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What do White people really see when they look at Black people?

July 3, 2018

This photo graces the top of the UC Berkeley Facebook page. It seems to imply that UC stands alone as a place of clarity, perhaps even enlightenment, while, looking west, San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area are shrouded in fog. – Photo: Elena Zhukova

From coffee shop racism to racism at UC Berkeley

Or, Teaching while Black and fighting racial blindness in Digital Humanities

Or, Facing up to racial profiling in algorithms: Neuroscience, AI and racism

by Cecil Brown

UC Berkeley’s New Media might be new, but the racism is old.

In 1957, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his younger brother, Arthur, who, about to join the army, wanted some advice from his older brother about how to deal with racist army officers. “They don’t see you,” Baldwin wrote to him. “When they look at you, they see a monster, of their own creation.”

It’s a trap, he told his brother in a letter that was never publish and was never meant to be (unlike his famous “Letter to my Nephew.”) It was brother to his brother about how to survive in a brutal racist society. “It’s a trap,” he warned. “Don’t fall into it. Don’t believe what they believe about you. If you do, you are lost.”

Baldwin would go on to write many novels and plays, where the seed of this idea of the Whites’ violent distortion of reality yields great works. Yet it had its beginning in this letter. It raises the essential question, What do Whites see when they look at Black people?

UC Berkeley’s New Media might be new, but the racism is old.

When Whites see Blacks, do they actually see them? Or do they really see monsters? By this, Baldwin meant the White man does not see Blacks as belonging to the same category that includes his own White race. They see their own projection of the Black person. The monster they see is created out of their own fears. The African within, so to speak.

In his novel, “Invisible Man” (1951), Ralph Ellison makes this point, too, on an epic level. His eponymous hero (i.e., nameless) is invisible to Whites – but not to Blacks. Based on an oral story of a folk hero (“Sweets”), who can make himself disappear at will, Ellison’s hero shows that Blacks have always suspected that Whites do really not see them. Blacks suspect that the key to White supremacy is based on the Whites’ technique of blocking out the face of the Other and replacing it with a self-created monster.

The Starbucks incident, in which a White manager called the police when two young Black men walked into the coffeeshop, demonstrates that Baldwin and Ellison were right. When the White Starbucks manager saw two Black men, she saw “signs,” signs that triggered to her brain “danger!” Impulsively, she had to call the police to dispel that danger. The sign of Black men had a neurological effect on her brain, short-circuiting her logical deduction derived from her observation that they were not a threat, or danger.

Blacks suspect that the key to White supremacy is based on the Whites’ technique of blocking out the face of the Other and replacing it with a self-created monster.

On May 29, 2018, 61 years after Baldwin’s letter to his brother, Starbucks coffee shops closed across America. From Baldwin’s point of view, the White manager had not really seen them as “customers,” but as troublemakers or even dangerous people. Today one of the fast-growing technologies is face recognition, an application being used in everything from law enforcement to smartphone security.

According to Mikel Kosinski, a Stanford professor, “AI [artificial intelligence] can accurately guess whether people are gay or straight based on photos of their faces.” Furthermore, he claims “that using photos, AI will be able to identify political views, IQs, predisposition to criminal behavior, personality traits and many other private, personal details that could carry huge social consequences.”

My point here is that the White person in the Starbucks event had not seen the two men walking into the shop. New research suggests that White people are more apt to see people of their own race more precisely than people of the other races.

We see this pattern at the Yale University incident in which Sarah Braasch, a White student, saw a Black graduate student napping in a common room in the dormitory, called the police because she thought the student did “not belong to the university.” The graduate student, Lolade Siyonbola told the police, “I deserve to be here. I am a student at Yale and pay tuition like everybody else.”

In Oakland, California, a White woman, now dubbed “Barbecue Becky,” called the police because she saw a Black family barbecuing. She saw them as “trespassing.” A few days later, 15,000 Blacks showed up and partied in the same spot as the original incident.

New research suggests that White people are more apt to see people of their own race more precisely than people of the other races.

At the golf course, the White men called the police because the Black women golfers were “too slow.”

It would appear that Whites call the police on Black people when they see that Blacks are not “in their places.” When a Yale White student saw another student asleep in the study area, she assumed she was not a student because she was Black. She called the police. Blacks are not usually at Yale University – where affirmative action is dead – so when Whites see Blacks sleeping “in the wrong place,” they feel entitled to call the police.

Blacks are not usually playing golf, so in Pennsylvania the White golfers called the police when some Black female golfers were playing “too slow.”

Some Whites feel “entitled,” according to TV host Don Lemon. On CNN, Professor Michel Dyson disagrees. “It is not what we Black people do,” he argued, “it is what we are!”

Furthermore, Baldwin’s point has been recently supported by new research in psychology and neuroscience which has helped advance face-recognition application. Some of these discoveries in neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence helped explain why some Whites are biased against Blacks.

Much of the support for the new research is called variously “Our-Race Bias” (ORB) or “Other-Race Effect” (ORE), which document the “human’s inability to recognize and distinguish faces other than their own race.”

The inability to recognize faces is called prosopagnosia and was recognized by Oliver Sacks in “The Man who Mistook his Wife for A Hat,” about a man who couldn’t recognize his own wife. According to an article in the Scientific American, some people suffer from face blindness for other races.

The problem with the face-recognition software and algorithms is that it only recognizes White and Asian faces. When researcher from the MIT Media Lab Joy Buolamwini tried to use it, because she has dark skin, the application didn’t even recognize her face.

Much of the support for the new research is called variously “Our-Race Bias” (ORB) or “Other-Race Effect” (ORE), which document the “human’s inability to recognize and distinguish faces other than their own race.”

On the Noah Trevor TV show, Ms. Buolamwini explained that in order to get the machine to learn to recognize her face, she had to don a white mask. The computer program immediately reacted to the fake white mask, but not to the actual human face, but because it was Black.

Ms. Buolamwini explained that the White researchers had only used White and Asian models to input data into the machine. In the article, “Rise of the Racist Robot: How AI is learning all our worst impulses,” Stephen Buranyi reported in The Guardian that “a computer program used by a U.S. court for risk assessment was biased against Black prisoners.”

The computer algorithm wrongly flagged the African American prisoners at almost twice the rate of Whites – 45 percent compared to 25 percent. “The message seemed clear: The justice system, reviled for its racial bias, had turned to technology for help, because the algorithms had a racial bias too.”

If there are only White faces and Asians faces going into the data bank, only White faces and Asian faces are coming out: “Racism in, racism out.” Buranyi noted that “when the data we feed the machines reflect the history of our own unequal society, we are, in effect asking the program to learn our own biases.”

In an article, “Robots are racist and sexist,” Laurie Penny writes, “Recent reports have shown that machine-learning systems are picking up racist and sexist ideas embedded in systems that they are fed by human engineers.”

“Machine can be as bigoted as people,” she asserts. “Robots have been racists because machines can work only from the information given to them, usually by the White, straight men who dominate the fields of technology and robotics.”

If there are only White faces and Asians faces going into the data bank, only White faces and Asian faces are coming out: “Racism in, racism out.”

Microsoft built a robot chatbot called Tay. Because Tay took her information from racist programmers, “Tay kept saying things like ‘Hitler was right’ as well as ‘9/11 was an inside job,’” much to the embarrassment of the users, Mr. Buranyi reported,

When the police arrived at the Starbucks coffee shop, Melissa Depino pulled out her cellphone, uploaded the video of the incident to the internet and millions of people saw it.

But what would have happened if no one had videoed it on their smart phone? It may have been talked about by a few people as a one time incident but would have been soon forgotten.

Yet “Our-Race Bias” (ORB) happens thousands of times a day in America, but it is not podcast or uploaded to digital media.

The Starbucks coffee house racism incident is the tip of the iceberg in universities across the country. But as one passes through the classrooms in UC Berkeley’s New Media and Media Studies, he rarely sees any African American students in the classrooms, to say nothing of Black faculty.

Not much racial or even gender diversity in this Digital Humanities pedagogy class at UC Berkeley.

I taught a digital-linked course in the History Department at UC Berkeley in 2016. I was keen to introduce my students to digital technology, mainly because I wanted them to relate to the oral traditions. We should no longer limit our understanding of Black history through only written accounts.

Digital technology is a gift to a people who had to survive for 400 years – and still do – without the tools of writing. Digital Humanities presents the opportunity to see history through sound, video, primary sources, augmented reality and virtual reality.

I used a technique called Omeka, which allows students to collect data and make interactive maps. Since we were dealing with American slavery, my students made maps, collected recordings of slaves, scanned diaries and make animations. We read the text of the slave rebellions in “The Reaper of Death,” but the fun was in making interactive maps.

One of my students, Kalob J. Houston, a Black sophomore from Compton, California, was very good at using digital technology. His presentation was a lively performance (I videotaped it and can send the reader a link upon request).

At the beginning of a class, he had just come back from his rhetoric class, where he had been defending a poem by Imamu Amiri Baraka, so I let him rant, which he did with impressive skills. I said to him, more or less to compliment him, that his mother would have been proud. “Yes,” he said, “she is.” And I said, “And your father would be proud too?”

He said, almost automatically, almost proudly, “I never seen my father. I saw a picture of him once. He was in a prison uniform.”

I was embarrassed that I had asked it in front of the class. But I made a note to myself never to ask students about their parents in public.

I wondered about Kalob. A few weeks ago, I sent him an email. How was he doing at Cal? Had he been able to keep his grades up? A few days later I get his response:

“Good afternoon Prof Brown,

“I apologize for the late response. But I’m doing well. I no longer go to UC Berkeley. I withdrew the start of the fall semester for my junior year. I’m currently working right now as an armed security supervisor. And this July I’m moving back to Sacramento from Long Beach to attend the Correctional Officer Academy. How long are you going to be teaching at Stanford?

“Sincerely,

“Kalob J. Houston”

That saddened me. I remember that he had a father in prison, and now he was going to be a prison guard. What had going to Berkeley really done for him? What about the digital technology I taught him? What happened to his ambitions?

I emailed him again: He replied that he left Berkeley, not for his grades, but for financial reasons:

“I decided to leave UC Berkeley for financial reasons. During my junior year I owed a couple thousand dollars to UC Berkeley in the middle of the fall semester and they were freezing all of my grades and not allowing me to add classes. And during the summer before my junior year I owed a thousand dollars to UC Berkeley, and I had to work all summer to pay them back.

“I just decided going to college wasn’t the best move for me at that point, because I grew up in poverty and I only went to college in order to gain opportunities that would lead me to make the type of money that could lift me up out of poverty. But the way the educational institutions are set up in America is not conducive for low income students who do not have full-ride scholarships.

“I got tired of having to bust my ass during the semester to get good grades, and then bust my ass during the summer to pay UC Berkeley back just so I could attend classes in the fall, and then bust my ass again during winter break to pay UC Berkeley back so I can attend the spring semester. So I left.”

Kalob always came to my class with two other students: Seamus, who is White and is from Washington, D.C., and Juan, who is Mexican from Phoenix, Arizona. As I discovered later, they were fraternity brothers. I marveled at them, coming from different backgrounds yet finding friendship in common goals. I liked seeing them together. They were going to be the future, I often thought. I asked him about Seamus and Juan.

He wrote back:

“My fraternity brother Seamus did not grow up in poverty – both of his parents are successful lawyers – in addition he had some scholarships; so he was not struggling financially like me. Also, my other fraternity brother Juan who was in your class is still at UC Berkeley. Now I know that Juan grew up in poverty as well, I believe, but I’m not sure if he had a full-ride to UC Berkeley or not.”

So I was saddened again when he wrote back that if I had been there at UC, it would have made a difference to his graduation.

“Professor Brown:

“Seeing your face every week at Berkeley made me feel very good. It made me feel like I was getting a taste of home and the HBCU experience at a predominantly Asian and White institution. If you had still been my teacher at UC Berkeley, it probably would’ve encouraged me to finish out my fall semester or even my spring semester as well, but I don’t think I would’ve come back for my senior year.”

It always hurts a teacher, especially a Black one, to feel that he could make a difference in a student’s life – but could not. What could the university do for Black students? Hire more Black professors. What could Digital Humanities do to help get more Black students like Kalob interested in digital culture?

This spring I went to make an appointment to see the chair of Digital Humanities at UC. The chair was not in, and I was told she usually comes in the mornings.

I left my card with my phone number and email address and a poster of a lecture I had just given at Stanford. After a week, I had not heard back from her, so I sent her another email. After I still had not heard from her, I went back to see if she was in her office, and she was not. I left another note and asked if she could send me her office hours, so that I wouldn’t miss her.

The next day, I got the following email from her:

“STOP CONTACT

“Cecil Brown,

“You have contacted me and my staff and engaged in countless hours of conversation with me and my staff. We are all stretched to capacity and do not have time to have conversations without an explicit outcome.”

As one can see, there was no conversation that took place between me and her.

She continued:

“On several occasions, we have stated that:

“1) consultation is offered on a limited basis

“2) we will not meet with you since there is no stated purpose for the countless meetings …

“I want to state for the record that I don’t feel comfortable meeting with you. I don’t see the purpose of speaking or meeting with you since you have for more than a year never been able to clearly articulate the purpose of your requests for meetings.

“Furthermore, my staff is also stretched to capacity and unable to meet with you.

“I have more than 20 blocked calls from you and between my staff and I, we have half a dozen drop-in slips. This is not acceptable and I consider it harassment. I don’t feel safe. Please stop contact. I am going to block your email and therefore your response will not be received by me.

“C.L.P., Carrie Louis Prichett, Ph.D., Executive Director/Academic Coordinator, Social Sciences D-Lab & Digital Humanities at Berkeley, Letters & Science, Arts & Humanities”

When I read this, I was shocked. I had never met her in her office, and certainly never had “countless” hours of conversation with her. I saw her once at a meeting of the Digital Humanities.

The reason I came by her office was I wanted to talk to her about how to help students like Kalob. I also wanted to give a lecture to them. I left my card from Stanford and a poster of the lecture.

Like the White manager in the Starbucks case, “Barbecue Becky” at Lake Merritt and like the White golfers, she didn’t see me. She said she didn’t feel comfortable with me when she has never met me. How was I going to talk to her about teaching Digital Humanities if she blocks my emails? If she is never in her office? Since we never met, she had little to go on.

As Dr. Michael Dyson said, it’s not what we do; it’s who we are. Just as he said, it is not where we are, not whether we are barbecuing or taking a nap or playing golf or even teaching a class.

I am a Black professor who believes that there is a lack of African American influence in the Digital Humanities. The reason is that the department head did not want to see me due to a view of me that has nothing to do with me, as me. But it has a lot to do with her perception of what she took to be me.

As Dr. Michael Dyson said, it’s not what we do; it’s who we are. Just as he said, it is not where we are, not whether we are barbecuing or taking a nap or playing golf or even teaching a class.

I went to see a professor friend of mine, who taught with me in the Digital Humanities. Professor Heidegger. I was excited to see him. He smiled, but I didn’t discover until much later that this was a plastic smile. He was not happy to see me, after all.

As we stood and talked, his class drifted in. Over half of the class were Asian, and the rest were White. I told him it was a shame that we haven’t found a way to get more Black students into the New Media programs. He called me about 8:00 that night and said, “I don’t want you to come to my class again.”

Since the complete dismantling of affirmative action at Berkeley, Black student enrollment is down to about 2 percent. As a result of this neglect, many UC officials in departments are lax about Blacks on campus. Many students and faculty are rude and insulting because they know that any repercussions are minimal. There are never any cases brought against the university for racial discrimination.

Since the complete dismantling of affirmative action at Berkeley, Black student enrollment is down to about 2 percent.

They are not apologetic, believing, I suppose, that it is Blacks who should apologize. As in the Starbucks case, Blacks are viewed as someone taking up White space, they believe.

It is the everyday racism that one experiences at UC Berkeley. Whites do not see Blacks as clearly, apparently, as they see each other. It is as if the whole student body suffers from some convenient disorder of not being able to recognize others from other races.

Everybody knows that it takes place, but no one has the courage or education to speak about it. Racist algorithms and robots are not to blame, as some have claimed; they do not have bias on their own. Some White engineer had to train them. As the computer jargon has it, “Garbage in, garbage out (GI, GO).” If only White faces and Asian faces going into the data bank, only White faces and Asian faces are coming out. “Racism in, racism out (RI, RO).”

It is the everyday racism that one experiences at UC Berkeley. Everybody knows that it takes place, but no one has the courage or education to speak about it.

On the other hand, what gets left out of the discussion is the power of images on Blacks. This power is vastly underrated by the technological culture. The cure, for example, for this “Our-Race Bias” disease is to surround oneself with people of other races and other faces.

One step was taken when the film “Black Panther” came out. People began to see how the Black images affected Black movie-goers. Although Blacks knew that Wakanda is a fictional place, the “power of the images are such that people can feel things in the world of cinema. Those feelings can transfer back into the life outside the theater,” writes S. Brent Rogriquez-Plate, in “How Images Change our Race Bias,” an important article that shows the influence imagery has on human perceptions. Implicit racial biases are formed in the absence of positive Black imagery.

“If you are a Negro dealing with people all day long, all year long, all life long, who never look at you,” Baldwin warned, “then you have to figure out one day what they are looking at. Obviously, it isn’t you.”

“When I was 17,” James Baldwin wrote, “working for the Army, I could not have been a threat to any White man alive. So it wasn’t me; it was something he didn’t want to see. And you know what that was? It was ultimately, yes, his own death …

“People who certainly are not monsters will do monstrous things to you … designed to protect their wives and children. This is what is meant by keeping you in your place. If you move out of your place, everything is changed. If I’m not what that White man thinks I am, then he has to find out to what he is.”

That, I firmly believe, is where we are now in our country.

Cecil Brown teaches Urban Studies and Digital Humanities at Stanford University. He can be reached at browncecil8@me.com.

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2 thoughts on “What do White people really see when they look at Black people?

  1. Madison Smith

    We don’t have to make difference between black and white. The color does not define the character of a human being. Your heart should be pure. The cast, religion, and rituals created by the human being only. For God, we all are the same. We have to work together to remove this kind of comparison. For more information visit: http://www.wellnesshot.blogspot.com

    Reply
    1. Marvin L. Zinn

      Excellent description! Personally I refuse to call anyone black or white. In all my 72 years working in most states and 20 countries did I ever see one person who was different than a shade of brown.
      However, when I lived in SC while there remained segregation there was a Ku Kluz Klan headquarters who changed the words. Correct science is negroid and caucasian, but they used black commonly meaning "evil and dirty" and white often used for "pure and clean". I'll bet some people still have that common meaning and use it only for that.

      Reply

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