Gender in Diaspora

There’s some discussion on Sarah Mei’s blog about the fact that the “gender” field in the Diaspora code base is a text field, and not a dropdown. I paid attention during my cultural studies classes and I personally have no problem with the implications of having more than two choices for gender. However, there is a tension here, as there often is, between having the data be exhaustive and having the data be easy to enter.

I guess I’d take it as a given that the vast majority of Diaspora users will want to identify their gender as male or female, and for this people this change is a small step backward in terms of usability. Having a text field when you could have a dropdown or radio button of just two choices is noticeably less usable. And if you want your gender to be searchable (probably if you’re single), then you don’t get any guidance regarding whether you should enter your gender as “male” or “MALE” or “m” or “guy”. So it seems like some presets in the UX are probably in order, regardless of what the data is stored as.

There are probably implications for pronouns: LambdaMOO offers a great precedent for how to handle them. Here’s a list of their standard presets (they support ten genders out of the box) and then if you want to go off on your own and define a non-standard gender, you have the option of defining your own custom pronouns to match.

Of course, depending on how pervasive the usage of pronouns are in the site, this points to a future where Diaspora becomes a profoundly non-gender-binary sort of place. As somebody who once spent a lot of time on LambdaMOO, I can tell you that the non-standard pronouns there made the gender diversity extremely noticeable. You could make the analogy that Diaspora will do to gender binarism what MySpace did to graphic design. Whether you consider that a plus or a minus will depend on your priorities, of course.

As a side note: I’m reminded of how most sites will separate name fields into fields like first_name and last_name, but the more correct way to do it is to call them given_name and family_name, since that’s more applicable across cultures where they might say the family name first. In fact, bigger companies are more likely to make that change: In the tradeoff between usability and thoroughness a larger company is far more likely to choose thoroughness. So, maybe you could tell people gender is a text field because that will make the Diaspora software more “enterprise”?

I hate these people.

The more things change

"I forgot he was black tonight"

So apparently between Andrew Sullivan, James Fallows, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, I’m basically a full-on Atlantic fanboy now. TNC has a pretty great takedown of Chris Matthews saying that during the State of the Union, he forgot Obama was black. Does that say more about Obama, or about what Chris Matthews thinks it means to be black?

Around these parts, we’ve been known, from time to time, to chat about the NFL. We’ve also been known to chat about the intricacies of beer. If you hang around you’ll notice that there are no shortage of women in these discussions. Having read a particularly smart take on Brett Favre, or having received a good recommendations on a particular IPA, it would not be a compliment for me to say, “Wow, I forgot you were a woman.” Indeed, it would be pretty offensive.

The problems is three-fold. First, it takes my necessarily limited, and necessarily blinkered, experience with the fairer sex and builds it into a shibboleth of invented truth. Then it takes that invented truth as a fair standard by which I can measure one’s “woman-ness.” So if football and beer don’t fit into my standard, I stop seeing the person as a woman. Finally instead of admitting that my invented truth is the problem, I put the onus on the woman. Hence the claim “I forgot you were a woman,” as opposed to “I just realized my invented truth was wrong.”

Ditto for Chris Matthews. The “I forgot Obama was black” sentiment allows the speaker the comfort of accepting, even lauding, a black person without interrogating their invented truth.

Mel Gibson's problem

In the Ivies, too

For the first time in 64 years, Harvard’s hoops team is in the NCAA tournament. Not only that, but their star player is an Asian-American named Justin Lin, and that’s not a fact that’s escaping notice:

Some people still can’t look past his ethnicity. Everywhere he plays, [Jeremy] Lin is the target of cruel taunts. “It’s everything you can imagine,” he says. “Racial slurs, racial jokes, all having to do with being Asian.” Even at the Ivy League gyms? “I’ve heard it at most of the Ivies, if not all of them,” he says. Lin is reluctant to mention the specific nature of such insults, but according to Harvard teammate Oliver McNally, another Ivy League player called him a c-word that rhymes with “ink” during a game last season. Just last week, during Harvard’s 86-70 loss to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., McNally says one spectator yelled “sweet and sour pork” from the stands.

I’ve reminded of the Yao Ming-Shaquille O’Neal incident, which to my mind was never really resolved. Of course, when someone stands out so much there’s a pretty intense urge for that person to try to minimize the issue, and maybe that’s the best strategy in the long run, who’s to say?

Anti-semitism, the Durban Declaration, and reparations

I’ve subscribed to Harper’s Magazine for almost 20 years: It never stops being incisive, or surprising, or discomfiting. Case in point: Naomi Klein’s September cover story, covering the misinformation surrounding the United Nations’ 2001 World Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa. Some countries did inject harsh anti-Israel language into an early draft, and a parallel meeting of NGOs included some horrifying anti-Semitic incidents. However, the official, final Durban Declaration did not contain the vicious anti-Semitism claimed by many of its detractors:

... the BBC World Service ran a revealing segment on that original Durban Declaration. The host was Julian Marshall, and one of his guests was Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Marshall began by asking what all the fuss was about: “Why exactly is Israel staying away from the U.N. racism conference?” Palmor replied that it was “because it isn’t a U.N. racism conference, it is a conference about Israel-bashing, just like its predecessor.” He told Marshall that “in the previous conference, Israel was singled out as the most racist state on earth, probably almost the only racist state” and that these claims were not made in a few inflammatory speeches but in the conference’s official final declaration.

At this point Marshall stopped Palmor, saying that he had been reading that much-maligned sixty-one-page Durban Declaration and had been unable to find anything in it that fit Palmor’s description. He then proceeded to do what almost no journalist had done before. He quoted, at length, the specific clauses in the 2001 Durban Declaration that have to do with anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ones that supposedly accused Israel of being “the most racist state on earth” and were so unfair that the U.S. government could not attend any conference that “reaffirms” them. Here are those dastardly passages:

Paragraph 58: We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten;

Paragraph 61: We recognize with deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities;

Paragraph 63: We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.

As Marshall read these statements, each less offensive and more banal than the one before, Palmor became increasingly agitated. “I’m not sure we’re talking about the same conference,” he said, “because even though I don’t have the text in front of me, I remember quite precisely some quotes that were completely contrary to those that you’ve just quoted. So we must be speaking about two different documents.”

So why is Durban maligned as an example of the United Nations being too spineless to stand up to anti-Semitism? Klein offers a few causes, one of which is the unfortunate date that the Durban Declaration was finalized: September 9, 2001.

Continue reading “Anti-semitism, the Durban Declaration, and reparations” »

Burners, meet Native Americans

Over in Oakland, the Burning Man New-agey conception of Native American culture collides with actual Native Americans:

The online flyer circulated on Tribe.net read: “GO NATIVE” in an Old West font set against a desert sun, and the dance party was advertised as a “fundraiser for the Native American Church.” Native-rights activists got wind of it and publicized additional text from the VisionaryVillage.org web site indicating four “elemental rooms” would be themed: “Water: Island Natives (Maori); Air: Cliff Natives (Anasazi); Earth: Jungle Natives (Shipibo); Fire: Desert Natives (Pueblo).” Ravers were offered a discount off the $20 door fee “if you show up in Native costume,” and the money would fund “neurofeedback research demonstrating causality between medicinal use [of peyote], improved brainwave patterns, and heightened mirror neuron activity in users.”

... Within the dark, labyrinthine walls of the 140-year-old former brothel, old Native Americans were lecturing young Burners on what it meant to be Indian. Lit by dim lamps under red glass lampshades, tribal elder Wounded Knee DeOcampo — wearing a black T-shirt that read “original landlord” — stood over performance artist “Cicada” in her sparkly, sheer scarf and layered hipster garb, lecturing her about his grandmother’s forcible kidnapping and rape at white hands.

“There’s a lot of pain,” he said. “I don’t want you to agree with me, I want you to understand!”

Please don't let it be an Asian guy

Chris Rock has a joke about being black, watching the local news, hearing about some horrible crime, and saying to yourself “Please don’t let it be a black guy.” I’m getting that way about being Asian, every time I hear some horrible story about people taking their video games way too seriously.

For example, in Australia, a 21-year-old student stabbed one of his friends in the head and nearly severed one of his fingers over at argument when a bunch of them were playing World of Warcraft. That student’s name: Zhenghao Shen.

Seriously, dude. You’re making it way harder on the rest of us.

[via Kotaku]


I grew up in Minneapolis, and I lived there for most of my life. It’s a pretty hip, liberal town as far as the Midwest goes, but like most everywhere else in the Midwest it’s not that multicultural. Things were cool when I was hanging out with my friends or moving in certain social circles, but more than once people on the street thought it was okay to make “ching chong” comments at me for no reason at all. Sometimes it was white folks, sometimes it was black folks, but the message was always clear: The color of your hair and the shape of your eyes make you an alien here. You don’t belong.

Rosie O'Donnell

When Rosie O’Donnell made ching chong noises on The View last week, she was probably not trying to send the same hateful message, but it was some pretty offensive shit nonetheless. If anything, what surprised me wasn’t her willingness to make those noises as much as her willingness to do so in a lame little joke that really didn’t deal in any way with race or racism. For O’Donnell, ching chong noises are just another part of comedy, like, say, painting your face black with a burnt cork. Who could object? If you’re a comedian, and your job is to comment on culture, it would help if you knew something about it.

Sarah Silverman

I’m not somebody who thinks you can’t make jokes about race, or that white people can’t make jokes about race, or even that white people can’t ever say “chink” or “nigger” or make ching chong noises. Context is everything. For example, I think Sarah Silverman is phenomenally funny, and that a lot of my fellow Asian-Americans treated her unfairly over her “I love chinks” joke a few years back. I always thought it was fairly obvious that Silverman was making a joke about racism itself, and not a joke at Asians’ expense.

On the other end of the spectrum is a comment left on that O’Donnell Youtube page, which isn’t quite as socially incisive, but has, hm, other qualities to recommend it:

if rosie wants to learn real chinese she needs to use the Rosetta Stone’s Pots & Pans edition, and tossed them about the kitchen floor… ching chong kling klang ting tang woo woo wu

So this joke is ten times worse than what O’Donnell said—but it has the benefit of simply embracing its own racist-ness. Unlike O’Donnell, who stumbled into offensiveness, this comment dives into it with a certain glee. And, the joke’s actually funny, which should count for something, right?

So, my own, not heavily examined, possibly contradictory feelings on race in comedy go something like this: Non-racist jokes about racism are good if they’re funny. Racist jokes are good (in small doses) if they’re funny. Unfunny jokes are not good, and certainly shouldn’t be racist. And if you’re as witless as Rosie O’Donnell, you’re not qualified to use ching chong noises on The View or anywhere else.

“Rosetta Stone’s Pots & Pans edition”—C’mon, admit it. That’s pretty good.