On the evolution of skin color.

On the evolution of skin color.

Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life.  Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.

But, let’s face it.  Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly.  If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person.  If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.

There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims.  But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence.  After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case.  Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too. 

Or so ruled our Supreme Court.

Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world.  Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma.  And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.

So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country.  Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity.  Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.

At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru.  Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic.  And Norse mythology is cool!  Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion.  Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.

A photograph showing a book page in Icelandic.

During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry.  But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice.  We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs.  Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.

I have nothing against religious invention.  All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today.  Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too.  Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.

So I like the idea of neo-paganism.  You want to find a clearing in the woods and do some moonlit dancing?  You’d rather worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity?  You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be protected rather than a resource to be exploited?  Go right ahead!  All of that sounds pretty great to me.

A Wiccan-style gathering of artifacts including a statue of a seated green goddess, her pregnant belly painted as the earth; mums; a chalice; a string of green beads; a stoppered rectangular prism bottle; and a candleholder appearing to be carved of wood, again of a pregnant woman with hands holding her belly.

Unfortunately, neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.

That’s why I’ve been working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology.  Currently, when people ask for The Poetic Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it, and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul of our anti-hate policy. 

But the Norse myths are certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of those.  The main difference is that centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler beliefs around the stories in the Bible. 

The text of Psalm 137 states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”  But the text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion.  The practice of Christianity frowns upon the murder of any human infant.  Whether you like the kid’s parents or not.

A sun-dappled photograph of a page of the Bible.

We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people.  Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult.  You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too.  But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist.  Feminist.  Supporting the pursuit of knowledge.  Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.

Because contemporary Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to address skin color and genetic heritage directly.  It’s a fraught topic.  Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion of evolution.  Some people feel squigged out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common ancestors as the dinosaurs.  And that’s far less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution. 

A photograph of a model dinosaur, complete with feathers.

Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States.  Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense.  Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.

I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though.  After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.

Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart.  This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other.  Maybe one group migrated to an island.  In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.

Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way.  Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell.  But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.

A photograph of a three-spined stickleback fish.

If humans hadn’t polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed.  No matter how many sense-suppressing chemicals we dumped.

We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees.  About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together.  By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other.  Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.

One group of these creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright posture.  This allowed for a good vantage while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.  The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on all fours.  This body plan results in fewer mothers dying during childbirth.  As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.

Image shows the upright skeletal postures of gibbons, humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

Up until about 2 million years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.  But then they began to migrate.  Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe.  By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  The difference between one population to the next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown bears.  Scientists describe them as distinct species.  Although they were similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve adaptations to their specific environments.

Evolution isn’t easy.  Nor is it quick.  Just because a certain trait would be advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it.  In the desert, it would help to have adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to cool the blood.  But a trait can only spread after a random mutation creates it.  And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for the benefit to spread through the population. 

Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish.  But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck.  That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment.  Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.

By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different.  Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness.  Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air.  These are incredibly beneficial traits.  Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.

Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct.  To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them.  But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals.  And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.

The Neanderthal lived at high latitude.  Over many generations, their average skin color became paler.  In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure.  Think about a dodo – there was no advantage for these birds to lose their fear of humans.  But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.

A sculpture of a dodo.

Dodos lost a beneficial trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed.  It’s kind of like the airbags in an old car.  If your car’s engine goes bad, you’ll notice right away.  Turn the key, hear it sputter.  You use the engine every time you drive.  But your airbags could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re needed, they won’t deploy.

Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin.  If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.

The most recent ancestors that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin.  Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale.  They can afford to be – their fur protects them from the sun.  But our ancestors lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this led to the evolution of dark skin.

High concentrations of epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.

As humans migrated to higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their humanity.  Because the sunlight was less intense, there was less selective pressure.  Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the trait went untested in their day to day lives.  They had no way to “realize” how important it was. 

Your airbags aren’t helpful until you crash.  And then they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.

Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north.  Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D.  We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.

In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers.  When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild.  And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors.  Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage.  They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters.

Around 40,000 years ago, our planet’s most recent ice age ended.  The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe.  By then, a group of humans living in Africa were recognizably Homo sapiens.  These were our ancestors.  Every human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from – is descended from this group of people from Africa.  They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.

As the world warmed, some of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.  These journeys occurred over many generations.  Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia.  As they traveled, they encountered the humans who already lived in those places.  As I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the natives.  They probably also killed a lot of them.  Unfortunately, we Homo sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well. 

Interbreeding happened rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA.  Some people, especially if their families are from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA.  At other extreme, even people whose families are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.

Among people living in Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes are gone.

Everyone living today is human.  We are all Homo sapiens, all the same species.  But some of us do carry vestiges of the other human populations whom our ancestors killed.

Like the Neanderthal before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to lose their epidermal melanin.  People who hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of sun damage.  Remember, this didn’t happen all at once.  Average skin color would change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime. 

Our ancestors spent almost all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably synthesize plenty of vitamin D.  Among contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we spend too much time inside.  As I type this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering fluorescent bulbs.  This low-quality light won’t help me make vitamin D.

Instead, I take a daily supplement.  But that doesn’t come near matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week.  At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence.  Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice.  You could see some stars.  And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street?  Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”

Treating people that way is unlikely to help them get better.

Blue sky and white cirrus clouds as viewed through coiled razor wire atop a barbed-wire fence.

But back to our migrants!  Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories.  Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America. 

As people traveled – journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve.  Indeed, skin color was a trait that came repeatedly under selective pressure.  As people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer and closer to the equator.  Compared to their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight.  They needed more epidermal melanin.

This is a process that takes a long time.  A family might have six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their own.  If this happens again and again, among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind up with slightly darker skin.

A prediction for the distribution of human skin colors based on the intensity of ultraviolet light present at each latitude. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.
This figure depicts the (limited) data we have on the distribution of human skin colors before the modern era’s horrific set of forced migrations. In this image, white-colored regions indicate an absence of data, not low concentrations of epidermal melanin among a region’s prehistoric population. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.

Because human skin color has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated with other traits.  As we entered the modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the equator their recent ancestors lived.  But human populations migrated so often that there were many different groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every latitude.  Because skin color is so closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar concentrations of epidermal melanin.  And there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain size or intelligence.

As it happens, there are major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably intelligence).  After all, human brains are costly.  Even though there’s a benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against large brains.

Large brains kill mothers.  Because humans walk upright, childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates.  Our posture constrains the width of our hips – both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that narrow passageway.

Having children is so risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely.  Human gestation takes about a year, but most mothers give birth after only 9 months.  This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body, but human babies are totally helpless at birth.  We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.

Also, our brains require a lot of fuel.  Human evolution occurred over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and calamities.  During the hard years, our ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that struggle harder. 

A person with a smaller brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean times.  And, again, it’s worth remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many families, that even small changes can add up.  If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then the trend will be to have people with smaller brains.  Intelligence has to be extremely beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.

Similarly, if people with small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts, then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.

Many of us have the bad habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of more and more complexity.  But that’s not what it is.  Evolution is the process by which things that are better suited for their environment become more abundant.  If the environment is a hard place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity.  When it’s hard to get enough calories, why waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?

Starfish are descended from organisms that had brains.  But starfish are brainless.  The ancestral starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.

Which should make you feel pretty good about your own brain, actually.  Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to starve to death, or kill our mothers.

That’s a valuable thing you’ve got inside your skull.  It cost our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.

But, right.  Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes.  Like when we first domesticated dogs.  Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago.  Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night.  Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children.  Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.

Because we could slough off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.

Pottery shard depicting a boar hunt in ancient Greece.

When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further.  A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming.  This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm.  Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain. 

There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends.  Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.

But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time.  By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language.  But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.

Nobody is born with an innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics.  None of that can be encoded in your genes.  If you want to understand this stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.

Neuron count only suggests a brain’s potential.  You could do incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary telephone.  And, conversely, sensory deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your innate potential.

That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners.  Our brains are capable of wonders.  At any age, we can learn and grow.  And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.

On the celebration of Neanderthals.

On the celebration of Neanderthals.

I am descended from the oppressors.  My ancestors ventured from their homeland with colonial aspirations and genocidal results.

It wasn’t my fault.  I wasn’t born yet!  But, having inherited vast privilege, some measure of responsibility from the misdeeds of my people surely falls upon my shoulders.

A hundred thousand years ago, several species of humans shared our planet.  My ancestors, who would give rise to contemporary Homo sapiens, mostly lived in Africa.  They differed from other primates in that their brains were larger, their posture more upright, their epidermis darker in hue, their verbal communication more nuanced.

During a period of climate change, my ancestors left their home.  The planet was warming; glaciers receded; Homo sapiens ventured north. 

One still-popular model for how Homo sapiens spread. Image by Altaileopard on Wikimedia Commons.

Europe was already populated by humans, people who had weathered the bitter cold through the waning ice age.  But my ancestors were undeterred.  They did not respect the old territorial boundaries.  Soon they supplanted the native peoples.  Every last one of the natives died.  Their people disappeared from the face of the earth, extinct.

Every time my ancestors ventured to a new land, the old inhabitants were killed.  Nearly all of our planet’s large animals are gone now; megafauna extinction is directly correlated with human migration

Image by Uweka on Wikimedia Commons.

If it’s any consolation, Homo sapiens were not the only perpetrators of these atrocities.  Every other human species – including those whom my ancestors harried to extinction – wrought similar devastation on their environments.

In this case, no reparations are possible.  The victims are dead; their families curtailed.  My ancestors’ misdeeds against them ceased, but only because there was no one left to harm.

But I can atone through remembrance.

And so, as a descendant of the oppressors, I felt a special sympathy toward the Neanderthal.  When I was in school, these humans were consistently described as brutish, uncouth, and unintelligent.  But I recognized that sort of language.  My people have almost always maligned supposed “others” – until we took the time to learn how smart they are, all non-human animals were imagined to be unthinking automata.  Pale-skinned Europeans claimed that intelligence – or even humanity itself – was inversely correlated with epidermal melanin concentration (by which measure Pan troglodytes would be more human than any Englishman). 

Forty years ago, medical doctors implied that men who felt a sexual attraction to men differed from their peers on a cellular level, as though the human immunodeficiency virus was sensitive to a psychological preference.  Even now, many medical doctors believe that people with higher amounts of epidermal melanin experience pain differently.

My people’s negative assessment of the Neanderthal, I figured, was probably not true.  Indeed, in recent years we’ve discovered that Neanderthals made art, that they probably had spoken languages … that they were like us.  Enough so that many humans living today carry Neanderthal DNA sequences in their genomes.

A Neanderthal model at Zagros Paleolithic Museum, Kermanshah.
Photograph by ICHTO on Wikimedia Commons.

Inspired by Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a first-person perspective of the apocalypse wrought upon 11th century England, I began working on a story narrated by the last of the Neanderthal.

Stray scientific findings have revealed surprising details about Neanderthal life.  Young women often left their family tribe.  All people collaborated on hunts, regardless of gender.  Homo sapiens males would fool around with either Homo sapiens or Neanderthals; Neanderthal males rarely sired children with Homo sapiens.  After Homo sapiens arrived in Europe, they ate a lot of squirrels, but the Neanderthal declined to eat rodents.

These details seemed sufficient to evoke a world.

I was still working on this story during the 2016 presidential election.  But with our 45th openly praising white supremacists, I felt suddenly less inspired to celebrate the Neanderthal.  Many of the hate mongers were extolling the virtues of humans descended from northern Europeans, and, as it happens, these are the people who have the most abundant remnants of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.

Genetics isn’t destiny.  And there haven’t been any correlations between Neanderthal DNA and intelligence; indeed, most of the genetic sequences that have been proposed to modulate intelligence are probably false.  Neanderthal DNA has been found to correlate only with an increased risk of depression and an increased susceptibility to allergies.

I began working on my Neanderthal story as an apology to the dispossessed, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it in an environment where some individuals might tout their Neanderthal heritage as a mark of superiority.  As though their blood conferred the right to mistreat people from other backgrounds, or the right to so thoroughly ravage our planet’s atmosphere that other people’s homes are scorched or submerged beneath the sea.

Which seems shocking to me.  Quite recently, the Neanderthal were thoroughly impugned.  As though we could declare their kind to be undeserving of existence and thereby spare ourselves a reckoning for having killed them.

Now the contemporary oppressors herald the Neanderthal as a source of greatness.  Light-skinned warrior folk, beset by dark-skinned immigrants from the south.

Who would have thought?

Then again, I would not have expected Odin or Thor to become patron deities of U.S. white supremacists.  Nor that they might switch from beer to chugging milk as a display of inner fortitude.

Hate works in mysterious ways.

Someday, perhaps, in a kinder, gentler world, I’ll feel safe to write more stories featuring the Neanderthal. For now, I’ve set my draft aside.

Image by Chapendra on Flickr.

Featured image: the National Museum of Natural History. Image by Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr.

On inadvertent racism.

On inadvertent racism.

A few years ago, my little brother got one of those fancy new telephones.  This prompted me to spend hours extolling the virtues of my own phone – it flips open and shut so that I won’t call anybody by mistake, it has big buttons that depress satisfyingly when I dial a new number, the battery stays charged for days, the maximum volume is very loud.

My brother soon grew sick of my paean.  “How much do you think your phone is worth?” he asked me.

“Oh, I don’t know, I mean, I bought it for thirty dollars, but that was a few years ago… twenty, maybe?”

“There it is.”

We were walking through the grocery store at the time. He’d pointed and, sure enough, a display cabinet offered telephones identical to my own for $4.99.

Not that this makes me like my device any less.  It’s amazing that such a splendorous piece of technology can be bought for under five bucks.  But it did startle me enough for my brother to accomplish his intended goal: getting me to shut up about it already.

Anyway, I joined a friend, briefly, while he was playing Pokemon Go.  I flipped open the phone, aimed the camera at a promising spot, then typed an “8.”  It looked something like a decapitated snowman.

“Look!” I shouted.  “I found an Acephalous Frostychu!  That’s a good one, right?”

Gotta catch ’em all?

My friend was unimpressed.  Apparently the game is more fun when played using other people’s telephones.

Unless you’re playing in a minority neighborhood, that is.

Not just because it can be unwise to stroll blithely unaware of your surroundings in some areas.  To play the game, there are apparently various resources you have to obtain.  In some places, especially wealthy neighborhoods, these resources (like the traps you’ll need to enslave new gladiators) are easy to find.  You can play the game for free.  In other places, including many black neighborhoods, those resource centers are sparsely distributed.  The game items you need won’t be found free.  To play the same way in these areas, you’d need to shell out a bunch of money.


This does not mean that Niantic, the company that developed Pokemon Go, had any racist motivation.  There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why game resources were distributed the way they were: they based the new game’s maps off user-generated data from a prior game that was played most in wealthy areas.

The motivation was not based on racial prejudice.  But the outcome was consistent with it.

I’d argue that outcomes, visible to all, matter more than professed motivations.  Not that I think Pokemon Go matters much, but the designers should fix this.  I imagine the correction wouldn’t be very difficult to implement, and inadvertent racism probably hurts almost as much as the maliciously-intentioned real thing.

Plus, if Niantic fixes their game, they’d send an important message to the U.S. Supreme Court: you have to consider the consequences of an action, not just its motivation.

For instance, policing.  Black- and brown-skinned people are far more likely to be incarcerated than white-skinned people who engage in identical behaviors.  In the United States, this disparity seems racially motivated every step of the way; black Americans are treated worse by the police, by prosecutors, by judges, by parole boards, and by future employers whose jobs will be needed to stay out.

But there are always arguments that some of the disparity isn’t racially motivated.  Consider, as an example, the first foray into that long slide: an encounter with the police.  Well, no matter what you might be doing, you’re more likely to run into a police officer in minority neighborhoods.  The rationale is that police officers are more heavily concentrated in areas with “higher crime.”

We’ve assessed which areas are “higher crime” incorrectly, though.  For many years, police officers were distributed based on the number of prior arrests in an area, not the number of crimes that had been committed there.  This issue is discussed in Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime:

51P9fNxVlRL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The discouraging figures did not necessarily reflect actual crime on the ground as much as they did the flawed criminal justice data-gathering that accompanied the intensification of federal law enforcement programs.  Arrests were counted as part of the crime rate regardless of whether they produced a conviction, meaning, for example, that if a group of black youth were arrested for robbing a liquor store, all of those youth would be recorded as burglars and counted as part of the crime rate, even if they were subsequently released for lack of evidence.  Since black men under the age of twenty-four had the highest arrest rate in the United States – a result of the targeted law enforcement encouraged by the federal government – they were seen as responsible for the majority of the nation’s crime and skewed reported rates accordingly, even though crime was increasing faster in suburban and rural areas in the mid-1970s.

Racist decisions in the past produced bad data.  If we blithely use that data now, it doesn’t matter whether our motivations are good or evil: the outcome will be unfair.

Of course, many of us, in our day to day lives, do not choose where police officers are deployed.  But I’d argue that most white people make choices that might inadvertently abet our country’s racial injustice.  For instance, while driving: because minority drivers are stopped so much more frequently for minor infractions (at times with nightmarishly awful consequence), it is unfair for white drivers to take advantage of their implicit privilege.  After all, driving fast is more fun than following the speed limit.  You get places faster.  And some people can speed with the knowledge that they’re very unlikely to be stopped by the police.

Which would be fine if you were blithely ignorant.  But as soon as you know that others would face serious consequences over the indulgences permitted to you – for speeding, for smoking a jay, for questioning a teacher’s or police officer’s authority – carrying on with your life unchanged is (inadvertently!) racist.  In the words of Reverend Jim Wallis,

Wallis and AOS book, 2“To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.”

On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day and wanting to fit in.

On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day and wanting to fit in.

My condolences to those who feel as though it’s their heritage never to fit in.

Growing up, I didn’t fit either.  But I had no expectation of fitting in.  I was an outlier by virtue of who I was, not who my parents were.  And presumably I could’ve learned to talk differently, to act differently, to dress differently, and then I would’ve been embraced by the fold.

9780812993455Whereas the protagonist of Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, like the protagonist of Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, perhaps like countless biracial children throughout history, felt himself to be an outcast because he was too white for his mother’s people and too black for his father’s.  He was caught in a bind; in any circumstance he would be judged for attempting to pass himself off as something he wasn’t.  His genetic heritage loomed large in every social interaction, an oppressive weight from his parentage embodied concretely in the form of the shambling, decrepit mansion he inherited from his father and was burdened with the disposal of.

In the initial chapters of Loving Day, the protagonist self-identifies as black.  Yes, through a twist of genetics (I swear I’ll write & post that essay on the evolution of skin color soon!) he is very pale.  But appearance alone should not wipe away his connection to his mother, his family, the history that led to his existence.  His take on identify resembles Danzy Senna’s in the opening to her 1998 comic essay “The Mulatto Millennium.” Here’s an excerpt:

Before all of this radical ambiguity, I was a black girl.  I fear even saying this.  The political strong arm of the multiracial movement, affectionately known as the Mulatto Nation (just “the M.N.” for those in the know), decreed just yesterday that those who refuse to comply with orders to embrace their many heritages will be sent on the first plane to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where, the M.N.’s minister of defense said, “they might learn the true meaning of mestizo power.”

Portrait2But, with all due respect to the multiracial movement, I cannot tell a lie.  I was a black girl.  Not your ordinary black girl, if such a thing exists.  But rather, a black girl with a Wasp mother and a black-Mexican father, and a face that harkens to Andalusia, not Africa.  I was born in 1970, when “black” described a people bonded not by shared complexion or hair texture but by shared history.

Not only was I black (and here I go out on a limb), but I was an enemy of the people.  The mulatto people, that is.  I sneered at those byproducts of miscegenation who chose to identify as mixed, not black.  I thought it wishy-washy, an act of flagrant assimilation, treason, passing even.

The protagonist of Loving Day also does not conform to outsider’s anticipation of what a black man should look like, but throughout the book he struggles in the attempt to erase his father’s legacy.  This despite his “re-education” at a multicultural magnet school where he enrolls his daughter; at the school they first assess his self-identity…

My daughter is turning pages before I am, but I am exasperated before her.  The questions keep coming: What do you eat New Year’s Day?  What card games do you know?  What are your feelings about mayonnaise?  What do you do with these?–and a picture of dominoes.  With every question, with every answer, I become more inclined to grab
[my daughter]‘s hand again and walk out, nearly overwhelmed by this impulse.  I look up at [the love interest / test proctor], standing there in judgement.  I’m used to having my blackness questioned, but never on paper, and never by an Oreo who would damn me for it.  But my daughter is two desks over, just jotting away, unaware of this pretext of just uncaring.

CaptureBy the final question, Name your black friends [minimum three], I answer, Nat Turner, Warren G. Harding, and What T. Fuck? and then get up to hand it in.  All I get is a curt thank-you.

. . .

“You’re black identified,” [the love interest / test proctor / now exam grader] tells me.  She’s barely looked through my test.

“Really?  I could have told you that, but it took me thirty minutes to fill the thing out.  How did you–“

“The last question.  Most white-identified mixed people actually try to list names.  You expressed outrage at the question, a typical black-identified response.  I already saw a few more answers, I doubt the rest will indicate different.  Or you can wait here for the next ten minutes.”  I want to wait.  I want to wait and talk to her and tell her how silly this test is, this mixed-race posturing.  I want to do it in a way that shows her how witty I am.  I want her to be able to tell me why I’m wrong.  I want her to be right, even though I am.  I want to be on the same page in the same space and not feel alone but hinged to someone solid.  Someone just like me, so I can know what it feels like to not be different.

…then in a class assignment on parental histories force him to research his Irish ancestry.  But he rebels in the end.

Yes, he did find a clan that embraced him for the totality of his heritage.  But that didn’t provide the internal peace he’d hoped for.  To my mind, his final rebellion is against the idea of genetics as destiny — simply because he carries his father’s chromosomes, and, yes, his history of living with, being talked to, and being loved by the man, does not mean he cannot embrace, for instance, his seat at the “Urban” section of a comic convention.

The message I took away from Loving Day resonates with what I found so disquieting about Elinor Burkett’s New York Times opinion piece on transgender identity:

burkettI have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes.  Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries.  But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.

People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or [former Harvard president] Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us.  That’s something men have been doing for much too long.  And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a women.

. . .

“You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University, told The Telegraph last year.  The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment, she said.

The drip, drip, drip of Ms. Jenner’s experience included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine.  While young “Bruiser,” as Bruce Jenner was called as a child, was being cheered on toward a university athletic scholarship, few female athletes could dare hope for such largess since universities offered little funding for women’s sports.  When Mr. Jenner looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he didn’t have to turn to the meager “Help Wanted — Female” ads in the newspapers, and he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men.  Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night.

Those are realities that shape women’s brains.

I understand why Burkett is upset.  As a passionate feminist, her editorial made me feel extremely conflicted.  But: there are differences between men & women’s brains.  There is significant statistical variation, sure, but the differences are real.  You could look at results like those from brain imaging of men & women as they smell things.  This particular study caught my attention when it was published because the researchers announced similarities between heterosexual women and homosexual men for this pathway.  But there are a variety of other results in this vein, many of which are referenced in this review.

(It’s worth mentioning a caveat, though — these studies were conducted with people from single populations.  To identify inherent biological differences, they would ideally use people from a mix of cultural backgrounds, including both matriarchal and patriarchal societies.  There are cultures in which the males traditionally perform childcare and related duties, and you’d need to show similar, i.e. not inverted, gender-specific brain structure in people from those cultures to rebut Burkett’s / Rippon’s claim.)

To my mind, feminism shouldn’t be about claiming that men & women are the same.  That their identities don’t matter.  It’s that, no matter your identity, your opportunities should not be circumscribed.  No matter who you are, you should get to pursue your dreams.  Your identity should not dictate how you will be treated by the world.

150601180629-vanity-fair-caitlyn-jenner-large-169Here’s the final paragraph from Burkett’s editorial:

Bruce Jenner told [an interviewer] that what he looked forward to most in his transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off.  I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too.  But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.

That’s obviously true.  I am a ultra-masculine gargantuan man beast (though perhaps less so now.  I’m my daughter’s primary daytime parent, and childcare seems to lower testosterone level), and I’ve worn nail polish for years.

My hands, circa 2006.
My hands, circa 2006.

But there is a major difference between my wearing nail polish — a self-identified male decorating his body in what many consider to be a feminine way — or Burkett — a born and raised woman — wearing nail polish, and Jenner wearing nail polish.  The latter case is a someone who was raised as a man and felt dread that someone might recognize that her personality did not match the shell in which it was encased.  Nail polish obviously would not make her a woman, but only after being recognized as a woman could she act without fear.

Similarly, the protagonist of Loving Day was always forced to prove his identity before being given the chance to relax and be himself.  Here’s another cutting passage, this from the comic convention at which the protagonist was shooed off to sit at the “Urban” booth:

“Who are you?” the man already sitting in the chair next to mine asks.  He’s around my age, with more gut to show for it.  There’s an eagle on his sweatshirt, its wings spread around his midriff as if it’s trying to fly off before his belly explodes.  The guy’s tone isn’t rude, but it isn’t a casual entrée into small talk either.  He really wants to know.  He looks down at my seat as if some invisible, insubstantial Afro-entity had already laid claim to it, and really wants to know why I’m motioning to sit there?  Why am I at the black table?

“I’m a local writer.  Just back in town, you know, peddling my wares,” I tell him, and then babble on a bit more, eventually getting to my name and the last book I worked on.  The words don’t really matter.  What I’m really doing is letting my black voice come out, to compensate for my ambiguous appearance.  Let the bass take over my tongue.  Let the South of Mom’s ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men could pull off.  It’s conscious but not unnatural–I sometimes revert to this native tongue even when I have nothing to prove.  Often when I’ve been drinking.  I refer to my last graphic novel with the pronoun jawn.  I finish what I’m saying with “Know what I’m saying?”  He nods at me a little, slightly appeased, because he does know what I’m saying.  What I’m saying is, I’m black too.  What I’m saying is that he can relax around me, because I’m on his side.  That he doesn’t have to worry I’m going to make some random racist statement that will stab him when he’s unguarded, or be offended when he makes some racist comment of his own.  People aren’t social, they’re tribal.  Race doesn’t exist, but tribes are fucking real.

Links to my writing elsewhere: On Darth Vader and the Homunculus Theory of the Mind.

This piece went up on Literary Orphans  “Tavern Lantern” blog a few weeks ago, but now it has a stable link.  Here’s the entire LO issue, or you can click the image to go directly to my essay (thanks to Rashard and Erika at LO for the cool pic):


I learned about Literary Orphans from reading their “Black Thought” special issue — well worth checking out.  And I really appreciate the journal’s style, including rough estimates for how long you might need to read each piece… important information for those of us who have to cram our internet-ing into interstitial moments between work, parenting, errands, life.

Thanks again to Scott Waldyn for publishing the piece.

On how human different humans happen to be (hint: equivalently human).

CaptureI finally read some of the initial papers (circa 1981) describing an outbreak of opportunistic infections among previously-healthy homosexual men in the United States.  The case studies are harrowing — a dispassionate litany of suffering, ending with death.

And, yes, these are papers from before I was born.  I should’ve read them already, or at least know enough about them that they’d have no impact.  To someone like my father, for instance, who has worked with HIV patients for most of my life, the old case studies would not seem shocking — I recently read Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm, which carries a beautiful epigraph from Rene Leriche (I’m not sure who translated this from the French — if somebody knows, please tell me!): “Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray — a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures.” — my father, like most medical doctors, can surely close his eyes to summon up memories more bleak than the case studies I’ve been reading.

But to me, a medical naif, the papers remind me of the horrifying violence against women section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.  Personal tragedy and heart-wrenching suffering condensed into clinical prose.  Not fun.

But I had a reason for subjecting myself to this!  A recent NPR news investigation alerted me to Susan Smith’s article “Mustard Gas and American Race-based Human Experimentation in World War II.”

To put these experiments in perspective, I think it’s worth considering how mustard gas works.  Luckily, I took a medicinal chemistry class with Rick Silverman where we discussed the mechanism of both mustard gas and the early mustard-gas-esque chemotherapy drugs known as nitrogen mustards.  It was a cool topic, so I still remember it: I’ve drawn out the mechanism (with some helpful notes!) below.


And, looking back on this, there are a few things worth noting.  One is, yeah, it’s perhaps obvious why I was emotionally leveled by reading those AIDS case studies — most of what I know is massively abstracted.  It’s very different to hear the words “mustard gas” and envision a lines-and-letters mechanism  versus seeing a image of Rollins Edwards juxtaposed with another depicting a jarful of his own skin (which appears halfway down the page for the NPR story).

See the NPR article here.

I’d like to think that the scientists who originally designed these experiments were picturing everything on that same level of abstraction.  Not that this excuses what they did, but it’s slightly less awful to imagine that they were simply oblivious to the human harm they were causing.

The second is, well, look!  Mustard gas crosslinks DNA!  How different from black or Puerto Rican or Japanese soldiers did those white scientists imagine themselves to be to think that mustard gas would show differential efficacy?

And that’s why I was looking up the AIDS papers.  Because I attended a symposium in 2002 where Lane Fenrich read excerpts from those original papers.  His message was that the authors of those original papers implied that homosexuals are distinct on a cellular level.

I no longer remember which passages he chose to read, but here are two quotes that convey his point.  The first is from the paper by Gottlieb et al.:

Depression of T-cell numbers and of proliferative responses to the degree observed in our patients has not been reported to occur in ctyomegalovirus-induced syndromes in normal persons.

Should I be doing something cheeky with font to add emphasis to the words “normal persons” at the end of that sentence?  Naw, I think you probably get the point.

The second quote I thought I’d include is from a 1982 Center for Disease Control report:

Infectious agents not yet identified may cause the acquired cellular immunodeficiency that appears to underlie [Kaposi’s sacroma] and/or [Pneumocystis cainii pneumonia] among homosexual males.

Again, the message being sent is that there are cellular differences.  An infectious agent targets basic human biology among homosexual males.  Which is a crazy message to send.  Sure, they only had a small data set — they didn’t have any evidence yet that the same infectious agent might cause immunodeficiency in heterosexuals, or in women.  But, wouldn’t that be a reasonable assumption to make?  You have to presume pretty extreme levels of otherness to think that would not be the case.

ZPp_fotx0TiwtLE3nEBnVw_sharegeneswmeReading these papers made me pretty happy that a friend sent us a copy of 23andMe’s board book You Share Genes with Me shortly after N was born.  With corny rhymes the book celebrates how similar we are to organisms ranging from grasses, flies, fish, up to chimpanzees and our (presumed) human friends.  With numbers, too — if N could speak, perhaps she could let you know that chimpanzees share ca. 96% of her DNA sequence, and another human baby ca. 99.5%.

Which is a nice message to send.  Human brains are so good at presuming otherness; it’s charming to have a book for her that makes clear how similar we all are, people, animals, and even plants.


p.s. Maybe you’ve read reports about pharmaceuticals with race-based differential efficacy.  And, yes, despite over 99% DNA sequence identity between any two human beings, there are some differences that correlate with ethnicity.

Appearance, for one — many people assume they can assess ethnicity well from photographs.  Lactase persistence is another, and that seems to have developed recently (as far as evolutionary timescales go).  It’s not so unreasonable to imagine differences in drug metabolism between humans of differing genetic ancestries, and that can have a big impact on efficacy: two people taking the same dose of a medication might experience significantly different concentrations of the active ingredient.

I’ll include more about these issues when I finally get around to posting that essay on the evolution of skin color, but on the whole these seem to be pretty minor differences, and nothing that would affect sensitivity to mustard gas, which takes a baseball bat to your DNA long before you’d have a chance to metabolize it.  And the only big news story about race & pharmaceuticals that I know about is for that heart medication, BiDil.  In that case, it seems most likely that their rationale for claiming race-based efficacy was to help them file a new patent.  If you’re curious, you could read Dorothy Roberts’s article chastising the race-based claims; here I’d like to highlight just these three lines:

In the past, the FDA has had no problem generalizing clinical trials involving white people to approve drugs for everyone.  That is because it believes that white bodies function like human bodies.  However with BiDil, a clinical trial involving all African Americans could only serve as proof of how the drug works in blacks.

On how friends don’t let friends study alone.

Studying in Starbucks by quatar, on Flickr

I often felt frustrated while reading William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep.”  And not, I imagine, in the way he intended.  Because, sure, the crumby stuff he was discussing —  perpetuated aristocracy masquerading as meritocracy, the conflation of a person’s income with their value, etc. — is frustrating.  But I imagine that most people who are moderately informed about the state of elite universities has thought about those issues.  And there were some passages that I found irritating but only because of my own prejudices.   Deresiewicz devoted a lot of space to the idea that your college courses teach you how to think, and so it doesn’t matter what your major was, that’s right, go ahead and major in the humanities… and yet also writes that he should’ve been an English major and that his choice of biology and psychology was a slog through dry material that shut down options.

Obviously, given my own background and interests, I’d like to think that a science background can help you be a writer just as much as a humanities background can help you be a doctor (for instance my sister, just now completing her residency, after majoring in women’s studies).

But the main reason I felt frustrated was because the book seemed to be written to advise young people, and I would guess that the young people most receptive to advice would be relative outsiders just entering the system he’s describing.  As in non-white, non-wealthy students admitted to elite universities.  And I feel that some of the advice was actively harmful.

For instance, the following passage:

But never mind the grades; it’s even hard to give your students honest feedback.  Kids who have been raised under a regimen of positive reinforcement, and whose self-esteem depends on perfection, are not well equipped to handle criticism.  Besides, they have better things to do than hit the books.  At a big, public party school–let’s call it the University of Southern Football–that probably means beer and television.  At elite colleges, it means those all-consuming extracurricular activities.  Extracurriculars certainly have value: they’re fun; they’re social, which studying is not (at least, not if you do it right); they enable students to express and develop abilities that classes ignore; and they’re good for making contacts and testing out vocational options.  They also organize the campus social scene.  But given kids’ addiction to keeping busy, their fear of ever missing out on anything, they tend to expand to fill the available space.

Really, I only wanted to quote the fragment “…social, which studying is not (at least, not if you do it right)” but I always think it’s skeezy when sentence fragments are quoted out of context, like, what are you trying to hide here?  So I slapped up the whole paragraph.

The issue I have with this is that effective studying *is* social.  There is a fair amount of data out there about how well students learn when they’re studying in a social versus isolated environment (which I would have assumed Deresiewicz should’ve seen, given his perspicacious arguments against the utility of MOOCs).  So to state so off-handedly that if you’re studying in a social environment you’re doing it wrong… to me, shows a lack of concern for the plights of many students.  There’s a good passage to put this into perspective in Claude Steele’s “Whistling Vivaldi:”

Soon a group difference came into view, one in which blacks and Asian students differed the most, with whites in the middle.  Asian students studied in groups, formal and informal, more than black or white students.  This practice produced powerful advantages for learning calculus.  It brought many heads to the homework, so that if one person couldn’t solve a problem, someone else could, and that person could explain it.  They could spend more time on the concepts involved in calculus, and less time doing the arithmetic of the homework.  (It shortened homework time.)  Misunderstandings could be quickly identified and corrected, even when they came from the teaching staff.  Asian students also made little distinction between their academic and social lives.  Saturday night studying in the library counted as social life for a group of friends bonded, in part, over studying and doing math problems together.

White students studied more independently.  But they readily sought help from other students and teaching assistants.  They talked shop about calculus outside of class, even compared notes on difficult problems, but focused their social lives less on academics than did Asian students.

Black students, Treisman found, offered a contrast to both styles.  They were intensely independent, downright private about their wok.  After class, they returned to their rooms, closed the door and pushed through long hours of study–more hours than either whites or Asians.  Many of them were the first of their family to attend college; they carried their family’s hopes.  What Treisman saw, sitting on the bunk bed, watching many of his black students work, explained a lot about what was happening to them in his class.  With no one to talk to, the only way to tell whether they understood the concept of a problem was to check their answer in the back of the book.  They spent considerable time doing this, which made them focus less on calculus concepts and more on rechecking their arithmetic against answers in the book.  This tactic weakened their grasp of the concepts.  Despite great effort, they often performed worse on classroom tests than whites and Asians, who they knew had studied no more, or even less, than they had.  In light of the racial stereotype in the air over their heads, this was a frustrating experience, which made them wonder whether they belonged here.

So, black students had internalized the idea that if you’re smart enough you study alone.  And that idea came from somewhere.  And, look, it’s not Deresiewicz’s fault: he obviously didn’t make up that myth, and his book was published long after all the studies discussed in “Whistling Vivalidi” … but I still felt upset seeing him propagate it further.