No. 6 • 2020-06-10

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Watch Reflections on the Color of My Skin, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, renowned Astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, or read his essay.

#ShutDownSTEM / #ShutDownAcademia and #TheShowMustBePaused (Blackout Tuesday)

I have built my professional career on the many positive connections between the Arts and STEM (science, tech, engineering, math). But another link between the two is a blindness to systemic inequities and exclusionary practices. Ironically, both areas also proclaim (embarrassingly loudly, at times) to be about progress and the future. But any tradition built almost entirely on white privilege will, by default, propagate its founding structures. In order to change, we must actively pursue a different course and resist defaulting to the cultural norms of each discipline, tacitly approving institutionalized racism.

The tech industry is rightly receiving enormous criticism right now because of the gross underrepresentation of Black and Latinx people among employees and leadership and the incredible hypocrisy of idolizing a “meritocratic” culture while accumulating enormous financial gains for an increasingly smaller and less diverse group of people. I’m fairly certain no tech founder goes into entrepreneurship with the goal of promoting discrimination… They want to solve problems and build successful businesses, and week to hire the “best” people to achieve those goals. But let’s stop kidding ourselves: It’s not a meritocracy. The tech centers and the college campuses that business and hiring networks draw from are themselves highly exclusionary.

Ah, college campuses. Having been part of higher education nearly all my adult life, I will say that we get an ‘F’ in advancing equity and inclusion. Academics, particularly in STEM, love to use the “rationality” of science and engineering to blind us to the actual discrimination that we are complicit in. Representation, particularly in the high growth fields, like computing, is no better (in some ways, ven worse) than 15-20 years ago.

Again, I don’t believe that’s intentional, but an outcome of an academic culture that is slow to change and where so many perversely believe themselves to be adhering to purely “meritocratic” ideals. Academic rigor, peer review, mountains of prerequisite knowledge, and accreditation “requirements”, are just forms of hazing that disproportionately exclude those from non-white, non-male backgrounds.

In the arts, recall that symphony orchestras employed very few women until they moved to blind auditions (literally, musicians would audition behind a screen) and still employ very few Black and Latinx musicians. It’s still “news” when a lead instrumentalist, opera singer, or ballet dancer is Black. It reminds me of when there were “serious” discussions of whether a Black quarterback could succeed in the NFL, which now seem ridiculous. There are still many many issues with the NFL (mostly having to do with an incredibly exclusive group of uber-wealthy owners), but as a society we’ve moved passed that one. (Unless you start a serious, thoughtful protest movement, in which case you’ll never work in football again.) Still a long ways to go.

Both the Arts and STEM ought to be better aligned with popular culture. While the music industry is far from equitable, Hip Hop has become the predominant popular genre. The film industry is terrible, but #OscarsSoWhite is having an impact. People, not a self-selected exclusionary group, should be the drivers of knowledge, culture, and expression. The Arts and STEM should skate to where the puck is going, and embrace a much more inclusive future.

As with last week’s #TheShowMustBePaused (Black Tuesday), I fully support #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia, and this will be my only post today. This is a day for all institutions to take an honest look at themselves and their practices. A day for each of us to look in the mirror to ask “Have I done all that I can”? A day for us to commit to being on right side of history. I’ll see you tomorrow.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Reflecting on the Color of My Skin[MKBHD] Superstar tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee, inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s essay, shares his thoughts on being a black man in technology (and ultimate frisbee). Also check out his many links to black creators in the video notes.
  • #BlackInTheIvory[Twitter] A hashtag where Black colleagues share their experiences in academia’s “Ivory Tower”. See also a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Kill Move Paradise[Wilma Theater] Stream local playwright James Ijames’ 2018 work from June 8 to 21. The play is Inspired by the ever growing list of slain unarmed Black people by police in America. Viewers are asked to donate any amount of money they can to Black Lives Matter Philly.
  • A thread on why change is hard in academia[Daniela Witten] Twitter thread about the difficulties of moving beyond racist figures and traditions in higher education by Daniela Witten, Dorothy Gilford Endowed Chair & Professor of Statistics and Biostatistics.
  • BTS Fans Say They’ve Raised $1 Million for Black Lives Matter Groups[NYTimes] Fans of mega-popular K-Pop group BTS have directed tremendous support and attention towards #BlackLivesMatter.
  • “Share Love, Strength & One Core”[World Cafe Live and Mighty Writers] A new songs collaboration between Mighty Writers youth poets and World Cafe Live teaching artist Ami Yares, inspired by this unprecedented spring of 2020 and the theme of “Community.”

What I’m creating

In support of #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia, I’m not posting any new creations today. I’ll be back with lots of new stuff next week!

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