Archive | July, 2013

Reflections on the Zimmerman trial

18 Jul

In the wake of George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict in his shooting of Trayvon Martin, I keep returning to something Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, declared after the verdict:  “There is a difference between the law and what people think is fundamentally justice” (

Now, it’s a broad reach for Arnwine to refer to all people with this statement. I don’t think “people” in this context includes those who believe that justice is colorblind, and that the law protects everyone equally because it doesn’t acknowledge how racial identity and bias inform a defendant’s perception of “justified use of deadly force” or a juror’s interpretation of “reasonable doubt.” I think those are the people who believe justice has, in fact, been served by the jury’s application of the law.

But the fact is that colorblind really means colormute (Pollock) because we can’t help seeing what we see when we register another person. And as much as some people would like to believe that justice is colorblind, there does seem to be a color-disparate consequence to the law. As Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post reports:

A little less than 3 percent of black-on-white homicides taking place in circumstances similar to the Trayvon Martin case are ruled to be justified, according to a study by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. But when the races are reversed and whites kill blacks, the percentage of cases that are ruled to be justified climbs to more than 29 percent in non-stand-your-ground states — and almost 36 percent in stand-your-ground states such as Florida, where the law allows people to defend themselves with deadly force, if necessary, if they believe someone is trying to kill or harm them (

So while Juror B-37 claimed to Anderson Cooper that “[n]one of the jurors thought race played a role in the case… In fact the question of Zimmerman profiling Martin because he was African-American didn’t even come up in deliberations” (, there is a substantive body of research that indicates that it is normative for race to play a role in the deliberations of juries, whether they admit it or not.

Nonetheless, what Juror B-37’s interview ( is supposed to educate us to is that Zimmerman’s jury was uniquely free of racial considerations (i.e. in pursuit of some true justice, disembodied from human perception and experience) and sympathetic to Martin’s family but bound by the higher and again raceblind standards of the law. In her interview with Cooper, this juror holds steadfast to her colorblind adamance when she refers to what Martin “could have” done instead of responding aggressively when Zimmerman confronted him aggressively. As she speaks, what I hear is how she would have responded, which is inextricably tied up in who she is, including her sex, race, age, upbringing, current social status and experiences with strangers who resemble Zimmerman. This is not to deny that Martin did indeed have options: it’s to say that our habits, our available choices and our instincts are color-informed, rather than colorblind, just as they are informed by other aspects of our identity and experiences, and the similarities and differences we see between ourselves and The Other in a charged situation.

If anything, the fact that race “didn’t even come up in deliberations” is deeply disturbing to me because if we don’t name race, we can’t admit to, confront and think intentionally about our biases. And we end up thinking as “many” do that “this case should never have been about race. It would be unfair to make George Zimmerman pay for generations of racial inequalities, no matter how real or painful those troubles may be” ( Whoa, now. Let’s parse this position:

At the same time that this unnamed “many” believe that racial inequality is a reality in the processes and outcomes of our judicial system, they insist there’s no relevance or bearing on the Zimmerman trial. Because their leaping assumption is that acknowledging discrimination in the very forum where it matters would be making an individual “pay” for the sum total of racial inequalities since the dawn of time.


Isn’t there a middle ground between automatic guilty verdicts just because you’re white and more-or-less automatic not guilty verdicts just because you’re white? Doesn’t there have to be if we’re going to talk about justice? It’s stunning to me that we as a society can recognize a historic, persistent and devastatingly impactful bias and refuse to do anything about it. Because as long as we refuse to connect the specific tree in front of us with the forest in which it stands, aren’t we just giving racial injustice a hall pass?

No, Zimmerman should not have been made to “pay for generations of racial inequalities.” Neither should we pretend that race has nothing to do with Martin’s death, the road to prosecuting Zimmerman, the verdict itself and the aftermath of that decision. Let’s dispense with these red herring extremes and find our way back to our shared responsibility: given documented “generations of racial inequalities,” interrogating what we do in the name of justice that enables and perpetuates inequity in our legal systems. (For example, trying to repress the explicit mention of race: when it’s a fact in every trial and a factor in how human beings perceive each other.) It’s not enough to shake our heads as if racial inequality mysteriously and magically happens to us, and then proceed as we always have. As the saying goes, we need to accept that the legal system we’ve created is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. And if those results include racial inequality, then there’s a flaw that we created and can address. Maybe we won’t ever achieve perfect equality for all in our legal system, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it. We shouldn’t settle for law that is so different from the justice we all deserve.

“Sum Ting Wong” is very wrong

15 Jul

Maybe you’ve already seen this update on the Asiana 214 crash at San Francisco International Airport:

I find this story incredibly disheartening, as do, apparently, the friends and colleagues who have sent it to me with little to no text  in their e-mails other than the link. So what exactly is bothering me?

That in the middle of a tragedy like this, a twelve-year-old US boy, sees an opportunity to make fun of Asian people. I say Asian, because the butt of his humor is Chinese names, although the pilots of this flight are Korean (which I doubt mattered much in this boy’s analysis of the situation and his chance to yuk it up). Without knowing the race or ethnicity of the boy in question (who could, for all we know, be Asian-American), the joke is about those Asians, the ones who speak in that ridiculous “ching chong”, not the assimilated hyphenated Asians with proper Christian names. (The “ching chong” pejorative was revived and made viral by former UCLA student Alexandra Wallace in her “Asians in the Library” rant, which is now notably, unavailable online.) Where to start with this child, if he were a student of mine? I’d begin with respect for those who are dead, injured, traumatized and/or grieving the death of a friend or loved one. And then I’d talk to him about what’s racist about his joke, why that racism isn’t “just a joke” and what choices good people have when they do racist things. Because that’s one of the epidemic problems of our time: people giving themselves license to do racist, sexist, classist and homophobic things because they’re good people, after all. (For a refresher on how to tell someone they just said something racist, see Jay Smooth’s video that I’ve mentioned before:

That a group of adults fell for this sophomoric joke. I’m sitting here wondering how they could possibly have missed it. Sum Ting Wong? Wi Tu Lo? Ho Lee Fuk? Bang Ding Ow? Hello, KTVU? I find myself falling back on my standby strategy when I’m at a loss, and need some help getting beyond my initial gut response, which is to ask myself: what are at least three explanations for how this got on air?

  1. Reporting, which is increasingly crowd-sourced these days, is happening at a fast and furious pace. No time for fact-checking. (Insert joke here about the fact that KTVU is a FOX affiliate.)
  2.  There was independent confirmation that these were, in fact, the names of the Asiana crew.
  3. The KTVU staff is very visual, not auditory and simply didn’t hear the bad joke… even when anchor Tori Campbell read the names aloud on air.
  4. Campbell and her staff were so focused on the trees (spelling and capitalization of names) that they completely missed the forest (the pronunciation). This hyper-focus may have been due to the urgency of the story, general nearsightedness, the non-Western names that stories from Asia typically involve.
  5. The staff read the names and just figured they were right. Not that they got the joke–I have to believe that would have triggered their due diligence. Rather, that they didn’t bother to think about the names at all because, like so many Asian names, they were just gobbledygook.
  6. The staff was afraid to question the names, for fear of looking silly, ignorant… or even racist.

I’m sure we could come up with more, but let’s stop here for a moment. (And FYI: an NTSB intern did, in fact, verify the fake pilot names:,0,7836770.story.) When I step back and consider just these possibilities, I see some themes: good (enough) intentions, lack of malice and concerted blindness. It seems quite likely to me that the professionals at KTVU didn’t see the joke before they became part of it. But that’s not to say they’re not responsible in part for what happened.

Whether out of embarrassment, alienation, disinterest or xenophobia, the folks at KTVU didn’t pay attention to the names. They didn’t really see them or hear them because they were too different, too insignificant or too “ching chong.” Whatever the particular reason, which I do think each person who handled this story should consider for themselves, I have to wonder: if they don’t see the names, do they see the people attached to them?

** Thanks to my friends and colleagues NS and JL for the link.

Sexism and racism in Hollywood… still?

11 Jul

Shocking, right?

I happened across two different snippets of Hollywood chatter yesterday:

Lucasfilm has authenticated the leaked casting call for Star Wars VII (will it ever end??), which calls for:

Late-teen female, independent, good sense of humour, fit.

Young twenty-something male, witty and  smart, fit but not traditionally good looking.

A late twentysomething male, fit, handsome and confident.

Seventy-something male, with strong opinions and tough demeanour. Also doesn’ t need to be particularly fit.

A second young female, also late teens, tough, smart and fit.

Forty something male, fit, military type.

Thirtysomething male, intellectual. Apparently doesn’t need to be fit (

This prompted “science, science fiction, and the future” website io9 to trumpet that “while the general descriptions are fairly vague, we think it’s important to note the presence of strong, late-teenaged females.”

Strong, late-teenaged white females? I’m curious to see how open all of these roles, which are indeed “vague” regarding race, will end up being for people of diverse complexions. (And given Lucas’ track record with racial stereotypes, I’m also dreading it.)

And to io9’s point, yes, it’s hard not to note the emphasis on girl power. The question is what that means.

Right after I read the Star Wars news, I caught this Guardian interview with Ellen Page. When asked if she’s ever experienced sexism in Hollywood, Page responds:

Oh my God, yeah! It’s constant! It’s how you’re treated, it’s how you’re looked at, how you’re expected to look in a photoshoot, it’s how you’re expected to shut up and not have an opinion, it’s how you… If you’re a girl and you don’t fit the very specific vision of what a girl should be, which is always from a man’s perspective, then you’re a little bit at a loss (

Page’s perspective is no big surprise, and a poignant contrast to the desire to cast girls who look strong… even if they’re not supposed to be once the cameras stop rolling. And it makes me think about Anita Sarkeesian’s writings ( about representations of girls and women created by and for men (see 6/24/13 post on female archetypes in video games). Specifically, how may the appearance of female strength subtly and powerfully reinforce gender roles, when all too often the girls/women in question are written into scripts where they need to be saved by men. In other words, no matter how strong, they’re never strong enough to be equal to men.

This isn’t meant as an indictment of Star Wars VII, a movie I know nothing about (and have no interest researching). Rather, it’s a more general question about appearance and substance when it comes to social progress in Hollywood, and beyond.

Korean matters

9 Jul

The ongoing coverage of the terrible Asiana Airlines plane crash on Saturday includes this headline from today’s Chronicle: “Asiana crash a point of national shame for Koreans” ( In describing “the link between the success or failure of South Korean firms and a sense of national pride or shame,” the article notes the 1997 Korean Air crash that occurred when an experienced pilot missed the Guam airport and hit a mountain while making a second attempt to land. That crash killed 228 of the 254 people on board.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the Korean Air crash in his article “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” which you can read in his book Outliers. Gladwell presents a theory of communication failure that involves two cultures: the culture of the cockpit, which has a clear chain of command; and the culture of Korea, which also has a high power distance index, meaning that Koreans tend in general to respect authority and maintain a social hierarchy. (The term “power distance index” was coined by Geert Hofstede, who developed a theory of cultural dimensions doing research for IBM in the 60’s and 70’s).

Gladwell’s article is a vivid example of how culture matters–not just how it’s interesting, colorful or exotic, but how it shapes our everyday interactions, decisions and actions. The implication is not that a cockpit crew of US Americans (who have a much lower power distance than Koreans) is innately better or superior: little respect for authority could obviously have disastrous consequences during a life-or-death situation. The point is that understanding power distance and other normative aspects of culture (like distinction between gender roles, focus on the short v. long term, and valuation of the individual v. the collective) can help us communicate with more awareness, intention and effectiveness, whether we’re trying to communicate intraculturally or interculturally.

For more on Hofstede’s work, you can get an overview on wikipedia:

and go to his website:

Define “normal”

3 Jul

The ever controversial Barbie doll has made the news again. Illustrator Nickolay Lamm, inspired by fellow activist Michael Koschitzki (who has argued that “a real woman with Barbie’s figure would be anorexic, wouldn’t be able to walk, and would never get her period”), has created a “normal woman” Barbie. He took Barbie’s “18” waist, 33″ hips and… 36″ bust” and used CDC measurements to recast Barbie with a “typical 19-year-old girl’s 31″ waist, 33″ hips and a 32″ bust” (

Et voila… Barbie!


Two comments:

  • Barbie v2.0 looks good! Healthy and strong.
  • If we’re shooting for “normal,” then along with Barbie’s new measurements, she’d also be Asian, right? Given that Asians make up over 4 billion of the earth’s 7 billion population? ( Lamm’s work is a great opportunity to reconsider all that we mean when we talk about what’s “normal.”

Quote of the day

2 Jul

“[The federal Defense of Marriage Act] demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, and it humiliates the tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.”

–US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion striking down the Defense of Marriage Act