Museum of My Mind

Thank You to Ezra Klein: From a Mathematically Disinclined Black Girl

Thank You to Ezra Klein: From a Mathematically Disinclined Black Girl

The estimated reading time for this post is 9 minutes.

As a young girl, I remember crying and struggling over math at the kitchen table. Suffering to reason though what seemed to me to be ethereal concepts of nothingness. I’m the kind of person who needs to understand the context of a thing to understand its mechanics. But math didn’t seem to have any. It was some kind of hell-sent witchcraft. The numbers and operations rained out of the sky and danced around the page. They only made sense to me in moment-to-moment sweet points of God-like clarity. For as much as math gifted people like my mother didn’t understand the subjectivity of my creative endeavors, I certainly did not grasp the ‘just do this’ approach of linear algebra.  What does this thing do? What do we use it for? Where does this stuff come from? Why again does 5 and 5 equal 10?

Later, I was diagnosed with a so-called math disability. It was ‘neurological’ the doctors said. I rebuffed the diagnosis. I thought perhaps if I did have a disability it was seated in my deep need for context. Or in not studying hard enough. Maybe it was born somewhere in the transition from the dedicated teachers of my private primary school education, and the far less dedicated teachers of my public secondary school one. Either way, when I was told I as not good in math, the implication was that I was not intelligent. Now, whether my mind was irredeemable or could be beaten into submission by some higher-thinking human depended on the person evaluating me. Temporary or not, the message I internalized was to whatever degree I thought I was ‘smart’, I would constantly have to prove it.

As my worldview of math and science was male, white, intelligent, and presumably well off, those of any color and gender who were invited to this club looked to be intelligent and rich as well. They were accepted and esteemed by a society that, above all else valued mastery of objective science and its numbers. In struggling to gain an invitation into this esteemed society, I spent a lifetime trying to prove my worth by inserting myself into places that did my natural talents no favors. I believed as I’d been told that if I didn’t make excuses and tried hard enough, I could have anything I wanted.  I did what every other Black person in America is trained to do. I smiled more. I changed the pitch of my voice. I laughed off inconveniences so that no one think I was angry. I did whatever I could to make those who would help me gain entrance to this society as comfortable with me as possible. On the academic side, I spent late nights after work taking online math and Artificial Intelligence courses. I attempted code camps and private math tutoring to the tune of thousands of dollars. All of these social and academic meta-programs ran wild in the background of my mind while I tried to get through every day life. I calculated every move I made hoping the next interaction, the next tutoring session, would open the door to the society I thought I badly needed to belong.

As my relationship began to wane with friends who’d taken to the senseless antics of the far-left, I discovered the founders and friends of the Intellectual Deep Web. Jordan Peterson, Brett Weinstein, Debra Soh, and most recently Sam Harris among others. I found their talks refreshing. They were able to articulate philosophical ideas I’d long ago considered but didn’t have the words for. Their civil debates were a delicious departure from the surface, short-form articles floating around social media.  Though I didn’t always agree with their assessments, I liked listening to the philosophies from their respective fields.

So imagine my extreme discomfort upon hearing, first Jordan Peterson, but especially Sam Harris re-ignite the conversation on Race and IQ with Charles Murray. Murray re-introduces his research on the bell curve which, among others things argues that African-Americans have an IQ roughly 20 points lower than Whites. There was something in Harris’ tone that made think he was a little pleased to be having the conversation, despite him emphatically denying so.

I looked deeper into the provenance of the conversation looking again for some context. I discovered the initial interview happened in October of 2018, so I was pretty late to the party. But there didn’t seem to be any specific event that prompted Harris to conduct the talk in the first place. I uncovered subsequent exchanges between Harris and Ezra Klein. Klein cleanly laid out his critique of the Harris-Murray interview in this Vox article. The next day the Youtube gods brought a podcasted confrontation between the two to my home page. Otherwise, I would have never found it.

Ezra’s appeal-turned-plea to Harris was clear: It is fine to exercise your freedom to have these conversations, but have them more carefully.  I listened to Ezra try to reason with Sam Harris about the implications of having these talks without nuance and countering perspectives, to no avail. As time wore on I began to see more clearly. With every minute that passed, I watched the red loading bar on the video near closer and closer to its end, hoping that Sam would at least give a little.  Though I anxiously watched the video’s clock hoping for an “Oh, okay, I see what you’re saying”, or a “You may have a point there” from Harris, it never came. Instead, just when I thought Klein had made himself his clearest, Harris let out a gutteral near painful wail, “Science can’t be racist!”

The sound of this exclamation brought on my first moment of shocked clarity. I’d been reading books by philosophers like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, who posited that scientists and science can in fact be quite biased. And why not? Scientists are only human. The conduction of experiments and their methods were based on a scientists formulation of the problem and its solutions. It is therefore entirely possible for science, as a principle concept guided by human beings, to be racist. These philosophers are foundational contributors to the field. I was sure that even if he’d some how escaped school without reading any of these books, that he’d at least been trained to watch for bias during his academic career as a neuroscientist.

By the end of the debate, Ezra’s quiet, surrendered exasperation was my own. We’d come to the same conclusion. Sam Harris hadn’t made a mistake. He’d done exactly as he intended to do. At the very least, he intended to provoke heated buzz around a sensitive topic at the expense of those who’d be most impaired by it. At worst, to prove something he wanted to believe anyway.

I wasn’t some fan girl of Sam Harris. I’d heard very little from or of him by the time I stumbled on this podcast. But this exchange between him and Klein was representational of an intimate conversation I myself had been longing to have. Sam represented the kind of guy who held my invitation to “intelligent” society. Klein was me and people like me, regardless of race and gender, who was simply asking, “Do you see me?” To which Harris’ response was a flat, “No”.

By the end of the nearly two-hour conversation, my life was literally and completely transformed.  I learned any continued efforts to be seen by elite white academics would be in vain. I learned that no matter how hard I tried, no matter what I did; even if I somehow sacrificed everything I knew and loved to dedicate myself to their version of science and therefore intelligence, that those who wanted to believe I was a little dumb would always think so. This is what they wanted to believe. And their point of view wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about me or women, or even about Black Americans, but it was about them. This was about their need to protect particular boundaries around scientific and academic inquiry such that only they and others they deemed worthy could maintain dominance in the field.

The veil had been lifted. I’ve never felt freer or lighter. Letting go of that need to contort my own gifts, skills, and talents to fit the existing model of human value was no longer necessary. Trying to change the minds of those I thought would extend me the golden invitation was a futile, delusional exercise.  I did away with the idea that I had to be invited at all.

The general population has been fooled by overprotective scientists to think that science is an objective deity that holds self-contained, unbiased answers. A deity that will only surrender perfect, irrefutable answers to the right kind of people who have mastered exact combinations to extract these answers. This is not so.  Science is a practice. It is about searching for answers through reason. It is a never ending quest to make sense of nature and the human experience. It is always our best guess, a temporal snapshot of what we think we know.

This doesn’t mean to say that my pursuit of science to date has been completely contrived. I’ve always had a love for certain kinds of scientific inquiry, engineering, psychology, and technology. And the most delightful days of my childhood were filled with memories of my father and I tinkering with soldering irons and computer chips at the kitchen table. My curiosity is authentic to who I am. My end goal of proving myself smart enough to explore that curiosity, was not.

In this glorious 21st century, there are many avenues, different kinds of research, societies, and so-called invitations through which one can study. None of which require me to feign comfortable in uncomfortable environments, master calculus, or straighten my hair to do so.  Without bringing the chatter of imagined critical voices into my work, I feel like I am finally able to be myself. Ironically enough, moving through my studies as a complete human being has quenched my thirst. This satisfaction feels like the very invitation I’ve been searching for.

To Ezra Klein: The comments on that podcast may not reflect that you made a difference, or that you’ve changed someone’s mind. But you certainly have. Thank you for caring for those affected by the topic and correcting the wayward trajectory of our discourse in general. Thank you deeply and sincerely for using your access to speak for those of us who were not speak for ourselves.

P.S. I do not condone or like being called a ‘girl’, but this article was written from the perspective of a lifetime. It is a resolution and apology for the magical young girl then (and the one that I still carry in me), that I rejected in favor of something I thought was better.

Initial Podcast with Harris and Murray:

Making Sense Podcast #73 — Forbidden Knowledge | Sam Harris. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2019, from https://samharris.org/podcasts/forbidden-knowledge/

Email exchanges between Klein and Harris

Ezra Klein: Editor-at-Large | Sam Harris. (2018, March 27). Retrieved April 17, 2019, from https://samharris.org/ezra-klein-editor-chief/

First Vox article by Klein

Klein, E. (2018, March 27). Sam Harris, Charles Murray, and the allure of race science. Retrieved April 17, 2019, from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/27/15695060/sam-harris-charles-murray-race-iq-forbidden-knowledge-podcast-bell-curve

Post Mortem Vox article by Klein

Klein, E. (2018, April 9). The Sam Harris debate. Retrieved April 17, 2019, from https://www.vox.com/2018/4/9/17210248/sam-harris-ezra-klein-charles-murray-transcript-podcast

Podcast with Klein and Harris

Ezra Klein: Editor-at-Large | Sam Harris. (2018, March 27). Retrieved April 17, 2019, from https://samharris.org/ezra-klein-editor-chief/

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