Discussion Recap: 2/15/15

By Alice Barrett

This week we read and discussed an essay on Black Girl Dangerous by Martina “Mick” Powell entitled “Hold Up: A Lovingly Disgusted Note to Hip Hop.”  The discussion started out slow, which is such an organic, interesting element of almost all academic discussions I’ve taken part in, but the difference for this one was that most of us found the reading logical and anticipated.  We’ve all heard that rap and hip hop often employs sexist, homophobic, and oppressive positions.  “Kids and their dang rap music!” or something.

Powell’s piece, we agreed, seemed personal in ways that criticism of rap often can’t be.  She paints her history with rap music (seemingly a universal history for other black people, too) with intimate, detail-oriented phrases: “everything—every beat against bass, every drip of spray paint, every time your body contorts itself into a new shape—has a purpose.”  Powell is a black queer woman discussing the problems she has with rap and hip hop’s discussion of black and/or queer women.  Her complaints are the most valid complaints one could lodge; she experiences the way hip hop and rap have previously validated her experience, and she notes importantly that they still erase her.

“I want so much to love you endlessly but sometimes, it gets hard walking into a brick wall day after day, never being fully able to escape. As much as you confirm my existence and my struggles, you also erase me, ignore me, defile me. Sometimes you hate me so much that you keep repeating yourself over and over again and sometimes you want me so much that you can’t control yourself.”

Her writing is poetic and personal, and therefore effective.  Perhaps someone who has noted oppression in hip hop and rap–and noted it only negatively, only to reinforce racist concepts, only to cement ideas of black men being violent and savage–will read this work and see the many facets of the hip hop and rap experience.

Some problems several members had with the piece was that it focuses solely on the sexism and homophobia in hip hop and rap, which could suggest if taken out of context that the only problematic parts of popular culture involve an art that has typically been associated with black males.  Powell’s essay doesn’t seem to look at all of the forces that combine to create this homophobia and sexism in rap and hip hop.  It focuses specifically on hip hop–which makes sense because of her own biography–but in doing this it fails to comment on society’s ingrained discriminatory practices.  It does not comment on the appallingly oppressive lyrics in rock, in country, in alternative music.  It comments only on hip hop and rap, which could certainly be virtuous in that the conversation is specific and more likely to be effective but is also race-specific.  This seems to be a problem in lots of social justice work–how can we discuss specific injustices without scaling out to look at the patriarchal, white-washed society we constantly participate in?

We additionally discussed the opposite phenomenon, where specifically Macklemore was apotheosized for declaring–for setting the record straight, for deciding perhaps–that (!) it’s okay to be gay (!) in his song Same Love.  He’s a white straight guy who confirmed that queerness is natural–and he’s a white straight guy who was worshipped for doing so.  In this case, Macklemore wrote something super positive, criticizing the homophobia in some rap music and supporting the struggles of queer people.  This should be valued, absolutely!  He’s using his privilege to positively affect popular culture.  How people received this, how he was described as the first person to talk about Actual Important Things in rap, as opposed to money and hoes, how he seemed to some to save and justify rap–these are the problems we should have with his work.  We should find it problematic and disgusting that popular culture will ignore the beautiful, authentic work of past queer, black rappers to champion the commercialized, bastardized work of a white guy.  We should be so, so sad that an artist like Kendrick Lamar was overlooked and erased in the Grammy’s for this song of Macklemore’s.

Finally, we discussed attempts to reconcile problematicism of things we love so, so much.  Can I listen to Kanye even though he says fucked up things about women and queer people?  Can I ignore Azalea Bank’s negative slurs in her attempts to point out problematic aspects of other artists’ work?  How can one enjoy popular culture when racism, sexism, classism, homophobia stain so many aspects of it?  We don’t know.  We think pointing out problems is the most feasible way to be productive in the face of oppression.  Perhaps we could use our commercial power to send messages, by boycotting the work of artists who enforce oppressive power structures, and perhaps we can be vocal about the problems we have with their work.  We don’t know.  It does not appear that one cannot enjoy culture that participates in discrimination and oppression; instead, maybe, we need to realize why artists are reinforcing oppressive ideas, especially when they’re reacting against other power structures they’ve experienced.  We need to demand more.  We need to reject any ideas of Macklemore’s superiority in rap (and especially the race-tinged aspects of this).  We need to look at valuable essays that note the multifaceted aspects of love and culture.

Op Ed: The Scarcity of Female Programmers

By Reagan McCreary

Margaret Hamilton

A flaw in the Apollo 11 Lunar lander’s radar system began sending loads of false data to its onboard computer three minutes before the lander reached the moon’s surface. Fortunately, NASA programmer Margaret Hamilton designed a system “smart enough to recognize that it was being asked to perform more tasks than it should be performing.” Without her work, we would not remember the Apollo 11 mission as the first to place human beings on the moon (alive).

Katherine Johnson calculated the flight trajectories for the Apollo 11 mission. Ada Lovelace wrote what we now recognize as the very first computer program. Grace Hopper wrote the first compiler, which is the software that turns raw code into a set of instructions understandable by a computer. Barbara H. Liskov’s research enabled the design and implementation of object-oriented programming languages, which are the most widely used languages today. While recuperating from childbirth, Erna Schneider Hoover came up with a computerized telephone system which revolutionized telecommunication in the 1950’s.

These are a small number of the many women whose work in the early days of computing showed that the Y-chromosome has nothing to do with the potential to succeed in the field. From the advent of the modern computer until around 1984, the ratio of female to male computer scientists increased steadily:

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 8.58.28 PM
Source: National Science Foundation, American Bar Association, American Association of Medical Colleges; Credit: Quoctrung Bui/NPR

But what happened in 1984?

A bunch of white dudes happened.

Early personal computers required much more hands-on coding than today’s, and they were primarily marketed toward men as a tool and toward boys as a toy. As sad and hilarious as this advertisement appears to us now, the culture of the 1980’s was effective in encouraging boys lucky enough to have access to a Commodore 64 to play games and learn how to code. The same culture taught girls to attract men and become homemakers with their Tinkerbell Makeup and Barbie Dreamhouses.

Because the first commercial computers required complex knowledge for effective use, the first few who truly understood them typically preferred time spent learning alone above interpersonal interaction. Gradually, the stereotype of the socially awkward programmer geek took flight, pushing more women away from the field. Not only is programming for boys; it’s for “weird,” arrogant boys with bad hygiene and no fashion sense who love to creep people out.

This is especially problematic now that computer science is so vital in our society. The ever-increasing human dependency on thinking machines places certain people in an elite class of knowledge. Our economy values technical skill and rewards it with higher pay. Discouraging women from entering highly technical and challenging fields can only serve to widen the existing gender gap.

The idea that select people can enter these fields belies the nature of computer programming. Too many people fail to meet the challenge of learning math or programming because they’re “not good at it” or it’s “not intuitive” to them. I take every opportunity to correct people who say things like this. In reality, if you can understand this sentence, then you can understand the pure logic of programming. It’s just too easy to give up early when you believe, consciously or not, that you inherently lack the ability to do something. Our culture produces an environment which allows budding female professionals to believe that their efforts toward learning math and science will ultimately fall short to those of males, that somehow their gender dictates a limit on their ability. Beyond that, women who manage to overcome the barriers preventing them from learning the necessary skills face even greater barriers once employed. Feelings of isolation in a sea of men, constant (often unintentional) acts of microaggression, and environments which treat women as foreign objects can turn even the most capable female programmer away from doing what she loves.

“You can do anything you put your mind to.” I remember hearing phrases like this from the moment I could understand them. Now that I’m older it rings true, at least in my case. I question its validity in general. I decided to study computers in college, and now I can make software. My status as a white, suburban male opened all of the avenues for me, and I felt no pressure to stifle my love for math or science because it would be unbecoming of someone of my gender, race, or socioeconomic class. I cannot say with certainty that I would have made the same decision had I been born anything other than a white male. I definitely would not have made the decision had it been unavailable to me, as it is to many.