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social justice

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not for all my little words

Growing up in Florida, I think I always took the existence of palm trees for granted.

If you've never seen one, if you've only ever grown up with maple and pine and birch trees, a palm tree could be difficult to imagine, because it probably challenges all your notions of what a tree should be. There are no real branches, and its leaves only appear at the top of the tree. Its bark often grows in layers, like a series of stacked funnels, and it usually lists a little to the side, as though it's responding to a wind that isn't there. 

But even if you've never seen one, believing that they exist isn't that hard. There are photographs. You have my testimony, but even if you don't trust me, there is probably someone in your life whom you do trust who has seen one and can vouch for the plant's existence. In all likelihood, you have eaten a coconut. (At the very least, coconut is available at your grocery store.)

If you've never seen one, you can, of course, insist that they're not real, because no one can stop you. I can say that I am actually a dragon if I want to. But just because I say it doesn't make it true. I know that palm trees exist, and even if I hadn't seen them myself, there's enough evidence out there for me to believe in them.

This is how I feel about privilege, and racism, and inequality in America. Telling me they don't exist is like telling me that palm trees aren't real. You can say whatever you want, but it doesn't change the facts.


When I was six or seven years old, my father and I went to the customer service kiosk in DeSoto Square Mall to get a gift certificate for my friend's birthday present. While we were there, the people working the desk tried to give us a toddler. 

She had gotten lost, or been abandoned, or something, and aside from the color of her skin, she looked nothing like us. Also, she was speaking Spanish. This did not change the mall staff's conviction that the baby was ours. 

"That's not my kid," my father said. "I came to buy a gift certificate."

"Sir," they said, "we found your baby. You can't just leave your child."

"But it's not my baby," he said. "That baby is Mexican. I don't even speak Spanish. I'm Asian."

Believe it or not, this went on for quite a bit longer, despite the complete illogic of the situation: why would a baby abandoner return to the scene of the crime? Why would a baby loser not just take their baby back? What didn't they understand about the words "I came to buy a gift certificate"? 

And what I think has stuck with me, even more than the weird mix-up, is the mall staff's complete refusal to believe my father, despite all the evidence to the contrary. He fit their mental model of the child's father (man with brown skin), so it didn't matter to them what he said. It was like he hadn't said anything. That was how much weight they gave it. 

This refusal to validate or take seriously a person's opinion is something I keep thinking about as I read about Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. Because I can sit here and tell you about my experience with white/non-black privilege all day long, as though it would do anything - not stories from the "liberal media," but my own stories, which are rough and challenging and don't always make me look good. I can tell you about the years I've spent working in economically depressed African-American neighborhoods and compare and contrast it with the poor white kids I've known in Appalachia or the poor Asian kids I've dealt with in other parts of DC. I can tell you about the casual racism in my high school, or all the petty crimes I've seen my white peers get away with, or the fact that no one has ever had to sit my little brother down and warn him how to deal with being harassed by the cops. I can tell you about the areas of Anacostia I've seen that are basically cut off from the rest of the city, devoid of any public transportation in or out, or talk about the old Georgetown leases that explicitly forbade renting houses to black people. I can introduce you to one of my very best friends, someone I will be friends with until I die, who is a brilliant psychologist who happens to be black, and who has put up with more racist bullshit in her life than the day is long. If it's testimony you want, I've got it in spades.

But I don't think it matters if I tell you or not, because proof is not the issue.

Sure, yes, you shouldn't need to hear this from me, because BLACK PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SAYING THIS FOR CENTURIES. Me being white, or Vietnamese, or having a master's degree, or being someone you know personally does not make me more credible. But let's say that for whatever reason, none of these accounts satisfy you, because their authors don't have whatever credential you're looking for. What else do you want? Are you looking for a direct comparison, like, for instance, if a white man and his black friend are arrested at the same time? Here you go. Would you prefer that your witness be both wealthy and an Ivy League alum? Try this. Really only trust the opinions of white women? Yup. Do you need to hear it from Republicans? Got you covered. What if there was, I don't know, video documentation of completely unnecessary police brutality? Unlike Eric Garner, today is your lucky day. (You probably know this, but that video is very difficult to watch. Just a warning.)

This is your evidence that palm trees exist, even though you have never personally seen one.  

I am usually a believer in nuance. I'm opinionated, but there are very few subjects on which I take a completely hard line. This is not one of them. You cannot tell me that it's possible that the palm tree I see could just be an oak with a growth disorder. The proof is there. It's been there. It doesn't matter if you've experienced it firsthand or not. You either have the moral imagination to accept the evidence in front of you, or you don't. And if you don't - if you still somehow believe that we live in a post-racial world, that everyone in America has an equal shot at the top - it doesn't matter who's talking anymore, or what they say. Because you've already made up your mind.


(ETA: I want to clarify that I am not saying that police are bad, or that white people are bad, or anything like that. I am acknowledging that palm trees exist. I am not saying that all trees are palm trees.)

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me and you and everyone we know

Transient

I recently came across this speech from Sumana Harihareswara, an exec at the Wikimedia Foundation, about how user experience (UX) is, at is heart, a social justice issue. It's great, particularly for techies, because (hey, EMPATHY) it puts it in very tech-friendly terms:

Let's look at what it takes to do user experience work. You have to look at your service from the point of view of someone who knows a lot less than you, and see where they're coming from. You have to imagine the reasons why they want what they want. Seeing that causation, seeing the connection between what someone's doing now and all the causation that went before it, is empathy. It's a little like reverse engineering; you're trying to unlock the DRM that's stopping them from getting what they need. Which is a really cool hack, actually.

We need to to exercise a disciplined empathy. It's an empathy that includes qualitative thinking, like interviews and watching people use stuff to see where the snags are, and quantitative thinking, like A/B testing and heatmaps.

But the tech industry is pretty crappy at empathy. And I'm speaking from my experience here - I know library tech is its own field - but in my experience of our industry, we just drop the ball on empathy and hospitality, a lot.

This issue is SO IMPORTANT, for the ICT4D community in particular. I feel like I'm beating my head against a wall sometimes when I write about empathy, because it's hard to say anything new when it feels like nothing ever changes.

But - and here, of course, I can add my own experience to the mix - she's right. Because empathy is hard. If you have not spent a lot of time with Burmese refugees who have literally never seen a computer before, it's hard to imagine what their user experience might be like. Not impossible, but certainly not intuitive. And yet the experience is the gate; it's the X in "If X, then Y." Which means that if we want to use technology - any kind of technology, from radio to broadband - to give people more options and choices in their lives, we have to get imagining. We don't really have a choice.

(Side note: if you are at all interested in technology and its potential, particularly from this angle, I really can't recommend enough that you subscribe to Sumana's blog. I learned about it from Brendan, the King of the Internet, who never updates his own blog anymore but is also worth following on Twitter for the same kind of content and much, much more.)

 

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the poor in spirit

(Because this veers into rant territory, parts of it might be incoherent. Apologies. Remember, this is my sketchbook.)

One of the other teachers sometimes wears a t-shirt from her university mediation group to school. I told her jokingly that I wished we could teach mediation, educate the kids on the idea of the BATNA. But later, I realized that I wasn't joking at all. I work with sixth graders, and historically, between the school transition and the puberty, sixth and seventh grades are prime time for jerkhood no matter where you are. The kids yell at each other. When they get angry about something, instead of just TELLING US, they act it out in weird passive-aggressive ways or blow up over some other, usually much smaller, incident. And it's ridiculous. I tell them all the time that if they would just speak nicely to each other, their detentions would probably go down by 50%. The root problems wouldn't go away, and there would still be times when a good holler was necessary, but the road to solving them would be a lot smoother and faster for everyone.

But even so, I like them (obviously), and I know they have the skills to act decently. It's a matter of practice.

The other night I went out with that same teacher in a group for her boyfriend's birthday. She introduced me to one of her other friends as follows: "This is Miss Eason. She thinks about privilege a lot." (This was a compliment. She'd heard me read one of my essays.)

She's right. I do. Because, over the last eight years, I've spent a lot of time working with those very same kids, mostly very poor, mostly minorities, and - often because of the behavior described above - every day you spend doing that is a hit from a boxing glove on a spring, one that's labeled "Privilege." BAM! You did not struggle with this. POW! You took this for granted. WHAM! This problem never even occurred to you. And, to add insult to injury, the rest of the world often sends the message of fault - that struggle is a result of error, that the punches you feel are all in your head.

Because these boxing metaphors are somewhat opaque, however, I'd rather share the best summation of privilege that I've read recently - a hard knock to the idea that everyone here has the same shot. It comes from this article (via my friend Veronica, a former teacher herself).

There’s no give in the finances of a low-wage family: no margin for error, no wiggle room to account for the inevitable vagaries of life. Each day is spent tiptoeing along the edge of a canyon, knowing that the slightest breeze could push you right in.

Things that seem fairly minor to middle-income families — an unexpected car repair, a high heating bill during a cold snap, a trip to the E.R. when little Connor breaks his arm — are cause for total panic, because there’s no cushion to absorb them. Pay for that car repair and now there’s not enough for the light bill; forgo the light bill and now there’s a late fee; pay for all that and now there’s not enough for the rent.

It takes almost nothing to start a real avalanche.

My head started to hurt. People sometimes say folks are poor because they make “bad decisions,” but she wasn’t doing anything wrong (and society needs nurse’s aides, after all, so it seems reasonable to hope you could be one without worrying about starving).

What’s more, I could think of many middle-income and well-off people who’d made “bad decisions” without spiraling into poverty; the difference was just that they’d had the resources to fix them. (They could afford counseling and medication for the depression that sparked the alcohol problem, pay off credit cards just by trimming back on vacations and eating out. They could go back for a second semester after partying and flunking out, because it hadn’t taken their entire life savings to get them there for the first.)

But she had no cushion. There could be no surprises. She could not make mistakes.

I was raised to believe in the power of perseverance to overcome obstacles. I saw it happen through my parents, two of the hardest-working people that I know - people who, truth be told, operated without a cushion for a good part of their adult lives. I was raised to believe that people naturally gravitate towards a market economy. And to be honest, I still do, in my own way.

But I can't handle anymore the inverse of that idea, that these life challenges always equal fault somehow, that privilege doesn't matter that much, that the market weeded you out. As though trauma can't be inherited; as though simply attending your local school is definitely enough to prepare you for the world; as though, if you have all your paperwork in order, your applications or your loans or your processes will definitely go through. As though emotions are illegitimate, or they play no role.

Here is life in America: we trade things with each other, because that is our natural impulse, but not everyone has access to roads, or is allowed to trade with everyone else. Your school might not prepare you for the world. Your culture might not be recognized as legitimate by other people, which is, in a way, the same thing as saying that you are not legitimate either. And the world will tell you that this is your fault, because on paper you had the same chance as everyone else. But paper is two-dimensional. It doesn't let anyone else in.

The Salon article above ends with a call to compassion. In their marvelous book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, the Catholic theologians Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison argue that compassion means "to suffer with" - to understand the experience of another before making these judgments or decisions. It's easy to write off compassion as a series of inefficient handouts, a pie-in-the-sky solution, instead of what it really means: changing the tenor of the argument, lowering the amount that we scream at each other. Trying to understand the vast systemic factors that inform the other person's viewpoint. Privilege is about not having to suffer unless we choose to do so, but making that choice - the choice to at least listen and understand - doesn't mean giving in as much as it means making the problems easier to handle, by everyone. We who have so many resources, can it really be so hard?

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