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.

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.

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.

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.

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 and 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?


Whatshisname: Why people’s names matter in news reports


This week, following the deaths of 76 people in Norway during two attacks made by the same individual, many news and opinion pieces are being written to contextualize and to offer ways of understanding what has happened. My post is a comment on one such op-ed, and I focus on common journalistic and news consumption practices related to personal names.

As I read this op-ed from the Globe & Mail, I was struck by the substitution of “the Norwegian terrorist’s” name, with the term “whatshisname.” It was intentional and it was interesting, not just for the reason the author intended.

Put briefly, the author’s message is that it’s time to stop giving this lunatic any more attention by using his name, though that argument got a bit muddled when the article went on to list the names of many other perpetrators of comparable violence.

What was interesting to me– as someone who studies personal names and particularly how we make sense of each other’s names– is that it made me want to see the subject’s name again. I’d looked at whatshisname’s name closely on Saturday when I first read the Globe & Mail’s coverage about the attacks in Norway, because I was I was trying to make sense of who this person was…

His name is Anders Behring Breivik, and before photos of him were available, news reports described him as an “ethnic Norwegian” as a way of explaining that he is Norwegian through and through, or Norwegian as we might imagine a native Norwegian to be (i.e., stereotypically blond-haired and blue-eyed). He was described this way to ensure he wasn’t thought to be someone whose family had migrated to Norway or a racialized citizen of Norway.  

This type of clarification might not have been necessary in Norway’s own press, where people are familiar with a variety of names of Norwegian citizens, so they could likely see his name’s significance immediately. In the Canadian media, (the Globe and Mail and the CBC being the messengers I am most familiar with), we often read descriptors of people’s citizenships and ethnicities so we can make sense of these details even if they have no bearing on the news story. They are used to explain the name: to give us confidence in our interpretation of a name, or to correct false assumptions. If name changes have been made they are generally reported, as well.

So, what to make of the reporting practice of noting individual’s ethnicities? I think it requires further investigation. For example, how has it changed over time, especially through the past twenty years as Canada’s population demographic has become much more ethnically diverse due to increased immigration? What exactly are our news media policies about reporting ethnicity and citizenship? Most significantly, are ethnicities and nationalities consistently reported?  

The descriptors that are included along with names do allow us to make make more precise classifications, and the name itself has less work to do in our quotidian classifications as we make sense of the world. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing. However, descriptors of ethnicity, citizenship, and even religion may also allow us to make shortcuts in understanding people’s circumstances and motivations, and to fall back to stereotypes that have worked for us before. That could–and often does–have negative consequences. But maybe we’d be making assumption based on names just as quickly if the descriptors weren’t present.

That this op-ed didn’t use a name might not work for the purposes its author intended, but it does give the reader pause to consider how rarely it happens that we aren’t given a name to read in terms of ethnicity, and potentially religion or nationality, to help us make sense of a news report. 

As the story of the tragedy in Norway has evolved, we’ve understood that names, ethnicities, and classifications based on them, do in fact play a role in what transpired. But clearly Breivik’s motivations lie with him as an individual, and have little to do with the descriptors that could go along with his name.