Thursday, November 10, 2016

Post-Election Feelings

Sometimes on weekend mornings I wake up and find myself lazily fascinated by the image of my partner's sleeping form. The innocence of resting lips curved into a dreaming smile, mussed hair and arms drawn close.

The night of the election, after CNN had all but called it, I trudged to bed still half-unable to believe or accept it. Neither of us could sleep. When I thought about the election and looked into his gentle eyes I felt two emotions intermingle painfully--a rush of dread and fear, a Will you be safe? 

I felt the visceral desire to hold him close, as if my arms and that room's four walls could be permanent guarantors of safety. I have never felt this pit in my stomach before. That has been my privilege. The parents who have told their black sons in decades past to step off the sidewalk and never look a white woman in the eye, the parents who still have to have conversations with their children about racialized police brutality today--this has been a feeling they have known for so long. The feeling of looking at a person you love and feeling the seesaw in the soul: simultaneous delight in their beauty and innocent hope, next to the frustration and impotence you feel knowing that you alone can't keep them safe.

I felt this sense of fear for him more than me because even though Vincent Chin was brutally murdered for the color of his skin in 1982 Detroit (NYTimes), I know, deep down, that I--the 5'2" half-Asian female--am not constructed as "the threat" here, at least not in the same way that he is as a brown man.

Yet my fear wasn't something I voiced out loud. I told myself I was being irrational, and eventually, sleep came. Then I woke up and saw that this election has already emboldened people to lash out at those they see as Other. You can take a look at some of the things that folks are posting about on reporter Shaun King's Facebook page.

Particularly in the wake of post-election hate crimes, I feel mystified by the decisions of people I know--the parents of dear Asian-American friends from the seemingly liberal hotbed of the greater Seattle area--who voted for Trump. Not out of any affinity for the KKK, but because social or economic reasons outweighed concerns about his temperament or inflammatory rhetoric toward Americans of many identities.

What confuses me is the logic behind that weighing.

After all, money can only insulate you and protect you up to a point. Flying first-class doesn't mean skipping a TSA security line where religious garments or the color of your skin make you a suspect. Kunal Nayyar (the guy who acts Raj Koothrappali on the Big Bang Theory) tweeted "Well if you look like me - you'd better start shaving your beard every day." Just because you're the member of a "model minority" doesn't mean that people won't yell at you to "Go back to China!" in the middle of a crowded New York City street.

In the wake of hatred and divisiveness post-election, I saw on Facebook that there are folks making uplifting videos with the hashtag #MyAmericaIs. I whole-heartedly support the idea, but I have to admit that my first thought was not a generous one.

It was this: my America is also the America whose scientists deliberately infected Guatemalans with syphilis (without any semblance of informed consent) in a clinical trial perhaps worse than that conducted in Tuskegee (NYTimes).

My America is the America that backed the overthrow of democratically elected Salvador Allende in Chile, and subsequent dictatorship of Pinochet (The Guardian). And then there's what we do at home: my America is the America that disenfranchises people of color, then turns around and fails to teach it comprehensively in our history books (e.g., the moves made by conservative Texas school board members--Dallas News).

Certainly my America is beautiful, too--like the Big Sky country of Montana that I fell in love with as a kid on a road trip to Yellowstone--but reading a book like Missoula, Jon Krakauer's searing book on that town's acceptance of rape culture and prioritization of college football over women's welfare and justice (NYTimes), brings some clouds to that big sky.

We don't get the luxury of picking and choosing which Americas are "ours" if that means selectively ignoring the narratives that make us feel sad. Ashamed. Complicit. Repentant.

We have to see our country for what it is and what it has been if we want to make good decisions on what it will be. And in fairness, our education system hasn't necessarily done the best job of giving all Americans the opportunity to study a complicated history of the US. A US history that problematizes pilgrim dioramas and lends nuance to our "victories."

Still, I clung to some semblance of faith on Election Day. Maybe I just imagined that more people, like me, would put their faith in her.

At the risk of sounding hagiographic, I've looked up to Hillary Clinton since I was ten years old. (I've written about it in an older blog post.) I'd like to think that my admiration became more nuanced recently. After all, when I was ten, I didn't have too many friends who were forwarding me thinkpieces about HRC as a bastion of neoliberalism or cunning engineer of DNC intrigues or, well, straight-up evil.

I read them all.

But here's the thing: I rarely hear people saying they voted one way or another because of reading a lot of thinkpieces. Instead, people get excited to vote for the person you'd "get a beer" with. Clinton hasn't ever been perceived as charismatic in the same way that Bill Clinton or Barack Obama were. It said something to me about the profound difficulty of striking the right balance with voters as a female politician: being energetic, but not too energetic lest you be "hysterical," and being steely, but not too steely, lest you be "bossy," or worse, "bitchy."

My admiration for Secretary Clinton persisted because of an appreciation for imperfection in a female role model. Tavi Gevinson, the founder of Rookie, said it best in her TEDxTeen talk: "What makes a strong female character is a character who has weaknesses, who has flaws, who is maybe not immediately likable, but eventually relatable."

For a lot of people, Clinton's relatable moment was when she shed tears in New Hampshire in 2008. For me, it was when I read some excerpts from her letters to a friend during her Wellesley days and I saw something of my own 19-year-old angst--NYTimes described her writing as "by turns angst-ridden and prosaic, glib and brooding, anguished and ebullient." The excerpts are worth reading (here). That was the moment I found Secretary Clinton relatable. I wish that more of America had had that moment.

At the same time, it's relatability, and a sort of personal identification with the candidate or party, that makes the outcome hurt more.

I'm reminded of a time I walked past some Berkeley guys waiting for a bus and they were talking in loud, jocular terms about people "being pussies."

I'd heard people toss the phrase around before, but for some reason that was the first moment that it clicked. Instead of "pussies" just being some abstract slur I thought to myself, "I have one."

And then, the question that entered my head, as it now always does, was a simple one: "Why do they hate us?"

That was 3 guys. It was easier to brush off. But now it's 59 million people, men and women both, and it hurts. It hurts when I think of kids sleeping tonight who wake up and go into a world where shit like this happens. It's selfish, but it hurts when I think back to my kid self too, so full of hope in a Clinton rally in Seattle in '08.

At that time, I was more politically active than I am now. I watched the news every night, and made low-resolution YouTube videos where I railed against George W. Bush (especially on education policy) and did a very, very bad impersonation of Sarah Palin. (Really. Don't go looking for it.)

I know that I've lost some--well, a lot--of that zealotry; it's been tempered into something a little more reticent. With this election over, I have wondered if I should feel more guilty for that reticence. For not supporting Hillary Clinton more vocally. In reflecting, though, I realize that I've never been sure of how much preaching to the choir can do.

So in the end, it's 4AM and I'm sitting on the floor in my bedroom because, like last night, I can't sleep. But I made it to my classes today, and there's a "Love Trumps Hate" shirt (purchased from the HRC website) on my chair. Wearing it may not feel un-ironic for a long time, but I'll wear it tomorrow to go running. It'll be an aspirational thing. (Plus, that shirt is way too soft--and expensive--to never wear again.)

I'll go to a Chinese class that I share with a room full of the smart and striving and funny children of immigrants, and an International and Area Studies class called "Cultures and Capitalisms." Maybe in class I'll feel that lurking feeling of frustration, of impotence, as we discuss scholars whose names may never touch the lips of many of the people who voted for Trump. As we have lofty conversations about capitalism I'll wonder if all of us with our raised hands are preaching to the choir.

But then I remember, because 4AM is the hour of random things connecting in the brain, something we discussed in another theory-heavy class--my English class ("Postcolonial Sex"--a quintessential Berkeley class if you ever heard one). There we discussed the formation of nations as imagined communities, and how nations are prominently gendered and oftentimes figured as female--i.e., the "motherland."

I bring this up because of all the people who equated the Trump victory to America going down in flames (there was even some spoof video on Facebook circulating titled "Live Electoral Map" that just superimposed an American perimeter on a video of logs burning).

I dearly hope that a Trump presidency will not be a realization of that image.

But if it is, maybe this is the only silver lining of our strange gendering of nations as female: it is women, all the stories tell us, from Sita to Daenarys, who walk through fire the best. And emerging, at the end, unbowed. Unbroken.

Till then, no matter who you voted for, hold each other close.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Data-Driven Everything

1940 US Census. Source:

My boyfriend wears a Fitbit so regularly that once, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I mistook a friend for him—all I had seen, with half the picture cut off, was an arm and the grey, Flex-model Fitbit on the wrist.

I view the thing as half object of intrigue, half handcuff: while the data it collects (on everything from steps walked to sleep patterns) is interesting, it seems like such a lot of work to scroll through it all.

I admit that I’m a hypocrite in saying this, though. My phone’s built-in Samsung Health app counts the steps I’ve walked and can measure my heart rate. With various other tracker apps, you can note menstrual cycles, food consumption, the number of liters of water you drink in a goes on. It would seem that if it exists, it can be measured.

On a larger scale, this love affair with data—what Berkeley geography graduate students Camilla Hawthorne and Brittany Meché termed “fetishized numeration” in their Space & Society article—is visible in corporate, academic, and policy circles. At UC Berkeley, Chancellor Dirks wrote in March that “Across all of higher education, faculty and administrators are increasingly recognizing the need to treat data literacy as a core competency for liberal education.” In an older article, a campus Electrical Engineering and Computer Science professor was more blunt: “There has been massive growth in job opportunities in data-science-related areas…and a shortage of people prepared to fill them, according to Culler.” Dirks’ language of data as a “core competency for liberal education” disguises the perhaps more pressing motive that Culler’s statement illuminates: market demand for data exists, and the university needs to fill it.

William Deresiewicz has written a lovely article entitled “The Neoliberal Arts” about how “college sold its soul to the market,” but that’s actually not my argument here (Deresiewicz does it better).

My concern is, instead, what we we lose when we treat quantitative data as our preeminent means of knowing things about the world.

I worry about this because people seem to gush a lot about things with the words “data-driven” placed in front of them, whether decision-making or teaching or journalism or policy. We talk about “data” as though it possesses magical qualities of complete rationality and objectivity. After all, how could numbers be wrong?

NYTimes profiled Kate Crawford, a visiting MIT professor and researcher at Microsoft Research; she criticized “Big Data fundamentalism—the idea with larger data sets, we get closer to objective truth.” In one example she provided, even something like analyzing the millions of tweets following Hurricane Sandy could provide biased data (since Twitter users tend to be younger and more affluent than the general population affected). Further, she added that “Big Data is neither color blind nor gender blind…Facebook timelines, stripped of data like names, can still be used to determine a person’s ethnicity with 95 percent accuracy.” (Indeed, ProPublica recently published a piece about Facebook using their “Ethnic Affinity” data to give advertisers the option to restrict who viewed their ads—a potential violation of the Fair Housing Act.)

“Ethnic Affinity” is only a recent inheritor of a long history of politically charged data. The late scholar of South Asia Bernard Cohn did extensive work on the first Census conducted by the British in India, pointing out that their Census had a mercantile, extractive goal—after all, counting the subjects of a state is a prerequisite for taxing them. If the British Census in India, Kate Crawford’s example of analyzing tweets, or the use of Facebook’s Ethnic Affinity by advertisers, all serve as any indicator, data is rarely objective: neither in its motives, collection, nor analysis.

But what if we lived in a happy utopia—one of both objective data and objective data analysts? There’s still a problem with privileging one form of knowledge production because of its perceived objectivity and rationality: it denigrates other academic fields. And the fields that my CS major friends might describe as “hand-wavey” are, incidentally, also fields that are heavily populated by women. The ranks of your average Anthropology or English class are very different from those of your average CS or Mathematics class. In 2014, when Berkeley offered its inaugural online data science master’s program, 78% of the course’s students were male (Daily Cal). Certainly people like my data science class’s professor and others at Berkeley are making admirable efforts resulting in tangible change (a little over than half of my intro to data science class is female).

But even if the arbiters of data are increasingly members of underrepresented groups, the issue of discrimination against certain forms of knowledge remains. There’s a clear bifurcation of disciplines into those we think of, implicitly or explicitly, as “feminine” or “masculine.” It’s something that you can witness every time you turn on the evening news, with its lineup of “hard news”—the talk of war and death, money and politics. But take a look at women’s magazines and websites, and it’s often a different set of stories. XOJane has an entire section called “It Happened To Me”: personal narratives. New York Magazine’s The Cut: a weekly feature called Sex Diaries, in which people (men and women alike) submit anonymized documentation of a week’s worth of sexual exploits. Increasingly, however, there’s cross-over—magazines like Cosmopolitan, once better known for aspirational sex positions, are covering “hard news” (documented in this Vox article, “Don’t Underestimate Cosmo: Women’s Magazines Are Taking On Trump”). And papers like the New York Times, with its stiff “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” now feature columns like Modern Love and Campus Lives that put personal narratives, not coldly outlined facts and figures, front and center.

I see this as progress. Plenty of feminist writers like Jessica Valenti use their personal experiences to illuminate global problems, but the language of memory and the personal as a language of knowledge production is not reserved for women alone. Personal narratives should not be considered the stuff of “women’s issues” any more than the 2016 election should be considered not a “women’s issue.” Consider PostSecret (which collects postcards from around the world with secrets depicted on them, posting them weekly), Story Corps (a non-profit project aiming to record stories from Americans of all backgrounds), Moth Radio Hour (a weekly series featuring true stories told live on-stage). One of my favorite Medium articles, a haunting piece with the title “You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile. You Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone. What Do You Do Now?” came from an amazing series called Matter. Matter articles talk about big issues, like “The Racism Beat: What it’s like to write about hate over and over and over,” or “Living and Dying on Airbnb: My dad died in an Airbnb rental, and he’s not the only one. What can the company do to improve safety?”

Notice anything?

These articles all provide knowledge that is grounded in the personal—in story, in life, in memory. 

Not numbers, tables, and scatterplots.

I’m not saying that we don’t need quantitative data. We do. But putting it on a pedestal, ignoring and belittling personal narratives or ethnographies or literary analyses, ignores everything that can’t be quantified.

Take Colorado State University anthropologist Jeffrey Snodgrass’s article “A Tale of Goddesses, Money, and Other Terribly Wonderful Things: Spirit Possession, Commodity Fetishism, and the Narrative of Capitalism in Rajasthan, India” as an example. It told the story of a young mother named Bedami and her husband Ramu. The story started with Bedami’s possession by a goddess (with this being her community’s understanding of her condition). That story unfolded in parallel to an exploration of Ramu’s rejection of the community’s traditional livelihood and norms; he had chosen to take a salaried job, open a bank account, and ordered Bedami to undergo sterilization because of the worry of the expense of too many children. But this parsimonious behavior meant that peers viewed him as insufferably stingy and a traitor to his community. The community concluded that her possession had occurred at least in part due to his miserliness and rejection of tradition. Most of this narrative would go unseen if not for the qualitative information of Snodgrass’s laborious ethnography. The job, bank account, and sterilization might become faceless numbers swimming about in some massive pool, but the real impact of the rocky incursion of modernity in Bedami’s community, and on individuals’ lived experiences, would be rendered invisible.

If you’re a policy-maker trying to get more Indians to sign up for bank accounts (a real priority of the current government, which in August 2014 launched the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana scheme to increase bank account penetration) you need to see people like Bedami and Ramu, not just the numbers of the latest World Bank report, to make effective policy. 

The information that comes from documents like personal narratives and ethnographies is often our only window into worlds that are too fraught to speak of in terms of big data. Where do you get statistics on things like pedophilia or goddess possession? Who answers the polls, or tweets, or picks up the phone, to talk about those topics?

Not everything can be quantified, and that’s a good thing.

I said at the beginning that this was an article about quantitative data, but really, this is a plea for humility. The idea that any one discipline has a monopoly on the truth is highly dangerous. Worshipping at the feet of gods we build out of numbers and code is no better than worshipping at the feet of the gods we imagine. (I’m reminded of that classic Dumbledore line: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”)

Scientists and engineers who believe that their fields lend them omniscience make bad things happen: just Google “scientific racism,” “Guatemala syphilis experiment,” or take a look at the current news about Standing Rock, where engineers seem willfully ignorant of Native American history in their aptness to dismiss the protestors' cause. These all should serve as reminders that our world is much, much better off when scientists and engineers learn from, and believe in the value of, fields like the humanities and social sciences.

And right now, that equality has to start with revising how we look at numbers.