Sunday, September 27, 2015

The good Samaritan

30 ...A certain Black woman went down from Jerusalem to Baltimore, and fell among the local police, who stripped her of her clothing, beat her, and departed, leaving her half dead. 31 Now the woman's family cried #BlackLivesMatter. By chance a certain Twitter egg came along that road. And when he saw her, he passed by on the other side saying #AllLivesMatter. 32 Likewise a Facebook "friend," when she arrived at the place, came and looked, and said #AllLivesMatter! 33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed came by where she was. And when he saw her he had compassion saying, "The struggle is too real. It ain't right, it ain't fair, and I will stand by you, my sister, because #BlackLivesMatter!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Countdown to the NBA Season: Steph Curry and Black Excellence

The Johnson household's favorite NBA player is Steph Curry. Second place is pretty far back there. To us, Curry is emblematic of the values of our family: excellence through dedicated practice, being polite in victory yet accepting your brilliance, being humble in evaluating areas of self-improvement. Oh, and of course #BlackExcellence.

Curry plays the point guard like few other players at that position, either in the past or present. Sure, he does what point guards should do: pass and protect the ball. He can pass the ball in ways that take you back to Magic and the Lakers of the late 80's, or Pistol Pete Marovich of another era. He can handle the ball as well or better than anyone I've ever seen play the game. The ball is an extension of his arm and hand, and it follows his commands like a yoyo on a string.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Activity Based Learning

Lectures are literally medieval. The format is also inherently unfair:
[A] growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.
We can do better. #ABLConnect at Harvard helps educators develop activity-based methods of teaching more effectively. It's not a fad. It's research-based, it's effective, and it's fun. It's also one of the many reasons I left Caltech to join the faculty at Harvard. It is truly refreshing to be at an institution that is serious about teaching innovation. Not just in words, but in resources and actions. Our students and our science depend on it. 

Check out this promotional video featuring yours truly:

Monday, September 14, 2015

On Trump: When you gotta take a clown seriously

Hey, hey, kids! It's Donald and his anti-immigrant crew
My good friend Jorge Moreno​ recently said, "White privilege is being able to say, nonchalantly, that Trump has no chance of becoming president." It was a very consciousness-raising comment for me to hear, and definitely one that has stuck. If you "look" like you belong in this country, then Trump's racist, xenophobic vitriol sounds as nasty as it is, but it doesn't really sink home when there's no risk of his policies becoming reality, thereby threatening your livelihood and life. 

Yes, Trump is a clown. But an uncomfortably large fraction of white Americans not only enjoy watching his clown show, but would be willing to have him lead our country (48% of white Americans view him favorably). This simple statistic should be screaming one obvious message to all of us, and it's not about Trump. It's about white America, and what white America really thinks about non-white Americans. I've seen other explanations for how such a large fraction of our country can mobilize behind such an ignorant, oafish, incurious man with zero foreign policy experience or cogent opinions about how to run our country (he considers a question from a conservative journalist about the names of the leaders of ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas a "gotcha question." You can't make this up!). But he does hate those "illegals" and he has big plans involving walls and mass deportations. White America apparently eats this up.
Image credit: Peter Steiner
What's particularly galling is that Trump doesn't have to succeed to "win" on this issue. He's already affecting the lives of Latin@ and Hispanic people in our country, whether they are documented citizens, working here on green cards, or in the US without documentation (there are no "illegal" people. "Legal immigrant" status is a social construct, and a recent one at that. All people [should] have the legal right to pursue life, liberty and happiness). How does Trump's racism affect real people? His endorsement of systemic racism provides encouragement, fuel and cover for overt, interpersonal racism. Here's an eye-opening article on this topic from Tina Vasquez writing for The Guardian. An excerpt:
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 29 of my 30 years. As a light-skinned, biracial Latina in one of the most diverse and Mexican-centric cities in the nation, I have never been asked the type of questions I’m now fielding from white people. I’m not the only one experiencing an uptick in seemingly out-of-the-blue racist exchanges. Latina journalist Aura Bogado recently tweeted about a strange interaction at a grocery store. My father recently told me a white neighbor he’s been friendly with since moving into the neighborhood 15 years ago, casually inquired about his citizenship status. As the days go on, I hear more of these kinds of stories from Latino friends and family members. 
For an elegant, well-researched, yet depressing framework for understanding what's going down right now, and what has been going down since ~1960 when the Party of Lincoln collectively went on the warpath against people of color, check out Ian Haney Lopez's Dog Whistle Politics. I also recommend Aviva Chomsky's Undocumented (yup, she's the daughter of Noam and Carol Chomsky. h/t Jorge for the reco!), and Juan Gonzalez's Harvest of Empire (available in both book and movie format). But all that is contained in these resources is nicely summed up by Vasquez:
White Americans can argue Trump is the all-American underdog, the anti-PC, shoot-from-the-hip politician they’ve been waiting for; that their support stems from an appreciation for someone willing to stand up for everything that once made America “great.” Yes, Trump is unabashedly American – in the way that racism and xenophobia are as American as apple pie. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday Music break

Guest post by Erin

Huge shout-out to NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts for bringing these into my life:

Oddisee's music and lyrics have been the soundtrack for life in Casa Juanson for the past few months. Leon Bridges (from TX!) joined him on my playlist last night and I foresee his timeless voice will be there the for a minute.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Guest post by Elisabeth Newton: The Impostor Cycle

Elisabeth Newton is a sixth-year graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for astrophysics. Her research focus is on developing methods of measuring the physical properties of low-mass stars as a member of the MEarth team. 

The players: 
Awesome Grad Student - a talented senior grad student who experiences imposter thoughts
Superb Young Grad Student - another talented astronomer-in-training, perhaps in their second year,  who is struggling with imposter syndrome
Nice Faculty Member - a respected person in their profession

The scene: The awkward moment after a talk when everyone is hanging around. Awesome Graduate Student has just delivered a great talk on their research.

And, action! Awesome Grad Student (AGS) expresses their relief to Superb Young Grad Student: “I’m so glad that’s over, I wasn’t prepared at all! I was finishing my slides up until the last minute!” **

“Don’t worry about it, that was an awesome talk, AGS!” Superb Young Grad Student says, trying to reassure AGS, but thinking: “If that’s what AGS can throw together last minute, I’m never going to be able to work hard enough to give a talk as good as that!”

Nice Faculty Member, kindly and truthfully, complements the speaker: “Why AGS, that was truly an excellent talk you just gave! Your research is most compelling,” and Superb Young Grad Student chimes in, “Seriously AGS, it was fantastic!”

AGS is uncomfortable with the complement and still demurs. “Uh, I don’t know. I really stumbled over a few things.” The culture AGS grew up in makes it socially unacceptable to acknowledge having done a good job. Moreover, they are still uncertain in their capacity as graduate student just starting to take control of their own research program, and AGS also struggles with feelings of self doubt.

Nice Faculty Member congratulates AGS again, and leaves the two graduate students alone. AGS expresses their doubts to their colleague: “I can’t believe Nice Faculty Member thinks my research is cool, it is so not that interesting.” 

Superb Young Grad Student tries to reassure AGS again, as their own imposter thoughts rear up: “I wonder what AGS thinks of my research? AGS has the most badass research program… mine is never going to amount to anything.”

This interaction sounds a bit silly when I write it out, but I’ve heard it played out many times throughout grad school. A faculty member doesn’t have to be involved — most of the times I can recall it was enacted between grad students — and it might have to do with research, or classes, or awards. I’ve been the grad student uncertain about the compliment they’ve just been paid, and the response is automatic, a reflection of my own imposter thoughts. I’ve also been the student on the receiving end of a friend’s doubts, and it’s tiring to have to reassure them, and it seeds imposter thoughts. 

It took me three years of grad school to realize that this scenario was being played out over and over again. It’s a lot easier to brush off the imposter thoughts (in the role of “Superb Young Grad Student”) now that I know what’s going on. It turns out it’s harder to stop playing the role of “Awesome Grad Student.” I can’t just turn off my own self-doubts, but this isn’t about me, it’s about how I’m making someone else feel. That makes it easier to give the appropriate response: “Thank you so much. I worked really hard,** and I’m glad you enjoyed it."

** Author’s note: it could be true that AGS just finished their slides and didn’t practice at all, but I guarantee that if this is the case, there were years of research, dozens of previous slides, and however-many previous talks that allowed them to get away with being less prepared this time.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Why is he so angry?

Guest post by Erin

This is the question family and friends ask me with regards to John: "Why is he so angry lately?" Real talk: I have been known to ask this question myself.  The truth of the matter is that he's not an angry person; like the rest of us he is sometimes unhappy, discouraged and or deeply saddened by current events in the world around him.  In his world, as a Black man, he is too often confronted with the systematic devaluing of Black lives, particularly by law enforcement and the underrepresentation of people of color in his field of study.  But what well-meaning white folks are sensing as anger is really something else.

To answer the question of "Why is John so angry?" I'm compelled to ask "Why do you assume he is angry?" A number of people have told me it has to do with his use of the term "white people" when addressing...white people. It's understandable that this rubs us white folks the wrong way for a few reasons.  First, we're socialized to avoid conflict; we learn by actions of those around us, whether in school, in the workplace, etc. that anyone who challenges the status quo must be some sort of radical. I'm pretty sure that if there were an honorary degree offered for expertise in conflict avoidance, I'd hold one! Second - there's a common misconception that when a Black man or woman speaks up for his/her rights, or draws the less desirable aspects of our society into the public eye, that they are angry. But attributing anger to speaking out is a white move. It's well known that white people too often interpret anger when Black people speak up, move with confidence in white spaces, or even have facial expressions that aren't happy (Hugenberg & Bodenhousen 2003).

Choosing to use the words "white people" to refer to the dominant & ruling class in our society is no different than referring to black people as a monolithic group, as often happens in election years, for example. But the political correctness and "colorblindness" that our generation learned in the 1980s and 1990s taught us that it's not socially acceptable, and often downright racist, to say "black people" or "black x".  So today, most white people know better than to say "black people are/do/want x" for fear of being called a racist.  We seem to fear that happening so much that we further suppress desires to speak out against injustices we witness. What's replaced it are ways to refer to black people that are deemed to be politically correct or acceptable--- e.g. underrepresented minorities, underserved communities, URM, diversity hires etc.  But it's important to note that when we use these terms it's often done from a place of paternalism or with notions of the white-savior complex.  I am learning to appreciate the back and forth of discourse, but it's an ongoing challenge for a peace-keeper like myself.  I find what Teja Cole wrote in 2012 to be especially poignant:
But there's a place in the political sphere for direct speech and, in the past few years in the U.S., there has been a chilling effect on a certain kind of direct speech pertaining to rights. The president is wary of being seen as the "angry black man." People of color, women, and gays -- who now have greater access to the centers of influence that ever before -- are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as "racially charged" even in those cases when it would be more honest to say "racist"; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.
Today, John has a platform and some influence within his professional community.   But many of us white people question his desire to talk about his struggles.  We'll allow him to talk about his personal struggles with us, his predominately white academic community, but don't want anyone to be "identified as a sinner" or one who has benefited from the privileges that come with being white in the USA.  We listen with shared frustration as he shares stories of colleagues using the "existence proof" as a reason for the lack of diversity among students/faculty of color.  But we'll only tolerate it until it begins to make us uncomfortable, or compels us to speak up (read: take what we perceive to be a risk) in a professional setting.

For me it's tremendously challenging but even more rewarding to stop myself from asking "Why is (s)he so angry?" and instead ask "Why am I so unemotional/disconnected from the very real pain others are experiencing?"

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Quote MLK fully or don't quote him at all

I keep running into white people who cherry pick quotes about non-violence from MLK or twist his words into admonishments to Black people. White people: please stop doing this. There are thousands of famous white Americans to quote if you'd like to talk down to Black people. If you feel the need to use an historical figure to bolster white supremacy, why not pick a quote or two from Jefferson, Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, or even Abe Lincoln. But MLK was a radical who had few words of kindness for white people of his time, particularly the white liberals and moderates. 

To give you a sense for what I'm getting at, allow me to quote the real MLK, from his book Where Do We Go From Here? On the need for white empathy
[I]f the present chasm of hostility, fear and distrust is to be bridged, the white man must begin to walk in the pathways of his black brothers and feel some of the pain and hurt that throb without letup in their daily lives. 
This is what we're getting at with #BlackLivesMatter. This is precisely what is missed when white people callously and reflexively cry "white lives matter" or ask about Black-on-Black crime, not realizing that they are simultaneously turning a deaf ear to the cries of their Black brothers and sisters, their fellow citizens, but also refocusing the discussion on whiteness while criminalizing Blackness. Talk about a dick move. The King I'm learning about had no patience for this.

One common observation by white people defending their racial innocence is summarized and refuted thusly: 
Insensitive whites say: "Other immigrant groups such as the Irish, Jews and the Italians started out with similar handicaps, and yet still made it. Why haven't the Negroes done the same?" These questioners refuse to see that the situation of other immigrant groups a hundred years ago and the situation of the Negro today cannot be usefully compared. Negroes were brought here in chains long before the Irish decided voluntarily to leave Ireland or the Italians thought of leaving Italy. Some Jews may have left their homes in Europe involuntarily, but they were not in chains when they arrived on these shores. Other immigrant groups came to America with language and economic handicaps, but not with the stigma of color [of Blackness]. Above all, no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil, and no other group has had its family structure deliberately torn apart. This is the rub. 
So please stop with the "I have a dream" quotes. This is the true King, who was able to see whiteness and the attendant ignorance of history, as a barrier to justice. The truth lies not in ignoring color, not in "colorblindness," not in present white liberal conceptions of "one race the human race." Instead
[t]he value in pulling racism out of its obscurity and stripping it of its rationalizations lies in the confidence that it can be changed. To live with the pretense that racism is a doctrine of a very few is to harm us in fighting it frontally as scientifically unsound, morally repugnant and socially destructive...[R]edemption can only come through a humble acknowledgement of guilt.
He wasn't talking to Black people who call white people "white people" when addressing the doctrine of racism, which somehow has become white people's new definition of racism, frequently deployed against social justice activists. 

No, King knew what was up. If he were on Twitter, he'd come down hard on these fools because he was in the business frontally challenging white supremacy. Not attributing it the doctrine of a few hood-wearing monsters, but the commonly held worldview of an entire people in this country.

So, in his view, what was needed for change? Improved police training? Less dependence on the "welfare state?" Destruction of affirmative action programs? No, King's view of the path forward was far more radical 
Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.
Social justice, y'all. It won't come easily, and we certainly won't get there with white people cherry picking quotes from my Black hero.