Am I racist?

22 Mar

The first answer to the title question is yes, of course I have benefited from institutional structures designed to benefit people who live in certain areas (aka people who can get loans/aren’t pushed into or away from those neighborhoods)- I got a decent education at public schools, I could walk safely to school, I even got a free bus (thanks Minnesota!) for my gifted math program which was primarily white/Asian, I’ve never interacted with a police officer or any authority figure because my race etc. etc. etc.  I’ve also, you know, not had the luxury of having people of my ethnic background reflected in almost any of the media I consumed as a kid/teenager/even adult (I happened to be the right age for the Yellow Ranger to be Vietnamese though!), and get to read articles like this all the time.

Tangent: I know it’s a trope that Asian-Americans hate being asked “where are you really from?” but either a) that hasn’t happened to me much or, more likely, b) I don’t personally feel other-ed by the question and I like telling people I’m from Minnesota and my parents were from Vietnam, because the conversation generally leads to me raving about Minnesota and/or Vietnam (I am sometimes a forceful conversationalist) or bemoaning the pity that many white people don’t get to have that strong ancestry connection (I am subtle).  That said I did go to a 45% Asian high school and we all knew everyone’s ethnic backgrounds; I can definitely imagine being more sensitive about this issue if I hadn’t had that experience of it not being weird to be not-white (like, if I’d stayed in MN for high school).

Anyways, this post is inspired by an experience I had the other night with my spouse, when we went to a Duke alumni event to watch the Duke-South Carolina game, and I commented that one player looked like a kid to me.  I’m going to refer to these 18-20 year olds as “kids/children” throughout the post for reasons that will become clear, though they are adults.

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“Kid” in question, Grayson Allen from the Duke website

Spouse agreed that this 21-year-old player has a very young looking face.  As the game went on, I unhappily noticed that I kept thinking the white players on the team look like kids to me, while the black players do not.  On the way home I asked spouse if he thought I’m being racist, and his immediate reaction was to recoil (people really hate being called racist!) and defend me against myself, and we went through the Duke roster and decided that all the players photos (except Sean Obi) look pretty young when they have their big goofy smiles on (Sean Obi doesn’t show teeth in his picture, which immediately cuts down on potential goofiness).  Then I told spouse about the 2014 study (I thought everyone knew about this) which showed that white male police officers and white female undergraduates overestimate the ages of black boys and view them as less innocent; here’s an excerpt from The Atlantic summary on the study:

The general population respondents overestimated the boys’ ages in felony situations by 4.53 years, meaning that “boys would be misperceived as legal adults at roughly the age of 13 and a half.” The police had a slightly wider spread: 4.59 years. The college students were also less likely to judge black boys innocent in the presented scenarios once they were 10 years of age of older. At every age level after 10, black boys were considered less innocent than either white or unspecified children.

Of course this played out the next year with the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and so this study and that murder were on my mind as I was watching the basketball game and afterwards.  I think the study also says that police underestimate white boys’ ages by about a year, which echoed again in the stupid 32-year old man Ryan Lochte shenanigan at the Olympics:

Let’s give these kids a break. They made a mistake. It’s part of life. Life goes on.

Anyways, after some discussion (I’m still convinced that I’ve internalized some of the ‘black boys look older’ crap), we decided there were a bunch of factors at play in my assessment of the kids looking like kids or adults: 1) facial hair (the one white guy with facial hair doesn’t look like a kid to me; many of the black teammates have facial hair), 2) # of active players (more black than white), 3) some people just look the same for twenty years, starting when they’re 20, 4) it’s hard to look at a 7 foot tall person and think of them as a kid, 5) I don’t know what young black men look like.  So 1-4 are pretty self-explanatory, and for 5 I met two black kids before I was 14 (I think they were both adopted), knew a handful in high school, and did a crap job having diverse friends in college (I still do a crap job of this in my segregated city) and graduate school (I’ve met literally three black male grad students in math in my seven years of grad school; I know more black women thanks to EDGE, many of whom were featured in Mathematically Gifted and Black).

An irony of this whole incident is that we were watching with a bunch of class of 2016 black women who DEFINITELY looked like kids to me.  So when I first told spouse about my concern re: racism and over-estimating black ages, he incredulously thought I was referring to those young women (it’s taking some effort for me not to write “girls” here; thanks advisor!).

So what’s my conclusion?  As usual, I will leave you unsatisfied and say I don’t have one- the issue is nuanced; I don’t make good sound bites; I’m a little racist and I’m working on it (you probably are too and you should also work on it).

Oh!  I almost forgot that I wanted to tell you that I’m 39 weeks pregnant today!  Here’s a picture of me:

It’s been awhile since a math post… so maybe when I’m nursing my newborn I’ll try to write a post about my thesis (oooh exciting!)  See you then!

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3 Responses to “Am I racist?”

  1. bf March 24, 2017 at 7:08 am #

    Congratulations on a very thoughtful post: acknowledging one’s own implicit bias, while necessary for correction, is incredibly hard. On a more personal side, congrats on unlocking the 39th week level of the pregnancy game… I never did!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The dental hygiene mode of thinking and talking about race «Research in Practice Research in Practice - March 24, 2017

    […] So, anyway, looking forward to finishing Part II. But I realized it might help to more explicitly create the frame for the type of conversation I want to have. I got added impetus by reading Yen Duong’s sweet and brave post the other day, entitled Am I Racist? […]

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