Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is it time for Post-Post-Racial America yet?

I was living in DC in 2008 when President Obama was elected. I was working only a few miles away from the inauguration (though I didn't get to go because my employer decided to take away a holiday and a weekend in order to force us to work because they were afraid the city would implode or something, yeah, still bitter).

So I've heard a lot of talk about "post-racial America." I think most people realize it's a bunch of hooey by now, but I'm tired of it on so many levels, and I really want even the idea to just go away. Race is a part of who we are, it's a part of each person's history and culture. And to make open, honest discussions about racial differences into something taboo is hurting us more than it could ever help.

I would like to take a second to acknowledge that I'm a member of the racial majority in America. I understand that I do come from a place of privilege. I hope that if I say anything offensive in this post, that you'll see it in your heart to gently correct me and share your point of view so that I can correct myself and try to look at things from another perspective.

Now, the reason this has come up for me is that I've seen two people that I know suffer over the last week over racial tension in the workplace (and in one case, open discrimination). I believe that both of these problems could have been prevented if the management involved would have been open, honest, and interested in what all parties had to say rather than seeing that race relations were involved and deciding to CYA and hide.

A friend of mine was working for an upper-class summer camp program here in D.C. this summer, a place called Head First Camps. She was one of the most experienced teachers in the camp where she was working.

One day, she noticed that a book being used in the curriculum for camp could be considered racially offensive towards Hispanics. There were no Hispanic children in her class, and in fact there was only one Hispanic employee at that particular camp: her.

She raised a concern about the book, and was told to discuss it with her supervisor. The supervisor became immediately defensive, and chose to respond to the concern with her own volley of racist language and insults. Upper management told to my friend go on leave while they investigated the situation.

My friend was fired.

This whole situation would have been ridiculously easy to deal with if they hadn't immediately jumped to a kneejerk reaction in order to avoid a real discussion. All the original supervisor had to do was resist the urge to be defensive, say, "I'll take the book to the board and we'll talk about it. But we don't like to rush decisions on this kind of matter, and it may not be resolved immediately. If you'd like to write down what you find objectionable, I'll deliver that with my report." Then they could have just waited for the summer to be over and decide if they cared enough to take the book out of their curriculum or not. Instead, they chose to do something that borders on illegal discrimination.

If a member of a minority group is standing in front of you saying that they feel offended or discriminated against, you should resist the urge to be defensive and admit that as a member of the majority you don't get to decide if they can be offended. I've seen a lot of privileged white guys talk lately about their "freedom" to use racist and sexist language, and they seem to keep falling back on the idea of "it's not my fault if you're so easily offended, I didn't mean it offensively." It doesn't really matter, does it? The person talking can't decide how the person listening gets to feel.

This defensive reaction is partially rooted in the conviction of superiority that happens because of the false allegations. I know that for every false allegation of racism that is made, there are probably dozens of cases of real discrimination. But I think we all know of at least one story (true or not) of someone using an accusation of racism to protect themselves from punishment. It happened to someone I know recently, despite documentation that proved he had done nothing discriminatory.

Knowing these stories (again, true or not), people in power feel like, "Oh, I can't be racist, this is just another situation like that one time I heard about..." This bolsters their false belief that the only people who talk about racism are troublesome minorities with an ax to grind.

Where am I even going with this rant? I guess to sum it up pretty simply: race is still a major concern in the way we deal with each other as Americans and as human beings. We should be open to the concerns and feelings of others. Everyone also needs to be able to admit their own faults and accept the blame for their own actions and behaviors.

Especially when they decide to fire somebody for voicing a minority opinion.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Science is Real (and sometimes wrong)

My sister is four years older than me, and we attended the same university for our bachelor's degrees, although our diplomas say different things. She graduated from Hollins College in spring of 1998. I entered the first freshman class of Hollins University that fall.

As the youngest of three, you can imagine I spent a good portion of my life being compared to my older siblings, but especially my sister. The thing is, as much as we are alike, she and I are also very different. That's why I brought up college. My sister majored in chemistry and studied physics. She's gone on to become a science teacher and at a conference this week she made nanoparticles. I, on the other hand, majored in film and studied art history. Now I'm a filmmaker and writer, and this week I went to professional video gaming event as part of documentary I'm making.

So you would think that she and I probably wouldn't have that much to talk about. Instead, the two of us are constantly finding common ground between our enthusiasms. We love finding the ways that science and art intersect.

All of that is my way of illustrating that I love science, but I'm not always as scientifically knowledgeable as I would like to be. But one thing that I do know, and one of the things I love, is that contrary to popular belief, science is constantly changing. Sometimes, what we thought to be true turns out to be completely incorrect. Because the whole point is that every day, minds more brilliant than mine are spending their time looking at the things we can observe and the things we know, and trying to figure out what they MEAN.

They take their theories and hypotheses, and they test them. Over and over, and they see how they hold up. And sometimes they don't. Sometimes new information comes along and changes everything.

The problem is that we've lost sight of that in our modern society, partially because of shifts in the state of journalism, and partially because we're in a society that seems determined to get black and white answers to everything. Scientists find themselves having to vastly oversimplify their findings in order to satisfy people who don't seem to be interested in the amazing nature of scientific discovery and just want to know "truth" and "fact" in a media soundbite.

The reason I'm thinking about this today is that I just read a story about new evidence regarding the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Like most kids, I went through a dinosaur phase. But when I was into it, nobody really had a good consensus on what actually killed the dinosaurs. There were also a considerable number of different dinosaurs. Comments on the article say Triceratops is back! They were always my favorite.

Anyway, the reason I find this so fascinating is that a couple years ago I noticed that everybody was referring to "the meteor that killed the dinosaurs." I was long out of my dinosaur phase, so I was curious when that became the "truth." The thing is, it didn't. It's just still the theory that's been held up by the most evidence. I won't get into the details because well, I'll end up sounding dumb, but the article I linked shows that there's still some parts to it that remain unexplained.

Which is what I just love. How brilliant is it that we learn so many new things every day? That our understanding of everything can change because of new information? My sister illustrates this point to her students using They Might Be Giants. When my husband first heard me listening to "Why Does The Sun Shine" he got grumpy because it was full of misinformation. But in reality, it wasn't. It was just a very old song written with the information we had at the time.

TMBG realized that our understanding had changed when they were making their album "Here Comes Science." They had to create an "answer song" to correct the previous work called "Why Does The Sun (Really) Shine." I first heard of it when they played it at a concert before the album came out, and came home to immediately report to my husband that they'd fixed his problem and he could stop complaining. When I told my sister about it, she pre-ordered the album to start using it in her classes because like me, she believes that part of what we should learn in science classes is simply scientific literacy.

I wrote in my last post about beauty pageant contestants responses to a question about evolution. I didn't say my own opinion or how I would have answered the question, because it was unimportant to my point. But I know that if I was asked the question, I wouldn't bother to answer it because it's really not a good question. It's unimportant, in the grand scheme.

What is important is teaching scientific literacy. That is the most important thing we can give our next generation. Giving them the tools to think, to reason, and to understand science will make our country better than it has ever been. The problem with the whole evolution question was that it showed a lack of scientific literacy on the part of the people asking it, many of the people answering, and almost all of the people writing/complaining about the whole kerfluffle. I saw one article that complained that the contestants were confusing scientific theories, talking about the origin of man instead of just the evolution of organisms. I know there's a distinct difference between the two, but I also know that the pageant organizers probably don't and that they intended the question to reference the origin of the species, and that's how most of the contestants chose to answer.

The whole situation never would have happened if we valued scientific literacy more. I am not a science-minded person, really. My sister and I fall into some of the classic stereotypes when it comes to scientific and artistic personalities. My husband watches The Science Channel every other day, and I don't really understand half of what they're talking about when you get right down to it. But I'm proud that I am scientifically literate, and that has made a huge positive difference in my life.

I'll leave you with two clips from one of my heroes, Neil deGrasse Tyson: