whiteness in statistics

I’ll set the context so people see where I’m coming from. I’m an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, have lived here in the U.S. for 21 years, and my family learned english as a second language. You can say I understand the immigrant/foreign experience intimately. This morning I scrolled through Facebook and came across a question on a statistics forum I follow Psychological Methods Discussion Group. You can read the transaction here (I scrubbed the Middle Eastern woman’s name but kept the repliers’ names for accountability).


There’s lots to deconstruct here.

Here we have a Middle Eastern woman who asked for help about a vague problem in a group whose title invites these sort of questions. Could her question have been more wordy, sure. Is it often that people who are non native english speakers ask questions that can’t directly lead to an answer? Sure. But that’s not the issue at hand. Daniel Lakens and colleagues (Robin Kok, Jazi Zilber, etc; all white presenting, many northern European) took it upon themselves to be the arbiters of the English language and deride this woman’s approach to finding resources. (Jazi Zilber is particularly troublesome given his self-pronounced experience with non native speakers).

When I read through their disgusting mocking of the lack of english proficiency, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. Not only is it racist to assume that a person of color is lacking proficiency in language (as insinuated by their comments on her punctuation not being used in any language), but the accusation of a mental disorder for a simple question is gross. Yes, I was very aggressive -but think about the context: I’m a graduate student publicly fighting established researchers on their racism + I grew up in poor neighborhoods where physical violence and pointed call outs was the way to handle these problems + it’s sickening to see individuals disrespected. I follow Daniel Lakens and that group because I think they make great points about statistics in psychology. But here is some more context: this particular group has already been embroiled in the big fight about tone policing, with its members being particularly sharp about their academic critiques of others’ work. Generally, I agree with their main points about being vocal of unsound science, but this thread has fallen into an unacceptable domain. See, groups like this are full of psychologists and statisticians, who are “liberal”, and mainly (from what I see – and I read most posts) white. This means there usually aren’t checks and balances to keep their ignorant racial insensitivity in check. If there are people of color, they are far and few in between and clearly unwelcome unless they abide by white academic’s classist and racist rules of engagement. Not everyone in a non-english-dominant country can afford or has access to english education. And even when they do, it doesn’t mean they can hold it above others. Let’s take a look at the english of the man who cast his stone about english proficiency, here a video of one of his talks.

So to recap, we have a white northern european, with that english proficiency, and his fellow bullies jeering a middle eastern nonnative speaker’s english. I learned english as a child, so I grew up highly proficient, but it infuriates me to imagine my mom or my younger self coming into a room titled “HELPFUL DISCUSSIONS” asking a question only to be mocked for a) coming to ask for help and b) how we asked for it. If they didn’t know what she was asking or if they knew of a better forum, they could have asked in a non condescending manner or pointed her in a better direction. Instead, they took it upon themselves to completely ostracize the woman and subjugate her to shitty unnecessary comments. They clearly lack the humility it takes to provide help to those who most need it, I would hate to see him teach minorities. Uli was right, you can ignore the question or patiently engage. Don’t be an ass and try to masquerade it as benevolence.

For those who asked for evidence of how an instance like this could be racist, please read the following paper of the year in the scientific journal Language by Sharese King that delineates how racism manifested in the judgments of a witness’ testimony in the Trayvon Martin case who spoke in African American Vernacular English.

Here is an excerpt:
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I also highly recommend the ending of that paper delineating steps for how to fight linguistic racism (in the courtroom), stay woke. In addition, there is emerging field of raciolinguistics.

Here is an excerpt from the blog post “Why we need raciolinguistics“:

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The other aspect of this is something I have wanted to write about for a long time. The tone policing and suppression of minority voices. There’s been plenty of times on these forums that I have seen sexist (a man sarcastically dumbing down his remarks to a female professor as if she didn’t understand, it was clear he was wrong), transphobic (a man repeatedly enforcing gender binaries when transgender individuals were also relevant to the topic), and racist comments that go unchecked (like above). Or if they are checked, they are fought back against. Whether these instances are due to explicit prejudicial mindsets is unknown, but what is clear (to me) is often people don’t understand (or care to understand) how what they are saying is oppressive (which further necessitates for them to shut up and listen to critique).

Here are the replies I received:


Now we have a white northern european telling an undocumented Mexican in the United States what counts as racism. So I guess his motto is he can criticize others on their academic work, but he’s immune to critiques on his smug elitism, racism, and classism online. I knew when I commented I was jumping into their bro-den (they usually stick up for each other there), so I was ready for the backlash. However, what I received was far more unsettling. Daniel Laken’s threat to my academic future for calling out a problem he’s propagating is 100% unacceptable. Personally, I’ve fought so many damn obstacles to get to where I am, I don’t have a narrow minded view of success – if a post like this where I expose racism in my field limits my future jobs, then those are places I wouldn’t want to work at. What is the point of a forum or of all these surveys regarding the diversity within the field if not to bring up these issues? How is a graduate student supposed to address what they see as an injustice from established researchers? When it’s not about the research itself, but rather their toxic character, should a student stay silent? Should targeted established individuals be threatening students into silence? I don’t have the answers, but I’m willing to find out.

As a psychologist, this type of public interaction is an embarrassment to the field that studies human minds and needs to be addressed. Is this the reputation we want? Stuck up elitist white psychologists/statisticians who would rather spend time making fun of a help seeker than being mindful and patient or at the very least just not engaging?

To conclude, can someone with clinical developmental psychology experience help this woman? It may not be fruitful, but at this point she’s owed this much. (Update: she has been helped and apologized to)

Also, and this is actually the main point: fellow scientists, do better.

Joel Martinez

For a look at how whiteness defends itself (disguised as scientific inquiry) when a person of color speaks out, take a look at many of the responses in the following thread: https://www.facebook.com/groups/psychmap/361454210898174/

Makes you wonder about the state of this field. Some loud people on that thread (actual practicing psychology researchers) lack basic knowledge of racism, whiteness as a structure and mentality, and minority experience. They lack self awareness to take a step back and see what they’re defending. They were happy to disregard accountability for their friend. They flaunted complicity by pretending there was no issue, that we minorities just need to toughen up. They felt entitled to belittle/discredit/attempt to mechanically quantify the perceptions of racism of a minority. They transferred blame to me as the aggravator for calling out an injustice with a quickness. They gladly fought over whether it was racism or classism as a theoretical issue or whether I was calling him racist rather than focusing on the real experience that occurred. One of my favorite replies accused sensitive academics like me of inciting right wing populism across the world.

These are the tactics used by whiteness to maintain superiority and gas light minorities into submission. (With regards to charges of sexism, there is definitely something to be said about the lack of inclusivity in my approach and it’s something I learned from this situation and will correct in the future. Still doesn’t negate any of the points I have made here).

I limited my engagement in the debate because I had no idea where to even begin, there was so much ignorance of the critical conversations we have in the U.S. regarding race relations, the large and small forms of racism, and the improvement of minority treatment – no easy place to start. The moderators tried to keep it middle of the road, a “sanitized” look at the situation, but people got nasty defensive. Some responders prioritized their “objective” need for evidence over the fact that as minorities, we perceive microaggressions differently (otherwise their legitimacy wouldn’t be questioned). This ends up becoming a colorblind analysis, which may explain why they can see a bunch of white people make fun of a POC’s English and not register it as racism. This also places their lack of experience with racism as the benchmark and minority experiences needing “evidence” of racism to be taken seriously (ironically, the kind of evidence that one builds through personal experience with racism). What an eye opening insight into the nonprogressive mindset of some fellow psychologists. For social psychologists (the field that discovered implicit prejudice), I’m surprised that how they spoke about racism sounded like they expected it to only look like a confederate flag wearing white guy yelling the n word. I clearly struck a chord, and I have a feeling this won’t be the last discussion about this topic given their lack of understanding. There’s a LONG way to go.

One final point, many people supported my post through likes but generally stayed silent (though big thank you to the ones that did jump in). I received private messages of support for bringing this topic to light and if you look at where the support of most people of color lay, it was in likes for this post. Interestingly, they could easily see the racism that the people mentioned above couldn’t. That’s what mattered to me, that it resonated with them. However, to my fellow researchers of color and allies, you need to find confidence in your voice and fight for each other. Social norms matter, and currently they suck bc they allow situations like this, but we can change that. We shouldn’t let people tell us what constitutes racism when they’ve never been on the receiving end of it and we will not be told that our perceptions of racism are imaginary. We finally have a voice and this is the growing pains of battling for visibility.