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Straight While Male is the Lowest Difficulty Setting

Reading the essay “Straight White Male is the Lowest Difficulty Setting” after reading Steve’s response and after the class where the racial slur was written has had me thinking a lot about privilege, culture, and gender. The lack of gender parity in the technology field is pretty apparent (even if Marissa Meyer of Yahoo doesn’t think it’s a problem); in fact, it was even emphasized, bolded, italicized and underlined our first day when ITP faculty exclaimed to us that our class, class of 2014, had a make up of 54% women. Great, awesome, go us! And I say this totally without sarcasm, if inadvertently or on purpose, it’s great that ITP chose such a diverse field  (business, engineering, art, advertising, education) of people, and one that happens to skew to a largely unrepresented demographic in the tech world. However, as Steve touched on, we rarely have conversations about privilege and we rarely have conversations about culture.

The school we go to, that ITP exists within, could be considered the lowest difficulty setting (its make up of students, not the application process). What do I mean by that? We go to an incredibly expensive private university in an incredibly expensive city. I would say most of us feel lucky, if not blessed to be here (ITP is dream and I know we all know that). But the conversations we end up having are usually, as Steve said, about ICM or Pcomp or TNO. The only critical conversations we seem to have are in Applications and those are often cut short due to time constraints. The point I’m trying to make is that the “Black and White” game in Applications really exposed our privilege as a class but also our cultural differences. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a fairly low difficulty setting- I’m a straight, white female from the 1%. But I am a straight, white female from the 1% who grew up in the Southern states of America (Louisiana and Texas, respectively) with family members who remember segregation in Mississippi. The racial slur that was written is something that I would never utter, primarily because I am aware of its historical significance and the pain it represents. With my lowest difficulty setting, it’s not my word to use. After class, I talked to a few classmates and one of them pointed out that the racial slur written in class in Australia isn’t really considered an offensive word. But isn’t that a conversation worth having? What does that word mean? Giving the excuse of it was to represent the game or the mindset of xenophobia or that the medium is the message is a lazy argument. A better conversation to have would have been why that’s a hurtful word, why that in our expensive, predominately white school in the Northeast of the United States, why that is an offensive word.

But to touch back on the actual article written, I find it interesting that it takes someone of the lowest difficulty setting to explain to others in the lowest difficulty setting why that is problematic. It’s like the Daniel Tosh rape joke, it took Louis CK and a lot of outcry for Daniel to apologize;  it even took a white male to write this great article to explain in a way that dudes would understand why rape jokes are sometimes, most times, super offensive.

Perhaps that was the problem with our conversation in Apps, we are all from such different places that sometimes our conversations, criticisms  and arguments truly get lost in translation.

7 comments to Straight While Male is the Lowest Difficulty Setting

  • Wajma "Mohseni"

    For the record i am the “Australian” who made that comment (unless there is a mystery Australian lurking at ITP!). Unfortunately I missed this particular applications class because of travel commitments so only heard about it through other people. Caroline raises some really interesting points which makes a GREAT topic for discussion. After all what is a word but merely semantics with meaning and association behind it? I have heard that particular racial slur being used very liberally amongst Afghan youth who love the hip hop culture but don’t really know what it actually means. A young American who interned at our Afghanistan office for 6 months managed to accomplish 2 things; one was to teach all our (male) Afghan staff the word “douchebag”. To this day they still use it. I spoke to the American guy the other week and reminded him of the legacy he left behind. He seemed pretty proud!

    I myself was taught English as a second language. I would however now consider it my first language, I am much more fluent in English than I am in Farsi. Growing up in Australia and learning Farsi at home meant my parents could safely shield me from crass Farsi slang. When I did catch hold of certain words (community, cousins, brothers) I did what any young kid would do – say it repeatedly and watch the look of horror on my parents’ face. For me it was just a word, for them it held so many connotations, and it has taken years including a chunk of time spent in Afghanistan to realise how bad the words really were, and what they implied not just in terms of vulgarity, but layer upon layer of complexity that involve race, gender, class and ethnicity.
    The word “bayghairat” although not a swear word, is still one of the worse things you can say to an Afghan man. What does it mean? Literally someone with no pride. Because in a region where the people are poor, the family unit is powerful and where males are the patriarchs and protectors, pride, culture and respect are highly valued and often over anything material.

    I came across this article in NYT today, though not touching on discrimination per se, but a funny look at moments “lost in translation”. What a delicate line we sometimes tread!
    [[http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/in-afghanistan-humor-finds-its-way-in-lost-translation/> | “In Afghanistan, Humor Finds Its Way in Lost Translation” New York Times]]

  • David

    The class where the racial slur was written and Steve’s post also had me thinking about privilege within the context of ITP and generally speaking. I read through some of the other posts as well as this article. Like many others who posted about this reading I agree with author’s game metaphor. Also like many others, I struggle with coming up with a good way to communicate and contextualize different ideas of class and racial privilege.

    I think at that Scalzi did a good job at communicating his point in straightforward and simple terms, and reading his article and the comments after hearing Majora’s talk reignited thoughts I had been having since the Black & White presentation in class. Lately I’ve been thinking about the influence of perception vs experiences with different people and places. Majora kept saying that cleaning up the South Bronx was a design problem and that making physical changes to the neighborhood landscape would effect the perceptions of both the residents of the neighborhood as well as people from outside the neighborhood.

    I think for many people perceptions of the South Bronx are based in the mostly negative media representations of the neighborhood. I’ve lived in New York City my whole life and I have never actually spent anytime in that area aside from driving on the Bruckner. So all I really know about the area is based on what I can see from the highway (mostly factories, truck lots, and fast food drive-thrus) and what Majora said in her talk.

    I have no real experience with the neighborhood, yet I too internalize the perceptions of the south Bronx being a dangerous and impoverished dumping ground, which I attribute to my lack of experience in the area.

    I remember once speaking to a co-worker of mine, a life-long Bronx resident, Puerto Rican (like myself), about the differences between Brooklyn and the Bronx. He said that did not hang out in Brooklyn because people from Brooklyn were crazy. Having grown up in Brooklyn with friends and family in many areas of the borough I felt like his statement was off base. When I asked him about his experiences with Brooklyn he basically said he’d been there a few times with no incidents but that he was not comfortable in the area. He asked me similar things about my experiences with the Bronx and we both quickly realized that even though we were both operating on assumptions based on very little personal experience. We spoke for a while and I don’t think that we completely changed each other’s perceptions but we did have a moment of introspection that was sparked by our mutual experience, or rather, lack thereof.

    I also think Wadjma has a good point. Even in the United States that word is used and appropriated by different people for different reasons. And depending on the context it becomes more acceptable or not (at least in some people’s opinions) to use the word. In a way its good that this came up in class because even though we are a community and many of us feel like family here after only 4 months together (I still haven’t met everyone…) it is important to remember that we are a diverse community and we should be ready to take the time and initiative to experience each other in a way that extends beyond ICM or P-comp.

  • Nancy

    That was an important discussion in class. Can you think of ways to keep it going–so the discussion itself is not marginalized to women, minorities, and financially strapped to the point of not being able to come to ITP. That last is practically impossible..!

  • Xuedi "Chen"

    I completely agree with Wajma’s point.
    English is also a second language. Not long after I moved here I learned that there are certain words used to describe different asian races that are not politically correct or straight up “bad”. Of course they are only bad within the american cultural context but to me, they were just vocabulary at that point. I grew up in upstate new york, in an EXTREMELY liberal little town, and no one has ever used them around me, but if they did, I don’t think it would have rang negatively in my mind. However, when I was first learning the English language, upon being exposed to these words through writings, movies, documentaries, etc, people around me tended to tense up and felt the urgent need to explain to me their meaning and why it’s terrible and that I should never ever use them. Ever. Without the cultural context I would not know any better.
    Having now adapted to American culture, I find myself feeling shocked upon hearing these racial slurs used in class, no a feeling I would’ve had 15 years ago.
    I think Caroline is right that the better conversation in our diverse cultural context of ITP would be why these words are hurtful and what that means in ours and each other’s cultures.

  • Kang-Ting

    “Black and White” is actually the presentation that I sometimes and somehow recall automatically. One reason I think is that it really made me shocked and think about how careless we and I could be about all the slurs –no matter of racial or gender or sexual oriental issues, and the other reason is how dare we are when we are anonymous.

    Lots of interesting questions and comments were discussed at that day, and I really wish to reply one question, which is about that the presentation was just a game and the words shown on the screen can’t be counted. Well, in my mind, I think a wound hurts no matter it is caused intended or by accident. If the slurs we spoke hurt some people, it is not a good excuse to say that it is just a game. Actually it is exactly the proof of lack of awareness about people with different identities from us. If we consider more about the classmates sit besides us, we will be reminded that they come from different places, speak different languages, and might have different life styles than us. No reason it is fine for us to say those words to win a game. Plus, if we accept that the slurs could be tolerated in a game, then, should there be any other situation that can be tolerated as well? Moreover, if it could be tolerated in a game, then does that mean we can hurt someone else because we just want to win?

    This question just reminds me about Allan G. Johnson’s book, “The forest and the Trees,” which is a sociology reading for the very beginners. Johnson mentions the Monopoly game in the book as a example of the social structure. When we play the Monopoly, the only one goal for us is to beat others and everyone wants to earn as more tokens as they can. The goal forms an easiest way in the Monopoly for players to follow. Just as a social structure, via setting goals and some rules and designs, sets an easiest way for people, instructing them how to act and talk. The power of the easiest way is so strong and so transparent that we are hardly even to notice that we are ruled. “Black and White,” in this case, just like a small social structure, which was intended make players have the chance to come up with the slurs. That’s why we seemed did not have the choices but put on those words. But if we were more aware and sensitive of the structure or even a larger scale one –the world, the society we live in, we will find that we always have other choices than to follow the easiest way which someone set for us.

    To my mind, this is the most valuable experience of the presentation.

  • Karl Ward

    I’m from Houston, Texas, like Caroline (sort of). My family is from the deep, deep South (rural Georgia), also like Caroline’s Lousiana/Mississippi fam. Racism runs very deep in the South, and unlike the North, it is always very close to the surface. So even as a child I was very familiar with all the racial slurs, I heard them all the time, and while I remember blushing when I heard them as a child, they lost that impact on me after a while.

    But before you think I lived some isolated, white, and privileged existence, I should tell you a little more. I grew up in an area so dangerous that cops would stop me in front of my own apartment as a teenager because they were sure I was only there to buy drugs. One of my classmates was killed in a drive-by in fifth grade. One of my closest friends was shot in a drive-by in 8th grade and survived, despite the bullets he still carries. We were the only white family in a huge complex of run-down apartment complexes. I knew all the anti-white slurs common in any Texas or Mexico barrio. I could keep telling you stories like this, but you get the idea. I wouldn’t call my childhood privileged. Speaking to David’s point about perceptions of the Bronx, my earliest memory of New York City was from fifth grade when I saw the movie The Warriors, which depicts NYC and the Bronx in particular as a dystopian gang wasteland. I thought it must be the worst place on Earth. I didn’t realize then that where I lived was, strictly by the murder statistics, at least twice as dangerous as New York City.

    But that’s an aside. Hip hop was king by the time I was in high school and college, and proved to even further desensitize me to the impact of racial slurs. And all the other types of slurs too, for that matter. But I also remember hearing A Tribe Called Quest’s great song about the reappropriation of racial slurs. One of the first papers I wrote in college was about the song, I thought it was such a clever way to talk about those nuances.

    The last paper I wrote in college was about the roots of misogyny in hip hop, a topic that is actually quite interesting, and speaks to Wajma’s point about Afghan insults. For that paper, I read a great book about teaching in the inner city that discusses some of the cultural and social underpinnings in the years just before hip hop happened. That book is Ribbin’, Jivin’, and Playin’ the Dozens.

    This book explains that in the inner cities of the early 1970s, many of the students came from families that had very little money. That’s obvious, but what might not be obvious is how the social pecking order is established among people who have no money. He came to two great conclusions. First, poverty had created a culture where pride was currency, and most of the slang and social games (e.g. “playing the dozens,” which is “your momma’s so fat…”) were based on pride contests rather than the socio-economic markers of status that one might see in a predominantly white school. Poverty created an environment where it was socially acceptable to publicly malign someone’s sister, or someone’s mother, or someone’s sexuality, to a scale that just was not ever seen in the more privileged schools. That was reality and he argued that teachers needed to understand that environment because rejecting it was not possible.

    Second, in order to communicate in the classroom, you must make an effort to understand the slang and the games and basically the culture of each other. In his book, he spent a lot of effort explaining slang in order to prevent one of the failures he saw teachers making, when teachers would attempt to ban the use of certain words, or attempt to force students to talk in a “proper” way. Such attempts cripple the classroom, because what is slang to you is just language to someone else. We should all make an effort to understand what our language and cultures have in common, but we should also make that same effort to find where we differ and why. A more interesting question I’ve run into at ITP is why some non-U.S. students are so cavalier with their use of racial slurs–I can’t help but think that this is a side effect of how hip hop has written these slurs large across U.S. culture.

    I hope we as a community can have difficult conversations. We must learn to be more courteous, but also more forgiving. The great risk is that we become an echo chamber, always patting each other on the back for “neat” stuff but never taking on the real problems of our community and the world in general. We all have a position of privilege now and we should use it for good.

    [Note: I have to give credit to Roopa Vasudevan for the inspiration behind some of these thoughts. She’s fearless, by the way.]

  • Tiffany "Hewlett"

    I originally commented on this article early on in the semester and find the more recent responses very interesting in the context of class discussions that followed; particularly Caroline’s response regarding the class in which a racial slur was written. I also appreciate Kang’s response to how a wound can hurt no matter what. Sadly, I have to say that I was not completely in shock by the racial slur that was so boldly (literally & figuratively) written and projected for all to view. Having grown up in the suburbs of New York and proudly identifying myself as black (with an American and Jamaican born parent), I have encountered many similar experiences in my past. At this point in my life, I find that I have almost become numb to many of these types of situations but at the same time, I sometimes expect for it to happen.. The more unfortunate part of this slur being written, is that while others pass it off as just being a game, it makes me question whether or not some individuals truly have negative feelings towards me and others because of race. This may not have been the true intention, but in my mind, there are so many other ways of describing the word “xenophobic” without using racial slurs, especially coming from a group of such creative individuals. I definitely think that this is the type of conversation worth having and I would strongly recommend that in future applications classes that there be speakers who touch on this issue to help to spur on more similar conversations. Additionally, another point that struck me, is that there seems to be a lack of knowledge around the history of America and how it has shaped the race relations in our country. While it is definitely a valid point that with the spread of music such as Hip-hop, the meaning behind some words have been diluted, it is still very important for individuals to become educated on the meaning behind the use of these words so that they are able to make better informed decisions moving forward. I personally do not feel discomfort talking about race relations in America and other countries and I enjoy learning about other cultures; however, I do think that it may cause some level of discomfort for others. Part of moving forward as a society, definitely means that we will have to address certain issues such as race relations by talking through them so that we can become a more unified society that is embracing of all people and ideas.