Monday, September 10, 2012

Why it's probably OK to say "black people" on a beach

This is going to feel forehead-smackingly obvious when I say it out loud.

Don't bother trying to pretend that you don't notice race, or that race doesn't matter. Humanity comes in a dizzying array of colors, shapes, sizes, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and on and on. Society will never be able to ignore those differences, and you won't either. Why would you want to? They're interesting. Colorblindness, in other words, is a crock of shit. Rather, learn to really listen to anybody, and have compassion for them. Ask a sincere question or two, pay attention to what they say, have a sense of humor, and vote humanely.

I have just equipped you with the basic tool set you will need to learn to navigate New York City's hopelessly complex social fabric.

Here are my credentials. While I am a white, straight, middle class, 30 something, extremely attractive man who can't recall being discriminated against even once, I live in Astoria which is the most diverse neighborhood in the world, and I have a lot of black friends. That's usually code for, "But, I'm about to say something racist." I put it there on purpose to GET AWKWARD. I put it there because I'm thinking of a friend of mine who IS BLACK who will think IT'S HILARIOUS. You know why I know she'll think it's hilarious? Because I drink a lot of beer with her and I know a lot of things about her. She is perfectly comfortable talking about the color of her skin and how society relates to her. She is far more concerned about being bored than being offended. She has a lot of interesting things to say, and when she says them, I pay attention and learn.

Now, in some ways race is the simplest thing in the world. Empathize with each individual. Done. Next problem. Yet, in some ways race is impossibly complex. This is because history is complicated, and individuals are complicated. After a beer or two with a black dude, you may learn that a black man in a car is waaaaay more likely to get pulled over than a white dude for no good reason whatsoever, and that black dudes have been known to get pretty frustrated by people who try to deny or justify that. You may learn that Anika doesn't like when you ask her questions about race because she doesn't like YOU and she's totally BORED and ANNOYED by being called black. You may learn that Jennifer is extremely racy, racist, and fun to talk to because everything she says is wildly and delightfully inappropriate. What you will hear depends on the black person, but if you stick around you will notice trends. So if you want to master the complicated stuff and feel totally comfortable playing ball with a bunch of black guys, you just gotta wade in there and be a decent human being for a while until you get the hang of it. Ask a question or two directly about race. Black people are just people after all, and for the most part people looooove talking about themselves to somebody who is actually listening.

OK, let's dig into the grittier real life example that got me thinking about this post. I was sitting on a beach with my best Jewish friends and a few gentiles. We were next to a lot of black people. One of my buddies said "black people" loudly. A brief, awkward argument ensued. Can you say "black people" loudly on a beach?! Ah god! My buddy said, "Let's ask Dave. He has a lot of black friends." My first reaction was that the argument itself was hilarious. "I don't think it matters too much. Black people are typically pretty used to the idea that they are black." In retrospect, a more nuanced answer would have been, "My intuition is that no nearby black person cares and that it's more upsetting to you than to them, but if you really want to know you'd have to ask." Later, a black friend of mine had the answer, "I think they need more black friends. Ooo, or they should probably sleep with a black person." I wish she had been on the beach to say this because it would have cracked me up.

Look, most of us are downright decent human beings who just want a friend or two to like us for who we are. What I am is a good listener who comes with freckles and hates being bored. I live in New York City and I love a lot of Jews and blacks who love me back.


A friend had this to say, which I really liked:

I think in the end, it's okay to say "black people" if you really do see them as people.  I don't think this is often the case, which is probably why things get awkward when people are labeled that way.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Baby and the Bathwater

When you die the problems all go away, but then again so do the good bits. When things go terribly awry I guess you can console yourself that the bad parts are an inevitable companion to the good parts. Rejoice that you aren't dead, I guess. Here are the lyrics to my latest song about it.

Sex, like perspective, is harder to get the more you need it.
So when will we all get what we need?
Only in death when we don't need anything.

History repeats again and again unless you regret.
So when will we all lose our regret?
Only in death when we forget everything.

Sunshine is to rain what pleasure is to pain.
And when will we finally let go of pain?
Only in death when we don't feel anything.

I'm my mother's son and I pushed away because that's how it's done.
So when will all of our love return?
Only in death when we don't love anyone.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Big Red Flashing Nerd Sign

In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee (probably the greatest programmer of all time. And by that I mean he could literally kick any programmer's ass) tells us that the greatest form is to have no form. You're just supposed to do what is perfect.

So what's the perfect language? To not care what language you're using, just program perfectly in whatever language you're using. I'm blowing my mind.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Weeds in the Wheat

There's this idea of the weeds and the wheat, or the chaff and the grain, or the lambs and the goats. You've got good and bad mixed together. Part of you wants to pull out the bad stuff as early as possible. Watch out though, you can't remove one without risking destroying the other. So what do you do? You let them grow together and sort it out in the end.

I think this is a great picture of what it is to be human. We've got these good and bad bits mixed up inside us, but you can't just yank out the bad parts because you'll destroy essential and good parts of who you are. David Bazan has a lyric that really appeals to me: "God bless the weeds in the wheat." So you're a little fucked up, but you know what? God bless the bad parts, because you wouldn't be who you are without those flaws, and if I somehow removed those flaws I'd kill off a bunch of the good parts too.

Maybe you're manipulative, but without such a great intuition for what people need you'd be less empathetic. Perhaps you drive yourself crazy with your over thinking, but then you wouldn't be such a thoughtful interesting person. What if you're lazy, but if you were motivated your friends wouldn't like how inaccessible you were.

What are your weeds?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What exactly is a crackpot theory?

I'll define a crackpot theory as:
  1. An idea which makes you say, "Well that explains it."
  2. An idea with a complete lack of testable evidence. Or, in other words, it doesn't really have a leg up on a completely different crackpot theory that explains it just as well.
Both this blog and humanity are all about crackpot theories.

Now go read my band's blog.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Point of Most Things

The point of most things is to enjoy them. Friendships, family, hobbies, projects, marriage, and so on. That's even a pretty decent take on the meaning of life. I'll admit that sounds a little hedonistic and selfish on first pass, but hear me out.
  1. My best friends are the ones who really enjoy my friendship.
  2. If you love what you're doing, you're generally a more interesting, positive, fulfilling person to be around.
  3. I don't want to trade places with anyone who disagrees with me.
In other words, by being selfish in a healthy kind of way, you become happier and you make those around you happier. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that in order to be ethical, you must strive to enjoy yourself because your happiness directly affects the happiness of those who love you.

Now you can make a convincing case that enjoyment is not the point of your job. You need to make money and it's amazing if you can not want to kill yourself doing it, but frankly who really wants to work.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dumb Questions

There is absolutely such a thing as a dumb question. I want to smack lecturers who spout nonsense about there not being any dumb questions because they probably only encourage more dumb questions. Some day when I'm in charge, I'm going to call out the dumb questions and compliment the good ones.

Here are the categories of dumb questions as determined by me, most important first. Most bad questions fall into multiple categories.
  1. Questions with the objective of pointing out how smart you are.
    Q: As I'm a Ph.D. in marketing, I was wondering how this applied to synthesizing global model market regressions.
    A: This is a real reverse psychology kind of moment, because now I think you're a pompous idiot.
  2. Questions that aren't questions.
    Q: This applies to local model market progressions.
    A: Thanks for not asking a question.
  3. Questions that ramble on.
    Q: I sat here thinking to myself, "Myself," I thought to myself, "How do you suppose this topic deals with some similar other topic?" Because, you see, other topics in the blah blah blah...
    A: Hey! Who paid you to give this lecture?
  4. Boring questions.
    Q: Could you could repeat that middle, boring part of your lecture?
    A: No.
Good questions are
  1. Short.
  2. Interesting.
So what do you do when you find yourself in an audience asking stupid questions? I have several strategies, none of which work. Also, all of them are a bad idea unless you, like me, have the need-attention gene, and don't really mind being controversial. And by controversial, I mean refreshing to people who hate dumb questions, and and asshole to everyone else.
  1. Call out the questioner. Around minute two of a question say, "Hey, let Ms. Whatever teach the lecture."
  2. Plead with the lecturer. "Do you suppose we could move on?" or "Could we do one question and answer period at the end of the lecture?"
  3. Talk with the questioner after. This really never works.
  4. Ask good questions. Actually, this is probably the only one that does any good. It's not because it encourages the people to ask better questions, rather, it just makes less time for dumb questions. It's really hard to come up with good questions though, so good luck there.