Monday, May 26, 2008

Greg Laden is a pretty cool guy.

That's right, I said it. =P

Greg Laden of Scienceblogs started an interesting discussion on Racism and Sexism in the Democratic Primary, and I don't want to leave an overly long reply in his comments, but I have some stuff to ponder, so... here's what I think. (All blockquotes are Greg's.)

To give some context, he had mentioned that both negative (Irish people are drunks) and positive (Irish people are great writers) stereotypes are both racial statements and, as such, Not A Good Thing. To which we'd all agree. He also says,
In Minnesota, our party rules require that representation be equal by sex. Among the delegates and alternates that go to the state convention, half are women, half are men. I think that may be nation wide for our party. When the democrats convene in Colorado, half of the delegates will be women, half men. One could argue that this is sexist (or racist as the case may be) because we are considering sex or race. And that would be correct.
... with which I disagreed. I basically said that as far as I knew, the systematic racial and gender-based oppression has denied voices to women and persons of color (POC to those in the know) and rectifying this by giving voices to oppressed classes of people solely because they would otherwise not be heard at all is not racist/sexist. I think that Greg's response was to say that it would still be racism/sexism, but of the benevolent sort.

Greg's definition of racism: "Simply (too simply, but remember, this is a comment on a blog) racism is the belief that one can use a "racial" characteristic to identify a person's features aside from that characteristic," of course assuming that one believes in races as categories and that they correlate to some other trait. But races are categories (if only social ones) and they do correlate to some traits (if only by the way certain races have been historically treated). I would add to that simple definition that the association between the racial characteristic and whatever other traits is a prejudicial one (aka not backed up by evidence) and/or considered to be inherent (due to the fact that the person is of a certain race, not because of the racial categorization and subsequent treatment of that group). (As an aside, the Angry Black Woman has some interesting things to say about how ridiculous it is to try to be 'colorblind'. Race does affect people, in real ways.)

He gives two examples of benign racism:
Oh, look at the irish girl. she's probably a good writer. Oh, look at the pregnant Somali woman. As a doctor, I'm glad to know her race because there is this disease common among pregnant Somali that I need to take into account in diagnosing her symptoms."
The first case is clearly benevolent racism. In the second case, I wouldn't consider it racism because being of a particular line of descent (not necessarily of a 'race') is an actual specifically delineated category and it does actually correlate with a specific trait. (Given the example, which I understand is made-up.) Saying that people of African descent are more prone to lactose intolerance than those of Northern European descent is not racist, because, well, it's true. Right?

In addition, I'd think that saying that American blacks have been systematically denied positions of power is not a racist thing to say, even though I'm basing the statement solely on racial generalizations, because it is in fact true due to the societal treatment of those who are categorized as black. I do not feel that 'black' or 'white' is anything but a superficial category imposed by our society (i.e. it's not necessarily a genetic category, seeing as the races are much more genetically similar than they are different). But the fact remains that people who are considered 'white' and people who are considered 'nonwhite' at first glance are treated differently in society as a whole.
Now, let's try the argument that racism is always obviously bad, and therefore anything that is obviously good can't be racism. Furthermore, if we assume that me thinking Muse is a great writer because she's Irish or Obama's election will lead the way towards a more enlightened society because he's "African" then those are good things. But if they are not racial thinking, then what are they?
Those are good examples of what Greg and I both would both consider 'racist' thinking, as benevolent as both examples are. But what about the thought that perhaps having a black man in a powerful position in America would be a good thing simply because it would give a (very powerful) voice to a person of color, who have been traditionally under-represented in our country's history? Is it racist to think that a black President would be a good thing, just because black people and their opinions/experiences should be heard on a more national level?

If so, I suppose I'm more racist than I thought. ;)

Interesting discussions by intelligent people. My favorite thing! Anyway, go read the post and the comments; they are stimulating.


  1. The Somali example is not made up. There is a disease that is manifest as morning sickness but is very serious. It is somewhat more common in Somali people.

    However, it is still a racist assertion, even if it is "true." If races really do exist and worked as people often say they do, that would not make racist thinking non-racialized. It would just make it more often technically correct, and perhaps even useful now and then.

    For the medical case, no doctor really wants to use a person's "race" as an indicator in an actual diagnosis. As a means of leading towards a certain test, yes, but not in the diagnosis. Not reliable enough (these "prevalences" of one genetic disease or another are usually very small percentages different from the general population)

    That it isn't racial because it is about a line of descent (and not a race) is a reasonable argument. However, there is a fine line between the pretty much made up concept of race and what people actually are thinking when they think about decent. So yea, it's true what you say, but it is a truth that would be lost or chucked aside too easily, I think.

    Now, the lactose intolerance claim is interesting because it is actually incredibly racist, but in a colonial western centered way that you did not mean (I'm sure). That might be interesting enough to write a blog post on !!!

    I'm not sure what I think about the idea that "saying that American blacks have been systematically denied positions of power is not a racist thing to say" ... since it uses a category that is race-based it is potentially racist, but since it is not drawing a conclusion about the group it isn't. Nonetheless, Angry Black Woman would note that a person's racist experience (as an object of racism) is in part drawn from their own social identity. The way I've put it is that there is a gene for racism. It is whatever gene determines the racial characteristic that racists use. So if I have a gene that makes me blue, and you are racists against blue people, then my gene, fully expressed, causes (in part) your racist behavior. But otherwise, yeah, I think you are probably right.

  2. Erm... it's racist to say that lactose intolerance occurs more often in some populations than others? Why is that? I understand that lactose intolerance is the native condition of humankind, while lactose tolerance in adulthood is actually a new adaptation, relatively speaking. Even in America specifically, the incidence of lactose intolerance is about 12% in whites, and 75% in blacks. I don't understand how it's "incredibly racist in a colonial western centered way" at all to state what is actual fact.

  3. Here is what is important here: The truth of a statement is not related (in my view) to determining if it is racist. That is he key point. The reason for this is that I don't want "truth" to allow a statement to pass as not-racist. Truth is relative, political, managed, etc. (often ... I do believe in a "truth" in a sense, I'm not a post modernist. but you get the point).

    SO the truthiness of the statement is not in my view a variable in the determination of something being racist. Nor is the nicey-ness. Nor is the utility in, say a medical sense.

    The only thing that determines that a statement is racialized (or racist) is whether or not it is based on or asserts that there are races, we identify one or more racial characteristics, use such a characteristic to identify one or more individuals (real or hypothetical) as members of the "race" then make further assertions using the racial model .... that Trait A (the observable sorting variable) indicates trait B (the feature we are looking for).

    So, statements about LI can be racist if they are about racial groups ... if we are saying "this group has this percent, that group that percent." because these groups are races.

    These things, these statemetns, may be true, but likely they are not. You'll find out quickly how untrue they are the moment you try to define the groups used in the statement in a way that is biologically meaningful and scientifically measurable and replicable Also, when you look at the numbers (the stats) and find out that many of these numbers are based on studies with significant limitations (i.e., no on actually looked t any of the alleles!) then the issue gets shadier.

    It is probably better to speak of an allele (adult lactase production allele) and it's distribution across humans. There is nothing wrong with doing it that way, for any other scientific question that is how we would do it. Therefore, to me, scientists who insist on not doing it this way, and who insist on using "sub populations" or "demes" or whatever are simply trying to advance or continue a racist agenda of some kind. Though I admit I generally don't get what they are really up to.

  4. Interesting comments, I guess I mostly agree with Greg in that I would classify any sort of reverse racism as racism. But I don't have a problem with it, basically since minorities that have been oppressed will always have more trouble and some official reverse-racism probably only evens it out, if that. It's a bit more interesting for sexism, since of course women are not a minority, but on the flip side they have been denied their rights much more consistently, so for now at least I don't have much of a problem with counter-sexism.

    What I really find interesting is this whole "truth" commentary. For the sake of argument, think about this - let us say that women are indeed bad in physics, there are both few women who are good at physics and even fewer who want to do physics anyways. And we have shown, not only that they have been underrepresented statistically, but that infact we have somehow biologically determined that is the case. I understand that is almost certainly not possible to do (the biological part, the statistics are obviously widely available), let's just say for the sake of argument.

    Now, even if that were somehow the case, would it really be a good idea to talk about it socially? Would it be good to tell girls that physics is probably not for them? You can argue that well, statistically they have a much lower chance to be any good at it so they should stop wasting their life, right (talking as a teacher/parent)? Just to play devil's advocate.

    My own view is that even if that were the case, having comments who re-affirm that truth be socially acceptable would be a bad idea (i.e. people saying things along the lines of "well women are just bad at physics, nothing we can do about it"). You are not doing much good to all the ones who are bad at it or disinterested - they weren't about to get into it, or will fail quickly anyways. On the flip side you would be discouraging the few who could infact do physics, and want to do it. Basically you would only do harm to the minority (in this case, women who happen to be good at physics), and doing no good to the majority.

    I used physics as an example since that's what I do for a living (and at least at my univ, we do have something like 20-1, or 15-1 male/female ratio), but it is a general argument - even if there are real racial/gender difference, there is still no reason to enforce them in society, in my view.

    Disclaimer: Before someone jumps on me for being sexist, while I am a male physics grad student, my mother raised me pretty much as a single mom and she's a physicist ;).