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.


  1. I remember a very important teacher inservice training in which we were taught that those tapes in our brain (forgive the allusion to old technology) which were recorded in childhood and which send out prejudiced and racist messages will never stop playing and that we can't erase them. How can we destroy memories? We were taught that we must constantly strive to overcome that early training and when those thoughts arise (as they invariably will), we must recognize them and choose to deny them and actively fight against them. It was a "teachable moment."

    1. This is a wonderful way to put it! Society changes around us, and we can't erase the messages that were given to us in 1950 or 1975 or 1990 now that it's 2012. We are a product of our experiences, and we've learned from others who were products of their experiences. This is why even in these so-called enlightened times, racist thought still exists. Our experiences are just that - we cannot erase or negate them - but they are not the *only* way to see the world. Listening to others' experiences helps us see through different lenses.

      I'm very honored to have you comment on my blog. :)

    2. I totally agree.

      Besides our memories and experiences one of the problems is also that we usually avoid to have our convictions challenged. So instead of being open to all sources of information and being willing to look at different possible explanations for things, we decide to turn to the ones which make us the most comfortable - which is most likely the one which supports our views (and stereotypes) a 100 per cent. This "reduction of complexity" is helpful sometimes but it´s not the best way to deal with our predjudices.

      But then facing your own imperfection and accepting that you can be wrong is difficult and a life-long challenge.

  2. This is why I don't watch or listen to such propaganda. I typically avoid most media because they're all biased - as a writer, I know all too well how things work behind the scenes. It's almost sickening sometimes.

    You're 100% right that we need to stop viewing people by their race and respect them for who they are.

    1. If you know the workings, you are in a great position to pull away the curtain and say OH LOOK THE WIZARD OF OZ IS A LITTLE TINY MAN! :D

      I was trying to work in the "I edit podcasts as part of my job and if even something like a loud breath crosses my Unprofessional Threshold, it gets axed. Do they not listen to the entire thing once it's done and HEAR "Hmong guy"? It raised my eyebrows; was the audio editor sleeping on the job?" into the post somehow but it had already gotten long enough.

      I've never really listened to Radiolab before this, but it seems to be the kind of show I'd like, at the intersection of science and culture. I wouldn't say it's propaganda, but this particular segment was out of line and simply did not treat people well at all.

  3. Posted this to G+ yesterday, but couldn't send anyone a link to it because G+ is crazy like that (No sharing outside of this medium. Yeah, well, good luck gaining market share with that.) Anyway, here goes:

    The confluence of history, politics, facts/data and emotions can, should and does happen. This said, it is not the scientist's job to care about feelings and politics but to hypothesize and then to find and introduce any and all new facts to build up or tear down that hypothesis. Likewise, it is very much the investigative journalist's responsibility not to let personal politics and preferences color the story but to be as ethical as possible, if not humane, during its telling.

    I have problems with everyone involved in this interview except for old Mr. Yang Who Was In Laos At The Time Of Yellow Rain. The only two people who should have been talking and should continue to talk to one another are the Harvard researcher(s) and Mr. Yang. Now it's a shitstorm over a Radiolab host's pet theory and his poor treatment of young Ms. Yang and her hurt feelings, which have completely muddied the controversy (or at least what we out here know of it) and has taken over as its central focus, all while exposing the arrogant blinders worn by those who hold prevailing western theory high over evidence to the contrary brought by so-called inferior races.

    This reminds me of how few want to hear my dad's firsthand Iraq-invasion stories but are eager to share their theories, and the people who continue to mansplain New Orleans and Katrina to ME to this day. But it is disturbing to notice this behavior (sometimes in science and) more often in scientific journalism, and this is where I draw the line on scientific journalists who call themselves scientists or purport to speak for the science. Yes, being clinical and nurturing the human element simultaneously is tough but even tougher and a lot more important is that you are brutally honest and do not let your politics or preconceived notions come anywhere near what you report as SCIENCE.

    Again, where science meets society is necessary ick. Be careful to differentiate between science and not science and WHO is doing it.

    1. There is also a line between scientists who actually do science and science enthusiasts who may understand the proper way to read someone else's research, but who are not involved in actually doing the work. You fall into the former category and I will honestly say I fall into the latter. And it's usually the latter category beating people over the head with the science stick - see Jenny McCarthy and the now-disqualified research she supported as Exhibit A. This is what I take objection to; not people in the lab doing the work they need to do with the evidence they have.

  4. And that's why the Hyphen title "The Science Of Racism" bothers me. Even the folks who wrote the article could not be bothered to pinpoint the exact nature of the problem. Science reporting is not science. A celebrity espousing studies is not science. Shouldn't it be "The Racism Of Beating Non-White Cultures With A Racist Dominant Western Theory Stick?"

    That said, I have heard researchers, especially those from Europe, say that the only true science is western and that the findings of ancient civilizations should be ignored. For them, science starts around Aristotle. While I understand that western science is done with method that has (to have) a high repeatability ratio, one cannot ignore the fact that many facets of trigonometry and astronomy were long-known to all cultures that, say, built pyramids (Meso- and South America, Africa, Asia) when white Europeans were just emerging from their caves. Again, modern western science has far-flung societal implications and has helped us move forward in technology and medicine, while ancient findings were used for spiritual purposes. It cannot be said, however, that there is no knowledge or data to be had from evidence that remains. Swallowing mercury doesn't clean your blood but acupuncture does work, as an example.

    What I would like to see happen is that Mr. Yang's evidence is absorbed and utilized by either the Harvard researchers or by a new set of eyes that can come up with yet another competing theory. I sincerely hope that is not lost between Radiolab's chest-puffery and Ms. Yang's bent emotions. Radiolab's treatment of Ms. Yang was deplorable, but neither of them were in Laos at the time of Yellow Rain and are thus immaterial to the central problem.


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