Saturday, October 20, 2012

Affirmative Action

I agree with the left that unless effort's made to include minorities in realms where prejudice historically has blocked their entrance, the tendency will be - even for non-prejudiced gatekeepers! - to sustain that imbalance, even if only due to inertia.

But I agree with the right that lowering bars to accommodate minorities is a paternalistic, condescending move which smacks of repressed racism. Jesus, how I'd hate to be a smart black guy at a good school and have everyone suspect I was only there thanks to institutional largesse. The effect of such policy is the opposite of what's intended; it degrades a credential's worth for any minority who bears it. Ick!

So quotas are a big "no" for me. But, again, there's something to the observation that even modern-thinking white institutions tend, often without conscious intent, to self-reinforce their homogeneity. So how to rectify?

A story from the Chowhound days:

I always hoped Chowhound would attract the broadest possible group. I wanted cab drivers and university professors and junior high kids and hippies and cops; the more kinds of people we attracted, the richer our trove of chow tips would be. But, ironically, a great many of our users in the early days sounded a lot like me (see my article "Flocking and GroupTalk" for an explanation of how tone propagates in communities). It was seductive, because it made me feel at home. But it was also irritating, because I was trying to encourage diversity and individualism! The really insidious part, though, appeared while moderating.

If you read a thousand message board postings a day, trying to pick out the bad guys (the shills, self-promoters, lunatics, axe-grinders, and trolls), you will soon develop a certain spidey sense. But a lot of that involves picking out tones which diverge from the mainstream. It's the old "what in this group doesn't belong?" dynamic.

Most of Chowhound's discussion had a public radio sort of tone. So when, for example, the poster known as FEDEXGuy showed up (who was both a superb chowhound and, strangely, my actual FEDEX delivery guy) posting tersely with hard-edged cocky brio and poor spelling skills, it rattled the eye and raised red flags. His postings were great, but moderators' instincts never adjusted to that sort of discordance. We learned to suppress the instinctive twitch of suspicion prompted by outliers.

Anyone managing a large flow of human beings experiences this. It's innate. So I learned to combat it, and trained the other moderators to do likewise. Watching all day for bad guys, bells would ring whenever tonally dissonant people appeared, but we'd exhale, recall the mantra - "different is ok" - and consciously focus attention toward specifics. It's doable; you just have to commit to some mental discipline. It's a part of "being professional".

Gatekeepers of every stripe (including college admissions staff) who spend their time weaning herds of humans, need to be trained in this faculty. Because after reading essays and bios from middle class white kids all day, day after day, an application from a minority kid in Washington Heights or Detroit is always going to feel incongruous. One can't help that - but one can learn to embrace it and focus attention on specifics.

"Different is ok" doesn't mean different is superior. That's just another sort of unfairness. And it certainly doesn't mean different-and-less-qualified is ok. I'm just suggesting a simple but counter-intuitive bit of mental jujitsu, which can help ensure that tonal differences aren't held against applicants.

That's the unconscious dynamic which reinforces homogeneity. It's not a matter of racism*; it's a much lighter issue of oversight and low-level processes which most people would gladly stanch if they were made aware of them. So, at least in a professional setting, training is an effective answer. I saw firsthand what a difference such training makes in the management of a large web community.

* - the same unconscious process will affect even minority admissions staff, who can't help but acclimatize to the dominant tone as they process tons of applications, naturally weaning along lines of discordance. The fact that I completely respect FEDEXguy and personally relate to his tone didn't make the slightest difference; it was his deviation from mainstream in that particular grouping which kept raising my unconscious hackles.

No comments:

Blog Archive