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?

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.