Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Reverse racism" and "counter sexism".

My last post actually got some discussion (joy!) and I would like to continue it.

A comment by Coriolis got me thinking about reverse racism. I had read a bit about it on the liberal/feminist blagoweb, and so I Googled it and came upon this The Atlantic Magazine online article which basically sums up my feelings about it, and backs up the argument that "reverse racism" is different in a fundamental way from actual racism fairly well. (Though the comparison to Zionism makes me shiver a little bit.)

Coriolis had originally said:
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.
Now, as written in The Atlantic:
In this country whites once set themselves apart from blacks and claimed privileges for themselves while denying them to others. Now, on the basis of race, blacks are claiming special status and reserving for themselves privileges they deny to others. Isn't one as bad as the other? The answer is no. One can see why by imagining that it is not 1993 but 1955, and that we are in a town in the South with two more or less distinct communities, one white and one black. No doubt each community would have a ready store of dismissive epithets, ridiculing stories, self-serving folk myths, and expressions of plain hatred, all directed at the other community, and all based in racial hostility. Yet to regard their respective racisms--if that is the word--as equivalent would be bizarre, for the hostility of one group stems not from any wrong done to it but from its wish to protect its ability to deprive citizens of their voting rights, to limit access to educational institutions, to prevent entry into the economy except at the lowest and most menial levels, and to force members of the stigmatized group to ride in the back of the bus. The hostility of the other group is the result of these actions, and whereas hostility and racial anger are unhappy facts wherever they are found, a distinction must surely be made between the ideological hostility of the oppressors and the experience-based hostility of those who have been oppressed.
And also:
Here the [reverse racism] argument usually takes the form of saying "It is undemocratic to give one class of citizens advantages at the expense of other citizens; the truly democratic way is to have a level playing field to which everyone has access and where everyone has a fair and equal chance to succeed on the basis of his or her merit." Fine words--but they conceal the facts of the situation as it has been given to us by history: the playing field is already tilted in favor of those by whom and for whom it was constructed in the first place. If mastery of the requirements for entry depends upon immersion in the cultural experiences of the mainstream majority, if the skills that make for success are nurtured by institutions and cultural practices from which the disadvantaged minority has been systematically excluded, if the language and ways of comporting oneself that identify a player as "one of us" are alien to the lives minorities are forced to live, then words like "fair" and "equal" are cruel jokes, for what they promote and celebrate is an institutionalized unfairness and a perpetuated inequality.
I think that Coriolis and The Atlantic are probably trying to express similar things there, and I'd agree with both of them (with of course a leaning towards a less in-your-face wording like "reverse-racism probably only evens it out").

That's just a little aside for brain-stimulation. To quote Coriolis, "What I really find interesting is this whole "truth" commentary." As do I. He continues:
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.
I would like to point out that the "almost certainly not possible" is a slight exaggeration there. Physics, like the math it is based on, is a learned skill, not a universal inborn human characteristic (like blood type, or lactase persistance). I'm going to propose that 'good at physics' means 'can learn physics easily, and is taught physics well'. Since people are essentially Learning Machines (as well as being Pooping Machines and Fucking Machines) I'd need to see some damn good evidence that 'taught physics well' has happened before I worry about the 'can learn physics easily' part. But I'm taking this for the sake of argument, so to let Coriolis continue...
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.
No, it would not be good to tell girls that physics isn't for them, even if we do find out that there's some sort of prevalent X-linked "bad at physics (or abstract reasoning, or relational reasoning, or whatever)" gene. For exactly the reasons you said. Making the leap from "X percentage of women have a gene that causes them to suck at physics" to "the girls in my physics class have no hope of learning physics and thus it isn't worth my time to teach them" is bullshit. Just like the leap from "only 2% of Swedish people are lactose intolerant" to "my patient is Swedish and therefore his digestive problems could not possibly indicate lactose intolerance" is ridiculous.

I also understand with frightening clarity that, if women truly were somehow biologically more prone to be "bad at physics" then this would give misogynistic twats some new excuse to try and marginalize women, both in the classroom and outside of it. But here's the thing -- it wouldn't make the truth less true. It wouldn't change the fact that there is, in this example, some biological basis for a certain percentage of females to be bad at physics. And if it actually explained something about our physiology, then I wouldn't want to learn anything different in, say, my Functional Neuroanatomy class.

However, I'd like to point out that a high male/female ratio in a traditionally male-dominated field is not any kind of evidence for an innate gender preference. Because, as has been noted in many places across the blagoweb, girls are simply not always encouraged like boys. And until it's socially acceptable for girls (whatever their 'innate' skill level - I mean come on, anyone who's been to college has taken a class in a subject they're 'bad at' and passed it) to pursue any education they personally desire, until girls and boys are no longer socialized unequally, male/female ratios don't mean a damn thing. And considering that physics is, I repeat, a learned behavior, it would take a big pile of pretty convincing evidence to show that men and women somehow have different 'innate' preferences in learning it.

In summary, I agree with what Coriolis is saying (discrimination in favor of leveling the playing field is not a bad thing; even if girls are biologically "bad at physics" they shouldn't be discouraged), I just seem to take a more twisty path to get there. Feel free to carry on!


  1. Interesting post.

    It is easy to define "reverse racism" as racism and thus as bad and therefore something that should not happen. But it would be totally unfair to have racism for a few centuries whereby, say, blacks get to provide whites with the slave labor pool, the other roles undermenchen get to perform, etc. etc. then at the last minute turn around and say ...

    "...oh... reparations. That would be racist. No, we can't do that, it would be wrong...."

    This is part of the reason that I want to define all acts that are based on the race principle (I see X feature in you therefore ... fill in the blank) as "racist" whether they can be characterized by a particular observer as good or as bad. They just are what they are.

    In the mean time, we try to avoid doing bad things, and we keep a close eye on the things that are racist.

    ... because even though reparations for slavery and Jim Crow may be good, there is also Zionism...

    (as you point out)

  2. Yeah... yeah Zionism. Something even more freaky complicated.

  3. Yeah your point on the fact that it would be practically impossible to biologically determine how good/bad men/women are at a learned behavior is well taken.

    Unfortunately in the particular example of physics we are in a bit of a bind, since in recent decades the male/female ratio in other scientific disciplines has improved significantly, while physics well, hasn't really, and the difference between physics and let's say chemistry is quite big I believe. So unless we want to claim that physics culture is somehow much more inherently misogynistic then other science (and for obvious reasons we don't want to admit that, and I don't think so myself), we're in a bit of a bind.

    Hence the argument I made, in the sense that even if there are real biological/gender differences there is no reason to ever be making a big deal about them. Obviously in terms of finding out the truth in a research setting, nobody should be stopped because their conclusions might be sexist/racist. I.e. if someone wanted to do an actual good study on how men/women think about something I would in principle not be against it. But whatever the results are, there is simply no (good) reason to ever use those results in defining your opinion on other people in a social setting.

    Personally I still think that it's entirely (or almost entirely) cultural, and there is simply a bigger identification of physics as being a male type of thing. But even if that weren't the case it would be irrelevant.

    Getting outside of physics, a more general stereotypical problem that unfortunately many women seem willing to accept is that women are in general less competitive. Which is consequently an explanation for why even though women are now close to properly represented in science/business/medicine/etc. they are underrepresented in the top positions in nearly everything. And here there doesn't even appear to be much disagreement from women for that point of view, which is too bad.

    But again, even if women were truly less competitive I see no point in making a big deal out of it - it's just making controlling, competitive, and confrontational folks among women less socially acceptable. I believe the technical term for a woman of that type is "bitch", whereas for a man it's "jerk" or "boss", as the case may be.

  4. Coriolis:

    I'd guess that physics is also set apart from, say, chemistry or biology is less because it's a fiercely competitive field (hello, science and business) but that it's heavily math-centered. The more maths I take, the less women I see, and the less female-friendly the teachers and classmates tend to be (in my experience, and in others I've read about). There's still this pervasive idea in our culture that maths are for boys and literatures are for girls.

    Oh, and I don't think that the increasing gender disparity as you move up the promotion ladder has anything to do with female non-competitiveness. Zuska of Scienceblogs has plenty to say about that, and in the field of particle physics too!

  5. Well, the amusing counter-point to what you said is that, unless I'm mistaken, math itself has somewhat more women in it, or at least about equal to physics. And apart from gravity and QCD, and to a degree QED (which are a fairly small fraction of physics, especially the first two), most math in physics is not as hard as math done in a math department.

    It's good that you reject this "women are not competitive" crap, but like I said I've seen too much tacit acceptance of it from women. Usually along the lines of "men and women just work different and we're more cooperative/nice, and less independent/nasty". Here's a perfect example of what I mean in a comment by PZ

    I've read the articles Zuska is talking about, there was also a article in Nature on it. It's pretty interesting, although it plays into more stereotypes (i.e. women write more then men, but not necceserily better). I don't do particle physics although some of my best friends do, and they were rather surprised by it hehe. The problem is there is an issue in how good a metric those internal reports really are. Not that there is a better one though, quantifying success in particle physics is hard

    A more interesting study of that form would examine papers by people in condensed matter physics, which is my area. With us there is no ambiguity, papers and the quality of journals they are published in are by far *the* expected measure of how good you are. If a similar trend is found that would be very damning ;).