Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Racism still exists; it's just invisible, like air

Today a controversy rippled its way through the twittersphere. I'd rather call it by its other name - a "teachable moment."

It concerns the show Radiolab, on National Public Radio. A few weeks ago, they published a podcast on "Yellow Rain" - a substance that fell from the sky on Laos during Vietnam.

And this podcast was very poorly received. The production team and host made grave errors throughout the entire process, from the way the interview was conducted to the editing to the way they responded to criticism in post-production. The host, Robert Krulwich, issued the linked apology, then the podcast was re-edited so as to remove some of the more offensive elements, such as muffled laughter toward the end of the broadcast.

So deeply hurt and offended was one of the interviewees, author Kao Kalia Yang, that she penned an article for Hyphen magazine to tell the story in her own voice, entitled "The Science of Racism: Radiolab's Treatment of Hmong Experience."

Wait, wait, that's a heavy word! Racism? They couldn't be racist. They were only trying to report both sides of the story! No slurs or tired old caricatures of Asian people were used in the reporting of this story. The words "model minority" were never uttered, not once. On top of that, the show is hosted on NPR; how can racism exist in that bastion of liberal media?

But then how could this podcast have been received so poorly by the listenership? If there's one thing we should know in 2012, it's that if a person of color tells you that something is racist, you listen to them. You don't just dismiss their experience of the situation and move on.

The racism in this incident was not the overt kind most people think of when they hear the word. No, there were no racial slurs. No hate crime was committed. No one said Asians were an inferior race. But throughout, racism was present as a white/Western-normative narrative. It contrasted two accounts of the same event -- the white experience in the laboratory versus the Hmong experience in Laos -- and unconsciously placed the white experience as the superior, or correct, experience. The fact it was unconscious on the part of the host and production team (as implied by Mr. Krulwich) simply serves to underscore how ingrained this sort of racism is in our culture.

Let's take a few examples.

First, the hosts - Mr. Krulwich and Jad Abumrad - appear to subscribe to the Western liberal notion that the science of today holds all the answers. This is often in direct contrast to "the religion of yesterday holds all the answers," which is an extremely debatable topic that will not be discussed here. It is definitely a good idea to use published scientific studies to back up your claims, but we have to remember that those studies may at times be incomplete or even wrong. Five hundred years from now, our modern science will look absolutely primitive to those who come after us. The hosts made the choice to prioritize the results of the study by Meselson and Seeley over the experience of the person sitting in the room with them, taking a black and white view that if the science was right, Mr. Yang must be mistaken. The interview, which purportedly was a chance to hear the story from the Hmong point of view, turned into an interrogation and attempt to convince Mr. Yang (and Ms. Yang) that their experiences were invalid in the face of evidence. It is an inhuman way to treat another person who has suffered so much; why were the Yangs not given respect in this regard?

And Maitri rightly points out that it is not actually scientists who use this argument, but people who wish to get some political gain out of it. What kind of political or social gain could Radiolab have gotten from telling this man to his face that he must be wrong?

Another thing to consider is the culturally-bound fear of the alternative narrative and of the unknown. As an American in Kolkata for the first time during the last days of the 33-year CPI(M) government, I found myself face to face with a hammer and sickle painted on the wall. Although I was very aware of the various political parties in India, including the Communist party's influence in West Bengal, I still found my heart beating a bit faster and a fleeting thought "Where have I landed this time?" ran through my head. I was still young when the Cold War ended, but I remember it well, and I remember the fear that people had. The hosts, who are almost certainly around my age or possibly older, would remember this fear as well. So if it turns out that chemical warfare was going on, as Mr. Yang's retelling of the events that transpired points to, then Reagan and the United States were wrong in standing down. If the "bee poop" conclusion had not been reached, chemical weapons might have proliferated. Bad things might have happened. And now, after all this time that we thought the yellow rain was harmless material, what if we were wrong? It seems a thought that, subconsciously, our hosts are terrified to entertain.

As Ms. Yang points out, everyone who participated in this story was highly credentialed, but somehow, Mr. Yang was only referred to as "Hmong guy" and she as "his niece," despite the fact that they were the key interviewees for the segment and were both extremely qualified as well. Listening to the podcast, I bristled when I heard Mr. Yang referred to "Hmong guy." It was such a disrespectful term for someone of his age, not to mention his credentials as an official documenter of the events which took place in Laos. We do not refer to Amartya Sen as "that Indian dude" or Stephen Hawking as "the disabled guy." How can "the Hmong guy" be okay in this context, and how could it have been invisible as to make it into the final edit of the podcast? The constant use of the term "bee poop" to describe a substance that Mr. Yang says killed crops, animals, and even people also falls into the category of thoughtless use of language. Whether it is a benign substance, a chemical weapon, or something else entirely, a more clinical and less flippant term could have been used.

Finally, the ridiculous statement that Ms. Yang "monopolized the discussion" drives the point home better than anything else. As Ms. Yang herself points out, it's really hard to monopolize a discussion when someone else is in charge of the topic, the questions, the tone of the interview, and the final editing. And I do not think it inconsequential that a white man was the one in charge of that, either. Do I think that the production team for Radiolab are all a bunch of raging racists whose business attire is KKK robes? Certainly not. However, this incident shows us very clearly how easily people of color can be treated disrespectfully, seen in terms of their race instead of their accomplishments, and then blamed for the whole thing.

So many things discussed here at length, yet no one even saw it as improper until it was too late. That should not be surprising, though, if you look at it through the lens of institutional racism. It is a blind spot that exists, whether we like it or not. We unconsciously privilege the stories of white scientists over Hmong refugee historians because it has become habit. We don't even realize it when we edit a two-hour interview into a thirty-minute podcast that vilifies those who experienced terror for refusing to believe an explanation that negates their whole experience.

Realizing it when it happens is the first step. We can't undo centuries of acculturation into ways of thinking that perpetuate racism overnight, but we can know it when we see it (and kudos to all of the listeners who saw it for what it was and pointed it out.) Then, the next steps are to recognize the patterns, figure out what we can do to break them, then do those things.

Simply respecting others for who they are, and respecting the stories and experiences they bring to the table, goes a long way to breaking those patterns. If it's overwhelming to look at the entire world in terms of historical and current ethno-cultural balances of power and privilege, then respect and willingness to learn from others is a good place to start.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Oppan Lungi Style!

Bengalis in lungis dancing to a Korean song in New York City. America is great, isn't it?

Here's the video:

And here's the article:

While watching this video, it occurred to me that I probably am too out of shape to dance in a flash mob even if on the off chance I were asked to. Maybe it's time to change that?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Spiritual but not religious?

This article from the religion column has got Facebook buzzing. Saw discussions about it today on two others' profiles, besides mine.

Alan Miller, the author of the article, states,

Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent [...] they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.
That attitude fits with the message we are receiving more and more that "feeling" something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more "true” than having to fit in with the doctrine, practices, rules and observations of a formal institution that are handed down to us.

Despite his patronizing tone, Miller has a point here, and that point is the one of coercion. Does he not realize that all around us, people are questioning authority at all levels moreso than they did fifty years ago? Teachers are certainly not respected anymore, and neither are the police as upholders of the law and social order. We publicize our elected officials' sex scandals on prime-time TV and we have even impeached two presidents. And this distrust of authority is certainly not unwarranted; scandal, corruption, and hypocrisy are rampant in those we consider "authorities" and with the internet, it's a lot harder for a publicist or PR team to keep these things under wraps. We have already lost faith in our leaders; no wonder we are also losing faith in the institutions that are also seen as "supreme authority."

If people feel coerced, they will get up and walk out. This is America and we can do that sort of thing. Respecting authority for authority's sake is no longer a value here.

It's not all about coercion, though. It's not all "Christians are all hypocrites so why should I count myself among them?" -- although that does play a part. The devout would say these people are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, that the hypocrites will end up in hell, and by not believing, you would join them there for eternity. But the reasonable person has already thought through that argument; if the only reason people are leaving the church is because of the hypocrites, then they'll be sorely disappointed to find that the whole world is full of such people, be they Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Atheist.

So there has to be another reason, and it seems to me to be that the old patterns do not fit. One of my friends put it very succinctly on Facebook:
People that i know are "spiritual not religious" have extensively studied and looked at many religions only to find a common thread among them all.
This can be a very traumatic moment for someone who sincerely followed a spiritual path, believing it was the only one.  At this point in a crisis of faith, I think it is very natural for people to go "religion shopping," to put it crudely. We have access to so much information today; people can even go to Beliefnet and take a quiz to figure out what belief they should follow. So I can definitely see how people may try, as Miller put it, "A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there." Our lives -spiritual and otherwise- are a process and people who have felt alienated or marginalized by one faith may indeed go searching for another one; they have left the confines of one belief system but don't want to give up on God just yet. I think even those people - especially those people?? - should be treated with dignity and respect as seekers, not dismissed as shallow or dabblers.

[...] the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better." There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us.

How arrogant. How is leaving the safety of a path that offered a person no more inspiration or transformation an outlook that offers "little of transformation"? And what is wrong with "feeling better"? Indeed, two of the main purposes of religion throughout time have been to establish social order and to find peace of mind. In this statement, Miller seems to be dismissing this latter purpose (which is why people cling even to mainstream religions) and to reduce religion down to obeying the social order, almost as if he were ridiculing people who do not "fall in line." It's okay to "feel better," it seems, as long as it's in a church where you dress up nice and smell the fragrant incense and go to the yummy church potluck, but if someone's spiritual practices are outside the norm, suddenly their need to "feel better" is something to thumb your nose at.

But I really don't think Miller believes that, because at this point, his article takes a bizarre turn.

At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position. Influenced by the contribution of modern science, there is a reluctance to advocate a literalist translation of the world.

Take a position? What position needs to be taken? And what does a literalist translation of the world mean? Literalist as in the Biblical view of creation? Maybe the editors left something out; let's ignore that and just continue reading.

But these people will not abandon their affiliation to the sense that there is "something out there," so they do not go along with a rationalist and materialistic explanation of the world, in which humans are responsible to themselves and one another for their actions - and for the future.
If redemption of humankind can be found in both traditional religion, as he seemed to be saying in the first half of the article, and also in materialistic humanism, why can it not be found also by those who do not fall into either bucket? Also in these two paragraphs, Miller is treading dangerously close to now reducing spiritual belief to the absurd question of how the world came into being, simply to contrast it with a scientific, rationalist viewpoint, which does have answers to those questions - at least in part - and should be favored over foolish religious belief.

Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.

A wild false dichotomy appears! And therein, the crux of Miller's argument (if you can indeed call it that.) He says you can either choose religious literalism or secular humanism, and at this point, it is obvious which he prefers. However, there are certainly people out there of every faith who think religion and science are not mutually exclusive, and who apply the Enlightenment ideals he speaks of to the daily practice of their faith. We are not people who are either led by blind faith or pure reason. Our lives as human beings cannot be unadulterated by emotion or experiences that we do not yet have the science to describe.

Give us a few more thousand years of science, a few million more years of evolution, and perhaps this dichotomy will more resemble reality. But at this point in time, the fact that people do still search for something beyond themselves does not make them inferior; it makes them humans struggling on the search for meaning in a short life on a brutal planet, and it makes people who place themselves as superior to them look awfully silly.