The danger of the white American liberal

What a team of 10-year-olds building a robot can teach us about sexism and racism in the US.

Gender divisions start at a young age. The children in this picture do not depict the characters in this story [Getty Images]

The boys’ voices were getting louder. The argument over who had the best design for a sampling probe had devolved into an argument about who’s idea was “just really stupid”.

I sat in the science class, surrounded by Lego at a table designed for eighth graders, listening preoccupied to their argument. My mind was elsewhere, fascinated by the only girl on their team, who was doing something remarkable.

My presence in that classroom two decades ago was the result of a nearly two-year journey. As an anthropology student at The College of Charleston, I had designed a project to try to understand the high attrition rate of underrepresented students in mathematics and science.

My idea: problem-based learning on cooperative teams, rather than the lecture-based and competitive approaches common in schools.

Each class would choose a semester-long problem and a mission to solve the problem, including what “success” meant. To illustrate the variety of work, collaboration and teamwork go into science, the only stipulation was they had to define cooperative teams.

“Our team is going to be the best,” one boy in my first class immediately announced.

“Then you will fail,” I responded gravely.

“This is how science works,” I said to the class. “There is no final exam here. There is only the mission. You succeed at the mission, and you all pass. But if your team thinks it’s the best while another team fails, then the mission fails. And if the mission fails, every one of you fails this class.”

It was a grave message to give to eighth graders. It was also a rather audacious project and one that took some convincing to institute.

The first school principal I brought it to laughed me out of her office, telling me that I should return when I had a degree and an understanding of how to teach children. Fair criticism, if short-sighted. Problem-based learning was certainly nothing new by the late 1990s, but it had yet to enter the gestalt of the South Carolina school system.

Very quickly, I began to feel like the mythical Cassandra, holder of an important truth no one would believe.

Time and time again, I was rejected, but I knew deep down in that place where all unknown and untested truths are known and need no test, that my idea would work, so I was undaunted. After all, I’m an American. Our heroes – in both our history and our fiction – are dominantly men (we’re not so keen on women) who did whatever crazy thing they wanted to do, despite everyone telling them not to.

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Fighting the system 

The United States loves the underdog, the dissenter who fights stupidity, or oppression, or both until he arises, at last, victorious (and completely unaware of the collateral damage). That tale is instilled in us as canon before many of us know how to read. It’s basically the US’ origin story.

So when faced with rejection by “the system,” I simply fought the system harder. Finally, a middle school in a Charleston suburb gave me a spot for my first class. That class, enthralled as they were with the then current news of the Mars Pathfinder, chose a similar project. They created teams to do research, public relations, funding, logistics, and the team I was sitting with during the argument: robotics.

The Robotics team consisted of three boys and one girl, Kristen Valles*, who joined the team despite the fact that she “couldn’t help much because [she didn’t] know anything about robots”. It was Kristen whom I was so absorbed in watching. 

The argument had devolved further from “your idea is stupid” to “you’re stupid”. Against the backdrop of this invective, Kristen pulled oddly shaped Lego pieces out of the boxes on the table. I thought she was simply playing, doing the Lego equivalent of doodling, until she leaned back and silently tested a working sampling probe designed fundamentally differently than anything the boys were arguing about.

I looked at the boys to see if they realised what had happened, but they were all oblivious to her actions and indeed her very presence. When I looked back at Kristen, she was just as silently deconstructing her work. Then she sat quietly and waited for their argument to end.

In four classes over three years, that gender acculturation would play out so many times one could think it staged. If two or more boys were together, they would argue over who was right. It was as if every boy lived in his own American Cassandra myth, sure that he held the truth, and ready to fight until he was victorious, despite the collateral damage.

Girls, by contrast, would most often just solve the problem. It was common to have girls suggest they try another person’s design and then try theirs – a tactic I thought was based on confidence in the other’s failure until (with remarkable slowness) I recognised that it was actually an efficient way to avoid an argument by giving another person voice, while simultaneously testing all solutions to find the best.

At their heart, science and engineering are not about being right, but about solving problems. It looked to me as though girls obviously had the better strategy for solving problems. The boy’s core competency seemed to be fighting.

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Diversity and inclusion

Recently, one of those argumentative boys – not one of my former students, although he could easily have been – wrote a manifesto at Google challenging diversity and inclusion initiatives. Too many analyses have already been written for me to think I can nail a coffin lid to a horse carcass. I’m rather more interested in the broader response itself.

Of the text, one sentence, in particular, struck me: “When it comes to diversity and inclusion, Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.”

Here, again, we see our beloved origin story: the brave dissenter, challenging stupidity and oppression. Unfortunately for lovers of that story, the truth is much more mundane, if more uncomfortable.

It is ironic that Google would be seen as a politically correct monoculture. As a company it is something like two percent black and embroiled in a legal battle with the US Department of Labor over “discrimination against women [that] is quite extreme, even in this industry”.

And Google is not alone, it is merely toeing the party line of the supposed left-leaning Silicon Valley, which is a hi-tech centre that apparently specialises in the creation of headlines on everything from sexual harassment to employees paid so little they are forced to live in garages.

And lest we criticise Silicon Valley alone, it is simply toeing California’s party line, which banned affirmative action programmes in the late 1990s and destroyed minority college enrollment rates, effectively removing any hope of solving the supposed “pipeline problem”.

California, meanwhile, is really just following the great American standard. Our biggest success in all aspects of diversity is the self-congratulatory suggestion that we look at “how much better it is than 50 years ago”.

It’s understandable that the manifesto’s author would see things this way. Many who question diversity are rarely conscious of the homogeneity of their immediate surroundings. Our tragic Cassandra feels shamed in a monoculture populated almost entirely by the US’ holy trinity: straight, white and male. It would be comically ironic, if it weren’t so frustrating.

I have no doubt the author is surrounded by groupthink liberals whose knee-jerk reaction is mob-like ostracism. Any black American knows that scene as the most mundane American drama. The overlap of racist realities with liberal demographics is generations old and points to an uncomfortable truth those liberals often find too easy to ignore.

Sadly, “diversity” is the new “politically correct,” and we all know what a disaster that has become. What was intended as a way to learn a modicum of cultural sensitivity became that wretched assurance to white people that if they said African American instead of black, they were not racist – despite their actual thoughts or actions. Many white people’s understanding never gets further than “What’s the right word to call negroes now?”

So much of what we hear as “politically correct” is the result of one white person telling another white person what “the right word is,” while both are too nervous to ask, or worse, too unconcerned to learn anything from the people they are talking about.

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‘Genetic differences’ 

Diversity can easily live out a similar existence as a check mark on white America’s to-do list if it follows a similar methodology of white men wanting to feel good about themselves without inviting anyone else into the room.

Scanning news articles and Medium posts about the Google manifesto illustrates this danger. One immediately notices the overwhelming number of white male responses focusing on what the author did or should have done. Contrast this with the (fewer) number of responses from women, most of which focus on their own experiences.

I would agree there is probably an echo chamber in Google, I just seriously doubt it is echoing anything but the US’ status quo.

The juxtaposition between the stated core values espoused by Google’s senior leadership and the stunning lack of diversity in their employment allows only the most willingly blind observers to trust their motives. It is impossible for any thinking person to believe that a company whose core competency is essentially “the ability to find anything” would be totally stumped on how to find a single black engineer. The only reasonable conclusion is that they have no real desire to do so.

In his letters from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr shamed the white moderate, those of a liberal mind who sided with the oppressed in concept, but who did little to help – or even obstructed – their progress. This is similar to how I see much of liberal America, and certainly much of the technology industry. Diversity is a nice idea in concept, but it can wait for “a more convenient season” – that season likely being after a company’s exit strategy or possibly as a settlement of its sexual harassment lawsuit.

I agree with King’s frustration at the white moderate. At least the manifesto author – and by proxy, the conservative establishment – is honest about the lack of concern for achieving real equity in underrepresented groups. Like King, I would rather deal with his absolute misunderstanding than with the shallow understanding of much of liberal America. The former is at least an unfair fight I might labour to make fair.

When Dylann Roof killed nine innocent people at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, liberal white America was quick to condemn him as an evil individual, not indicative of any broader social construct. As if the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse meant nothing. As if the mass incarceration of black men for generations has meant nothing. As if generations of redlining home ownership in liberal white communities has meant nothing. Liberals asked why he did it, never asking “Why have I allowed this?”

Liberal white America saw in Dylann Roof an other, abhorrent and unlike them in every way. Yet he was an outcome of so much that America – even liberal America – promotes and yet shirks responsibility for. Dylann Roof was an extremist supported as much by the soft silence of liberals as by the racist uncles they share the Christmas table with and do not openly oppose for fear that doing so might make the holiday dinner uncomfortable.

I see a similar disingenuousness in the outcry about this manifesto. Are we so willingly blind that we honestly expected anything less? If so, it’s remarkable how easy it is to condemn the evil other when we can use that to avoid facing our responsibility for the society we ourselves have created and work to maintain. The opinions of the manifesto and the assurance that “they certainly do not reflect our core values” are both core American conceits.

During my anthropology research over three years, nearly all eighth-grade girls I interviewed indicated they were not good at science and mathematics – even those planning to choose it as a career. Those girls decided they would simply have to work harder or, in the words of one heartbreaking response, “maybe not be as good, but still do my best”.

By contrast, most boys thought they were good at maths and science. Even more to the point, most boys thought that girls were not as good as boys at maths and science.

Let this sink in: By the age of 10, the US has successfully conditioned her boys to assume that girls can’t do maths and science, at least not as well as they can.

Suggesting women aren’t suited to hi-tech jobs because of “genetic differences” is something any one of my 10-year-old boys would have written. Girls aren’t as good, it’s innate, no big deal. That author is little more than a mindless drone thoughtlessly promoting the core message of The American Cultural Machine.

Yet our knee-jerk reaction is to condemn him for being The Evil Manifesto Author so we can sleep well knowing the lack of representation and support for underrepresented groups has nothing whatsoever to do with our own actions or lack thereof. Google’s solution was to fire him, make a weak statement about “core values,” and get back to working on that discrimination lawsuit.

Rather than ostracise him into martyrdom, I’d rather his manifesto be ignored – or used as an example to teach other 10-year-old boys – while we move forward on actually doing the hard work of social equality that we should, but obviously are not, doing.

At the very least, we should stop dramatically shouting about his wrongness as if we don’t implicitly support both his fundamental position and the atmosphere that gave to its publication. Unless you’re a brown-skinned lesbian without a trust fund, you need to admit you have some skin in his game.

Even I, as a straight male, am complicit. This was made clear to me two decades before it was even written in the way I embarrassed the only girl on a team by thoughtlessly calling her out in front of her classmates.

“Not one of you saw what Kristen did,” I said, stupidly unaware of her discomfort. “While all of you were arguing, she built a design better than all of yours. Kristen, why did you take it apart?”

“They were arguing,” she said, “so I thought their designs were better.”

None of them were, but they were willing to fight. And one of them was eventually chosen, because the boy who designed it was confident, assertive, and most of all kept fighting. In the end, Kristen voted for his design, too. That’s a tragic lesson I never meant to teach: Who the beneficiaries are of our cultural biases.

In the US, he who argues loudest and longest reigns victorious, regardless of the collateral damage.

*Name has been changed

John Metta has Bachelor’s degrees in geology and anthropology and Master’s degrees in geography and ecological engineering.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera