Monday, November 14, 2011

Seeing Color, Seeing Smart

A reader recently sent this article to me, describing the recent firestorm surrounding CNN's new documentary "The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley" in its "Black in America" series. Although the documentary has not yet been released, a variety of soundbites from it have made their way into the limelight, which is causing the controversy.

Generally I really dislike when people take soundbites out of context. I'm sure Mike Arrington's remark that started all this ("I don’t know a single black entrepreneur.") had more context surrounding it. However, something struck me in his blog rebuttal to the world. (From NYT article):
On Oct. 28, Mr. Arrington took to his blog to accuse CNN of ambushing him. He asserted that he said he knew no black entrepreneurs because he doesn’t “categorize people as black or white or gay or straight in my head.” 
He wrote, “They’re just smart or not smart.”
The problem is, how he thin slices "smart" is almost certainly based on someone's appearance, accent, vocabulary, phrasings, and body language. And in technology, those in Silicon Valley who are not in the "White, American Male" category almost certainly have to work harder to earn a "smart" label.

I could cite compelling scientific evidence to support my claim (pick up just about any issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the Harvard race project, or even just Google Scholar for "seeing race"), but for the purpose of brevity I will (just once) argue by anecdote: I am often told, "but you don't look like a Computer Scientist!". Why? Because the image burned in our brains of a smart computer scientist is: young, white, American male. Used to be a man with dark greasy hair and glasses, now it is a blunt, sneaky, snappy Jesse Eisenburg type man. But, still man, still white, still American.

"Seeing Smart" still means seeing color, seeing gender, seeing ethnicity. It just means you might cut someone a break if they can manage to work past those initial, societal-given barriers of What a Smart Person Looks Like.

This will eventually change, but Hollywood needs to step up and quit playing to tropes. Quit casting people of color and women as tokens/BBFs while the young white men do all the science and inventing. *This* is where kids get their role models from. This is where society gets its ideas of what Smart looks like.

Huh. I think I have the start of a STEM education grant here...


  1. Very good post. Thank you. Let me back you up with another anecdote.

    A couple years ago, at a department event to honor the retiring of a member, one of the honoring speakers said of the retiree "He's a [scientist] who doesn't look or act like a [scientist]." And proceeded to describe his stereotype as long haired and unkempt.

    The guy standing next to me looked around the room to determine that he was the only long haired male in the room, and commented that the department seemed to lack the stereotype since he seemed to be the only long haired [scientist] in the room.

    I pointed to my waist long hair, and the long hair of half the women in the room and watched him try to back out of that statement.

    Forget race, no one wants to say the m word when describing stereotypes.

  2. I do agree with you that a lot of people do think "white, male" when they think "smart" or when they think "computer scientist".

    But I must also point out that there is a subtle difference between "looking like a computer scientist" and "looking smart" -- at least from the point of view of experts. For example, I would think a student is smart if they asked an insightful question -- regardless of how they looked -- and most academics I know would do the same. While it may be easy to convince non-experts that one is smart by "having the right look", my impression is that convincing experts is not so easy.

    My point here is not that Arrington may be right -- to be honest, judging by what he said, he does not sound that smart himself. My point is more that there is hope -- while non-experts may rely on aspects such as looks, a true expert will often see through these aspects, and be able to judge if a person is smart.

  3. Hi Female Computer Scientist,

    You have a lot of followers... I would love if you would write about

    I am a female assistant professor in Molecular Biology (with 3 kids and too much to do). But I feel strongly about this movement.
    And forgive me if you've gotten this already.

    Next week the Congress Joint Select 'super' Committee on Deficit Reduction will decide where to make the next big cuts. If they do not agree or find a plan to reduce spending, sweeping cuts will be put into effect that will likely affect everyone in science and academia.

    A group of MIT students have started a letter urging Congress not to cut science funding and they are amassing signatures. They include an amazing video that describes the importance of science, engineering and technology to our daily lives and to American jobs. It's a positive message, and really accessible to the public.

    There are now about 7000 signatories on this letter, including Nobel Prize winners and numerous well known scientists (you can view signatories Bob Horvitz #6854, Philip Sharp #6866, Bob Weinberg #6846, Susan Lindquist #6727, Doug Melton #6994, Ray MacDonald#3652, Gary Ruvkun #3712, Didier Stainier #4064, Richard Hynes, Luisa Iruela-Arispe #5087, Andrew Ewald #6899, etc...) and the number keeps growing.

    The video and petition have clearly gone viral, which is great. The main message is that the future of science is at stake.

    This video and letter have been covered by the NY Times, Science (AAAS) and many other news organizations and blogs. We need faculty and respected scientists to help further this worthy request to Congress.

    If you have time, please view the MIT student video and consider signing the letter.

  4. Hello admin,You mention such a great things here and it is always pleassure to read. Hope to hear more and learn from you.