Archive for May 2nd, 2010


Science of Oppression I: A Basic Understanding of Variables

May 2, 2010

This is the first segment in – what should be – a regular series on this site. Part of my answer to the questions I raised in my "Elitism or Anti-Intellectualism" post, I hope to start making current research and discoveries about how humans work more accessible (and digestible) to folks fighting oppression outside of academia. My goal is to create an "online toolkit" of sorts – one full of scientific resources, references, etc. – built specifically for anti-oppression advocates. Those with the power to oppress often use (faulty) "science" to justify further oppression, and I want to do my part to give the rest of us the means to competently push back.

The first few posts in this series will not really focus on any current research, but instead touch on a few key concepts that are necessary to understand before moving forward.

This first is about how variables work, specifically in the context of oppression. Let’s just get to it.

So, just to make sure we’re all on the same page here – a "variable" is one, single, isolated factor of an overall system that has an effect on the system as a whole. Now, a "system" could be anything from a computer network to Oppression (*1) to a specific question about Oppression (ie. "why do black kids tend to sit together at lunch?") – anywhere different pieces, doing different things, come together to make something bigger than those individual pieces.

How they work:
Okay. For any given system, there are a million little variables. Some of them bigger than others. For example, when we’re talking about our group of black kids at lunch, variables that could come into play are: race, age, gender, if the kids know each other, who their family is, the time of day, what’s for lunch that day, who the kids’ classmates are, the weather, the academic subject they studied right before lunch, class, what the kids are wearing, number of parents at home, their favorite color, the color of the lunchroom walls, etc.

Get the picture? Our first mistake when playing with systems – especially in answering big questions – is to choose one variable to focus on and dismissing the rest in our deeper analysis. Usually, we choose the variable that is most personal to us, or the most triggering, or that plays on our fears. We tunnel-vision in on just that one thing and create all sorts of – seemingly – logical arguments to go along with it.

But that’s not how systems work. That’s not how variables work. Because, without some pretty sophisticated statistical analysis (which few of us are capable of carrying out or willing to do), it’s impossible to determine the exact effect of any one variable. (*2) Everything is connected in a system – that’s why it’s called a "system" – so changing any one variable can have a profound effect on how the other variables do their work. Very rarely is any one (or even two or three) variable going to be solely responsible for a particular result, when we’re talking about systems.

When we screw it up:
Going back to our lunchroom – we’ve got a bunch of black kids (say 15 of them), sitting together at a table. In that moment, we decide (because it’s the most obvious) that – clearly – race is the deciding factor in this grouping. How can it not be? It’s so damn obvious, right?

Well, what if I tell you that all these kids are Tanzanian immigrants? Still about race, you say. Well – yeah – but not really. Because then, in this case, the key variable is "where they come from" or "country of origin." It’s the cultural connection from coming from the same place. Or maybe it’s speaking the same language. But it’s not because of race. Race is tied into it, because race is part of this system – if this group of kids is all from the same country of origin (in this case, Tanzania), then it’s likely they’re going to be of the same race. Race is affected by the key variable (country of origin), making it a unifying factor, but it is actually not the answer to our question – "why are these kids all sitting together?" Because, if we move to a table full of kids of all different races – but all from the U.K., say, and we’re in the U.S. – the exact same variable ("where they come from") is likely the key here – it’s the same story – but race isn’t as tied into it, and is then easier to drop from our focus.

Great. But what if we’re in the U.S. and the kids are all U.S. citizens? Then all the black kids sitting together is about race. Obviously.

Well, actually . . . turns out this group of kids are all into hip-hop, and that’s why they came together. Is their love of hip-hop tied to race in this country? Absolutely. But is it the first, key reason these kids came together? No. Because they all came together to talk about Snow’s big comeback album. They don’t normally all sit together, but one kid started talking about Snow, other kids heard and got excited, came over to get in on the conversation, etc. Race is tied to it. It is about race. Because race is a variable that ties to and affects the rest. But the immediate answer to our question "why are these black kids all sitting together?" is – the new Snow album. (*3)

"Sh–, come on," you might be thinking, "these are completely made-up instances, we all know that race is why the black kids are sitting together in real life."

My response is – when it comes to variables and systems: it’s never that easy. Sure, I have a whole post talking about kids sitting together, in relation to race, but you can’t ever fully rule out other variables, as well. It’s usually probably more than one. So – race is important, but often class is tied in. Race and class play off each other so often it’s hard to separate them.

But, more generally, it is probably actually more about connection and feeling like you’re with people like you. As in my post ("On Kids and Race"), the key variable is actually those things – the connection, the comfort, the safety. Universals that all kids want, but, in this case, falls out along racial lines. (*4) Again, though – the key variable is not race – it’s connection. Meaning – if you can find an even more-comfortable connection between kids of different racial groups, they’ll go for that new connection over race alone. And then, suddenly – it’s "not about race," anymore. (*5) Often, the most obvious, stand-out variable that seems to explain a situation is actually just a secondary result of the real, deeper-level key variable.

Our natural tendency, as people, is towards mental laziness. (*6) We don’t like using up precious brain-energy digging deep into things, so we latch onto the most simple answers. The most "obvious." That’s why Oppression is so strong and universal – because it’s easier to generalize that somebody’s race (which is easy to see) is why "they’re like that," as opposed to a combination of more-accurate (but less "obvious") variables like media, how their teachers treat them, how people react when they first meet, etc. Exchange "race" for other "obvious" variables like "gender" or "sexuality" or "religion" (especially "easy to see" religions like Islam) and you see how stereotypes develop.

Oppression Olympics
This is where the misunderstanding of variables pisses me off the most. When various oppressed peoples start to tee off on each other about "who has it worse" or "who’s just as bad" instead of actually doing anything constructive to fix either group’s problems.

Because "who has it worse" is a ridiculously huge, complicated system. So many variables are tied into it. Which makes it pointless to argue.

What if we decide that "having it the worst" is about inequality in the justice system? Our prison and court system is f–ed. Nobody will argue that. It’s unfair. The law plays out differently for different people. Okay, so I’ve checked the statistics, and it turns out that men are imprisoned the most, by far. So men must have it "the worst."

No – that’s idiotic, you say. It’s not men, in general, that are getting screwed by the system – it’s black men. Check the stats – they’re definitely imprisoned the most. We all agree with that. Black men have it "the worst."

But no, no, no, no – it’s not about men or race at all. Look at the statistics more carefully – it’s people living in poverty that are imprisoned the most. This is a class issue. It’s not about race.

Fools. Look into it further – sure, people living in poverty are imprisoned the most, but it’s actually urban folks living in poverty that get the most prison time; those rural poor are doing fine.

And that’s when the ladies might chime in and say – who cares about prison time, when the victims of crime are disproportionately female? Women are the ones really dealing with "the worst" injustice.

But actually – it’s women of color who are even more disproportionately the victims of violent crimes.

Not women of color . . . women from poverty . . .

It goes on and on and on until, at some point, some fool just completely kills all of it when they say, but what about the rich people? Rich people are disproportionately put in jail for white-collar crime, so who really "has it worse"?

You get me here? To each of us, personally, our particular oppressive variable of choice is the "most important." That’s our focus, and that’s the one we’re going to argue for. That’s the one we’re going to go out of our way to read about, find data on, get to know and understand the best. (*7) And so, when somebody else claims that their variable is bigger, well . . . that’s just preposterous.

Except – it isn’t. Nobody lives in a vacuum. (*8) No one oppressive variable remains untouched by the rest. This is the concept that so many white feminists just never seem to understand – that how gender oppression plays out for women of color is not the same as how it plays out for white women. Because other variables are at play. You cannot talk about sexual oppression without considering race – because they’re connected. They’re part of the same system.

And that applies to all the rest. There are so many versions of Privilege out there. Just because you’re not white or rich doesn’t mean you don’t carry some privilege. In fact, pretty much everybody carries some sort of privilege over other people – that’s how variables work. Unless you’re a darker-skinned, homeless, poor, trans, substance-addicted, orphan, uneducated, illiterate, obese, physically-scarred, political refugee, immigrant, HIV-positive, victim of abuse, person practicing an obscure religion in the developing country with the lowest GDP, in the midst of a civil war and living with disabilities . . . you have some privilege. In fact, even the previously-mentioned person would still probably hold some kind of privilege (even though it would make no positive difference to them, whatsoever).

We do not live in a vacuum. Reality means that so many variables all come into play – at every moment. Deciding "who has it worst" is a complete waste of time. Arguing it? Even more so. My oppressive variable affects your oppressive variable – and every one in between.

It’s all connected. It all applies. It’s all important and all unjust. How it plays out is so very different, on the surface, but a lot of the key, underlying variables are quite the same.

Take this lesson home:

So – consider how variables work. Focus on your particular variable – nothing wrong with that, because your variable is important – but never fool yourself into believing that yours is the only one at play in a given situation. Never believe that you can’t find a solution to your issue by understanding somebody else’s issue. Look for underlying causes that unify. Ask the right questions (ditch the "big" vague questions and get specific).

And stop wasting your time keeping up with the Jones’ by trying to carry the biggest chip on your shoulder, and get to focusing on removing that chip, instead (and even convincing other people to help you remove that chip by helping them remove theirs – even if you think their’s is smaller).

This whole Oppression thing is a big, complicated mess. Understanding variables and how they relate is just a first step to cleaning it up a little bit.

Yeah, that’s right – I’m giving y’all homework. If you’re anything like my middle school students (which, ultimately, I’ve found that everybody is), you won’t do it. But I hope you do.

So – go check out this article I recently saw cited on Racialicious (about empathy in regards to race) and try and spot the completely irresponsible reporting and neglect of a simple understanding of how variables work. Chime back in here in the comments section and let me know what you think. In a couple days, I’ll tear it up myself if y’all don’t do it, but I’d rather hear it from you.

Go get ’em.

Next Step:
Stop looking to prove yourself right: Becoming aware of Confirmation Bias.

(*1) From here on, capital "O" Oppression is the system, lower-case "o" oppression is about instances.

(*2) And even statistical analysis falls short a lot of the time.

(*3) To any of those who missed that privileged window of opportunity to have basked in the joy of Snow and his hit song (his only one, as far as I’m aware) "Informer," look it up and know that I’m being a smart-ass on this one.

(*4) As hard as scientists try to make racial identification a "biological trait" for humans – race ends up just being another variable affected by the look for "people like me" vs. "people not like me."

(*5) But to stop any mis-use of my statements at the door – more often than not, race is the key-variable that gets glossed over by people’s desires to maintain the status quo (i.e. pretend there is no white privilege). For example:

A black woman (we’ll call her "J") doesn’t get the job. She’s just as qualified as other interviewees, but, somehow – it just didn’t happen. Of course, when we question the hiring board, they say she just "didn’t interview as well as the others," "she seemed awkward/uncomfortable." So – the key-variable here is certainly not race – they would have loved to hire her if she interviewed well, but it’s simply a matter of qualifications and earning the spot – the other candidate interviewed better.

And the thing is – she was uncomfortable. Her interview wasn’t as smooth as the other candidate. So that’s that, right? The obvious key variable was the interview, and she didn’t do as well, so don’t you try to use Affirmative Action to get an "underqualified" person of color MY job, thank you very much . . .

Except, well – the hiring board was four white men and a white woman. And the person hired was a white man. When he interviewed, he was relaxed and comfortable – because he was interviewing with a group of his cultural peers. He made little jokes referencing "Seinfeld" and "Two and a Half Men," and just seemed so charming. "J," on the other hand, was uncomfortable. She knows that her race is a glaring marker of "outsider" at this company, and she wasn’t quite able to laugh convincingly at that one guy’s joke about "Superbad."

She’s usually confident-as-Hell and quite good socially, but she was on edge and uncomfortable the whole time because she couldn’t play the game right. So she didn’t get the job. And the deep-level, key variable? Her race. Which, to the hiring board is preposterous, because they aren’t looking at how variables interact – all they saw was the surface – that she was uncomfortable. But had they made their company truly equal-opportunity and a comfortable place for PoC? She would have interviewed much better, the white guy would have been less "in," and it may have been a very different story.

So please don’tmisinterpret me as supporting "color-blindness" with one reference to it "not being about race." And those that believe in "color-blindness," do not mis-use my writing as "support" for your arguments.

(*6) In the future, there will be a "Science of Oppression" post that touches on this concept.

(*7) With a heavy dose of "Confirmation Bias" – the next subject in this series.

(*8) Anybody curious as to the origin of that phrase about "vacuums" – a ton of scientific experiments (especially chemical and physical sciences) are conducted in a "vacuum" (in a sealed tube with no air whatsoever) to completely eliminate outside variables. So if I say that "metal X burns quicker than metal Y," I know that that’s the case, because there were no other factors (no oxygen or other gases) that could have played into it. Except, well – we don’t "live in a vacuum" – meaning that, maybe, in real life, in the real air where there are other gases and variables, it’s the opposite: metal Y always burns faster than metal X. So which case is the reality?