Tag Archives: race

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!

I am a minority in academia

5 Jul

I started trying to write this post and ended up looking at SO MANY articles and thinkpieces related to academia, minorities, affirmative action, high school, independent/charter schools, microaggressions, and interventions.  This topic is way too complicated for my humble little corner of the internet to take on to any kind of depth, so I’ll just talk about my experiences instead and maybe put in a few links.

I’ve written a lot about being a woman in mathematics (see first post, second post, nth post), and a little bit about race and a bit about the intersection (but really that link is nationality and gender).  But I haven’t written too much about being a Vietnamese person in mathematics.  Part of it is that Vietnam is in Asia, so I’m Asian-American, and the stereotype is that we’re good at math and doing great in academia since you can see a bunch of Asian professors in math.  Most of those Asian professors are Asians-from-Asia which is different than Asian-Americans.  Asians-from-Asia face a whole different experience and set of difficulties than Asian-Americans.  A quote from Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, somewhat hits this:

The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.

So that’s point 1: Asians-from-Asia and Asian-Americans are different.  For instance, Asian-Americans are part of a system of structural racism, while Asians-from-Asia can encounter this system but not have the same understanding and possibilities for complicity/empowerment/action as Asian-Americans.  There’s even a term in Vietnamese for us, Viet Kieu: “Foreign but not foreign, Vietnamese but not Vietnamese.” College friend’s blog post on being Viet Kieu.

Point 2: “Asian-American” is also an unnecessarily general term and erases the difficulties that communities of people from very different nations and backgrounds have with their relationships with the US.  I saw a link recently that I can’t find saying that “Asian-American” as a term is going out with the next census and it’ll actually break us down into parts of Asia instead of, you know, people with ancestry from the world’s largest continent.  Anyway, because of a variety of historical factors (stuff like the Chinese Exclusion Act and racism and xenophobia), lots of [East and South] Asians who have immigrated to the US are highly skilled H1-B visa holders.

Heard of the “model minority” thing?  Maybe it’s because children of doctors, lawyers, and engineers are more likely to know about how to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  Versus, say, if you take a swath of the general population of a country and plop them in a new country, you’ll probably get the same percentage of highly skilled workers in that swath as you do in the new country.  Probably less because the certifications of the old country aren’t valid in the new country.  You guessed it, I’m talking about Vietnamese-Americans!  There are many successful Southeast Asian-Americans, but numbers wise, we’re worse off than lots of other ethnic groups.  For instance, we drop out of high school!  Even within Asian-Americans you can compare numbers: Vietnamese poverty rate around 15%, and Filipinos around 6% (national average about 14%).

Point 3: Data time!  Especially in light of the Yale thing last year and all the stuff about diversity in academia, let’s just look at some research about diversity in academia.  There’s a Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity collecting and organizing great work on how to diversify academia.  This table is from their FAQ page:

Table 1. Distribution of Full Time U.S. Faculty, by Race/Ethnicity (1988-2010)

I’m not a big data head, but we can compare the numbers above with the census numbers in 2010:  5% Asian, 13% black, 1% Native American/Alaskan Native, 16% Hispanic, 72% white.  It doesn’t add up right because the census counts Hispanic as ethnicity, not race, but the table above doesn’t or something (also I rounded).  It looks like Asians are doing okay!  And then you remember my point 1, and the data doesn’t differentiate between Asia-Asians and Asian-Americans.  So it’s unclear what’s happening, but it’s pretty clear that programs like SACNAS are necessary (and other programs that target, for instance, African Americans and not-science).  I’ll mention here that I’m a Mellon Fellow and so have benefited from a program that specifically targets these issues.  And that leads us to…

Point 4: what to do.  The American Psychological Association put together a HUGE pamphlet on “Surviving and Thriving in Academia.”  That’s great!  There was an article in Science in 2011 about a simple intervention that helped minority students succeed in college: basically it fought off stereotype threat by saying that everyone struggles with feeling like they belong in the first year of college, and then it fought off victim-ing (I don’t know the word for telling people that they are victims and need help) by having the students make videos for future students telling them that everyone struggles with feeling like they belong in the first year of college.  It’s pretty cool!  I loved this blog post about a psych Ph.D’s experiences with racism here in Austin.  Quote from it:

Being black isn’t hard; being black is awesome. It’s being the subject of discrimination that is hard, and that is a fight we can all fight together.

Okay I lied and only wrote commentary on a whole bunch of links instead of a memoir of my own experiences.  I feel much more engaged with the issue of being a woman in math than with the issue of being a racial minority in math, but I also think both of these things are very important to my identity.  So there’s that!  I’ll maybe say more about intersectionality in another blog post.

Barely related to the content of this post: here’s a video that I watched a few months ago and LOVED.  Get past the cheesy weird preview screen and production by MTV and there’s a surprising about of history, data, and analysis in this.

Race, class, and math thoughts

3 Sep

Yesterday a student walked into a friend’s graduate student office and asked us “Does STEM encourage apathy toward social justice and diversity issues, specifically the lack of black and brown bodies?”  A few things were notable about the ensuing discussion: first, no one was ever interrupted!  There were five of us in the room!  Apparently I have forgotten how to have civil conversations.  I was astonished by the fact that no one ever butted in, and respectfully allowed each person to say their full thoughts, with pauses and everything.  Does this happen in your life?  I think most of my interactions are at the pace of Gilmore Girls or a news channel than, y’know, respect and calm.  Also it was maybe the most diverse in-depth conversation on diversity I’ve been part of: a Chinese man, a Vietnamese woman (that’s me), a white woman, a black man, and a black woman from various socioeconomic backgrounds.

So that’s the context behind this post.  The question she posed was rather overly broad and poorly defined, but we hit on a lot of points that I thought were interesting and unrelated to each other.  Bring in the bullet points and mildly academic-sounding language!  We’re mostly considering the dearth of POC in math graduate school and professorship.

  • Local culture/society: higher education isn’t regarded as important in every culture.  Parents who don’t encourage their kids to go to college probably won’t understand a child’s desire to go to graduate school.  The example given here was: “do you play sports?  …no?  Oh.  Okay.”  In this person’s hometown, athletics are more important than scholarship.  How do you change a culture?  Should you try to change a culture?  It’s incredibly important to go into a community and listen/learn first, then try to launch programs/solutions.  Personal notes here: my family is very supportive and basically let me do whatever I want, but they still all balked a bit at my choice to pursue a Ph.D. in math.  They also wanted me to go to UCSD (which would’ve been free + given me money) instead of Yale (which cost money).  My first year of graduate school, I was on the phone with a Yale alum who, after I told him I was a grad student, said “you know you just cut your earnings by a third, right?”  So we’re all from different cultures that have different values.
  • Socioeconomic class: graduate school pays very little.  We hover securely above the poverty line (which in 2015 is just under 12k) with about 16-35k stipends (a small survey here), which are generally enough (barely, sometimes) for us to pay for our living expenses.  Plus you often have to pay fees back to the school; mine are about 1.6k per year (just under half a monthly paycheck, twice a year).  If your parents or siblings need help, or if you have children or other dependents, the stipend won’t be enough.  So if you have any of these thoughts in mind, it makes complete sense to not go to graduate school.  For more thoughts on this, check out this blog post about being an academic coming from a poverty background.  I’m astonished at my friends who have a kid on two grad student stipends.  Babies are so expensive!  My baby went to daycare three days a week and it cost almost exactly as much as I made per month.
  • Intervention programs: they work.  Reaching out to communities who haven’t heard of/thought of college/graduate school works.  There’s a sad dearth of funding for such programs (often run by private organizations), but they led to some of us being in that room.  Fun fact about me: I’m a Mellon Mays Fellow, which means I had a lot of encouragement as an undergraduate to go into academia.  MMUF is great.  Also so is Upward Bound.
  • Pipeline: it’s leaky.  See previous bullet point.
  • Math itself is very abstract.  In your day-to-day life, you won’t be confronted by social justice/diversity issues like you might be if you were in, say, anthropology or ethnic studies.  The field doesn’t lend itself to thinking about these sorts of things, so that could explain where that apathy stems from.  I haven’t had a ton of conversations with mathematicians about racial diversity (yesterday’s makes it two or so), but I have had a ton of conversations about gender diversity (and every mathematician knows about the AWM).  That said, I also did EDGE before starting grad school, and I just learned about SACNAS over the summer.  So there are people thinking about these things.

And because I can’t resist slipping women and math into any post, here’s a great little article about increasing the number of girls in math.  And by “girls” here we actually do mean “female children” (I’ve gotten pretty good at not calling women “girls” but I still say “you guys” a lot).

There were more points but that’s all I remember.  I think I’ll bake something next week, so look forward to that!  Last week for husband’s birthday I said “I baked you a surprise!” and he said “is it pavlova?” and the answer was yes.  Mini-pavlovas!  Just bake for half an hour instead of an hour.20150825_190236

Assorted stuff I’ve been reading

4 Mar
  • On the insecurity of manliness: Actual title is “Is there anything good about men?”  Interesting speech from 2007 with a couple of good points in it.  It’s a bit long, and parts of it have become outdated, but I still enjoyed the read (Thanks Chris!).  In fact, in 2007 I took an Intro Psych class and first learned about evolutionary psychology, which used evolution to explain differences in men/women and their sex drives.  Since then, I’ve read a few places about how evo psych depends too much on social constructs, and if you measure just physical outputs (e.g. blood flow to genital areas) and ignore what people say (which is constrained by what they’ve been taught growing up), sex drive becomes much more equal.  At one point in this 2007 article the author says

It’s official: men are hornier than women.

I just googled “are men hornier than women?” and came up with this 2013 book saying the opposite.  (Now I want to read this book!)

  • On challenging the status quo with lots of vocabulary words I don’t know: Actual title is “Feminism and Programming Languages.”  I’m not a usual Hacker News reader (believe it or not I don’t like spending a lot of time on the computer in general), but Jeremy Kun pointed me to this a few months ago and asked for my thoughts- the article itself has lots of vocab words, but the comments are interesting.  One summed up the article well:

This article raises the question: ‘where do our ideas about what programming languages should be like come from?

I’ve done some, but minimal programming in my life.  This isn’t really my field, but I find the above question intriguing because you can replace ‘programming language’ with ‘mathematics’ or really anything.  Or as Jeremy asked me:

Do you feel like the direction of mathematics, what questions are asked or believed to be important, what’s relevant and irrelevant, is shaped by male dominance of the field?

In other words, are there other paths in mathematical inquiry that you feel ought to be taken but aren’t, and that this could be linked to the fact that all the leading researchers are male?
Short answer to question one: yes, absolutely, completely.  Mathematics doesn’t care about us humans, but we certainly care about it.  The directions of research, grant money, what gets published in top journals: everything follows trends that we as a mathematical community create and enforce.  And we are dominated by males, so yes, the male perspective does shape where we’re going and what we’re doing.
Question two is more complicated and not the same as question one.  What “should” we be doing as mathematicians?  What is the goal of mathematics?  I can’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, or even if satisfactory answers exist.  We do what we do, we pursue what we find interesting and are either rewarded by our peers who also think it’s interesting, or not, and we have to find something else to keep the money and publications coming in.  If we were living in the world of Y: The Last Man, would mathematics be different?  Probably.  Better, worse?  Who can say?
That said, stereotypes aren’t so much about people totally projecting things that completely aren’t there but about people having a framework with which they interpret things that actually are there. It’s not that racism causes people to see (for example) belligerent teenage boys where there are none, but that a white belligerent teenage boy is just seen as himself while a black belligerent teenage boy is part of a pattern, a script, and when people blindly follow the scripts in their head that leads to discrimination and prejudice.

Look, we all know that there’s a trope in the movies where someone of a minority race is flattened out into just being “good at X” and that the white protagonist is the one we root for because unlike the guy who’s just “good at X” the protagonist has human depth, human relationships, a human point of view—and this somehow makes him more worthy of success than the antagonist who seems to exist just to be good at X.

So we root for Rocky against black guys who, by all appearances, really are better boxers than he is, because unlike them Rocky isn’t JUST a boxer, he has a girlfriend, he has hopes, he has dreams, etc. This comes up over and over again in movies where the athletic black competitor is set up as the “heel”—look at the black chick in Million Dollar Baby and how much we’re pushed to hate her. Look at all this “Great White Hope” stuff, historically, with Joe Louis.

So is it any surprise that this trope comes into play with Asians? That the Asian character in the movie is the robotic, heartless, genius mastermind who is only pure intellect and whom we’re crying out to be defeated by some white guy who may not be as brainy but has more pluck, more heart, more humanity? It’s not just Flash Gordon vs. Ming the Merciless, it’s stuff like how in the pilot episode of Girls Hannah gets fired in favor of an overachieving Asian girl who’s genuinely better at her job than she is (the Asian girl knows Photoshop and she doesn’t) and we’re supposed to sympathize with Hannah.

On the gendering of toys, or the free market.  Also videos here, which I highly recommend.  IF YOU CLICK A LINK IN THIS POST CLICK ON THIS ONE.  My fiance suggested there’s no malice in the Lego Corp., just a desire for more sales- gendering the legos may have caused an uptick in sales.  This is the hard part about the free market: of course Monsanto is going to trademark its crap, it wants more money.  Obviously Lego is going to divide the market and embrace stereotypes: they see what Barbie is doing and they want a piece of that money too.  At some level, corporations have a responsibility to society, but that seems totally unenforceable without governmental regulation (part of the point of government).  We just watched the Lego movie and loved it, but we’re also keenly aware of the Bechdel test and female characters in everything =(

I just want my kids to not feel like there’s a monster in them for being female, or half-Asian, or whatever.  Quoting myself

This particular little monster is the one that says boys save the day and overcome obstacles and girls get rescued, even when they try to save the day.  Or the one that sees the handwriting on the exam and braces itself for a bad proof.  The one that thinks you’re more like Amy and not like Penny at all (from Big Bang Theory, a show I actively hate for reasons I’ll go into later if ever), but that wants to be “normal.”  It’s the monster that says you don’t know what you’re talking about and you don’t know what’s going on so why even try.

Wow really long post!  In honor of my officemate, here are a bunch of red panda pics.

redpanda CHINA-ANIMAL-BEIJING ZOO

Click on photos for links to original sites

Click on photos for links to original sites

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