Erasure’s come-back album

People vanish. At times, people who are right in front of us seem to vanish too, even when we’re looking straight at them.

In 1903, Vanity Fair magazine (not that one, another publication with the same name) ran a story about (shock horror) women in trousers. It’s 1903, of course, so all of the women in the piece are white.

The Nib offers commentary about a job he did for an X-Men comic, featuring the character Melita. Melita had been described as having a Mexican father and an African-American mother. The Nib drew her quite dark as a result. The editor asked him to lighten her skin tone.

When visiting the USA, you get to fill in a form that includes a tickybox for ethnicity. Fair enough, I suppose, the USA is within its rights to ask any questions it likes of foreign visitors. What does a black British person (with Caribbean heritage) tick on the form, then? They’re not white and they are neither African nor American (in the UK, they’d be “black British”).

Barack Obama is often described as the USA’s first black president. His mother is white. To my eyes, at least, that makes him mixed race (or interracial for our American friends). He is from one of the 15% of America’s families who are of mixed racial heritage, as celebrated by We are the 15 percent.

A website I visited, last week, asked me to fill in a questionnaire. In a rare moment of generosity, I decided I’d have a go. The very first question asked me for my gender. I gave up at that point.

Icon of two people, one in a dress, on in trousers. Used to denote gender in an online questionnaire.

Last time I checked, “trousers” wasn’t a gender.

Frequently, schools ask their children to line up, girls in one line, boys in another. Where, as the cartoon asks, do the children line up who self-identify as awesome?

Science Fiction is a genre written exclusively by white people, isn’t it? Particularly white men. Maybe.

I went on a training course for school governors, a little while ago. In it, the tutor spoke to us about unconscious bias. It’s that thing your brain does when you first meet someone. You can’t stop it. You just form a gut feeling about them when you first lay eyes on them. For many of us, this gut feeling is overlaid with stereotypes that will be based on race, gender, clothing, hair, height, visible disability, weight, angle of lighting, and so on. The training asked us to acknowledge this bias and to let our conscious mind in on the act. Being aware of unconscious bias is the only way to diminish its effect.

One question that was asked at the training has stayed with me ever since and I find it increasingly disturbing with passing time. “Is the data biased?

As governors, we make use of all kinds of data about the school, about the pupils in the school, about other schools, about national trends and national learning outcomes, and so on. There’s plenty of it about. What if this data is biased? The data is not impartial. It is gathered by people. Those people are usually asking questions in order to gather the data. In order to be easy to analyse, the data are normally grouped into categories according to the answers on the question sheet.

Let’s look at “what is your gender?” that I alluded to above. Every single dataset that governors use breaks the results down into boys and girls. Whilst this is useful, because it lets us monitor results in subjects where there is an established gender bias, it also means that people who identify neither as girl nor as boy have no representation in the numbers. They have, simply, been erased.

It’s not just school data. The survey I almost took does the same. You can’t even get off the first page unless you put yourself into either trousers or dress. The web form simply will not let you move on until you have decided which side of the binary you belong to.

The law is just as bad. When you are born, the birth registration form demands that you get either an M or an F. The law mandates that you must be either male or female, not both, not neither. Germany changed their law recently to recognise that intersex people exist. Most of the rest of the world isn’t quite so willing to acknowledge that. In nations where you can change your legal gender, you’re still only given two options. You were M, and now you’re F. Congratulations. People in between are erased.

A large part of the reason that gender-nonconforming people do not figure in the national consciousness of most places is that the questions bias the data, erasing everyone who would blur the lines.

Let us look at our own unconscious biases this week, and see if we can avoid erasing others. After all, we are all people.

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