Tag Archives: race

Reflections on race 3/3: protesters, police, and race

9 Jul

Note: I wrote this a long time ago but am finally getting around to posting.  Thanks to Anne, Monica and Daniel for taking a look-see and adding many facts.  Note on this note: not normal journalistic practice to have sources look before you post, but this is my personal blog and also I wrote this post before any kind of journalism training.

On the last morning of our weekend in Durham grappling with racism (parts 1 and 2 here and also part 4), we had breakfast with our innkeepers, Monica and Daniel, and another guest, Anne, who was part of the organizing committee for the Vigil Commemoration as was one of many alumni who arrived at Duke after the Vigil but whose activism was inspired by the events of 1968. The conversation was far-ranging, as the previous posts have been, so I’ll try to split this post up into reasonable chunks: student protesters, police relations, and black business owners.

On Protesters

Spouse and I were chatting about reparations and the workshop from part 2, and Anne asked us if we’d seen the protest from the day before.  We hadn’t gone because it sounded really boring- a “state of the university” address from the new president of Duke, Vincent Price- but it seems like we missed out on some excitement- long video at the student newspaper here, short video at the Raleigh News&Observer (my summer home!) here.  At least 12, up to 15 minutes of student protesters interrupted the president’s address with megaphones, which as Anne pointed out wryly, “do not mix well with hearing aids”.  The students also handed out a double sided manifesto of demands, neatly listed here.  “Succinct is better,” said Anne, who suggested fewer demands read from the stage might have been more effective. There’s definite irony in this quote from a Duke Chronicle article, by a student who was asked to be part of those afternoon workshops/panels:

“We felt that you don’t honor activism with panels and things that keep it firmly in the past as an artifact,” Nuzzolillo said. “It’s something that’s viable and visible and present now and in the future.”

Per Anne, among the workshops was one on current organizing involving students from Durham, UNC, and Duke. Among the half-dozen or more Duke activists recommended for the panel, several had conflicts and two dropped out at the last minute—it turns out they were the protesters!

While alumni commemorating the Vigil voiced support afterward for the student protest, a number of alumni—presumably, Anne said, those who weren’t part of the sit-in 50 years ago—turned their back on the students, some of whom were quoted in the paper later as being surprised/hurt by the lack of support for their protest, especially given that it was 50th anniversary of an effective and historic student protest.

I think this is the nature of news and gatekeeping, and I’ll have to think about it this summer—some reports make it sound like these college snowflakes have totally unreasonable demands and unreasonable expectations for no consequences of their protests.  Perhaps we have done students a disservice in this country by how we teach history, if someone thinks they can stage a large protest against a huge establishment and *not* have any consequences.

That said, there actually were no consequences or disciplinary actions taken against the students though there was a lot of uproar and sound and fury at the suggestion that there might be.  So I guess the students won out anyway.

Personally I’m sympathetic to the protesters, especially after the events that happened in the week after their protest.  This is one of their demands:

  1. Create and enforce a standardized set of consequences for acts of hate and bias on campus.

And in response to this news item about a hate speech incident on campus involving racist graffiti at a student apartment complex, the vice president of student affairs tweeted:

To those who believe that colleges and universities should prohibit hate speech, I encourage you to read this: https://t.co/dB5FfezKUZ

Freedom of expression protects the oppressed far more than the oppressors.

— Larry Moneta (@Dukestuaff) April 27, 2018

[Larry Moneta deleted his twitter in the time between me writing and posting this blog post]

So if this is the environment around Duke, no wonder the student protesters went a little overboard.  If no one listens when you’re talking at a normal voice, of course you’re going to yell to be heard.  On a side note, in the course of writing this blog post I’ve been quite impressed with the Duke Chronicle!  Here’s a follow-up article about the responses to the tweet.

“I don’t have a plan for a major initiative,” Moneta said. “You want to be careful—you want to react appropriately and not just run around to do things that have no meaning. I think we need to just sit back and think about what is going on that a few people would feel like that was a good way to behave.”

Moneta also added that he doesn’t think the incidents reflect Duke’s student body.
On Policing

At this point you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t think that there’s an issue with relations between the public and the police.  Daniel is a police officer in Durham and had recently gone to Mexico City with three other coworkers as part of a program of the Durham Police Department to understand their community.  He told us that the police had set up a day for several undocumented immigrants to come into the station and talk about their lives, which would have been a first step toward building stronger relationships with the police and the community they serve. But the day before the scheduled event, ICE raided several locations in Durham.  None of the scheduled speakers came to the police department on the planned day, since they were reasonably afraid of getting deported.  Your daily reminder that ICE sucks.

This reminded me of a low-cost initiative pushed by the Austin Police Department (which we recall also had issues; this links to the 2016 traffic stop of the black teacher).  They did “Coffee with a Cop” about quarterly, when you could go to McDonald’s and get free coffee and meet your local police officers.  I went with my neighbor and her five year old to one event, which was pretty packed—we met the captain in charge of our area, and an officer who had two little girls around my neighbor’s age.  I asked her about what she told her daughters about guns, and she emphasized safety to them and told them if they ever saw one out, to go find an adult.  Of course she kept her own guns locked up (this was Texas so pretty much everyone had guns).

On Racism

Monica and Daniel are pillars of the community.  There’s an old N&O article about when the opened their B&B in 1997 (I can’t find it), and how they were only the 26th (ish) black innkeepers in America.  Google tells me there’s around 11,000 B&Bs in the US. There are fifteen inns listed on the African American Association of Innkeepers International.  Even if there are ten times as many inns owned by black people as there are on the website, it’s still a very, very small percentage of the inns in America.

Eventually Monica became the president of the North Carolina Bed and Breakfast Inns Association, a post she held for five years.  They told us about opening the inn, and how the furniture salesman obviously didn’t believe that they were opening an inn, as he visited the inn to “make sure the furniture would fit” before selling it to them.  Anne recalls how Monica told us that one guest walked into the inn, an 8,000-square-foot Colonial Revival home built in the last century by a Liggett & Myers tobacco executive, and refused to stay when she discovered it was owned by African Americans. Another guest asked Daniel to wash his car when he saw the inn owner in the parking lot washing his own car.  In the years since, Monica has been to plenty of conferences and associations, and told us that folks have stopped asking her who she works for and have accepted that black innkeepers exist.  Of the over 17,000 inns in the U.S., less than 1% are owned by black people.  I don’t remember the other stories they told us (note to self, Yen, blog immediately!) but we all know there was racism.

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Reflections on race 4/3: current progress

9 May

I realize that part 3 of my series hasn’t been written yet, but I had a few quick thoughts that I wanted to write as a wrap-up of the series.

To be fair to Duke… actually I can’t really finish that sentence.  Via this series I’ve been engaged with a number of Duke alumni (and my spouse is an alum), who care about social justice issues and press Duke to move forward on progressive fronts, and the school has done things like raise its minimum wage (except for contract workers…)  I can’t claim my alma mater is much better. Here’s a quote from that article:

“This is what happens every day in America,” she added. “These things are unfortunate, they’re disappointing, they’re disheartening, but they’re not shocking anymore.”

But something I find heartening is how much we hear about these events- that they’re dubbed newsworthy at all.  I remember when #MeToo came out, an actress said that she was not amazed that so many people had experienced harassment; she was amazed that anyone cared.  I confess I felt the same way- I just thought that most people have been harassed or assaulted, and that patriarchy and misogyny are just facts like the sky is blue.  Suddenly there was an avalanche of sexual assault stories, and people were reading them and listening and caring and a dialogue was happening!  And then real consequences started happening to perpetrator’s careers!  Yowza!  Yes, people want more consequences, but the fact that ANYTHING has happened is astonishing and encouraging to me.

I feel a similar way about racism- this stuff has always happened.  The difference now is that, for some reason, the media cares, and people read and interact with the media in different, interesting ways now.  There have always been readers and letters to the editor, but now there are hot takes and bloggers (oh hey!) and tweeters and virality.  Bob said this at that first panel- in the decades he’s been involved with activism, he’s never seen such a large, engaged and passionate base.  So I hope that these racist incidents and subsequent conversations are part of a slow, steady, sea change and reckoning of America with its deep seated inequities.  And yes, there will be pushback and backlash, but that’s how change happens.

One counterargument to my hopeful idea is that 24-hour cycles of journalism are now just irresponsible and building echo chambers of ideas.  For instance, Twitter user Osita Nwavenu found this story of a school in Ottawa which cancelled a yoga class once. The cancellation was maybe connected to a single student’s complaint about appropriation.

So yes, it’s absolutely true that this kind of predatory media “fake outrage” turning into real outrage amplifies discord in our conversations.  (Another example: “snowflake” students.  How many students really go to these elite colleges that I’m blogging about?)  But at least we’re having conversations, even if some people are yelling nonsense.  And I think that’s progress.

Honestly, linguistics is a big reason why I have hope and faith.  When I was in high school, “gay” was used as a pejorative all the time.  It still is, but not to the same extent.  Similar with “retarded”, which is being eradicated as part of an incredibly organized and dedicated effort (check out this op-ed from 2008 by Maria Shriver!).  In the fall of 2010 I learned about “The Other” in a sex and genders studies course.  Now I hear “othering” as a verb all the time.  The concept of “privilege” is now so widespread that people who don’t believe in it still have to engage with it and defend those beliefs.  “Intersectional”! “Non-binary gender”! Even “transgender”!  This stuff has left academia and is now in the wide world of radio DJs and Facebook mom groups (yes, these are the main ways I interact with people who do not live in my house).

My pregnancy last year was not great, and having a newborn is also difficult.  A year ago today I was struggling to finish my dissertation and TA a course with a six week old, and was hyperfocused on just my small life.  Now that the baby is sleeping and I have more of my brain back, I’m feeling more engaged and hopeful and excited and energized about our society instead of cynical and defeated and apathetically hopeless.

The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.  We will win.

Reflections on race 2/3: “How Racial Identity Became Entrenched in America” workshop

19 Apr

 

This is a continuation of a series started in this post, based on the Duke Vigil Commemoration events at Alumni weekend.  MUCH of our historical discussion echoes strongly in today’s society.

The second event we attended was a discussion/workshop led by Professor Peter Wood and Ann Chinn, who founded and leads the Middle Passage Project, which puts historic markers at ports of entry for the twelve million Africans who came through the transatlantic slave trade.  Just look at how many sites they’ve identified, which are definitely not all in the South.

Peter reminded us of how long slavery has lasted in America (see the tweet above).  Coincidentally, Bree Newsome just tweeted about how long black resistance has existed:

Remarkably, Peter said that for the average African-American, their first ancestor in America arrived in 1760.  For the average white American, that date is 1900.  This reminded me of the phrase “all-American,” often used to describe a blonde, blue-eyed sport player.  But black Americans are way more American than white Americans if you go by how long their families have been here (and obviously Native Americans are the most American).

Even though Europeans and especially Brits knew about people of other races since the Roman ages, American racism began as a way to justify slavery, which was seen as necessary for economic development and growth.  As long as races stayed to their own countries, there were enough power dynamics in place to keep a mutual “respect” (might be stretching the word).  But once the transatlantic slave trade started looking good economically, scientists and legal and church officials started claiming that black people weren’t people at all, but another species.  One audience member pointed out that even the Catholic bishops said that baptism couldn’t change your “state”-black people were lesser-than and also not even people, even if they were baptized.

I was definitely confused about the entrenched racism, since Marco Polo was a name I had heard of (I have a remarkably poor grasp on European history).  But this economic explanation made a lot of sense- they didn’t need structural, institutionalized racism before, so hadn’t bothered to set it up.  Around 1650, Peter said that persecution due to and identification with religion was much stronger than with race.  But then Britain got hit by the Plague AND a big old Fire, so they had a shortage of labor.  At the same time, the Royal African Company was founded, and the stage was set for slavery of Africans.  Add in the American colonies and the fire was lit for racism, which we still feel the effects of today.

Our conversation was rambling and far-reaching and I can only hit a few of the points that were discussed.

  • Word choice matters.  Peter used “forced labor camps” instead of “slave plantations,” and “enslaved person” instead of “slave”.  I hadn’t heard either of these but I like them!  “Enslaved person” centers the person rather than the act that happened to them (slavery), sort of like person with schizophrenia or undocumented immigrant center the people vs. “schizophrenic” or “illegal.” Maybe “enslaved person” still isn’t satisfying “people-first language” but I like it better than slave.
  • A strong theme I’ve seen over the past few years that goes hand in hand with racism is white denial.  Ann talked about both positive and negative receptions of the Middle Passage Project- people like to say “that didn’t happen here” or “I’m not part of the problem.”  This reaction reminds me of how people got defensive on my behalf when I called myself racist- definitely a hair-trigger topic.  But we can’t move forward until people start talking about race, like this workshop, and like the communities that have embraced Ann’s project.
  • Did you know about John Punch, considered the first American slave?  There were some blurry times with indentured servitude and free blacks, but from Punch’s trial onward, blacks were slaves.  He ran away with two white indentured servants, and the white guys got their sentences extended for a few years, but he got lifetime slavery.  So officially, legally, skin color was now a reason to treat people differently.  I’d never known about this!
  • Reparations!  People react very negatively to the idea of individuals receiving checks because of wrongs done to their ancestors.  If inter-generational wealth and inter-generational trauma matter, then the American idea of “bootstraps” is bunk.  In a facebook group I’m in, people were asked how they made it to middle class.  Of hundreds of responses, almost all were either (a) helped by their parents/family to buy a house/car or get a job or (b) married someone who was in category (a).  It doesn’t discount the work you do to acknowledge that you’ve had help.  But if my wealth is not my doing, then others’ poverty may also not be their fault, and this radical idea is difficult.
  • Reparations part 2!  If we are to have reparations, they need to be future-thinking, not past-fixing.  For example, the Harlem Children’s Zone went literally door to door for blocks and did early intervention for every baby and every child they could find.  People love babies! Or at least, people love babies enough not to gripe that they shouldn’t be cared for/their parents shouldn’t receive education.
  • We had one #NotAllWhitePeople audience member who said two factually accurate points.  First, that most white Southerners at the time didn’t own slaves but were yeomen farmers, and the rich people were the ones who owned slaves.  Second, that African tribal leaders would trade captive Africans into slavery.  His unstated points, I think, were that not all white people should be blamed for slavery, and we should also blame black people for it.  He left before our discussion addressed his points in an interesting way (guess he didn’t really want to be engaged, but it’s ironic that he engaged us!)  First, that racism became more entrenched as a way to lift up those poor white farmers and make them feel differentiated from enslaved black people.  The institutional racism buffeted up the hierarchical society, as white farmers knew they weren’t on the bottom.  The slow erosion of institutional racism threatens white people in this situation–society is seen as a zero-sum game, so if black people rise, then therefore white people must fall.  My counter to this is that society is not a zero-sum game, and the more we raise people up, the more we all rise.
  • Second, part of why the transatlantic slave trade lasted so long was the lack of feedback loop: people left and didn’t come back to Africa.  One could argue that if tribes had known what was happening in America, they might not have shipped off their rivals.  How much do you have to hate someone to send them and their progeny off to live as slaves in America?  Unknown.  An audience member drew the parallel to the Nazi trains off to Jewish “work camps”-with no feedback, there was little resistance.  It’s hard because this is a counterfactual argument.  I find history difficult for this reason-things just happened they way they did and speculating on how people might have acted were circumstances different does not compute in my mind.

Phew!  Lots to unpack.  You can see why I wanted to write about the weekend; so much happened!  Anyways, this is post two, and hopefully I’ll get a post 3/3 up soon too.

Reflections on race 1/3: “Race, Class, and Gender” panel

16 Apr

Last weekend I went to Durham for the first time and visited Duke for my spouse’s 15th college reunion.  We were expecting to go on little tours and read some propagandist hyperbolic literature about how great Duke is and relax and catch up with old friends.  Instead, surprise! We spent much of the weekend thinking about and talking about race in America (one of my favorite topics).

I hadn’t heard of the Silent Vigil at Duke fifty years ago, when students held a vigil after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and combined that with demands for the university to recognize the union of black workers and pay them a fair wage.  Something like 2000 mostly white students sat on the lawn in front of the chapel for a week until the union of black workers was recognized.  [Great photos here.] For the reunion, a bunch of alumni put together a series of programming with conversations on equity, student activism, race, history, immigration, politics, and labor relations.  We got there too late for the kickoff panel on activism and equity, but we did go to two events as part of the Vigil Commemoration: a panel on Race, Class, and Gender, and a workshop/discussion group on how racial identity became entrenched in America.  Spurred by those we ended up in an hour and a half long discussion of race and policing and protesters over breakfast at our B&B with the innkeepers and another guest, who had led her own event on student activism.  These three posts are for me to work through everything that happened.  I wasn’t prepared and didn’t take notes, so this will be a reckoning of memory as well.

I felt hopeless and drained with the answer to the first question, when the moderator asked Bertie Howard, one of the main Vigil organizers, what she was thinking when she motivated the student participants in 1968 with a fierce speech about how they needed to stay quiet and peaceful and not riot.  Bertie responded that she hadn’t set out to inspire the masses with her leadership, as she did, but was just looking to survive.  She knew that if the students were rowdy and police were called, as one of the few black students she would be targeted.  And it was so exhausting and demoralizing when she talked about how she still feels out of place and targeted and questioned even with her fancy degrees.  It felt like we hadn’t made any progress in 50 years, and black women like her (or pregnant black women) (or black men waiting for a friend at Starbucks) are suffering the consequences of that daily insidious racism on which our country is based.  I mean, if felt exhausted just hearing her talk about her experience, that’s nothing compared to how she feels living it.

I had a funny conversation at the class party the next night with an Indian-Canadian about how, when we compare our Asian-American women experiences with black women, we’re totally fine and hunky-dory and have nothing to complain about.  But then we compare to white women and say hey, something’s not fair here and say white women have nothing to complain about.  But of course they do too!  This is the problem of oppression olympics.  It’s important to acknowledge that all marginalized people have different struggles, and solutions for one might not be for all, but we should still work on solutions.  Reparations for slavery may not directly benefit me, a Vietnamese-American women married to a white man, but when they happen they will lift up everyone in society.  Anything we can do to help one group will eventually help us all.  (Related: the concept of intersectionality.)

Speaking of white women, in the 1960s Duke had a separate women’s campus, now called East Campus, about a mile from the main campus/classrooms.  And there, the women had to sign in and out, and were locked in at 9 p.m., and didn’t get the housekeeping that the boys got.  Sara Evans spoke about the shock of finding a telegraph between the dean and her parents giving her, a grown woman, permission to go to Selma (Birmingham?) as an activist.   But she also talked about something that I run into regularly today.  The benefit of being in a women-only space is that all the leaders are women, so there are many leadership roles available for women.  I’ve run into this in my role as a woman in mathematics.  It’s sometimes easier as a woman to be a leader in a group of women than in a mixed gender group, because I don’t have any men to convince that they should listen to me.  And this is also true for any minority group.  I have yet to read “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”  but I refer to the title often, because self-segregation leads to a safer, more comfortable space.  But being segregated by out-groups is isolating and disenfranchising.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t know about the vigil or the women’s campus, since I had no ties to Duke before my spouse, but I was surprised by how surprised he was when learning this relevant history of his alma mater.  Peter Wood talked about the critical importance of studying history and disseminating this information.  For instance, some claim that we’re in a post-racial society and lots and lots of time has passed since the end of slavery.  Peter pointed out that Michelle’s great-great-grandfather was a slave, so that’s four generations ago.  But slavery lasted for eight generations before that.  So we spent eight generations digging a giant pit (of institutionalized racism), and then four generations pretending that it’s not there, and now we’re trying to fill it.  But we need to look back in history to even understand what it looks like and what we’re trying to fight.  He’s a historian with a focus on South Carolina, and shared a fun fact: of the thirteen colonies, South Carolina was the richest at the time of the Declaration of Independence.  Because of slaves and slave labor.  He’s now working with white kids in Colorado to get them to understand the history of the American South and the history of blackness in Americans.  Pretty cool.

I sometimes wonder what these white male scholars are thinking about their own identities when they study marginalized groups.  My adviser for my Mellon Mays Undergraduate fellowship is a white anthropology professor specializing in Vietnam and southeast Asian studies.  He was an excellent adviser and met with me in Vietnam for my ethnographic research project in 2008, and no surprise, his Vietnamese is better than mine (I know no academic terms in Vietnamese except “university”).  Peter said no one was studying South Carolina or the history of African-Americans when he was in graduate school, and the established departments discouraged him from studying this.  So when the doors of academia were closed to people of color, he set the groundwork for studying the history of those people.  By the time black scholars could come around, there was already some infrastructure for their research.  It must be weird to be an expert on another group’s lived experience when you’re in the majority group.  I  think that being a good ally means amplifying the voices of those you’re allied with, but if you have a strong voice yourself, you should use that too.  This echoes Viet Thanh Nguyen’s recent op-ed, in which he wrote:

The situation, now and in the past, is that the minority and marginalized communities of this or any other country are often not voiceless. They’re simply not heard.

The moderator for the panel did an excellent job with focused, thoughtful questions driving the dialogue forward.  I wish I remembered more of the panel, though I did see someone video recording so hopefully that becomes available somewhere.  The final panelist, Bob Creamer, gave a rousing political speech about how he really believes in MLK’s words that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  He said in his many years of political organizing, he has never seen the base as energized and engaged as it is today, and that even when we are unsure and unconfident, we must have faith that we will win.  I got a big kick out of his comically partisan rhetoric (which I agree with, to be fair).

So that was the first panel.  Stay tuned for further posts about the workshop (how racial identity became entrenched in America) and the casual discussion (race, police, and protesters today, with non-academics).

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

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