Tuesday, July 30, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 73-75

73) Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust.

Drew Faust is currently the president of Harvard, but she was an AmCiv professor at Penn back when I was an undergraduate there. Her two classes on the American South, one covering 1607-1861, the other 1861-present, were among the most popular and highly rated in the entire university. I took the first and found it an eye-opening look at my own roots.

This book in its own way was the same kind of experience. Faust looks at the diaries and letters of elite white Southern women (who AREN'T part of my roots--my Civil-War-era antecedents fell into the "poor white" category and were probably marginally literate at best) and how the four years of the Civil War impacted their views on everything from gender roles to religion to race relations, leading, among other things, to a feminism that was both more pessimistic and conservative than that of the rest of the country during the fight for women's suffrage.

74) Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald.

This quick but thought-provoking read is all about the measure the authors, a Harvard and a UW* professor, developed to measure unconscious biases of various kinds. It's a deceptively simple measure of whether you associate a particular group with positive or negative qualities. For a sample test, the book had you go through lists of insect and flower nouns (e.g. wasp, roach, rose, lily) and negative and positive traits/things (e.g. vomit, fear, peace, heaven). On one round you sort flowers and pleasant things into Column A, insects and negative ones into Column B, while on the next you have to put flowers and negative things in Column A, insects and positive ones in Column B. Since almost everyone prefers flowers to insects, they're able to perform the first round much more quickly. (Though I noticed the insect list didn't include "honeybee" or "butterfly." I caught myself hesitating on "moth" compared to the other insects, because it's not like they're ugly or gross or fill me with a desire to either run away or squash them. I have a feeling I would've wanted to class bees and butterflies with flowers, since I expect to see them AROUND flowers and have wholly positive associations with them. Butterflies are pretty! Bees make honey and pollinate our crops, and colony collapse disorder is so scary I'm downright thrilled whenever I see honeybees at work.)

Anyway, the test takes on more serious implications as soon as you turn it to sorting human categories. It turns out that even people who wouldn't be considered racist or bigoted by any conscious measure tend to associate whites with more positive qualities than blacks or with more American traits than Hispanics or Asians. Even committed feminists associate women more with home and men more with work, and so forth. I'm appalled but not exactly surprised to say that despite trying my best to perform on the tests as the unbiased, egalitarian person I aspire to be, I showed my share of unconscious bias--though at least my anti-bug bias is stronger than any of my human ones. :-/

The book raises more questions than it answers, but the author's main points are that A) these biases matter, because even though most of us want to be unbiased and therefore wouldn't consciously discriminate, our unconscious biases show up in small ways that over time add up to real harm in peoples lives, and B) if we know our biases exist, we can take conscious steps to counteract them.

*Since I live in Seattle and actually work at the U-Dub in question for my day job, this means University of Washington, not Wisconsin or Wyoming. When I was at the RWA conference, a couple of lunch tablemates, strangers to me, were talking about UW and its hospital system, and I was all ready to jump in with my insider opinion until I took a closer look at their name tags and saw they were from Wisconsin.

75) The Turncoat, by Donna Thorland.

A fast-paced, sexy spy novel set mostly in British-occupied Philadelphia in 1777-78. Recommended for fans of Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation books, with the caveat that it's darker and grittier--if you like Willig but also like, say, Diana Gabaldon or Bernard Cornwell, you should definitely pick this book up. (Though it comes with a trigger warning for depictions of rape, mostly off-page but in one case fairly graphic.)

1 comment:

  1. Have you read Faust's This Republic of Suffering? Very good.