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.