Hasan Minhaj and me, or How To Erase Women from Their Own Research

Edited: I originally misspelled Mr. Minhaj’s name! Grrrr on me. My apologies to Mr. Minhaj and my thanks to those who pointed it out. :(. I think I fixed all the errors but if not hit me up.

One of the problems with oppressive structures is that it allows the people on top to take the work of marginalized people and never credit them. That’s why the movie Hidden Figures was so meaningful, and how I nearly bawled right in Regal Cinemas at LA Live when I saw a whole Brownie troupe of little black girls going to see it.* Colonialism is about plunder, and it’s about taking the work and material from other people and profiting: slavery, ditto.

One of the key questions I think people should ask themselves: “Is this really mine to use?” It’s such a good critical question to ask. It gives you a second to stop and think about whether you owe credit to somebody else before you roll out an idea, and it can potentially stop you from engaging in exploitation.

Another key question is: “Where did [X] come from?” Look for the women’s and the BIPOC’s contributions in what we have. Those contributions are there. They just get buried, erased, or ignored.

Now, in truth, I am very privileged, and I really don’t blame Minhaj or his staff all that much for what happened here because they aren’t scholars. They are comedians looking to be funny and make some points, and honestly, if they can get Americans to be more supportive and less negative about public transit, then I’m happy enough to call it a win. But since this experience happened about some of my work, it’s an easy example to use.

I woke up to find Metro superstar, Matt Kridler, posted this on Facebook:

Description: screen capture of Hasan Minhaj with a quote from a city lab article describing the results of my 2015 study on twitter and public transit.

That’s my study being described. It was published in JAPA quite some time ago (2015), and I wish (and I am sure other people do, too) some young lion would come out and challenge/update it because tech articles do not age well and my study is getting dated.

That said the actual writing also comes from a female journalist who has been erased in Minhaj’s production: The story was written by Aarian Marshall from Citylab, and by just crediting Citylab, Minhaj and Co erased her from her work. She did a nice job on the piece, in which she built on my study to go on to ask other experts and practitioners about the issues I raise.

There is some less-coolness in Marshall piece as well. I’m not named until way down in piece. I’m not credited as the originator of many of the ideas that she riffs on in that piece. For example, she highlights SEPTA, and while I am glad she added the material she did, my research pinpointed SEPTA first. Was this just a lead that she could run with as journalist, or was it an idea appropriated from my work in an uncredited way? She uses my own critique of the study’s sample, and expands on it well, but still, the original critique was mine, not hers.

Oh, and dammit, I collected five years of tweets, not two. 🙂

(Here’s another critique I didn’t think of until way later: the study should have thrown in some controls for region because it’s possible that some places are just objectively bitchier than others, or that some cities are struggling to provide services across the board).

For me, losing credit for these ideas is not really a big deal. It’s an example I am using to make a point about anti-colonial and feminist practices in epistemology. I’m well paid, my work gets plenty of recognition, and I don’t think Ms. Marshall or Minhaj & Co meant any slight or harm to me or my research. In the rush to get media out there, forgetting to locate where the ideas come from is easy to do, and journalists have a hard go of it now more than ever.

The consequences for me are whatevs. I’m a tenured full prof, I’m established, my life is fine. But the consequences for young scholars, especially young BIPOC scholars, especially women scholars, of erasure can be serious.

Please be careful how you use ideas. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my now long life as an academic…your career really doesn’t suffer at all when you promote and support other people.

*and it has Taraji B. Henson in it, on whom I have a terrible crush.

The lowest road there is…

I really hope you have had the chance to pick up Sunday’s NYT for the 1619 project. Matthew Desmond has annoyed me–why do we have to have to sociologists from Harvard explain that evictions are brutal when women, especially BIPOC women, who have been evicted have been saying this decade after decade? But his essay in 1619 is beautifully written and takes our eyes to where they have to go in understanding the US as it was and is–and why our social policy environment is so very toxic:

“If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider — one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.”

Please purchase a copy of the NYT and give yourself time to read the essays, and please also note the incredible work of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Good advice I have received over the years

In no specific order:

  • “Never get puking drunk on tequila.” — My dad, circa 1980 or so; this is advice I did not heed, and I regretted it.
  • “Adults are more like children than we often think.” –an editor I used to work with during the early 1990s
  • “My mother used to say to me, she used to say ‘Elwood, in this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. For years, I tried smart. I recommend pleasant.” –Elwood Dowd from the movie Harvey
  • Living well is the best revenge. –adage
  • “Take nothing personally, even if it is meant personally.” –Professor Daniel Baldwin Hess, circa 2000
  • “Students never really understand what you are trying to do for them.”–Randy Crane, my advisor

Feel free to add.

It’s time to discuss my agoraphobia

What’s to say? I am meant to meet two of my favorite people in the world for lunch today, and I’m a wreck.

I was hoping that my social anxiety would get better with age, but the opposite seems to be happening. This is a real problem for a planner, and it’s a big problem for a researcher. For years, I squared my shoulders and faked my way through all the social interactions that my jobs have required.

For some reason, all that is harder to do in the twilight of my career. I think it has to do with my chronic illness: in addition to the social anxiety, I’m worried about getting too far from home or office and finding that I am simply out of juice, exhausted. I can’t really describe just *how* out of energy one gets when you hit your limit. You’re done, and suddenly a simpl 1/2 block walk between my office and the train station feels as un-doable as a marathon.

I share because I think it’s important for other people who have the same issues to see that lots of people struggle. You are not alone.

People with mental illnesses are not the problem

Donald Trump continued with his usual style of “leadership” yesterday by scapegoating people with mental illness. White men don’t cause any problems. It’s the immigrants, it’s women with whatever coming out of their hoo-has, it’s the sun in their eyes, and it’s people with mental illness. He even brought out some of his tried and true “Lock ’em up” tropes with language about compelled treatment. Oh goodie.

This is one of the most convenient tropes for the right because it’s pretty tempting to believe that anybody who walks into a crowd and kills strangers is mentally ill. But men have been killing en masse for a very long time. It’s just that they have usually had the cover of war or colonial control to justify it. What was Wounded Knee if not a mass killing serving bloodlust? I could give one example after another.

From the US government’s site on mental illness:

The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don’t even realize it, because many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.

Let me repeat that: people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

To me, the part that should be challenged is binary between somebody who is mentally healthy and somebody who isn’t. It’s like a light switch. For years, Mr. Mass Shooter Guy can swank around threatening women and abusing their spouses, but they aren’t mentally ill until they unleash their violence on other people.

Just like “bodily” health, people exist in varying levels of mental health–we all do–and some of us just have mental illnesses that are visible and socially unacceptable so that those get the label and the stigma. I have no doubt that the shooters struggle understanding their need for power and control. But just because we don’t know how to treat them, and America surrounds them with images of violent men getting what they want, and parenting is often sadly violent, and schools are violent, and guns are everywhere, and we just wonder how golly wolly this happened.

Cars and guns are a lot alike. They can be a useful tool in the right setting. In the hands of responsible people, they can also be fun. They are often beautifully made. But lots of people can’t use them safely, and thus centering them over people–as in Donald Trump’s language–is wrong.