A Man, A Tan, “God’s Plan”

Drake with his right hand up beside his face. An image from his music video "Hotline Bling"

Earlier this month Aubrey “Drake” Graham revealed that the knotting of his purse strings to his heartstrings are all a part of “God’s Plan,” the title of his latest music video.

The billboard hit features him giving out the video’s $999,631.90 production budget to the people of Miami. Gifts ranged from surprise shopping sprees to impromptu educational grants to unexpected spa treatments. The emotional reception shown in the video matched the public’s initial positive reactions.

However, the Canadian rapper’s philanthropy—like the Bible—has since been subject to varied interpretations. You’re likely familiar with the more skeptical takes. Continue reading “A Man, A Tan, “God’s Plan””

Racism Creates Race

White Trade Only sign in Ohio restaurant 1938

As Black History Month draws to a close, the question of dividing humanity according to race remains an active issue in contemporary discourse, as the arbitrary creation of racial differences (out of all the possible differences between people) tells us that race is not a natural construct. Some in the US decry the racial divisions that they associate with racial identifications and events like Black History Month. The National Review denounced such “tribalism” and “identity politics” in the days before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, holiday last month. These assertions blame continual racial division on this tribalism within minority groups, but the broader history suggests that these racial identifications and community formations are a consequence of racism, a response to the discrimination and marginalization that racism generates, not the other way around.  Continue reading “Racism Creates Race”

On Kings and Trump Cards

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

During the Super Bowl, RAM Trucks debuted a controversial truck commercial splicing images of Americana with a sermon excerpt from slain Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

After outrage gave way to discourse, cultural critics were quick to point to the irony of Dodge’s signification. In the originating sermon, “The Drum Major’s Instinct,” King critiques self-interested pursuits that hinder people’s ability to see the value in others. He literally calls out Americans who ride in expensive “Chrysler” vehicles for the ego trip. NB: FiatChrysler Automobiles is the parent company of RAM.

To make the point,  the left-leaning magazine Current Affairs re-edited the commercial with an audio excerpt from the same sermon that they believe to be more indicative of King’s message. Continue reading “On Kings and Trump Cards”

Taking the Popular Wisdom Seriously is a Little Disturbing, No?

Dylann Roof, suspect convicted of Charleston Shooting

As a quick following-up to this morning’s earlier post on how quickly we tend to conclude, but only in some cases, that certain gunmen in mass shootings are “lone wolves” (whose actions couldn’t be anticipated), it occurred to me that there’s a largely unseen ramification to attributing individual, psychological motives to the actions of white guys as opposed to the ease with which many of us seem to attribute planned, political motives to pretty much everyone else who does something heinous. Continue reading “Taking the Popular Wisdom Seriously is a Little Disturbing, No?”

Figuratively the Humanities

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has once again irked humanities scholars. In 2014, he had declared philosophy a “useless” enterprise (a stance his colleague Bill Nye once held and has since revised). This time Tyson drew backlash for what he didn’t say.

The public intellectual tweeted about the lack of educational enterprises helping students discern the construction of “facts” and “data” in an age of “fake news.” Tyson has long been an advocate of meta-cognitive pedagogy. But the tweet’s concise pronouncement suggested that no one is doing that work. Continue reading “Figuratively the Humanities”

Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary

When we go to a new doctor’s office or meet someone new, most people identify my younger son as female. He has let his straight, black hair grow longer, reaching a bit past his shoulders now. He is also small for his age, quiet (in public), and generally shy, and his name (being Chinese) does not suggest a gender for most people in the United States. These markers, it seems, lead people to mislabel him.

While he seems unfazed by this, others are not. When people discover their error, they suddenly become extremely apologetic and embarrassed. But why? It is an understandable mistake, and neither he nor my wife or I take offense at the mistake. Of course, they do not know that it is not a big deal to him, so the common assumption/fear may be that someone will be hurt or angry over the error, but that does not seem to be the whole situation.

We all assume that we can identify a person’s gender. The 1990’s Saturday Night Live skit “It’s Pat” (see one example here) featured a gender ambiguous, nerdy character and highlighted how uncomfortable others are if they cannot identify someone’s gender. Ambiguity about such an “obvious” binary is unsettling for many. While we assume that the difference of gender is naturally significant and readily identifiable, the assumption that everyone easily falls into one of two genders is inaccurate, as the recent posts on social media about the different chromosomal combinations of X and Y highlights. We have similar issues about ethnicity and race, assuming that we should be able to visually identify someone’s heritage, which creates problems for multi-ethnic people and makes the discovery that someone is “passing” as a member of a race/ethnic group when their ancestry does not conform to the social construction of that group into a newsworthy event. Continue reading “Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary”

Miss Japan and the Structures We Inhabit

dig13623-230The recent selection of Miss World Japan has created a stir. The BBC headline “Miss Japan Won By Half-Indian Priyanka Yoshikawa” forefronted only the aspect of her heritage that some found problematic because they do not see Yoshikawa as “pure” Japanese. Last year’s crowning of Ariana Miyamoto as Miss Japan (in the Miss Universe franchise) faced similar responses, as Miyamoto’s parents are Japanese and African-American. While it is easy to see these controversies as signs of the insularity and even xenophobia of some Japanese (which ironically reinforces particular stereotypes of Japan as foreign), that designation is unfair in two ways. First, these two Japanese women and their supporters have challenged such attitudes in Japan, thus refuting the generalizability of the stereotype. Second, such preferences for ethnic purity among some in Japan are not as different from common attitudes in the United States. Continue reading “Miss Japan and the Structures We Inhabit”

Of Victims and Agents

I’m hardly the first to point out how curious the current coverage is of white communities in decline, dealing with poverty, alienation, and, in some cases, severe drug addiction, as opposed to the coverage of black communities that have long lived with many of the same problems. Continue reading “Of Victims and Agents”

Directed Hearing

2349283746_7ed48c9423_bBoos and chants of USA! interrupted both political conventions over the past couple of weeks, generating significant comment and analysis. The FiveThirtyEight live blog (one source that I perused) noted that the prevalence of the chants and interruptions varied between different parts of the convention halls and on different broadcasts. While this illustrates the problem of assuming such an event can be described as a singular experience, it also raises a much broader point about what we hear. One contributor on FiveThirtyEight explained the influence of directional microphones.

directional mic

The assertion that any broadcast filters what people hear, whatever the intention, is not something new, though it is worth being reminded. But, this point is analogous to much of the information we encounter. The FiveThirtyEight blog focuses on statistical analysis, particularly of election polls, discussing the trends and the limitations of the quantitative data. I have been critical previously of the analysis of polls and surveys and the ease with which a statistically significant difference becomes the basis for broad generalizations. My specific example has been the discourse about those who express no religious affiliation on surveys (commonly identified as the Nones) and how the survey analysis constructs a group and analyzes their traits based on generalized answers to one question. Like the directional microphones, the creators of polls and surveys determine what questions to ask and typically what type of answers are allowed (or how they code divergent answers). In regards to election polling, the FiveThirtyEight blog notes the differences, for example, between general election polls that allow respondents to select third party candidates and those that do not.

We need to push such nuances further. For example, dissecting polling results according to race or ethnicity typically forces everyone into a set number of categories. Those who identify as multi-racial either must choose one racial category or generally have their voice ignored in the absence of sufficient numbers marking multi-racial to be statistically significant. This mechanism serves to reinforce the dominance of a singular racial category when many, whether they identify as such or not, have a multi-racial heritage. Similarly, these racial/ethnic categories generalize about diverse collections of people, such as placing people who identify with Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Haiti together into a single Hispanic group, despite significant differences between and within those national groupings.

This directional mic effect is not limited to polling and quantitative studies but influences qualitative, in-depth research, too. The researcher can operate like a directional mic, hearing particular assertions clearer than others. Researchers are attuned to the general issues informing the topic, so that they hear answers relevant to that topic, even answers that challenge their preliminary conclusions, more clearly than answers that may be less obviously central to it. This effect is in addition to other effects (also present in quantitative research) about whom they interview, what questions they ask, who is willing to be interviewed, and how the interviewee represents his/her own story

In this sense, whether our research and analysis focuses on quantitative data or qualitative interviews, those conducting the research and analyzing the data become a directional mic, intentionally or not controlling what they hear and, in turn, what they present to everyone else. The research can be vitally important, but we should not lose sight of the humility to recognize that any discussion of human activity, whether based on quantitative or qualitative sources, is filtered through a series of directional microphones that ultimately simplify what is highly complex.

 

Image by Matthew Keefe via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)