Category Archives: Non-fiction

Inspired by non-fiction

How to be an Antiracist

Yes, it’s another one about racism. We’re not done learning yet. We probably never will be. And you don’t get to complain about having to deal with racism until you’ve had to endure it for dozens of years as black people have.

Besides continuing to learn about racism, I’ve also learned something about books about racism this week. Literally for every book about racism that I’ve read or am considering to read I’ve seen people in my social media timelines explaining why the book is no good, doesn’t explain the issue correctly, or even corrupts the debate. I’ve also seen significant praise about all these books. At first, I felt discouraged by this and wondered what the point is, but after contemplating how to find the “right” books I’ve decided that as long as you’re not just reading one book and keep thinking critically, you’re probably going to be ok. Reading different perspectives can help you to shape your ideas. Those ideas can and should then be adjusted as you absorb more information.

The main insight that I got from Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracists is that there are different kinds of racism. When you read about it, it makes sense. But I’d never thought about racism as anything other than just a single concept. The easiest to define and understand types of racism are:

  • Biological racism – the ideas that there are genetic racial differences and that these differences create a hierarchy. If you want that properly debunked I can also recommend reading Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist. Even if that book doesn’t really explain how to argue with a racist unless they are using pure biological racism, which I think is rare.
  • Bodily racism – portraying and treating black bodies as more animal-like and violent than others
  • Cultural racism – creating and imposing a cultural standard and imposing a cultural hierarchy. A proponent of this is suggesting that black people will be better off if only they adopt white culture. We consider white customs the norm and anyone with different customs slightly or not so slightly barbaric.
  • Behavioral racism – is about making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and projecting the behavior of individuals onto entire groups.

Antiracism is to actively work against racism and racist ideas. This can start with simple things (theoretically simple at least). Behavioral racism is probably the type of racism we are all guilty of most often. When a white boy isn’t paying attention in school and getting back grades the boy is considered a bad student. Probably undermotivated and undisciplined. When a black boy is getting back grades and isn’t paying attention in school the behavior of the boy is extrapolated to all other black boys. Black boys aren’t worse students than white boys. But we do often feel that the bad behavior of one of them confirms our ideas about the behavior of the entire group. The fact that many white people believe this is problematic, but what’s worse is that these boys internalize those ideas too. And it’s been proven many times that if you believe that you are not as smart as the people around you, your results will suffer because of it.
Ibram Kendi writes that he grew up having many racist ideas himself and that he was sabotaging himself and his future opportunities because of them. He felt that if he messed up he was failing all black people. Can you imagine a white kid feeling like they failed all white people when they do something wrong?

We also extrapolate the positive achievements of individuals to the groups we identify them with, as many immigrant professional athletes can attest to. If they win, they are seen as an integrated part of the country they represent. If they lose they are referred to by their original nationality. This isn’t just true for black people. As a tennis fan, I know that Andy Murray has commented multiple times on the fact that he is called British by the British media when he’s won and Scottish when he’s lost. Of course, his achievements are his and not related to his country of birth or residency.
The same is true for black athletes. Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the 100 and 200 meters because he was a very dedicated athlete, he worked very hard, was very disciplined. He wasn’t an extraordinary athlete because he was black “and black people are better sprinters”. This idea is biological racism. The fact that there are more world-class black sprinters has to do with culture, role models, and motivation. Not with an innate ability to run faster.

Ibram Kendi argues that the source of racist ideas isn’t just ignorance and hate, it’s self-interest. Racist ideas are a by-product of racial policies. Getting rid of the policies is proving to be so hard because the people who have to adjust them have a self-interest in keeping them in place. The people in charge benefit economically and politically from the current system that benefits white people disproportionately.

An example that makes it relatively easy to explain is how schools are funded in the US. Schools are funded by property taxes in the school’s neighborhood. Property taxes are based on the prices of houses and when many black people live in a neighborhood, housing prices plummet. As a result schools in black neighborhoods are underfunded. This could be resolved by designing a different system by which to fund schools. But the people in charge are mostly white. Their kids live in white neighborhoods and go to white schools. Implementing a system that would allow for better funding of schools in black neighborhoods would mean that there will be less money for schools in white neighborhoods. The self-interest of the people in power ensures that the school funding system will not change anytime soon.
This video explains the school funding system very nicely

School funding is just one example. For most racist policies you’ll find similar self-interests keep them from being overturned. This means that the most effective way of protesting is to make it in the self-interest of those in power to change the policies. That’s very hard to achieve and can’t just come from black people. This fight gains more weight when both black and white people in power stand up against racist policies. But these people also have the most to lose. Will enough people be able to accept losing part of their privilege to enhance equality. Remember, when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. A lot will have to change before we can overturn policies and power structures that support racism today. It will take many self-less people and a lot of time, energy, and courage. I hope we’ll get there and I realize that just reading and writing about racism isn’t enough to contribute in a meaningful way. I also have to examine my privilege and get comfortable with the idea that I will have to give it up to ensure that we all have equal opportunities and resources.

I have been extremely lucky in my life and it’s time to share that luck with as many other people as possible.

White Fragility – Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism

As I was working on this post, I realized that I’ve read several books by black authors in the last few months. Unsurprisingly, the number has increased even more in the last three weeks. But even though I’ve read several, I’ve not written about books written by black authors, and the book that I’m talking about today is written by a white woman too. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot. Why don’t I choose these books to write about? A lot of them are classics, they are great reads and they have taught me about other people’s experiences.

My hypothesis about why I’m not writing about these books is that I don’t feel qualified to comment on black people’s experiences and I’m scared to get it wrong. I’m afraid of being called out for getting it wrong. But not writing about books by black authors is a form of racism too. And not wanting to be called out for having racially problematic ideas is part of my White Fragility and what the book with the same title by Robin DiAngelo is about.

Our society is inherently racist. It’s in our institutions and our unconscious. Because our society is inherently racist, we are all socialized to be racists too. You can’t escape it even if you try. Yet if we’re centrists we feel that the people protecting statues, waving confederate flags, and shouting abuse at black people either online or in real life are racists. When we’re progressives we feel that people saying that all lives matter are racists. Yet if you ask the people in both of these groups if they are racist they will probably say that they aren’t. We see racism as a thing of the past. Slavery was ended a little over 150 years ago and we feel that inequality also ended back then. Being called racist triggers a strong defensive response in all of us. Even Trump claims that he is not a racist.

Most of us find it hard receiving critical feedback regardless of the topic. With racism, this feeling is even stronger. I find it hard to receive critical feedback of any kind and I would be mortified if I were called out about having said or done something that’s racially problematic. We have learned that racists are bad people. This means that we feel that a good person can’t be a racist. And surely we’re good people?! When someone informs us that something we said or did was racially problematic we get defensive, angry, or upset. We often retreat into silence and we feel anxious.
By thinking that all racists are bad people, we’re creating a false dichotomy. For most white people, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and by making it impossible to talk about it, it perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them. Racism isn’t black and white. Even if we’re good people with good intentions we might say or do things that hurt black people or people of color. Even black people or people of color themselves might have internalized racist ideas because that is what society has taught them.

We must get used to the idea that we all have been socialized to be various levels of racist. Not seeing the color of someone’s skin and not wanting to talk about racism also means we can’t recognize the inequality in our society.
Robin DiAngelo is a diversity coach. She works with groups of people (mostly at the request of the companies they work for) to talk about diversity, racism, and equality. In the book, she explains that as long as she’s talking about racism in a general and abstract sense, white people might get uncomfortable, but they can bear it. However, as soon as it’s pointed out to them that something that they said or did was problematic, the anger comes. There might be tears. People might walk out of the training or retreat into themselves. I can understand that response. But I can also see why that’s not a helpful reaction. If we would be able to receive feedback on our problematic racial patterns we could use it to learn and grow.

Because we have been socialized in a racism-based society, we have a racist worldview and deep racial bias. There’s no point feeling guilty about this. We didn’t choose to live in this society or for society to be based on these racist ideas. We had no way of avoiding our biases. This doesn’t alleviate us from the responsibility to work to unlearn our behaviors. We should try to identify our internalized feelings of superiority and how they are manifesting themselves. We have to be willing to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in the anger, defensiveness, or self-pity that is often our knee-jerk reaction to a racially uncomfortable situation.
Let’s get away from the idea that there’s a good/bad binary when it comes to racism. Let’s accept that we all have a racial bias instead of seeing this claim as a deep moral blow, and let’s work to disrupt it.

I think all white people should read White Fragility.

The Demon-Haunted World

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains how science works and why skepticism and critical thinking are important. The book is probably more relevant today than it was when it was published in 1995. With the internet at the center of many of our lives and social media allowing everyone to publish and share information, it is critical that we are able to evaluate what we see, hear, and read.

With a lot of non-fiction books, I feel that they are longer than necessary. After about 70% it often feels like the author repeats themselves or like there are too many examples to illustrate a concept.
The Demon-Haunted World is the opposite. It starts a bit slow for me. That’s not surprising as the book aims to explain science and critical thinking for someone with no prior knowledge of either.

The subjects that Sagan touches on are very broad. He details the injustices of the witch trials and talks about people who think they have been abducted by aliens. The parallels that can be drawn between them are interesting.
There are also people, especially in the US, who believe that aliens live among us and that the government knows this but is covering it up. Perhaps that explains a thing or two about the “situation” in the White House today. On the other hand, if there are aliens who are smart enough to travel through galaxies I don’t see how they would let Trump happen. Or, if they couldn’t stop it I assume they have buggered off to their own worlds again. Who would stay for this car crash if they didn’t have to?

Most people who claim to remember things that didn’t happen are genuine. They believe that they were kidnapped by aliens. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Our memories are incredibly unreliable. It’s easy to make someone “remember” something that never happened. A remarkable example is the fact that Reagan during his presidency regularly told stories from his past that turned out to be scenes from films that made a strong impression on him. It’s also quite common to remember a memory from someone close to you as your own. Our minds are fascinating but unreliable.

To support our fallible brains Sagan has included a “baloney detection kit” in the book. Here is my top 5 from the kit:

  1. Look for independent confirmation of the “facts”
  2. Arguments from authority don’t carry more weight than other arguments. Arguments from experts do carry more weight but are still open to scrutiny
  3. Try not to get overly attached to your own hypothesis or opinion. Keep an open mind for new and better ideas and hypothesis (but if you open your mind too much your brain might fall out)
  4. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain needs to hold up to scrutiny, not just some of them
  5. Ockham’s razor: if two hypotheses explain the data equally well choose the simplest one that introduces the least amount of new assumptions

What I like about Sagan and this book is his focus on how to communicate. By “waxing superior and contemptuous” about skepticism and science you are unlikely to convince anyone. Skepticism can come across as arrogant and heartless and it doesn’t have to be either.
We all cherish our beliefs and when someone challenges them this can feel like a personal assault. Whether your beliefs are related to aliens, witches, religion, or science doesn’t matter. Sagan asks “to temper our criticism with kindness”. To apply finesse when we share our believes and opinions. We all have different backgrounds, which means that we come to these discussions with different toolkits and baselines.

The way Sagan talks about curiosity, kindness, and communication inspires me. It makes me excited about communicating complex things in simple terms. About making people feel safe but also interested in learning and gaining knowledge.
I’m not a scientist myself. I don’t naturally ask a lot of questions. Even in a fairly simple conversation, I have to remind myself to ask questions. I’m not sure why. Part of it has to do with the need to process new information before I feel comfortable enough to voice my opinion about it. Maybe another reason is that for several years while in school the safest option was to be invisible and not draw attention to myself.

The Demon-Haunted world makes me want to be more naturally curious, but it mostly makes me long to be a writer or a journalist. I would love to try and share science, skepticism, and critical thinking in a way that allows people with all sorts of different believes to open their minds a little bit. I might figure out how and where to do this eventually. Until then I encourage you to read The Demon-Haunted World. There is something in it for everyone and Carl Sagan made communicating about science an art form.

Every one of us is, in a cosmic perspective, precious.

Daring Greatly

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown is about vulnerability and connection. To be able to create a genuine connection with other people you need to show your true self. You need to dare to be vulnerable. It might feel safe to put up an armor and hide behind it, but it also means that you isolate yourself behind the shield that you put up. When we can’t connect to others we suffer. The safety we perceive behind our shield is a farce. It hurts us more than that it protects us.

When someone shares their fears it resonates, because we recognize them. We all feel similar fears and seeing them in others is comforting. It shows us that we are not alone.
But while we find other people’s vulnerability attractive and relatable, we see our own vulnerability as a weakness.

  • Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.
  • Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me.
  • I’m drawn to your vulnerability but repelled by mine.

The reason we find it so hard to be vulnerable is because we are afraid of shame. Shame is the most primitive human emotions and we all have it (except when you’re a sociopath).
Shame is the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.
Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. There are no positive outcomes attached to shame. It’s a destructive emotion.

Shame is the fear of disconnection. It’s something that we attach to ourselves, not to our behavior, making it intensely painful and hard to get out of. We don’t even want to mention shame, and the more convulsive we are about avoiding it, the more power it has over us.
The most effective way to avoid shame is to stay connected. When we feel shame creeping up, instead of putting up our armor we should lower it. We should show our vulnerability despite our fears. That’s what courage looks like.

I feel that being vulnerable and avoiding shame has a lot to do with being authentic. I’ve written here about being bullied as a kid. As a result, I still often feel that people are talking about me behind my back and a fear of shame is never far away. I know intellectually that most people are way too busy with themselves to spend any brain cycles on me, but the fear of being made fun of is deeply embedded in me.

In a sort of weird twist, I’m also unapologetically me. I know what I want and I give absolutely zero fucks about what other people think about that. I prefer to spend an evening on the sofa with a book over going to a party and I’m not afraid to say it out loud. I don’t drink when going out for dinner (especially if the dinner is work-related). And when I travel I always bring a power strip. I’ve been made fun of for that many times. Yet the same people who make fun of it often make use of it.

I’m not afraid of sharing my insecurities and challenges. This is unusual in the IT consultancy world. Yet whenever I do it, especially when presenting in front of larger groups, many people tell me how much they appreciate it.
Despite being comfortable in my own skin I still find myself regularly nodding or uhuh-ing to avoid having to indicate that I don’t understand what was being said, or because I don’t agree but am afraid that my opinion is not a popular one. I try to avoid shame by hiding behind a mask and it never feels right.
The more we are able to be and share our full selves the easier it is to find connection and courage.

We don’t just have to deal with shame in our attempts to be vulnerable and connected. We live in a culture of never enough. As soon as we wake up in the morning we think “I didn’t get enough sleep”. The next thought is “I don’t have enough time”. We spend most of our waking hours hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, behind, lacking something.

This mind-set of scarcity lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and many of our arguments both with ourselves and with others. It’s hard to be vulnerable and connected when you feel like you are lacking the time and resources to do what you feel you have to do. I challenge you to be honest with yourself the next time you feel like you are being attacked by the scarcity monster. Is there really not enough or are you stressing out and pushing for more out of habit?

Get into the vulnerability arena and put your armor down. Being brave is not winning or losing, it’s showing up. Be authentic. Instead of going for the easy sarcastic snark, try saying something positive when you have a chance. Support others in their attempts to be vulnerable too. Be willing to sit with the discomfort of your own and other people’s vulnerability.
The world can be a much nicer place if we’re all brave enough to show our true selves. Let’s dare greatly.

A snippet of the cover of the book Mindset, by Dr. Carol S. Dweck. Showing the title, the author's name and the subtitle "Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential".

Mindset

I started reading Mindset by Carol Dweck fully convinced that I had a growth mindset. She shattered my conviction in the first few pages of the book. There indeed things for which I feel that putting in the effort will allow both myself and others to get better. It turns out that there are also many things for which I have a fixed mindset and In those areas, I believe that I lack an innate talent required to ever be any good at it.

An example of something I have (Had? Not yet, but I’m working on it.) a fixed mindset about is being able to play music. I’ve tried to learn to play the guitar in my teens and I was never any good at it. I had lessons and practiced, but never with a solid expectation that I would get good. I was always insecure because I saw others who were much better. I was a lighting engineer at the time and compared myself to the people I saw play on the stage. I stopped playing after a couple of years and didn’t touch another instrument until I was tempted into trying to learn to play the piano a year ago.

A fixed mindset means that you believe that your qualities and those of others are carved in stone. That you have a certain amount of talent and that you’ll have to make do with that.
With a growth mindset, you believe that you can cultivate and improve your qualities through effort, practice, and help from others. This doesn’t mean you believe that anyone can become Einstein or Van Gogh or Tim Minchin. It means that you believe that you can improve compared to your own starting point. How far you can improve depends on many factors and in some cases talent is one of them.

It turns out that your mindset has a profound impact on the way you lead your life. If you have a fixed mindset it’s hard to try something new. After all, if you fail it means you’re no good at it and might as well give up straight away. Asking for help is hard because it means admitting to failure and deficiency.
A growth mindset can develop a passion for learning. Trying something new can be seen as a challenge and failing is a chance to learn and improve. Instead of hiding deficiencies, someone with a growth mindset will focus on overcoming them.
It’s easy to see how having a different mindset can significantly change the way you live your life.

Like almost everything else, our mindsets can also be changed and developed. This can be worked on from the inside but is also influenced by external sources. The most direct way to influence someone’s mindset is through praise and criticism.
Dweck explains that praise should be given for effort, trying different strategies and asking for help when needed, not for result (or speed). If you praise a kid because it read a book or got a good mark in school by telling it how smart it is you are suggesting that it’s an innate quality that allowed it to succeed. The kid might feel there’s no need to learn anymore because it’s already smart. If next time the mark ends up being much lower it might feel like a failure.

Be aware that it’s damaging to praise a kid for effort when the kid didn’t actually try hard or ask for help. If a kid fails because it didn’t put in enough effort it should be told so. In a kind and empathic way. A lazy, confused or insecure kid isn’t going to suddenly be motivated when it’s being belittled or threatened.
I’m using kids as an example because it’s easier to associate ideas and behavior around praise and learning with them, but it works exactly the same for us as adults.

In an experiment, two groups of people were being given a puzzle to resolve. One of the groups was given fixed mindset praise when completing it, the other group was being praised for the effort that they put in and the strategy that they used. When asked if they liked the next puzzle to be more difficult or similar to the first one, the group given fixed mindset praise overwhelmingly chose one that was similar to the first puzzle. Resolving the puzzle means you’re smart and failing to resolve a more difficult one might expose you as the fraud that you are.
The group that was praised for their effort was interested in the challenge of a more difficult puzzle.
This effect is visible regardless of the type of mindset that people had before the experiment started.

The impact of fixed mindset feedback is similar. When missing a shot while playing tennis you can get annoyed and tell yourself that you’re hopeless, or you can challenge yourself to stay loose on your feet and try and hit the next one better.
We don’t even need others to talk us out of a growth mindset and into a fixed one. Most of us are perfectly capable of doing it to ourselves. Having others confirm our fixed mindset will make it much harder to find a way out towards a growth mindset though.
If you want to get better at something try to find the motivation to put in time and effort and ask for help. Being brave enough to do this means we can grow in almost every area of our lives.

Carol Dweck is very open about coming to the insights she describes in Mindset through her research. She repeatedly talks about how she struggles to stay in a growth mindset herself in different areas of her life, despite having witnessed the evidence of the benefits first-hand. This is both a refreshing position for an author to take in their own book and it’s reassuring that even someone who wrote a book on the subject is still struggling to put the ideas into practice.
I feel that anyone can learn from this book. When read with an open mind it’s a strong dose of motivation and inspiration. Use it to your advantage.

I was inspired by this book. I have to admit that I feel inspired by many books and I’m not going to apologize for it. Reading books is a great way to grow and learn for me. While I struggle to get out of my fixed mindset when it comes to making music and art, I do have a growth mindset when it comes to improving my behavior and increasing my intellect.

You’ll have to excuse me now. I’m going to practice my piano playing!

An images showing two heads in profile. A blue one on the left has Growth Mindset and characteristics of it written in it. A grey one on the right has Fixed Mindset and some of its characteristics written in it.