Gene Expression

I, coolie

Well, as many of you know I have been criticized quite a bit by some fellow ScienceBloggers (this query will take you where you need to go if you are a virgin to this incident). I haven’t really responded for a few reasons

1) I’ve been very busy with week at work
2) I’ve been reading a great book when I’ve not been busy
3) I don’t really see the need to address arguments which don’t relate at all to what I said or intended

But, two comments piqued my interest and I feel I have to say something. They deal with my racial identity. Seeing as I’m known in some quarters as “cinnamon love, you can intuit that I’m not a pale-face. Ed says:

If we are to use the terms of Razib’s argument, one must then ask why a brown-skinned man like Razib was doing in a wine bar, clearly the exclusive province of Caucasians! I know this, because Ann Coulter told me that racist antebellum times represented “a chivalric, honor-based culture that was driven down by the brute force of crass Yankee capitalism.” I therefore must believe her when she says that this is so! And we all know that the Confederacy meant rewarding the true winner: the glorious white male! So what business does Razib have drinking wine among the elite? It lacks honor and chivalry and respect for the white man. I’m shocked (shocked!) that any brown-skinned man would be doing this. Am I a freak to think this is freaky? I haven’t had a sip of wine, so it isn’t the alcohol. Guess it has to be my specious and outdated logic!

Now, this comment over at Madame Zuska’s:

razib shouldn’t worry too much, because like many south-east asian males, his parents will probably ship him over a bride from the home country who will wash his clothes and have his babies and keep her mouth shut. so all us pesky women aren’t really going to be a part of his blessed future, unless he gets saddled with a real ass-kicker of a mother-in-law. he just needs to get good grades and do well in school and get enough money for him to be worth a good bride, one with enough education to be worth her dowry and to not embarass the family, and maybe bring in some extra money, but not actually think too hard for herself. meantime he can just wear his older brother’s clothing and eat his mom’s food. oh, and keep that screwing around with us slutty local white women under wraps, so we can all pretend you’re a virgin too, which of course you’re not. and if god forbid you marry a female scientist, it will all be ok, because she can still run your household and ship your babies and all of you over to your parents house every weekend because hey, what mother needs a break when you have an extended indian family to cater to. and all of this will just support, in the end, your bottomless idea of your own self-worth and just how lucky the world is to have you.

like being stereotyped, razib? like how it feels? oh, but i wasn’t been explicitly negative about your culture, was i, because, you know, it’s all true, so it’s just a statement of fact and you should just get over it. you’re just another whiny brown man with a sense of entitlement.

get it yet?

My italics and bolding.

There are two issues here. One is that as a conservative with very un-PC views on a host of topics this isn’t new. As a friend of mine noted, two groups are fixated on my race and skin color: white racists and those who believe I am a “sell out” or a traitor to my own interests because as a person-of-color I must agree with ‘progressive’ precepts. A few years ago I noticed that Bobby Jindal, the very Right-wing brown Congressman from Louisiana (he was running for governor then) was being described in a manner by the mainstream media which seemed kind of strange. For example, profiles lingered upon his “shiny black hair” and “dark skin.” All of this was factually accurate, but because Jindal is far to the Right it seemed to be OK to depict him in a sinister manner typical of the days of Jim Crow (the swarthy jigaboo reborn!). The fixation on my race-mixing ways and dark complexion is rooted in fact, I’m an enthusiastic race-mixer as well as being very dark of color for the white European norm. I don’t mind too much the attacks, but it does feel creepy, I know that my antagonists will assert that they are satirizing my hypocrisy and putting an emphasis on past and present racism, and I’ll take their word for it (unlike some, I’m not a mind-reader). But it does strike me as strange sometimes that white nationalists and anti-racists are the two groups who hurl at me the same insults in fact, if not intent. But hey, at least I’m not a woman, otherwise angered progressives might imply that I’m a gangbang whore who likes to sucky sucky long time.

But the second, more substantive issue, I have with those two comments is of fact. Here is some information on Indian Americans, who form 90% of the South Asian population in this country:

According to the 2000 U.S. Census Indian Americans have the highest median income of any national origin group in the United States ($60,093), and Merrill Lynch recently revealed that there are nearly 200,000 Indian American millionaires. One in every nine Indians in the United States is a millionaire, comprising 10% of U.S. millionaires. This affluence has been matched by a high degree of educational attainment. Indians have the highest educational qualifications of all national origin groups in the United States. According to the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, there are close to 41,000 Indian American doctors. According to the 2000 census, about 64% of Asian Indians in the U.S. have attained a Bachelor’s degree or more (compared to 28% nationally). Almost 40% of all Indians have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree, which is five times the national average. These high levels of education have enabled Indian Americans to become a productive segment of the American population, with 72.3% participating in the U.S. work force, of which 57.7% are employed in managerial and professional specialties

Now, does this surprise many of the readers of this weblog??? Ed was implying that only whites are the elite, but the reality is that Indian Americans might not be absolutely represented in the elite (being fewer than 1% of the population), but any given brown American is likely to be quite well off. There is at least one other regular brown frequenter of the wine bar, this, in a community with a trivial brown presence. I suppose Ed’s point was that stereotyping is pernicious, but I would contend that inaccurate stereotyping is especially pernicious, and I can’t believe that the snippet above reflects anything but rhetoric. Most Americans might be a bit surprised that Muslim Americans tend to be more well educated than the norm (this is true), but brown Americans, with our “dark skin” and “shiny black hair” are pretty visible in American life in particular positions (5% of American MDs are brown). We drive cabs, own and run motels, are physicians and college professors. We’re a diverse lot, but on average, brown Americans are well off and characterized by a high SES. I can’t believe Ed is so ignorant that he doesn’t know this, instead, he chooses to consciously be coarser in his classification of my identity and simply lump me into the broad amorphous swath of benighted colored folk. That’s fine, but the reality is that he has enough information to know that the characterization is just not accurate. That being said, we are a diverse community, and Bangaldeshi Americans are much more likely to be working class than Indian Americans. And I am a Bangladeshi American. But on a further level of granularity my father has a Ph.D., and you would assume that someone who has the leisure to blog and read as much as I was not derived from deprived circumstances. The more information you have the more accurate and precise the picture becomes, and where you stop dictates your assumptions based on generalities framed by a variance or error. I think that most Americans know today that South Asians are rather affluent, but I do not believe they know that the very small Bangladeshi community is not so much, nor do most Amerians know my own background. I conclude therefore that Ed was being disingenuous because he wanted to portray me in a particular manner.

Now, to the second comment. I was not totally sure as to whether it was satire or not [interjection: in case I was unclear, I understand that satire was being directed at me, but I thought perhaps it was satire of Zuska as a satire of satire...I think the context makes it clear, but I'm not sure everyone is reading the whole post. For the record, I regularly get satirical insults that are racist in content if not intent. That's fine, I'm just saying it's creepy. If you want an example, someone taunted me about how the "black Bengali women were raped" by racist Punjabis during the 1971 war. I understand that the commenter is not racist and not reveling in rape, but making light of those incidents to win a rhetorical point against me seemed unseemly], but after asking a few people I believe it is meant to be serious as a commentary on my own condition and origin. I bolded statements which I believe are problematic insofar as they are inaccurate or misimpressions.

1) The stereotypical issue with South Asians and mothers-in-law is between the daughter-in-law and husband’s mother. Not between the husband and his mother-in-law. This is true especially for the patrilocal and partifocal societies of North India. I don’t know if the stereotype is based on something more specific, perhaps the more gender equitous societies of South India, but those form less than 1/3 of the population of the Indian subcontinent, so overall this stereotype is false.

2) Dowry is generally more common among Hindus. In particular, it is common among societies which are obligately monogamous and are characterized by exogamy and social stratification. The exemplar of this society in South Asia are North Indian Hindus. In contrast, many Muslim communities practice brideprice. This is common in societies where high status males may have more than one wife. Since my name is “Razib” and I’ve made a reference to my Muslim origin pretty frequently I think that it is fair to say that this is an inaccurate stereotype of me. But perhaps the commenter was simply lumping South Asians in a mass as an “ignorant” individual might.

3 & 4) are a bit iffy. If you read my blog I think you get a sense of who I am. Do I seem like the type of person who would live the extended-joint family lifestyle? Though in general most South Asians the world over have arranged marriages, and most South Asians favor the extended family, American South Asians are not most South Asians. 20-40% of us who were born/raised in the USA outmarry. A substantial minority of the rest engage in “mixed” marriages between ethnicities and religions within the group. The coarsest perception justifies the stereotypes, but a more granular one, which is not strenuous to comprehend (it is pretty obvious that I’m an resident of the United States, so it is unlikely I exhibit the attitudes of a rural Indian peasant), suggests that again the aim is to caricature and satirize, not capture the genuine reality. As to the last point, what is “my culture”? Is my culture defined by the blood in my veins, or the choices I make as an American? If you read this blog you’ll know I’m an atheist, I reject the religion of my family. I lionize the West, have a passion for Chinese and Classical history, as well as a preoccupation with evolutionary genetics. This isn’t hard to figure out, and one day’s reading will confirm this. Googling will confirm this. I suppose again the point was to show how bad stereotypes are, but I think the bigger picture is that many people have inaccurate stereotypes.

There are many stereotypes of South Asians which are negative, but which are correct. It might not be pretty, but it is reality and we have to face them. Insofar as I identify as brown I accept the reality as it is, and I accept how people might perceive me. So is life. I am a man who lives within a brown skin, and so I assume people perceive me. But what people think of me isn’t very important to me, I am who I am, an individual, that is the reality, not the perception. I often get people assuming I’m Hindu, and talking my ear off about vegetarianism or the temples they visited in Madurai (actually, only about half of Hindus are vegetarian). This has no resonance with me since my family is of Muslim background, but looking at my skin, my hair and the gentle lines of my lush South Asian face I can see where one may might mistake me. But, when they hear my name many are a bit embarrassed, because they know South Asia well enough to know that it is characterized by diversity, and my name marks me as a Muslim (though my atheism is something I’m up front about because I don’t want people to mistake me by my name). There is variation, and the more information you have about someone the more accurate your concept of who they are becomes.

Now, as to racism and stereotyping, there is the good and the bad. When I was in 8th grade I was at dance in a rural area of Oregon. The girl I was dancing with had short blond hair and she was slim (about 5’4). We were slow dancing and I was up close to her. I was a skinny and shrimpy thing and I was a bit nervous about asking her, but hey, I’d been making eyes at her and she hadn’t looked away, so I went for it. And boom, she was in my arms. But about 10 minutes into it I felt a punch to the back, and the next thing that happened I was under some drunk asshole who was screaming “N*igger!!! N*igger!!!!” at me. My buddy piled on top of the guy even though he was smaller and younger, and the redneck’s friends started jumping in. I had one other back up, and he dove into the action too. We were getting hammered, but the goal wasn’t to win, it was to keep going until someone broke it up. And sure enough, one of the chaperones, a bigass cowboy started beating the crap out of us all and it was over. There were some other slurs about me dancing with a white girl, etc. etc. My adrenaline was all up. One of my buds had a pretty sensitive nose and of course he was bleeding all over the place. We got the hell out of there before the authorities got into it and we got into the paper or something stupid like that (my violent brown parents would have beat me, you see!). The drunk cowboys, all underage pretty obviously (I think they were 10th, or 11th, grade) also took off real quickly before they were hit with an MIP. That was probably the most intense experience with racism I had, though I’ve had my fair share of “SSSAAANNNDDDD N*IIIGGGEEEERRRR!!!!! yelled at me by rednecks in trucks as they drove past. A few times I would be playing basketball with friends and they’d get pissed at me and call me a “sand n*igger!” or something like that in anger. Not pretty stuff. Not very latent.

Now, I offer to put into perspective that some silly name calling, or the “threat” of stereotyping me isn’t really that big of a deal in my opinion. You’ve got to keep things in perspective. But another issue also happens to be that I wouldn’t trade my life, and my skin, for that of my antagonists who hurled racial slurs at me. Most of the time they were of lower SES than myself, they weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, and remember, I was dancing with the cute girl, they weren’t! (this was 8th grade and I wasn’t much of a man, so thank god it was dark and she didn’t see how nerdy I looked!) I simply don’t envy white people with their skin privilege because I don’t envy most people, I like who I am, it is who I am. I like my level of intelligence, I relish my interests and I cherish my friends. There are negatives in my life just as there are in anyone’s, but it is what it is, and I like to think I make the best of what I’m dealt. I try to keep my issues in perspective and appreciate the world for what it’s given me. The contempt of other humans is pretty irrelevant since most of them are beneath my notice anyhow. In any case, how do I like stereotyping? I guess I just don’t care much, I’m not very sensitive to other people’s opinions, I’m pretty self-absorbed. I know that most people aren’t as psychologically insular or detached as me, but, they need to understand that it isn’t about them either. Additionally, I offer the anecdotes above to suggest that I do know how it feels to be marginalized, and even punched, for being different. I just can’t see that my comments about a hot chick warrant the attention or consideration when there are so many more serious issues of social justice in the world.

Now, to a few more issues. Stereotyping. Is it bad? That depends, just like your conditional probabilities depend on the prior information you have. Consider that you’re throwing a dinner party. Your friend, who you haven’t seen in a while, mentions she has a boyfriend from India. OK, that’s that, and now you have to decide what to cook. Should you stock up on meats, and what about the beef issue? Without knowing any further, and if by some freak accident your friend has no email or hasn’t/won’t check messages you better make a decision based on what you know.

Probability Hindu conditional on person-from-India = 80%

Probability Hindu conditional on person-from-India-in-USA = 90%

Most Hindus don’t eat beef, many are vegetarian. So you make a decision based on the information you have. Now, consider your friend mentions her boyfriend’s name. “Muhammad.” OK. probably not Hindu. You have more information. This example is close to my heart, most people who are ‘sensitive’ assume I’m Hindu because of my shiny black hair and dark skin, and talk as if I am. When I say my name they assume I’m Muslim. Eventually I make a show of my godless atheism and they “get it.” It can be tedious, but the fact is that most brown people are pretty gullible and believe in that hocus pocus. It’s a good working assumption, especially since brown people are apt to kill each other over their imaginary beings and best friends and the nonsense entailed by their existence.

If you read ScienceBlogs regularly you’ll see other stereotypes. Some about Republicans, others about religious people, Christians, people in the Heartland. Some are in fun. Some in seriousness. Some are accurate, some are inaccurate, and some are accurate to an extent. I’ve been in enough rooms with people who find out that I’m not liberal who make a host of immediate assumptions to understand that liberals have no problems with stereotypes or generalizations, only a particular class of them. On the flip side, I’ve been in rooms filled with conservatives who find out I’m an atheist who make a host of assertions and generalizations. The basic behavior is the same, the label, flavor and set of stereotypes differs. Some of the stereotypes are accurate, some of them are not. I dispute the ones that are not, and I leave be those which are.

On a few specific issues.

1) Do I believe that very, very, very few hot women are into science fiction? Yes. I believe only a small minority of hot women are into science fiction, so of course very few are. In numerical terms if 2% of women are hot, and only a subset of those read science fiction. Consider, if hotness and reading science fiction are independent probabilities, and 2% are hot, and 10% read science fiction, 0.02 X 0.10 = 0.002, so 0.2%, or 1 out of 500, women are hot women who read science fiction.

2) Do I believe that most women are not hot? Yes. I think 98% of women are not hot. Do I believe most women are ugly? No. I believe that about 30% of women are ugly.

3) I do not think that hot and attractive are the same. I know many attractive people. Only a few hot ones. Of the hot ones, many stray from hotitude when they don’t work out/watch what they eat/take care of themselves. Hot are a small and exceptional subset of attractive. The attractive are suitable partners. Candles in the dark. The hot burn brightly like suns in the sky, casting long shadows with their manifest hotitude.

4) Is hotness absolute? No. It is a relative metric. 100 years ago few people had perfect straight teeth. Today the whole upper middle class does. Hotness is a moving target, as it is attractiveness and ugliness.

5) Is hotness objective? There is variation in preference, some innate, some environmental (e.g., assman), but, there is an underlying component of variation which tracks tendencies such as asymmetry, paedeomorphism, masculinity, secondary sexual characteristics, mutational load, etc. On the biological level exceptional beauty is heritable, but it also emerges out of variance on the expected mutational load across our species. It isn’t a purely social construct, it is a multi-valent character with cultural, historical and biological dimensions.

6) Am I into looks? Not too much more than the usual male. Am I uncharacteristically transparent about this? Yes. Am I a bit too fixated on exceptionally beautiful women? Yeah, probably, it’s a vice.

7) Do I judge all women I meet on their physical characteristics? Not really. As I said, there are different levels of attractiveness. I am an individual who is awed by superiority, by virtuosity. Intelligence, athleticism, grace, humor. When moving up into the top few percent of the population I believe in giving due reverence. When I meet an individual who exhibits powers of cognitive perception beyond my comprehension, I am in awe. When I see the power and grace which top notch athletes carry about them as if it is their birthright, and not a synthesis of genes and training, I am in awe. And yes, when I see beautiful women I do stand in awe, and worship even. Not attractive, but glowing, radiant and exceptional beauties. When unadorned, without makeup, fresh and in the flesh, these individuals can leave me considering the possibility of God. Of course, these individuals are all female, I’m straight and the male form leaves me uninterested aside from the raw power of athleticism. Additionally, I am biased, but I tend to accept the peculiar new findings which suggest females are better looking than males. I say this not on scientific grounds, sexual selection should operate more strongly on males because of greater potential for reproductive variance and sexual dimorphism takes a great deal of time to emerge because males and females are genetically pretty much the same except for the obligate difference of the Y chromosome.

8) Is this fascination with female beauty pernicious? I don’t think so. I read The Beauty Myth (Naomi Wolf, very close to hot!), and there’s a lot of nasty shit, but I’ve talked to Arab and Asian dudes, African dudes who like their women fat, etc. All are shallow fuckers, to be frank. There is more to the beauty ideals of American society as it is now than heterosexual male preferences, at least judging by the fact that short squat (for the modeling industry) girls who are pretty are ideal Playboy material.

9) Does my interest in beauty tyrannize? I had a friend who would always tell me stuff about how “women aren’t there for you to look at!” when I was checking some ladies out at parties. I’d pull the race card to shut her up, and keep looking, but a big point for me is that seeing beauty is a simple pleasure. Like conversation about non-retard topics. Reading a book. Enjoying a good meal. Now, some people have become offended when I am loud & proud about my atheism in a public place. Some people don’t like to be around red meat being consumed. And so on. We’re social animals, and public acts invite public comment and disdain, public offense. If the offense is extreme enough, decency compels us to reconsider our behavior. I wouldn’t jabber on about the right to suicide in front of someone who had had a close family member commit suicide tragically. Sensitivity matters. Nevertheless, I don’t accept that most women are tyrannized by comments about a beautiful woman. So most women aren’t beautiful, big deal. In the United States with good public health and beauty products, most are potentially attractive (caveat, avoid meth-dens and trailer parks). Most people also aren’t intelligent, but we’re a mostly literate country (I don’t buy 99% literacy).

In any case, I offended. Chris of Mixing Memory has had some valid criticisms of my post. The main one I will concede is that using the word “chick” was needlessly inflammatory. I really wouldn’t care if someone called me a coolie because the opinions of most people are pretty irrelevant to me, but most brown people would take offense. But what’s the difference between coolie, brown or South Asian? A word? Well, they are embedded in social meaning and what not. So that’s a real point. Style, delivery, matters. But what about the substance? Here I am not really going to repent much. I flat out reject the contention that stereotyping in and of itself is bad. Some of the critiques of it engage in blatant generalization in the process of deconstructing it. The mind is somewhat Bayesian, bounded, and all that stuff. Is does not entail ought, the facts of the world do not dictate in a straight line how the world should be run. To sin means to miss the mark, and our ideals may draw us to elevate our natures, and reach for something more noble. Humans may have a natural propensity to ingroup on outgroup barbarity, but we are civilized creatures and we attempt to rise up above that. So shall I concede that I should not speak of or note exceptional beauty, that it is an irrelevancy which does not warrant note or admiration? No, I don’t concede that. Noting and appreciating beauty is a simple first order pleasure which speaks to a deep and fundamental yearning. This can be contravened in the extreme circumstances, but I see no necessity here.

We are each allotted a finite number of years. I am already through a non-trivial portion of that before I pass from the scene. As humans we have varied cravings, needs, goals. Some want to be famous, some rich, some self-indulgent, and some secure. I want the peace of contemplation and an appreciation of the art of the universe in its full glory. Female beauty is part of that. Pulling out the “race card,” I was born in one of the poorest countries in the world. I’ve seen abject poverty, individuals suffering from severe malnutrition. I count my blessings, and when I’m overwhelmed with my bourgeois apprehensions I do remember that my stomach is full, there is a roof over my head and there are people who love me in the world. A true Epicurean practices moderation and extracts from the world what it will gently give willingly. To my critics, there is of course a simple path, and that is of separation. Simply accept that salvation is only the lot of the Elect, and save yourselves and create a Good Society where what the likes of me name pleasure you mark as abomination. My angels are your demons, and I will not repent of them.

To my friends, I say look to the future and allow the righteous to police the present. Comments are closed on this thread because I’m tired of this and am going on to other things. As self-absorbed as I am I’ve somewhat enjoyed the insults hurled my way, kind of like watching a car wreck. But all guilty pleasures must end (OK, not all:). Those of you who wish to cast aspersions upon my character can go to Zuska’s blog and keep on posting. Those of you who have it in your heart to “defend” me, please read some books or do something more productive with your time. Soon we’ll all be dead and wondering where the time all went.

Postcript: Re: the racial incidents above, I don’t want people to freak out about them. I use them to show that I am aware that bigotry exists, but note that I lived in a very conservative (that conservatives are more outwardly racist is a stereotype that is true) area where in 1990 our local paper did a front page story that profiled every single one of the 12 African Americans in our county. Nevertheless, my day to day wasn’t problematic at all. I am willing to bet that sexism is a more pervasive problem than racism, and my own personal experience is that people have been commenting on how good my English is at diminishing rates over the years (e.g., once a week in 1983, vs. once a year in 2006). I don’t think my English has improved, there are simply more brown people who aren’t FOB.

Update: Also, I retract and regret the comment about the “less attractive” female. That was ungentlemanly and ill considered. I wished to heighten and focus on the beauty of one by the contrast, but it wasn’t the right way to do that.