Can we learn to be “colourblind”?

Abstract: Probably not.

Psychology tends to take a rather gloomy view on racism: that we automatically categorise people on the basis of race, and there’s little that can be done about that. So I was interested to read this article by Vaughan Bell, reporting on some research from ten years ago which suggests that categorising people based on race can actually be unlearned really, really super-quickly. Could it really be true? Is overcoming racism that easy?

The paper, “Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization” by Kurzban, Tooby and Cosmides, published in PNAS (hur hur) certainly seems equally optimistic about the swiftness of unlearning racism. However, they’re being a little bit too optimistic.

The way they studied categorising people on the basis of race was by using a memory confusion protocol. Participants (most of whom were white, hispanic or Asian-American; no data on the relative ratios here, and the authors folded hispanic and white into the same category) saw a sequence of sentences with a photo of who had said it. From what the people said, it was apparent who was in a group with whom, and that there were two groups at odds with one another. After this, participants were shown the sentences, and had to remember who had said it. Errors, according to this paradigm, are telling about how participants are categorising the speakers, and they would be more likely to make within-category errors than between categories, i.e. they would mix up two people from the same group rather than two people from different groups. So looking at errors suggests how participants are grouping people together.

The photos used were of two black men and two white men per group, with the exception of a condition where the authors tested the effects of gender, so photographs of women were also included. What is known that in one experiment the people depicted in the photos all wore the same colour baseball jersey, while in the second experiment people in each rival group wore a different coloured jersey.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Ultimately, what was found was that in the first experiment, participants made more errors in categorising on the basis of race. In the second experiment, participants used the colour of the jersey rather than skin colour as a method of classification. In other experiments, perception of sex differences didn’t go away: the authors had hypothesised that this was more deeply encoded than race.

Well, that seems like pretty strong evidence yes? Not really. First and foremost, it is crucial to remember that this was a laboratory study, with variables strictly controlled. It probably is more generalisable than it was when the study was conducted–ten years ago, there wasn’t much communication taking place as intergroup conflicts between people represented only by short sentences and a picture of themselves, but these days there’s Twitter. However, we don’t tend to fall into these neat little groups which are equally racially balanced (and gender-balanced).

The implicatations of this research are explored more fully in a study from 2009, from Bavel and Cunningham. In this study, participants were assigned to a group which didn’t really exist–in their group, were twelve photographs of men, six black and six white. They were also told about the existence of another group, which featured a similarly mixed group. After learning the faces of the people in their own group and the outgroup, participants were tested on automatic responses to liking or disliking these faces. There was also a control group, which were not assigned membership to either group, but participated in the learning and evaluation task.

The results are kind of complicated, but ultimately, people are still kind of racist towards black people in the outgroup, while not racist towards white people. Basically, they were more likely to negatively evaluate black faces in the outgroup, while more likely to positively evaluate black faces in the ingroup, while positive evaluations of white faces held steady throughout. Also, across all conditions, black faces were still less liked than white faces.

Admittedly, this study has a lot of holes again. Once again, we’re looking at a lab study, and there are problems with the sample: there is no report of the race of the participants, which would be useful to know, and the majority of participants were women, while all of the stimulus faces were male faces.

At any rate, what this body of research is showing is not that it is easy to suddenly not see race but, rather, that we dislike black people less if we feel like we’re on the same side as them. Meanwhile, the other study shows we’re less likely to mix them up if they’re wearing their group affiliation really visibly. If anything, it somewhat exposes the underlying racism of the phrase “I don’t see colour”, so beloved by some white folk.

This is one of those instances where once again, it is crucial to be aware of the biases that our naughty little brains throw at us, and consciously strive to overcome them and work against them. That, and it’s important to remember that racism probably won’t magically end if everybody wears bright baseball jerseys to show off what team they’re on.

Shitbrained bollocks of the day: fanny edition

Leave it out Stavvers, it’s not worth it, my inner monologue screams.

But no. No irritation too small for me. No tripe too trivial to miss the opportunity to open dialogues which are missed by the mainstream. Today is some utter bollocks in the Guardian (as it so often is). It’s title is mercifully reflective of its content: “Shame on those who practise intimate cosmetic surgery“.

It’s not often that a piece of shaming is so helpfully labelled, as make no mistake, this is what the entire article is about. And no, it’s not about shaming cosmetic surgeons who practise it, which would be, while still problematic, a little better. It is by someone who thinks she’s being funny, shaming women for wanting to have cosmetic surgery on their genitals. Cis women. It’s abundantly clear by “women” she means “cis women”, as these sorts are wont to do.

Now, there is a conversation to be had about cosmetic surgery on cis women’s genitals, the kind of thing which is done entirely for aesthetic reasons. Most of the surgeons who do it are men who have never had a cunt, and most of them thing that what they’re doing will have no effect on sexual pleasure, which is something a lot of people with cunts disagree with. They’re also doing it for money, profiting off of a beauty ideal which they themselves helped create by performing similar procedures on porn performers, which is, a lot of the time, the only cunts that heterosexual cis women get to look at. They’re creating a need for a product they provide, and it’s a vicious circle and it’s fucked up and let’s not even begin to unpick all of the intersecting bollocks: why is that ideal cunt image we’re sold a white woman’s cunt? Why don’t we talk about how much the medical establishment fails trans women? To have these conversations, we cannot shame people for taking the bargain of undergoing these procedures. It’s fucking complicated, it’s fucking structural, and nothing’s going to change with shame.

Alas, this is not the conversation the Guardian wants to have. The Guardian’s conclusion?

That it would be nice if more boyfriends said they liked their partner’s cunt.

I despair, I really do.

Things I read this week that I found interesting

You know the drill by now.

Insurrections at the intersections: feminism, intersectionality and anarchism (Abbey Volcano and J Rogue)- A really good critique of what is lacking from intersectionality. A must-read, it’ll only make us stronger.

A slightly different plea for unity (Blue Laser)- Dear friends, this is a manifesto for unity. Read it, share it, live by it.

Choice, neoliberal, libertarian feminism and intersectionality bullies (Flavia Dzodan)- Flavia critiques a dominant model of feminism and how women erased from this model are labelled bullies.

What I mean when I say I’m sex critical (Kitty Stryker)- Kitty identifies and outlines her critique of sex and sex positivity. Sex critical strikes me as a very useful frame of reference.

Embracing uncertainty: What does it really mean? (Rewriting the Rules)- Meg Barker discusses embracing uncertainty in relationships, and what it means to do it.

Let’s Have a Conversation About Compromise and Consent (Writing from Factor X)- An interesting critique of enthusiastic consent, from an asexual perspective, highlighting things I’d never given much thought before.

Ally club (thisisthinprivilege)- A useful set of rules for allies, presented in a fun way.

“We’re not all like that” (Loud & Proud)- On why white allies shouldn’t just pop up saying “we’re not all like that”.

“White People Fatigue Syndrome” (The Feminist Griote)- An excellent piece on how exhausting it can be supporting white allies. So, white allies, let’s try to get better.

Don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington (itsjustahobby)- Some anti sex work feminists ask “but what if your daughter wanted to be a sex worker?” Jem hands them their arses.

If you’re mentally ill, you can’t make decisions of your own free will (Fat and Sassy)- Unpicking further oppressions in an anti sex work line.

Deciphering the Anti Intersectional White Feminists and TERFS (Sam Ambreen)- A handy translation guide.

Why The Trans Community Hates Dr. Janice G. Raymond (TransGriot)- A reminder of just how long the nastiness from TERFs has been around.

“Lesbian” is not a dirty word (Thé Tulloch)- On erasure of the lesbian contribution to feminism.

I’m staying (Mister Gryphon)- A personal account of discovery of gender and sexual identity.

A Generation of Voyeurs (Red Headed League)- An analysis of online feminism and how it can work.

This is what rape culture looks like (Maeve)- Maeve bravely analyses a few samples of shit Ched Evans fans say.

A defence of twitter feminism (zedkat)- Sneering at Twitter feminists seems to be a hobby among the commentariat. Zed writes a defence, with reference to a very tangible victory.


In which I do my bit for poly visibility

I did a thing in ES Magazine about my poly life.

P.S. Yes, they got my name wrong. I’m not too fussed. I rather like being Stavvers.

After a half-assed tweet, they’be put it under my actual name, which umis also ace, as I rather like my IRL name. As a bonus, now when you google Zoe Stavri, you’ll probably get “five-in-a-bed romps”, which means I have a decent lawsuit against any potential employers who won’t interview me 😉

This is the bestest briefing on intersectionality ever- with added description

Miriam Dobson has made this brilliant little infographic on intersectionality. Description beneath the image. If you liked it, you can find Miriam’s work here.



This is an infographic featuring text and descriptions


1. A drawing of a triangle with a smiley face. The triangle is two shades of blue striped. A speech bubble comes from his mouth saying “Hi”. It is captioned “This is Bob”.

2. Caption: “Bob is a stripey blue triangle AND SHOULD BE PROUD.” Bob has a speech bubble saying “YAY ME”.

3. Caption: “SOME PEOPLE DO NOT LIKE BOB. BOB FACES OPPRESSION FOR BEING A TRIANGLE AND FOR HAVING STRIPES” Image of Bob with a sad face, positioned between stick figures holding a sign saying “Down with stripes” and another set of stick figures holding a sign saying “Down with triangles”.

4. Caption: “LUCKILY THERE ARE LIBERATION GROUPS! BUT THEY AREN’T INTERSECTIONAL. SO THEY LOOK LIKE THIS” An arrow points to two rooms, separated by a barbed wire fence. A room with a sign saying “welcome triangles” with triangles inside of many different solid colours. A room with a sign saying “welcome stripes” featuring many different shapes with stripes.

5. Caption: “BOB CAN’T WORK OUT WHERE TO GO”. Bob has a sad face. His thought bubble says “Am I more of a stripe, or a triangle?”

6. Caption: “THEY DON’T TALK TO EACH OTHER. IN FACT THEY COMPETE”. A solid yellow triangle with a cross face is next to a pink striped circle with a cross face. The solid yellow triangle says “I’m more oppressed”. The pink striped circle says “No! I am! I deserve more!”

7. Caption: “BOB WISHES TRIANGLES AND STRIPES COULD WORK TOGETHER”. An arrow points to a red striped circle with an open mouth, and a solid blue triangle with an open mouth. The red striped circle says “Oppression of one affects us all”. The solid blue triangle says “No liberation without equal representation”.



RadFem2013 vs the MRAs: what really happened and who’s the baddie?

For the second year running, the RadFem conference has lost its venue. It’s been difficult finding out the long and short of it, as the conference organisers are claiming that men’s rights activists (MRAs) are responsible, and the MRAs are also claiming victory, and there’s little from the London Irish Centre itself. The RadFem2013 line is that they were subjected to harassment from MRAs, while the MRAs claim that they spearheaded a campaign. I’m not going to link to any statements from either, as both are, in my view, hate groups.

Unfortunately, the only statement I could find from the venue itself was unhelpfully in the Times, hidden behind a paywall, which means that both RadFem2013 and the MRAs can continue to push their own narratives. Luckily, I can get behind that paywall, so here’s what the venue had to say (ETA: Screenshot of the Times article part 1 and part 2, courtesy of @WeekWoman):

“Quite a few of the complaints were from the transgender community and then a men’s group came along the other day to hand out leaflets about why the event should not be held here.

“While our commercial bookings subcontractor [an events firm called Off to Work] has a certain amount of freedom to use the centre when we are not using it for cultural events, if it comes to the charity’s attention that an event goes against our policy, then we will point it out to them.

“We did some research into RadFem and discovered certain language was used and some statements were made about transgender people that would go against our equalities and diversity policy.

“We have discussed with our subcontractor Off to Work how to avoid such confusion in future and have strengthened our internal communications as a result.”

Well, that clears matters up nicely, and thank you, London Irish Centre, for clarifying what actually happens. A pity I couldn’t find this important information anywhere else except behind a fucking paywall.

So, it appears that for the second year running, the venue pulled out because of RadFem2013’s transphobic stance, where, once again, trans women will be excluded from attending. Speakers at the conference include academic transphobes like Sheila Jeffreys, and more dangerous transphobes like someone whose name I am actually scared to mention because she has a history of endangering trans and queer folk because the hate runs so strong in her. This is not an exaggeration. That person has a habit of doxxing anyone she suspects of being trans, calling employers, and sometimes even schools of trans and queer folk. If anything, London Irish Centre are understating matters when they say that the RadFem2013 conference goes against their equalities and diversities policy. To some women, the RadFem2013 conference organisers and speakers are a persistent and dangerous threat.

But does this make the MRAs the good guys here? Fuck no. Their beef with RadFem2013 went as far as “waaah we hate feminism”. They merely opportunistically used the trans exclusionary nature of the conference as an excuse to push their own agenda. They’ve made their own problem clear in their correspondence with London Irish Centre–at least, the information they’ve provided online. And much of it is tedious concerns about misandry, and the Waahmbulance Service must be pretty stretched about this.

Of course, that MRAs might be driven to picket feminist events is a cause for concern. This is something that trans activists and feminist allies never did, mostly because we’d all planned to do something nice that day, something that didn’t involve sitting indoors listening to bigotry (last year, I sat in the sun and ate ice lollies and read a good book). We shouldn’t not object to MRAs showing up and picketing a feminist event just because this particular feminist event was direly oppressive. Now they think it works, they might just do it again, and that’s the last thing we fucking need.

From their own words, it looks like the MRAs consider trans women to be their allies for exactly the reason RadFem2013 organisers think trans women their enemies: both sides fall prey to the fictitious narrative that trans women are really men. In another life, these two bands of bigots could be friends, and were they to put their resources together they would become even more terrifying. I hope RadFem2013 giving MRAs the credit for something they didn’t do isn’t the beginning of an alliance forming.

In amid the hubbub of claims of responsibility, though, once again the work of trans activists is erased. It was trans activists, after all, who did the bulk of the dialogue with London Irish Centre, for it is trans activists who would be harmed by this conference going ahead. No platform for fascists, the activists said, and eventually, the venue listened. It was not the MRAs with all their spite and noise who won this. It is people who have been–or fear they will be–affected by the hate spouted by RadFem2013.

The narratives presented by both RadFem2013 and MRAs serve only to obfuscate the truth: that feminism is moving on from bigotry and gaining strength by the day, and the bigots are running scared as they feel their dominance slipping away from them.

Further reading:
UnCommon Sense: TERFs, MRAs and lies about trans people.

UPDATE: The booking agency have also given the MRAs credit. Read more here.

Note: Comment thread is, of course, moderated as best I can. I might have had a few slips, but I’m going to be careful right now. Stay on topic, and if you’re from either of the hate groups discussed in this post, your comment isn’t getting through, because no platform for hate. This is my space, not your personal place for airing grievances. 

Things I read this week that I found interesting

It’s weekly round-up time again. Here are the things I read this week that interested me. Please leave me more things.

Call out culture: what we can learn from ‘To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang’ (Reni Eddo-Lodge)- Take a bit of time out to read Reni’s analysis and watch both videos. I did, and I emerged a hell of a lot smarter.

The disposable academic (The Economist)-  A deep critique of the science PhD system. This article came out while I was doing my PhD, but I never read it then. I sometimes wonder if things would have changed had I read it at the time: would I have got out earlier?

Thatcher’s Funeral – From the Most Vulnerable of All (Diary of a Benefits Scrounger)- Read this. Get angry.

on the flipside. (Arched Eyebrow)- A very honest discussion of the impact of fatphobia.

Dear Kate Nash (A Glasgow Sex Worker)- A sex worker calls Kate Nash out on oppressive language. Kate Nash responds… poorly.

My Emcee Battle Against the Disney Princesses (Anya de Leon)- This amazing woman has found a creative solution to protecting her daughter from internalising Disney Princess narratives.

On “Nice” Rapists (Raised on a diet of broken biscuits)- One of those posts that I wish didn’t need to be written, but it puts the point very eloquently.

Stop posting that Dove ad: “Real beauty” campaign is not feminist (Erin Keane)- Dove are at it again, and it’s still that same old shit.

I’m Not Racist But.. Top 10 (Left at the Lights)- Just a small sampling of racist comments that Sam Ambreen has heard.

The hierarchy of oppression (fearlessknits)- Interesting discussion of sex, gender and how we can fight the good fight.

Taking a long hard look in the mirror…Or why Tefs need to think about what they fear. (itsjustahobby)- A very interesting theory on trans-exclusionary feminists.

An unfortunately Islamophobic defence of New Atheism against claims of Islamophobia (Frightful Spitefuel)- New Atheists. Eurgh. I just can’t. Luckily, Spitefuel did.

Oh ye cannae shove your Gramsci off the bus (Ally Fogg)- An analysis of calling out, with reference to Gramsci.

And finally, if you’re old enough to remember Round The Twist, and you use Twitter, you’ll love this.