Learning Math during the Cultural Revolution

This week University of New Hampshire professor of mathematics Yitang “Tom” Zhang has been named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow.  His work on the bounded gaps conjecture for primes is group breaking, but his personal story about what it was like trying to learn mathematics at at time when young people were being “reeducated” in China is amazing.


Racism is a lot like terrorism

Josha Alston writes an insightful article in the Washington Post today on the importance of the idea of personhood in interpreting the Michael Brown shooting.  I find his comparison of racism and terrorism particularly compelling, especially against the “but not me!” or “most people aren’t racists” arguments that sometimes surface.

In this way, racism is a lot like terrorism. Acts of terrorism committed against a few members of a society can still affect the broad majority by making them bear the psychic burden of knowing that their essential personhood is a subject of debate. Likewise, although most black men and women won’t experience racism in the incredibly violent way that Brown, Martin, Garner and McBride did, those deaths extract a large mental toll: Even if you aspire to greatness, you can die on any given Saturday.

Not Quite White

An interesting blog post from ProfessorWhatIf examining the dividing line on white racial identity.

Yet, despite what sicko groups like WAR (white Aryan resistance) would have us believe, there is no such thing as racial identity outside of the social construction of race. This is why who counts as white has changed (and continues to change) over time. Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Eastern Europeans with light/white skin have at various historical periods not been considered white. The changing rules and requirements regarding who gets to be in the white club are related to systems of power and privilege. This is why whiteness is defined by exclusion rather than inclusion.

By preventing various ‘Others’ from being construed as white, white privilege translates into better jobs, better treatment, better legal protection, and on and on. Whiteness functions as a system that confers entitlement, power, and privilege on some, and oppression, disenfranchisement, and lack of power on others. Thus, racial oppression is the key reason behind the construct of the white race and, as Judy Helfand writes in her piece “Constructing Whiteness,” this translates into white people benefiting “disproportionally from the race and class hierarchy maintained by whiteness.”


Racists see racism everywhere, even where it’s not

This article from Gawker has been cropping up on my feed all day, and I’ve been slowly fuming about it (not in the way you think) contemplating if I was annoyed enough to post on the ol’ blog-o-sphere about it.

As more and more links popped up on (the) Facebook feed today, I decided.

The story:

  • App designers launch “SketchFactor,” a sort of Yelp for streets, where a users can identify for others if they find that streets are “sketchy”
  • Sam Biddle (who is not Ben Bitdiddle, by the way) calls the app racist.
  • Sam notes that the website says “Who we’re not: racists, bigots, sexists. Any discriminatory posts will be deleted” but decides that this isn’t meaningful and blows it off

What really irks me about this article is that while it’s supposedly about combating racism, it’s actually incredibly racist itself.  The very first line Biddle writes is

Is there any way to keep white people from using computers, before this whole planet is ruined?

How deeply ironic to write this line in an article that decries an app supposedly enforcing ethnic prejudices and separation.  No matter how tongue in cheek that introduction is, it fundamentally reinforces race as a chasm that can’t be crossed.

The fatal flaw of this article is that author lets his own biases on how neighborhoods are defined (i.e by race), how people will behave (i.e. white people are all racists and will use this app to spread their horrible racist thoughts) to the future behavior of an inherently open (i.e. crowdsourced) platform.

This is a perennial feature of any social networking based technology— they can reflect all aspects of human behavior.  How a social network ultimately behaves will be the result of any number of sociotechnical factors. What Sam Biddle saw in this app was reflection of his own ideas about the world, and his belief that most people will use this app to further a racist agenda.

As you readers will know from the previous blog posts, I’m pretty freaking cynical about race.  I can see racism in everything from video games to teapots shaped like Hitler.  But even I don’t think that given a open platform for people to post about “stuff they see on the street,” will inherently further a segregationist mentality.

Alternatively, here’s the first two scenarios that I immediately thought of when I read about this app:

  • One autumn when I was 7, my mother and I went around our neighborhood pick up leaves that had fallen from the oaks and maples in our neighborhood for a science project.  We had just picked up two beautiful maple leaves off the ground next to an office building when a huge policeman seated in a parked cop car on the street come bounding towards us. He was obviously having some sort of bad day and decides to take it out on us, a young Chinese woman and her child, both who can barely speak English.  He accuses us of “stealing leaves” from the company that owns the office building, takes our information on his notebook, and acts like he’s going to arrest us for “stealing,” before he gets bored and leaves.  What could we do?  Nothing, because we were terrified and didn’t have the needed language skills to defend ourselves.  (What I wouldn’t do to go back to that time and scream “I’m calling my lawyer!”)

    Well, at least with an app like this, I could have at least shared my experience with others.  And give a big warning “Don’t come to this corner where this cop is going to harass you!”  Because I would hate for any other 7 year old to go through what I did.

  • I live in an atrociously expensive apartment building where I’m basically bleeding rent money to live near hip restaurants and bars.  Because there’s a huge construction zone right behind my apartment building, there’s a couple of alleyways that are not well lit and quite dangerous because they are out of sight from the main streets. This past spring, there was a murder of taxi driver and a robbery and rape of a woman right in those alleyways.  Police have mentioned that crime in the area is going up because robbers are targeting the people coming from the bars and restaurants at night.

    There is a street one block to the south and a street one block to the north that is completely well lit and trafficked by the public and police that pedestrians can take until construction is finished and permanent lights and roadwork is done in the area.  It’s such a simple piece of information that residents in the neighborhood like me wants to share, and would benefit the safely of so many visiting the bars on the weekends.

Ultimately what I find upsetting about this Biddle article is that the author does not think that racial issues are important enough to give it the thought and attention that it deserves.  Instead, he leverages the instant inflammatory response to get Google hits and Facebook shares but offers no real insight on what the implications of such an app means on a societal level. 

The racial issues that divide this country need better dialogue than that, misty ether of social networks and blogs!

Instead of labeling an entire platform and implying that its creators are white racists (which itself is deeply racist), he could written a real article that talked about the risks that open platforms pose in reinforcing divides in society— a fact that is becoming increasingly true in all aspects of our digital lifestyles from Google searches to what we buy on Amazon.  But he didn’t.  Instead he wrote an article that literally said that “white people” are “ruining the planet.”  And people out there are supporting his article based on the knee jerk reaction of “I don’t like racists!  I don’t support racism.”

Smiling Young White People Make App for Avoiding Black Neighborhoods

So you didn’t get a snow day. Respond with racism and sexism.

The twittersphere is filled with terrible terrible people.  Luckily, some people can respond in forms > 140 characters.

What was most disturbing was witnessing social media drive a discussion quickly into the abyss of hateful comments and even threats of violence. I shudder to think what might happen if that type of vitriol were directed at a vulnerable member of our student body or university community…

Of all places, a university should be home to diverse ideas and differing perspectives, where robust – and even intense – debate and disagreement are welcomed.

How do we foster such an atmosphere? Only through an unwavering and unrelenting commitment to building truly diverse communities of students and scholars. One dinner with someone who doesn’t look like you and doesn’t sound like you can open new worlds of ideas. You can sit in a classroom and discuss situations in Egypt or in Syria based on academic readings. But, to hear these issues explained by a classmate from that country, from her or his personal experience, in his or her voice – this is when an academic exercise can become a moment of personal transformation. That is why we say diversity is the route to excellence.

So you didn’t get a snow day. Respond with racism and sexism.