Latanya Sweeney’s name produces a different view than yours.

If two people stand looking at exactly same thing, might they feel the same way about it? Possibly, but probably not. And in the physical and even the digital world, it is actually pretty uncommon for two people to see the exact same thing, especially if our economic, physical, and cultural situations—or even our names—differ. Which, of course, they generally do.

In practical terms, it’s hard to perceive how differently another person sees the world. Travel gives us a glimpse of disparities. But even in the same city, when I visit a friend’s place that is a bit more central, and built on a higher level, I have a much lovelier view: one that includes Mount-Royal, and some really charming rooftops. When I’m invited to the family dinner of a particularly successful and established friend, I am impressed by the weight of the cutlery, the art on the walls, and the wine pairings I’m offered. These are not experiences that are part of my daily life, though I generally like most of what I see and feel as I go through my days. Probably because I’m happy with my current situation, I don’t think a lot about other people’s views, or about improving my own. But then there are these (following) moments when I realize how my much perspective differs from the views of other people, even my close friends.

Points of view—Some of my friends are shorter than me.  Recently, I went to a party with a friend who is several inches shorter than me. As we entered, she lamented taking off her lovely, tall shoes because then she’d be shorter than everyone else: it would be harder to interact.  As she explained this, I was reminded of a wonderful party that Berlin-based artist Hans Hemmert threw in 1997 where everyone wore “shoe-extenders” so all attendees became six-and-a-half feet tall.

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Hans Hemmert’s “Level” party

I love this concept! I mean, how rarely do we share something so basic as the height from which we perceive? It’s much easier to share an absence of view.

Blind spot—All of my friends know about my holidays, but I don’t know about theirs.
I grew up in Canada, celebrating Christian-based holidays like Easter and Christmas: holidays that officially breakup our work weeks and semesters. Friends who grew up in other countries, and friends who grew up here and who aren’t Christian often wish me happy holidays on these days, in a manner that is both nonchalant and kind. Yet, I barely notice that they do this, because these are such regular exchanges. Unless invited to a friend’s holiday dinner, I’m hardly aware of other religions’ key days, and it is only during conversations with these friends that I realize how little I know of Ramadan or Passover or the Chinese New Year.

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Passover Seder Plate, 2012

I don’t even know how to appropriately wish my friends well on these days. I feel weird about thisnot because I want us to all celebrate the same holidays in the same ways, and not only because I’m not as thoughtful a friend as they are to me.  Rather, it’s disturbing that I’m blinded by my own mainstream culture being flashed back at me in calendars, advertisements, films and music. I can barely see beyond that which I’ve always been aware. I know that it’s easy to have blind spots when this long-dominant culture of ours is the one that designated holiday schedules. But still, I’d like a broader view.

Constraints—Infrastructure limits what we can see, often in segregating ways.
Popular readings of architect Robert Moses’ great infrastructure build around New York between the 1920s and the 1970s describe the low bridges that limited public transit buses from going to the beautiful new parks and swimming pools as being built intentionally to exclude poorer (often Black) NY residents who didn’t own cars.

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Robert Moses with Battery Bridge model

If this was indeed a deliberate decision, surely it was one that mirrored dominant politics at the time, and not just some idiosyncratic views held by Moses alone. Regardless of how they came to be, these low bridges kept many people from accessing the beautiful new parks that Moses had built (via this one route, at least). These bricks-and-mortar style infrastructures, visible by all to the naked eye, must have appeared rather common and standard to those who swooshed under in their picnic basket-filled cars. To those who were forbidden access by their presence, the low bridges probably appeared altogether more foreboding.

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Russell Hart’s photo of Jones Beach State Park

Recent research at Harvard identifies another kind of infrastructure that may constrain access, that alters our views, and that certainly reflects the (racist, stereotyping) dominant values of our times; this infrastructure seems more sinister because we wouldn’t be aware of the particular ways that our views are being shaped without this research. Though the  infrastructure I’m describing is only digital, as we spend increasing amounts of time gazing deeply into screenshow many times over the last week did you “Google” a person or a topic?it’s a view that matters more and more. In this project, Professor Latanya Sweeney found that searching “Black-identifying” names like hers resulted in Google.com and Reuters.com generating ads “suggestive of an arrest in 81 to 86 per cent of name searches on one website and 92 to 95 per cent on the other.” This means that when Professor Latanya Sweeney (who has no criminal record) googles herself, or when anyone googles her, one of the top results is “Latanya Sweeney: Arrested?” According to the study, when we google the names of Black-identifing names, we’re very likely to see the words “criminal record” or “arrest.” That view sucks! And it only serves to edify negative stereotypes, which potentially limit people with “Black” names from accessing equal means of sustenance and amenities. Meanwhile, googling a white-identifying name produces “neutral” content. (The ads that come up when I google my own name offer viewers private information for a fee.)

And it is how this digital view is shaped that is most disturbing: Google assures that there is no racial bias in the algorithms they use to position ads. Rather, the algorithms “learn over time” which ads are selected most frequently and then they display those. The algorithms are simply reflecting the dominant values of our time, but demonstrating them to each of us differently, depending on our own particularities, and from what is know from our individual and collective clicks: these algorithms cannot result in a more panoramic view. So, thank you to Latanya Sweeney for rubbing the fog off of my view, for now at least. Otherwise, because of my race, and my name, I may not have seen the racist outcomes these algorithms are producing.

So, what’s your view? What are your blind spots?

And really, what can be done with our names, both in the digital and the physical world, that has an effect equivalent to Hans Hemmert’s shoe-extenders?

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Hush, Little Hashtag: the use of technology as personal names

OUPblog's 2012 words of the year

2013 has begun with a substantial amount of reflection on 2012: I recently joined Twitter, and seeing so many end-of-the-year lists being tweeted has been both novel by quantity, and boring in repetition.

Further, at the beginning of January I attended an academic conference that had its attendees consider the language that was used in America over the past year:  The American Name Society selected 2012’s Names of the Year, and the American Dialect Society selected 2012’s Words of the Year; both voted on winners in several categories. (The Names of the Year are noted in my previous post and Ben Zimmer has written a great account of choosing the Words of the Year.)

These opportunities to vote for names and words of 2012 had my head abuzz with a kind of backward scan over my memories of all the media I’d ingested, and it made me a little woozy.  But something that became obvious is the significant, and potentially increasing, imprint of technology on our day-to-day language. The image-link above is to OUPblog’s aggregation of words of the year for 2012 and from it, you can see that the words GIF and hashtag– key nouns in online communication– were popular(ized) this year.

Above, in yellow, YOLO (“You Only Live Once,” abbreviated), is another top word of 2012, which also came to our awareness via technology. This mantra-as-acronym, a close relative to the descriptive-acronym LOL, is ascendant largely because of its utility via text and Twitter. (Additionally, YOLO was popularized in a song from that poet, Drake. And as a complete aside, he’d now like some return from sales of YOLO merchandise.)

Many ways that technology impacts our use of language were correctly foreseen by Marshall McLuhan in his broadly interpretable “The Medium is the Message.” McLuhan suggests that the particular characteristics of the mediums through which we communicate work to shape what and how we communicate. Because “words” like LOL and YOLO are easy to use via technology, they become broadly used in some subcultures, and then the rest of us come to know them, too. While “hashtag” and “GIF” are more broadly accepted, they too are only in the working-lexicon of the few. The conference I was at yielded some tweets, but certainly no critical mass of attendees were on Twitter– actually using hashtags– yet this group selected hashtag as the word of the year.

Though fewer still at the conference had heard of YOLO (or potentially, even, of Drake), with its cute roll-y Os, and youthful irreverence, YOLO also won. This demonstrates that technology doesn’t impact just the language of the people who actually use it; it has a ripple effect. And another ripple: there was outrage amongst a younger set on Twitter when this, um, more-established demographic sent #YOLO trending yet again, via these end-of-the-year musings.

But then, there is this other, potentially more significant, effect that I’m trying to make sense of: the use of technology as personal names.  Yes, the word of the year is also a name! Late in 2012, it was reported that parents named their infant daughter “Hashtag,” to the chagrin of most who heard the name. “Facebook,” and the more affirmative and specific, “Like,” are further examples of names given to now-toddlers that reference the social networking technologies which define this era.

Plenty of head-shaking and jokes have accompanied the news of these name choices. And I’m wondering why: what is so discomfiting about the use of technology as names? Is this a level of technology-creep that we just can’t accept? Perhaps. Here are some of the ways that technology continues to creep into language:

  1. Social networking (texting, tweeting, Facebook) technologies shape how we use language (more concisely, abbreviated, playing with upper/lower case);
  2. Use of these technologies has us making particular word choices: acronyms (LOL, YOLO), nouns that name technology and its components (GIF, hashtags), verbs that describe our actions with technology (tweet);
  3. Based on the example of these end-of-the-year selections and lists, including how many there are and how visible each is, we can include the effect of these technologies in spreading both information and language-use rapidly and between regions;
  4. And beyond the ways that social networking technologies affect everyday language, they are now implicated in that special class of words that interests me most: names.  Why bestow on a child the names of these technologies, just as we might name her/him after a family member, or a personal hero?

Technology-as-names seems to go too far.  I mean, how many children were named after earlier, pre-digital, infrastructures like bridges and buildings? Weren’t those structures, instead, named to honour people?

And then, why did social networking technologies catch on as names where earlier digital technologies did not? Perhaps this is because of how they are performative technologies, identity-establishers. Rather than building their identities via social networking platforms, through naming these kids become the platforms.

Maybe the issue is the movement away from naming people with names for/of people? There is an irreverent leap being made in these choices toward technology-as-names.  This playful blurring of object and human disturbs.  But how bad can it be? Through these names could humans perhaps become a little less human and a bit more thing? Unlikely. And really, how reverent are these wild new spellings of names, or the naming of babies after pop stars?

But, if it remains more accepted to stick with people’s names, apparently the name “Drake” comes highly recommended: easy to spell, easy to pronounce, kind of aspirational.  Not unlike YOLO.

The American Name Society selects 2012’s Names of the Year!

PSY’s Gangnam Style

It was a series of democratic votes that led to the selection of the following names from many nominations, made both in advance and from the floor.   I enjoyed being part of the crowd, though quietly tweeted the winning names, as opposed to rushing to nominate names.  I felt a little to the side, both as a Canadian and with it being my first of such events.

Here is the American Name Society’s Press release:

Sandy voted Name of the Year The American Name Society voted “Sandy” Name of the Year for 2012 at its annual meeting in Boston, MA on January 4.

“Sandy,” the name of the hurricane or “Superstorm” which devastated New Jersey and New York in late October, was cited for its historical importance and the use of the phrase “Superstorm Sandy” to create a memorable name which will bring to mind this event for years to come.

Donna Lillian, incoming President of the American Name Society, said “Sandy is also memorable because of its association with the sand that filled many shoreline homes as a result of the storm.” Because of the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, Sandy is also linked with the two biggest tragic news events of the year for the northeastern United States.

The society also chose winners for Names of the Year in four separate categories:

Fiscal Cliff” was voted Trade Name of the Year. Ben Bernanke’s use of this term has made it famous worldwide. Iman Nick, first Vice President of ANS, said “This name is now universally understood throughout Europe as well as in the United States.”

Gangnam” was voted Placename of the Year. This name of a trendy affluent district of Seoul, South Korea has become known through the United States and worldwide as a result of the YouTube video of a Korean rapper’s song “Gangnam Style”, which now has over a billion views. Hundreds of parodies of the song have been made, and scores of politicians and celebrities have appeared doing the dance featured in the video. The Korean placename means “south of the Han River.”

Malala” was chosen as the Personal Name of the Year. The first name of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for refusing to abandon her campaign for girls’ education, is now known worldwide as a symbol for women’s rights.

Downton Abbey” won as Fictional Name of the Year. The name of the estate featured in the British television series broadcast on PBS in the United States has become recognizable as a symbol for elegance and aristocracy, being one of the most popular programs ever shown on the noncommercial public network.

The American Name Society, founded in 1951, is a professional organization devoted to the study of names and their role in society. In 2011 “Arab Spring” was the ANS Name of the Year. In 2010 “Eyafjallajökull” was chosen. In 2009 it was “Salish Sea”, and in 2008 “Barack Hussein Obama” was the winner.

For more information on ANS or the Name of the Year vote, contact Cleveland Evans at Cleveland.evans@bellevue.edu, or 402-210-7458.

Seeing names…

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I didn’t know these women, but I want to I remember them. 

This week marked twenty-three years of remembering a tragedy: in 1989, on December 6, a young man took a gun and a knife and went on a woman-targeted shooting spree at the École Polytechnique, here in Montreal.  The fourteen women named above were killed, fourteen more people were injured, and our nation was scarred.  The perpetrator was aiming at women because, as he wrote in his suicide note, he hated feminists, and more generally, women who worked in fields traditionally held by men. 

When this shooting took place, I was a girl with aspirations of going to university, and it seemed to me very scary and sad that young women in a university might be killed just because of what they chose to study.  A seed of fear was established: I could be selected as the target of violence because of my gender.  Especially if I chose to do things seen as challenging it.

Events to commemorate this tragedy have kept me aware of it, at least annually, but this year several people, on the part of Facebook that I see, created an image that has the “Montreal Massacre” affecting me more this year than ever before.  What my Facebook friends did is this: they created lists of the names of each woman who died that day. 

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There has been a movement in recent years to name victims rather than perpetrators, to move the focus over to maintaining memories of the lives that were lost.  While I’ve liked this trend in concept, it has never previously had a strong effect on me.  But this year, seeing all of these names togetherin what has become a familiar online space—has been so effective. 

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Some posts were detailed, containing the women’s young ages, or their fields of study; other notes were simply a list of names.  It appears to me that no two of my friends just cut and pasted the names from the same location.  Each person used slightly different spacing or punctuation, and with those seemingly minor formatting techniques, they thoughtfully curated each alphabetized list.  I imagine these friends, at their computers, pausing, and with a quiet breath out, wishing that each woman’s fate had been much different.

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Whether or not these imagined efforts actually went into the posts isn’t really the point; rather it’s that a set of names together, particularly in these memorializing circumstances, has such a strong visual effect.  It’s not just a reading of some letters that add up to names; there’s an overall significance to this imagea visual yet textual representation of humans—one that only names can create.  As another example, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is particularly compelling in a similar way: designed by Maya Lin, large slabs of polished black stone have been inscribed with nearly 60,000 names of veterans.  As you walk along this wall, the sheen of the stone reflects your image onto the names; the names are on you and you can’t shake them off.  

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Seeing the names of the victims of those violent acts on December 6th, 1989, brought my class lists to mind.  I teach communication courses to undergraduate engineering students at McGill, and semester after semester, I note how few women study engineering.  In my current classes of twenty-five students, generally, only two or three of those students are women.  So few!

Seeing the names of these women, who never got to carry on with their careers, has me thinking about what smart and tough young women they must have been.  If circumstances had been different, today these women would likely be established in their fields, and mentoring and leading younger women, like my students, to work in a field that isn’t easy by any stretch, but especially not as a woman.

What is it that you see in this list of names?

Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

Why is a black man driving Joel Debellefeuille’s car!?

Debellefeuille

In Longueil, across the shore to the south of Montreal, a situation something like this unfolded in July of 2009…

A man is driving to get ice cream in a new black BMW. A police officer notices the car (it’s sleek! it’s hard not to!), and runs the license plate through his database. He sees that the name the car is registered to is that of Joel Debellefeuille.  He also sees that the driver is black.  Even though he doesn’t know Joel Debellefeuille, the office wonders, “Why is a black man driving Joel Debellefeuille’s car?!”  So, he turns on his siren, and for the fourth time in ten days, the man driving the new BMW is stopped by a police officer.  Frustrated, the driver refuses to produce his identification and he is charged with failure to do so, plus another minor infraction.

If you’ve been following this story, you’ll already know that the driver is Joel Debellefeuille.  And that he’s black and he owns a really nice car (both the man and the car are pictured above.)

You may also know that the case isn’t as “simple” as that of racial profiling: Mr. Debellefeuille wasn’t stopped just because he was a black man driving an expensive car.  (It’s not quite the same as when Henry Louis Gates Jr., also black, and a Harvard professor, was detained for what appeared to police to be  break-and-entry into a Cambridge, Massachusetts home, which turned out to be Dr. Gates’ own home: that was pure racial profiling.) 

Apparently in Debellefeuille’s case if, when the plate was run, it had been registered to someone with a “black-sounding” name, he wouldn’t have been stopped. But, what makes a name sound black, and what makes one sound Quebecois? Is a Quebecois name always French-sounding? Honestly, I’m not enough part of mainstream Quebecois society to know how common the surname Debellefeuille (or de Bellefeuille) is, or how most residents of Quebec would associate it. I’m guessing it’s not as common as Tremblay, but that it occurs.  And I’m also not sure how names sound “black” in Quebec. (Though the authors of this study have a sense for Boston and Chicago.) There are a number of Quebec residents of Haitian origin in Montreal, so maybe the police officers expected a Haitian-origin name? Or an African-sounding name, if one can generalize that there is such a thing as a name-type common to a whole continent?  Whatever the thought process, the officer(s) wrote at the top of the report that the driver was a black man with a “Quebecois name.”

In his defense, one constable stated that name incongruities are a basis for pulling drivers over (from the CBC website.): 

“If I run the plate and it comes back ‘Mr. Jack’ and it’s a woman driving, you know for sure she’s not the owner. That means I’ll stop her…. If I have an ‘Ebrahim’ and it’s a white man, a Quebecer who’s driving, yes. Or if it’s an Arab who’s driving and it comes back ‘Dubuc,’ ya I’m going to stop him and check.”

This scenario, which began more than three years ago, was in the news this week because in a Longueil municipal re-trial (ordered by the Quebec Supreme Court), Judge Tremblay(!) acquitted Debellefeuille and apparently chastised the officers involved.  In his decision, Judge Tremblay states, “The fact of falsely or ignorantly believing that the family name ‘Debellefeuille’ can’t be the surname of someone with black skin can only show a flagrant lack of knowledge about Quebec society.” And Fo Niemi, at the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, contextualizes the ruling in this way: “We’ve never seen a municipal court judge going this far in reviewing the state of Canadian jurisprudence and Canadian case law on racial discrimination, racial profiling.” (Quotes from the CBC website.) In these ways, and for Debellefeuille, the ruling is a victory.

Of course, I’m completely pleased with Judge Tremblay’s decision, but I don’t think the police officer’s mistake is that of a fool; rather, this is a common oversight in a culture that reads too much into names, often discriminating based on them, just as we do when we racialize people.

If a surname is the basis of a judgment, then that name is being relied on too heavily as an indicator of information about its bearer.  Part of the beauty of a name is that it is not a regular word: we can’t look up its definition in a dictionary once, and then expect it to mean the same thing every time.

So much depends on a surname! This time it’s Benhabib.

Djemila-benhabib

As many are well aware, Quebec has recently been through an election and the issue of insiders and outsiders, of protecting the status quo, has been illuminated.  Quebec’s identity was made an election issue by the Parti Québécois (PQ), particularly its leader, Pauline Marois, as she argued for maintaining some symbols of religion (i.e., the Catholic crucifix) that are part of Quebec’s established cultural heritage, while banning other religious symbols (such as the Sikh kirpan and Muslim hijab). (She has more plans, too, like Quebec citizenship.)

And then names became part of this debate…

In the middle of August, Djemila Benhabib (pictured above), an (as it turned out) unsuccessful PQ candidate, voiced her disagreement with Marois, by arguing for consistency with use of religious symbols. (Though she later rescinded.)  Around the same time, during a radio call-in show, the city of Saguenay’s mayor, Jean Tremblay, condemned Benhabib’s statement with this comment:

“What’s outraging me this morning is to see us, the soft French Canadians, being dictated to about how to behave, how to respect our culture, by a person who’s come here from Algeria, and we can’t even pronounce her name.”

Radio host Paul Arcand acknowledged Tremblay’s comments as racist and xenophobic and also told him how to pronounce Benhabib, but Mr. Tremblay continued, “They’re making our culture and religion disappear everywhere. You don’t realize that.” (This is excerpted from The Globe and Mail, August 16, 2012).

Trembaly’s concern with not knowing how to pronounce Benhabib’s name can be understood in more or less sympathetic ways.  1. We could feel for him, as one of Quebec’s dominant culture of “soft French Canadians,” for not being able to pronounce Benhabib.  2. But perhaps he means that someone whose name isn’t recognized, isn’t even pronounceable by him, should not be able to comment on directions forward for Quebec society, even as a potential elected representative.

Part of what is interesting here is how a name is called upon to determine who may comment on the maintenance of Quebec’s culture.  So much depends on a surname!

As well, Tremblay’s division between “us, the soft French Canadians” and “they” who are “making our culture and religion disappear” demonstrates a pretty intense insider/outsider demarcation.  For many residents of Quebec, in each of our particular positions, this difference exists as more of a continuum, not something so binary.

This interaction leaves me mulling some points: how does time figure into social belonging, into cultural representation?  Must a person who has immigrated always be an immigrant?

When can immigrating be seen as a verb, an action one takes, that we needn’t always define or be defined by?  After how many years in a country can one’s suggestions be considered relevant?  And shouldn’t that be based on the quality of your suggestions, not your last name?

Excerpted article

Contextualizing response from Antonia Maioni