not exponential, but if I used that term no one would know what I was talking about

**You don't have to take my word for it:

***Mass mean the weight of the car. Velocity means speed

****The chance of a fender bender may be higher if you go slower than traffic around you, but the chance of a crash which causes injury or death is lower.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Hate, in a rainbow of colors

A number of things I have read recently have had the same saddening undertones to me lately.

Whether its queer folk expressing prejudice against heterosexuals, feminists who hate men, or people of color claiming that white activists who have no money coming into their neighborhood is a gentrification issue.

I hear about "gentrification" here in Oakland too.
Oakland has rent control, which means no tenant can be forced out or have their rent raised dramatically just because local property valuations have gone up.
Raising the average income in an area serves to increase the tax base, lower crime, and is not bad for a neighborhood. If, thanks to rent control, no one is being displaced this means that, like in the clash between anarchists in Pittsburgh, what people are really fighting for is something activists spent years trying to dismantle: segregation.

Bigotry which comes from an oppressed group is still just as much bigotry as it is when it comes from wealthy straight white men.
In all cases it is counter-productive.
Activists, please - stop alienating your allies just because they look different than you.

That is exactly what they want us to do.