Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Tiny Post 2: Exceptionalism

The believers of American Exceptionalism see the country as a "city on the hill," morally above other nations and a force for good in the world. However, when one points to the historical record of our nation waging unjust wars of choice, unseating democratically elected leaders, supporting dictatorships, standing idly by as genocide rages, and the like, the response is to point out that other countries have done the same thing, apparently unaware of how this invalidates their original claim of exceptionalism. Thus, how ironic it was for the so-called president to defend the Russian leader as "a killer" by pointing to our country's history of evil. I'm left wondering whether he has some special insight that his electorate lacks, or if he is just woefully inept at applying their arguments by forgetting which country to defend as exceptional. I can't shake the feeling that it's a mixture of both.

Monday, February 13, 2017

No Human is Illegal: Not a Tough Concept

I'm encouraged to see so many fans of progressive, pluralistic society recently rally together against the presidential administration's recent Muslim ban. The executive order is blatantly unconstitutional, and as such it is reasonable that federal judges have moved quickly to strike it down (It turns out it is impossible to legally implement an unconstitutional order, but this hasn't stopped the Court from doing so in the past). However, it's important for people who are protesting the ban to realize that we've had bans similar to this in place dating back to the original Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted citizenship only to white Christian men. Citizenship in this country has never been free from discrimination. Having a national policy that discriminates against and abuses non-citizens is nothing new.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tiny Post 1

When you spend time talking about racism's central role in our society, they think you must be suffering from depression, which is the only way they can fathom you'd think such a thing. What they fail to consider is that you are, indeed, depressed, but solely because that thing is so manifestly true and yet they refuse to see it. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

And We Settled for Mediocrity

This, y'all:
This got me thinking again about a revelation I had not long ago, but admittedly not long enough ago. I'm going to explore some tough truths here. So before I get going, let me explicitly state some of my working assumptions. First, I believe that all humans, no matter how one cares to group them, whether by race, religion, physical ability, gender, sexuality, possess the same distribution of intellectual abilities. For example, I believe that a group of 100 undocumented, Lutheran, Latinx transwomen have the same distribution of mental talents as a group of 100 straight, cisgender, white, atheist men. Can I prove this beyond doubt and within 0.1% precision? Nope, probably not. But it's an historical fact that the biological and social sciences in Europe and US America have focused on this question for most of their existence, with the explicit aim of proving the superiority of the latter group. Given that these fields have thus far failed to find evidence to support the superiority of one group over the other, I feel fairly confident in this assumption. 

Anyone disagree with this assumption? If so, please read no further, because A) you won't find much that you like in what follows and B) "This...person I am not trying to convince".

My assumption of equality naturally leads to the conclusion that the lack of any specific group from academia or any other intellectual pursuit is not a natural outcome, but instead due to actions that keep them out, not because they can't do what is necessary to be there. Our society tends to focus on words that describe the state of being at the exclusion of the actions that lead to that state. This is why we focus on diversity, and the lack thereof, while going out of our way to avoid naming the features of our societal landscape, and the actions of people who traverse that landscape, that exclude specific groups of humans and leads to a reduction of diversity that would otherwise be present. Since groupings of people are meaningless when selecting for things like intellectual acumen, creativity and general talent, a paucity of diversity is an unnatural outcome that must be the result of factors extrinsic to the missing groups.

I hope that I have lost many of my readers thus far. Okay, now for the hard truths.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.

One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific culture is something that was somehow attached to the practice of inquiry at its inception and remains throughout time in order for that practice to be what it is.

One can find evidence of this belief in astronomy in heavy reliance on "tradition" within departments for practices including admissions policies; examination formats and course requirements; and daily social interactions such as astro-ph discussions and Q&A during/after seminars. Appeals to tradition are most frequently raised in defense of the status quo against calls for change (see discussions around dropping the Physics GRE requirement for admissions to Astronomy graduate programs). These appeals imply that our scientific discipline functions as a viable scientific field because of the ways in which scientists interact, and as a result science requires those ways of interaction in order to function at all. A change to the way we do science will necessarily lead to a weakening or breakdown of science itself. 

There is some truth to the linking of interaction and the functionality of science, but the truth is more subtle. First of all, in full disclosure: I've never been a fan of traditions. This is probably because I, as a person of color, can (relatively) clearly see the ways in which traditions benefit white (cisgender, ablebodied, straight) men at the expense of others. But before I could name this particular aspect of the culture of science, I did what I often do when my thinking about a subject is unclear: start with the definition of the word in question. There are many definitions, including definitions specific to biology lab work that don't serve this essay particularly well. Also, definitions can be biased given that one demographic is in charge of printing dictionaries. That said, here's a pretty good hybrid that will serve as a working definition:

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Bright Line is not Monotonic

The anthology of myths commonly known as America rests upon the notion that history is linear. In the past people in this country ignorantly did bad things to other people. But thanks to the passage of time, we can now "let the past to be the past," because today we live in a time when things have gotten much better. Furthermore, any problem that our society faces in the present will inevitably be solved as "the old guard" dies off and a new generation of better people takes their place. 

Of course this story isn't told so simply or explicitly. But the assumption lurks beneath the other stories we, as Americans, tell ourselves and each other. The myth certainly undergirds the notion that racism is a thing of the past, and that today we inhabit a "post-racial" world in which all people, regardless of race have equal access to betterment, dignity and happiness. We are lulled into beliving that at some point in the mid to late 1960's, a wise reverend implored the nation to judge others by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, and America heeded his call, dropped racism from our social fabric, and we all moved forward into the light. 

Time heals all wounds, or so the story goes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

More on the Construction of Black Criminality

I forgot to include this video animation of Ta-Nehisi Coates' take on the myth of Black criminality. His narration picks up after I said, "However, while antebellum slaves were generally considered loyal, religious, morally upstanding, and only threatening when they suffered from drapetomania (the so-called mental illness that caused slaves to escape captivity)." Never forget that slaves who escaped their masters stole their bodies in violation of US American law.