Adventures in Ethics and Science

Yesterday Dr. Isis put up a post that seems to have bugged many of the people who subsequently posted comments on it.

I have no idea whether the commenters on the post intended to convey it, but here’s what’s coming across to me as a reader of the exchange:

Dr. Isis notes something that makes her (as a self-identified brown person) feel uncomfortable.

A whole bunch of self-identified white people turn up to say, “The reverse situation has happened to me, and it doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all. Stop being so sensitive.”

Or, “It would take too many words to accomplish the same identification of a black or brown person in a way that wouldn’t make you uncomfortable. Stop being so sensitive.”

Or, “Girl, with ankles that pale you could clearly pass for white, and in so doing free yourself from discomfort when other white folks identify brown and black people in the way that currently makes you uncomfortable. Please do so, so that you will be on our side and stop giving us a hard time about talking how we want to talk amongst ourselves.”

Possibly I am missing some nuance in the comments in this thread. But possibly there are commenters participating in the exchange who are missing something, too.

Discuss.

Comments

  1. #1 ScienceWoman
    September 18, 2009

    Yup, that was my read on that thread too.

  2. #2 Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde
    September 18, 2009

    Though it’s worth noting that at least one self-identified brown person said that he uses this ID shortcut all the time, so Isis’s opinion is not necessarily universal (those Browns! having different opinions from each other! so frustrating!)

  3. #3 Rev Matt
    September 18, 2009

    Nice summary, if perhaps too polite.

  4. #4 CC
    September 18, 2009

    Or, “It would take too many words to accomplish the same identification of a black or brown person in a way that wouldn’t make you uncomfortable. Stop being so sensitive.”

    You certainly managed to miss some nuance there. What comments like #2 there are arguing isn’t that one’s busy schedule doesn’t allow time for inoffensiveness. It’s that elaborate, contorted efforts to not mention some characteristic create more discomfort than just saying “the guy in the wheelchair” would.

  5. #5 Andre
    September 18, 2009

    I don’t think that there would be as much of a problem if Isis gave a reason why this is somehow inherently inappropriate, not just because she is irritated by it. Does she not use any descriptors to differentiate people? Are “the tall guy”, “the short woman”, “the skinny one”, etc okay to say? If so, why them and not relative skin color?

    And it’s pretty unbelievable that JUST white people do this. I’ve heard people of all colors at the sports bar say “Who’s Joe Whitey-Althete on the TV?” “Oh, it’s the white guy.” Because it’s descriptive. I think it’s a false argument to say this is a white only thing (maybe in Isis’s office because it’s primarily white), and that probably angered many people. Isis is essentially (and possibly with reason) lamenting a lack of diversity at her workplace.

    In our society, skin color is a desciptor that’s effective, and it works to differentiate people. If Isis can give a good reason why we shouldn’t use any physical descriptor (hair color, height, gender, etc) to identify people, I’ll happily agree.

    Maybe ideally the conversation should go as follows: “Who’s Janice AnyColor?” “Oh you don’t know who that is? Let me introduce you.” That’s what I like to do, but if I can’t, I do use physical description (sometimes including race).

    There are case where this kind of labeling is, in my opinion, completely inappropriate. For example, in my freshman dorm we had Kenny and Kenny. Kenny stayed just “Kenny”, but Kenny became “black Kenny” (guess what was different about them). Kenny and Kenny had different last names (and initials), that was good enough for me.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    September 18, 2009

    In an ideal world, I could identify someone as “the short dark dude in Sales” just the same as I could “the green-eyed redheaded gal in accounting.”

    That’s not the world we live in today.

  7. #7 Jim Thomerson
    September 18, 2009

    My at the time 16 year old blond son came to Venezeuela with me. Local folks referred to him as “El Blanquito”, the white boy. My son made friends with the two American players on the local pro basketball team. I asked him how he had known who they were. He replied that two tall black guys speaking English was a clue.

    One time my chair asked me how many minority students I had in my evolution class. I told him one, a young lady whom I had not previously known. I later corrected myself, when I realized that another student, whom I had know for several years, was also a minority person. So, I did not think of him in terms of race, but I would undoubtedly have mentioned skin color in describing him to someone who did not know him.

  8. #8 BioinfoTools
    September 18, 2009

    One thing I’d suggest is that context matters too.

    It can be one thing for a someone you know and trust to refer to you by your distinctive features and another thing for all and sundry to do it. My mother used to sometimes call me “Red”, I’m the only red-head in the immediate family. (I have plenty of red-haired cousins, though!) Depending on the context, I might not appreciate someone from the general public identifying me that way.

    You can easily extend this to other “unique” features of the person, as others commented. I’m deaf or hard-of-hearing, depending on where you draw the line. As a kid I was the only deaf kid in a hearing school, the one permanently plugged into one of those “box” hearing aids, about the size of the earlier “Walkman”s. Being referred to as the deaf kid did wear thin at times, even when people only used relatively polite references.

    Today’s iPod-wearing generation might even be envious. You can get hearing aids that receive Bluetooth wireless communication, so that you can have a wireless connection to your MP3 player, cell phone, TV or whatever :-)

  9. #9 Stellar Moose
    September 18, 2009

    I’m a tall white blonde dude and these are the most common characteristics used to identify me. Which I don’t have a problem with.

    But there currently isn’t a jowly pundit on a 24 hour News Channel using his show to relentlessly rail against undocumented tall people and the evils they perpetuate by crossing the border illegally, taking our jobs and destroying the fabric of our society. It wasn’t three short generations ago that blondes were forced to go to different schools and use different water fountains than brunettes. And if you jump back 90 years ago you won’t find dudes being denied the right to have a vote in our democracy.

    In a quasi-utopia similar to the Federation in Star Trek it wouldn’t seem that referencing the color of someone’s skin to describe them would be a problem. But in the United States, especially when considering discrimination both past and present, I think it is.

  10. #10 Isis the Scientist
    September 19, 2009

    I <3 you!

  11. #11 Danimal
    September 19, 2009

    Well I am a white male. Thus I have male privilege and white privilege. Thus I am privileged up the wazoo. But it really, really pisses me off when I am identified as “that up the wazoo privileged person” especially by people with no privilege at all. It’s offensive.

  12. #12 Comrade PhysioProf
    September 19, 2009

    It’s also totally fucking lazy and self-absorbed. By referring to someone as “the black one” or “the Hispanic one”, you are sending the message that you do not consider it worth making even the slightest effort to characterize the individual in a different, more nuanced and personal, way. It is dismissive and dehumanizing.

    It is analogous to the message people send who walk down the street and refuse to alter their path or posture collaboratively with other walkers to avoid collision, even if all that is required is a slight turn of the shoulders to make room.

    We have all encountered these kind of assholes: “I am much more important than you. You are less than a speck of nothingness to me. Therefore, your presence in the world is nonexistent, and if *you* do not want to collide with *me”, then it is wholly *your* responsibility to get out of *my* way.”

  13. #13 stripey_cat
    September 19, 2009

    Cross-posted from the comments on Isis’ original thread (delete if that’s not appropriate):

    Based on my own observation, the people who identify others as “that black guy”, “that Indian woman” etc. are *much* more likely to display unpleasant racist behaviour also. I’m not saying that the phrases themselves are harmful (although Isis’ perceptions suggest they may be, regardless of their intent!), but that they’re an indication of a racist mindset whereby race is a major classifying feature of people. In contrast, people who start off with “that guy in jeans”, or “that girl with the shopping”, and then add race and other appearance descriptors later on when trying to narrow the definitions, are less likely to make insulting or patronising remarks more generally, and almost never will use racist insults.

    I’m not sure what effect the gender-descriptors highlight – I suspect binary gender is so thoroughly ingrained in all of us, even those of us with strongly liberal backgrounds, that they map much less strongly to behaviour.

  14. #14 ScientistMother
    September 19, 2009

    You read of it was spot on Dr. Freeride. Very well stated.

  15. #15 Kim
    September 21, 2009

    OK, how about having people automatically assume that I’m Jewish since I have dark, curly hair, wear glasses, am a science geek, and have a last name that could be interpreted as Jewish? Even my conservative Jewish acquaintances were aghast when I mentioned that my background is Swedish/Italian and I was raised Catholic – “But you don’t look Catholic!” [snort]

  16. #16 S. Rivlin
    September 21, 2009

    After reading Isis’s post, Janet’s post and the comments to both, the only thing that comes to my mind is the next story:

    On a sold out flight from LA to NY, just after the plane has reached the cruising altitude, a big, burly guy in the front raw gets up, turns around to face the rest of the passangers and loudly announces:

    “Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Mr. Brown, B, R, O, W, N, and I am white from the top of my head to the tip of my toes and I hate negroes.”

    He sits down and a hush falls all over the cabin. No more than five minutes later, the same guy gets up again and turns to face the passangers with another announcement:

    “Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Mr. Brown, B, R, O, W, N, and I am white from the top of my head to the tip of my toes and I hate Jews.”

    The silence that followed that announcement was deafening. About five minutes later, a short, bald man in the last raw of the cabin stands up and announces:

    “Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Mr. Schwartz (black in German), S, C, H, W, A, R, T, Z, and I am white from the top of my head to the tip of my toes, except one little spot, which is brown.”

    It is not the first time that Isis has played the role of the victim on her blog. She has done it as a woman and now she does it as a brown person. However, Isis is double-faced on these issues. For instance, she accepts women’s inequality in the Catholoic Church, which she attends, but pretend to carry the equality banner in the academic world.

  17. #17 D. C. Sessions
    September 21, 2009

    Sol, if you didn’t exist Isis would have to invent you.

  18. #18 S. Rivlin
    September 21, 2009

    Sorry about the “raw”, which, of course, should be “row.” On a second thought, some may consider “raw” to be the correct spelling within that story. ;)

  19. #19 S. Rivlin
    September 21, 2009

    DC, I invented Isis!!!

  20. #20 D. C. Sessions
    September 22, 2009

    I invented Isis!!!

    So you’re a figment of your own imagination?

    That explains so very much …

  21. #21 SC
    September 22, 2009

    OK, I’ve not read through the comment threads here or there fully. …However, I think she has a point, and it’s a worthwhile one.* Unfortunately, the line about brown people not being able to do that was so vague as to be meaningless. She got to the heart of the matter @ #16 in the comment thread, but that all should have been in the original post.

    “Thank fucking [inexistent mythical deity] Juniper and yolio showed up. I knew they would get it” was actually a bit annoying. Does she teach at all? I mean, the point of writing a post, as I see it, is to communicate your thoughts to people – not to transmit code to those who already know exactly what you’re talking about.** I don’t see the point of posting something as some sort of test of who “gets it.” Explain the basis of your annoyance, in such a way that those who wouldn’t immediately understand will. Your arguments can still be debated, but at least if you do it like that – rather than expecting your reasoning to be obvious – you’ll avoid simplistic readings.

    *This differs from the post about footwear at commencement ceremonies. I still have no idea what she was on about in that one…

    **Of course, this depends on the community the blog addresses. In another context, it would be appropriate to share your annoyance without an in-depth explanation and start talking about ways to a) deal with this as individuals and b) discuss how to make broader changes.

  22. #22 DuWayne
    September 22, 2009

    Wow – you were much more polite about it than I was…Like a whole lot more polite. Personally, I am still having trouble with the notion that my lovely GF’s feelings are somehow less valid than mine, simply because she’s brown and spent too damned much of her life smiling and nodding to comments that hurt her. Or that Dr. Isis feelings are somehow less valid than, say, yours Dr. Freeride…

    I am much more irritated that being beige means I have the privilege of posting about this topic with less fear of repercussions than my GF can.

  23. #23 S. Rivlin
    September 22, 2009

    DC,

    Aren’t we all, to a certain extent, a product of our own imagination? As for Isis, of course you know that a lot of what she writes about is a product of her own imagination. And the pseudonym she has chosen for herself tells us much about that very fact. You only have to watch the daily news on TV to realize that most people prefer to imagine things rather than to face reality. I was too much of a reality check for Isis. She would never be able to invent a thorn in her side like me. ;)

  24. #24 Tom
    September 23, 2009

    Reading the comments, I think this is a problem of context. The post Isis made about describing people on the basis of what they do, not their physical appearance, cleared up her original post. It does have a problem though. Because when I use physical descriptors, I’ve already gone through the repertoire of work descriptors.

    Other: “Who is John Doe?”
    I: “He is the post-doc on the THINGY-project.”
    Other: “Sorry, I just started last week, I don’t know what everybody does yet.”
    I: “The chubby guy.”
    Other: “Ah, him.”

    And with physical descriptors, I will use the ones that are easiest to identify. So far I’ve been saved by the fact that I haven’t yet worked in a department where race was the easiest description :-)

  25. #25 dersk
    September 23, 2009

    Here’s the epiphany: if you constantly identify someone by their skin color, even if it’s an effective way to identify them, it’s very easy for someone to get the idea that that’s all you see when you look at them.

  26. #26 D. C. Sessions
    September 23, 2009

    I’m trying to figure out a non-superficial way of explaining to someone how to spot Pat Jones in a crowd.

  27. #27 DeafScientist
    September 23, 2009

    Tom (and others),

    There are always going to be exceptions where it’s easier to use some feature, I think that’s fine and understandable. It’s just when everyone uses something like “the deaf kid” that you start to feel as if you’re defined by that and not who you are.

    It’s like an advert we have running here, which points out that people often refer to and treat those with mental illness as they are the disease they have rather than who they are.

  28. #28 Neill Raper
    September 23, 2009

    Full disclosure, I’m a white guy. Take from that what you will I guess.

    First off if Isis, or anyone else, feels uncomfortable with something the fact that someone else has experienced the same thing without discomfort does not mean that the Isis or the person in question should not have felt uncomfortable. Some of the comments did commit that fallacy and shame on them and all that. I think many of the posts along this vein were responding to the claim made very directly in the OP that “Brown people can’t do that.” In particular I would refer to antipodean here, comment #3 and clarified in #23. This is not a matter of whether it is more acceptable when a brown person does it to a white person, it is just a matter of that specific claim Isis made being false.

    As far as the issue of using someones skin color to identify them goes, I fail to see how it directly follows that they are somehow being reduced to a caricature and that the skin color that was used to identify them initially is all one would need to know about them. Certainly that could be the case, but Isis seemed to be making a much more general statement. When I use skin color in a conversation as a means to identify who I am referring to (and I rarely if ever have that opportunity) it is simply meant to get me and the (not necessarily white) person on the other end of the conversation on the same page about which particular person, out of all the potential people we could be talking about, the subject of the conversation is. After we are on the same page we then go on to discuss who the person in the context of the discussion. We don’t just move on because the fact that they are brown is all we need to know about them. All of the things that have been brought up as another means to identify them could very well be part of the conversation that we go on to have about the person.

    All this being said I am not at all attached to the practice. If someone is made to feel uncomfortable when I identify someone solely or partially by the color of their skin I will not do that around them anymore. If enough people express discomfort I will stop doing it altogether. I care more about their comfort than clear, quick communication. What I will not do is accept that I have devalued them as human beings, or that I am a lazy and self absorbed asshole as a result.

    Sorry for the essay. Brevity is not one of my strong points.

  29. #29 S. Rivlin
    September 23, 2009

    DC, you could start with Joe Wilson and progress from there!

  30. #30 DuWayne
    September 24, 2009

    Neill -

    You’ve got it. Seriously – that’s the point exactly, with one caveat – keep in mind that a lot of people who are uncomfortable with it, will never say a word about it, for fear of being pegged as “that angry brown (or queer/trans/Jewish) person.” I would suggest taking a gander around blogs that discuss race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and see how many people who fit into out group categories feel about it.

  31. #31 Hope
    September 28, 2009

    I don’t understand why Isis needs to be a self-identified brown person in order to feel uncomfortable in that situation. (I do hope that people realize that ethnicity and race are not the same thing – some people on that thread apparently don’t.) As a white Latina who speaks English without a Spanish accent, I miss out on a lot of stuff that happens to my friends and family who are more easily identifiable as Hispanics. Those are people I care deeply about, so I’m still upset by it.

    That said, I agree completely with Neill’s (#28) second paragraph. Unlike Isis, I wouldn’t have bothered to write a post about this particular example. But then again, I feel that way about a lot of what Isis throws up there.

  32. #32 Hope
    September 28, 2009

    A clarification: I meant Neill’s third paragraph in my comment above.