We cast a shadow

(Announcement: I started a Substack! The content, while pretty much similar to the blog, is more polished since, well, there are audiences. The pressure hit me the moment I sent out my first edition and realised I have to commit to sending this out x times y month/week and that there are people, most of them very smart and articulate and informed, signed up to read my shit. But there’s the challenge, and let’s see how long I can keep up with it. *nervous laugh*)

Joy Buolamwini, founder of Algorithmic League Justice, found that she had to put on a white mask for the facial detection program to “see” her face. Image from Data Feminism, via Deep Dives.

I am currently halfway into Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s brilliant satire We Cast a Shadow, and the question that had been the running theme in the book, in my mind, was: How much racial trauma— just like every other trauma — can affect how much you navigate the world that never intends for your safety, and how you treat other people who look like you, and the people you love? 

Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow started as the protagonist, an unnamed Black man, tells us his name does not matter, “I’m a phantom [and] a figment.” He’s an associate at a high-profile law firm, and he’s standing in the midst of an annual party dressing up in a Zulu chief costume, trying to vie for the attention of the shareholders along with other two Black coworkers. Those who succeeded will be promoted, those who failed will be sacked. Our protagonist, despite the humiliation and a minor setback involving a wardrobe malfunction, bags the promotion. He is now the new chief diversity chair in a committee where none of the others looks like him (clue: they are all white) but not as a shareholder (which means there is no pay raise). In order to get the pay raise, he has to create a campaign for the firm to create the illusion that they care about ‘the community’ (read: Black people) which lead to the protagonist venturing into his childhood fenced-in ghetto to film the people he grew up with. 

At the heart of it all is the people he loves most, and the reason he is chasing the pay raise: his biracial son Nigel. Born with a birthmark as only “a fleck of oregano” in his eye area, the mark eventually developed and darkened as he grew up. In an attempt to contain its growth, he makes his son takes a whitening cream that burns, and that Nigel is made to wear a hat wherever he goes. The issue, it seems, is much more than a skin condition. 

A dark-skinned child can expect a life of diminished light. 

Growing up with racial trauma throughout the years, the protagonist is determined that the world is not going to change, in a sense it is going to become even more racist so they are the ones who have to adjust themselves to the world…

Somehow the grinding effects of a world built to hurt me have not yet eliminated my every opportunity for a happy life, as is the case for so many of my brethren. The world is a centrifuge that patiently waits to separate my Nigel from his basic human dignity. I don’t have to tell you that this is an unjust planet.

…even if this means having him to do the undignified things like filming his Black neighbours and brothers for the campaign in an attempt to participate in his company’s performative activism, in so that he would make enough to pay for his son’s ‘demelanisation’ procedure that would not only remove his birthmark, but also give him an overall whiteskin. 

On the question of survivorship bias

A few weeks ago, Al-Jazeera produced a documentary titled Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown, which reported the inhumane treatment to the migrant workers arrested during raids in areas in capital Kuala Lumpur that were placed under tight coronavirus lockdowns. Human rights activists and informed citizens alike condemned the arrests, the poor treatment, and the clampdown of freedom of speech and media independence as the government threatened to deport Rayhan Kabir, the Bangladeshi man appearing in the documentary (update: he had been arrested 😦 ) and also towards Al-Jazeera (update: their office had been raided and computers seized).

Over Twitter, someone created a petition demanding an official apology from the news publication for ‘tarnishing the good name of the Malaysian government” and that […] they have no valid documents whatsoever, and we feel that the treatment given to them by our government is more than humane”. While it had been gaining traction, someone pointed out that the person who started the petition is, by any funny chance, a migrant themself. They, at a stroke of luck in a form of the genetic lottery, is fair-skinned, a privilege that afforded them some substantial space of privilege in a country so permeated with xenophobia and colourism, despite not being a Malaysian themself.

Would they say and do the same if they was also born brown and Bangladeshi as Rayhan? Would we also listen to them, or would we also come marching with pitchforks demanding for their documents to be checked and deported?

The term survivorship bias is defined as “your tendency to focus on survivors instead of whatever you would call a non-survivor depending on the situation.” In Ruffin’s book, the Black protagonist narrates as:

I am a unicorn. I can read and write. I have all my teeth. I’ve read Plato, Woolf, Nikki Giovanni, and Friend. I’ve never been to jail. I’ve voted in every election since I was eighteen. I finished high school. I finished college. I finished law school. I pay taxes. I don’t have diabetes, high blood pressure, or the itis. If you randomly abduct a hundred black men from the streets of the City and deposit us into a gas chamber, I will be the only one who fits this profile. I will be the only one who survives. Is it because I’m better than the other ninety-nine? No. It’s because I’m lucky, and I know it.

He says this while at the same time, admitting, albeit subtlely, about the racial trauma he grew up with. He attempts to paint himself as ‘different’ from other Black people, and he is horrified Nigel is friends with another Black girl at school. But he grew disillusioned with the world, and he was tired of fighting, and in an attempt to maybe protect his son from feeling so as well, he asked himself, “What if I can ensure that my boy is not perceived as a black man? What if he is simply a man?” It’s a simple question, but it was loaded with the notion that when you are something other than white, you are not a human being.

There may be beauty in my blackness and dignity in the struggle of my people, but I won’t allow my son to live a life of diminished possibility. I see a constellation of opportunity that those of my ilk rarely travel to. I see my Nigel at the center of those stars.

If there’s anything to call Ruffin’s protagonist, is that he is not a malicious person. If I were to read this book a few years ago, unaware and uninformed, I would have quit halfway because of how shallow he seems in disregarding and not appreciating of his own roots to the point he is willing to change his son’s appearance altogether. He should have stopped, but his experiences were not ours, and if we are not Black none of our experiences will never amount to the gravitas they had shown despite it all. We will never know — but we can keep questioning, how far will we go to ensure safety to our loved ones in a world that would seek to harm them anyway?

Reading in my tabs:

  • “Growing up in Lebanon taught me that an explosion resonates across time, that the shock reverberates forward into your life, and the pressure reconfigures the landscape of the mind. I know that it comes to shape everything you think you deserve from the world.” If there’s one thing you want to read about Lebanon, the explosion, and the long-running issues their people had to endure, make it this one by Lina Mounzer.
  • Why is America so afraid of TikTok? And what’s in it for Microsoft?
  • The 5 biggest little lies tech CEOs told Congress.
  • AI issues are rooted in colonialism, and here are their five manifestations: algorithmic discrimination and oppression, ghost work, beta testing, AI governance, and international social development. Three ways to overcome them: context-aware technical development, reverse tutelage, and solidarity.
  • “It is only a matter of time before Slack and its competitors go from being tattle-tales to being more like HR Robocops.”
  • “We also need to recognise that the way women get dragged into the role of primary caregiver isn’t always explicit — it’s insidious. Maybe a husband tells his wife that she’s just “better” at handling the toddler’s tantrums, or that the 10-year-old won’t listen to him the way she listens to their mum. He doesn’t remember the name of the kids’ pediatrician — because he’s not the parent who takes off of work when they’re sick — to make their appointment, so his wife might as well do it. He has no idea what his daughter’s shoe size is, or even that she needs new shoes at all. It’s the “myth of the male bumbler” — the absurdity of men believing themselves fit to run the world, but unable to figure out how to do the laundry or put a child down for a nap.” The pandemic isn’t forcing mums out of the workforce — dads are.
  • “Encased in gold aluminum, the sweet treat was a glowing orb that concealed the pains, joys, and dreams of immigrants between layers of crushed hazelnut and chocolate filling. It was a secret handshake, a sign of respect and good taste. It was a symbol of “the good life,” a tangible thing that vividly encapsulated social and economic aspirations in a way no other food item could.” How Ferrero Rocher became a status symbol for immigrant families. My family and I don’t come from an immediate line of immigrants in our country, but I do remember feeling overjoyed everytime my dad came home from work and brought home a pack of three Ferrero Rochers (the smallest), which was also how I knew it was his payday. That, or a monthly dinner to the local KFC or the Viennetta ice cream.
  • “I find this framing troubling. Most obviously, it shifts responsibility for global emissions from systemic actors like fossil fuel companies and governments onto individuals. By doing so, it gives corporations a pass while placing moral responsibility on people who live within systems where they are not free to make carbon-neutral choices. It accepts as inevitable the neoliberal order that has driven the climate crisis, and insists that our responses to this crisis take place within the same system.” Is it OK to have a child when the world is literally slowly burning?
  • Is there a word for this strange dissonance that I feel when I see and hear spring unfurl its beauty all around and yet the air is heavy with the news of death?”
  • You want to see my data? I thought we were friends!
  • You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice and Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast A Shadow.
  • Listening: Drive & Listen, which pulls dashboard cam videos from YouTube and pairs them up with local music channels so that you can feel like you’re cruising around in a foreign city, blasting the radio, all while sitting at your desk.
  • Viewing: Did everyone miss how good On My Block was? The series revolve around a group of four teens living their lives in a rough inner-city LA neighbourhood. Many great themes around friendship, trauma, navigating racial identities, and challenging the antiquated idea of masculinity, among others.
  • Food & Drink: Made grilled chicken to have with brown rice today!

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