[Content warning: Polyamory, race]
The best reporting on social science statistics, like the best reporting in most areas, comes from The Onion:
CAMBRIDGE, MA—A Harvard University study of more than 2,500 middle-income African-American families found that, when compared to other ethnic groups in the same income bracket, blacks were up to 23 percent more likely. “Our data would seem to discredit the notion that black Americans are less likely,” said head researcher Russell Waterstone, noting the study also found that women of African descent were no more or less prone than Latinas. “In fact, over the past several decades, we’ve seen the African-American community nearly triple in probability.” The study noted that, furthermore, Asian-Americans.
I thought of this today because a bunch of people have accosted me about the article There’s A Big Problem With Polyamory That Nobody’s Talking About. “Scott, you’re polyamorous! What do you think of this?”
As per the article, the big problem with polyamorous people is:
…their whiteness. And that standard of whiteness not only erases the experience of people of color; it reflects the actual exclusion of these people in poly life and communities. […]
A white, affluent image that reflects a troubling reality: A 2013 survey of polyamorous people from online groups, mailing lists and forums found that almost 90% of the participants identified as Caucasian. People of color, especially black polyamorists, report feeling “othered” and excluded in poly environments such as meet-ups, with women feeling especially at risk of being objectified and fetishized as an exotic sexual plaything.
“I interviewed a black couple who went to a poly group, and they were definitely preyed upon, in a sense,” said Marla Renee Stewart, Atlanta-based founder of Velvet Lips, a sex education venue.
The article constantly equivocates between “the problem is that polyamory is too white” and “the problem is that the media portrays polyamory as too white”, which is kind of a weird combination of problems to be discussing in a media portrayal. But it seems to eventually settle on a thesis that black people really are strongly underrepresented.
For the record, here is a small sample of other communities where black people are strongly underrepresented:
Runners (3%). Bikers (6%). Furries (2%). Wall Street senior management (2%). Occupy Wall Street protesters (unknown but low, one source says 1.6% but likely an underestimate). BDSM (unknown but low) Tea Party members (1%). American Buddhists (~2%). Bird watchers (4%). Environmentalists (various but universally low). Wikipedia contributors (unknown but low). Atheists (2%). Vegetarian activists (maybe 1-5%). Yoga enthusiasts (unknown but low). College baseball players (5%). Swimmers (2%). Fanfiction readers (2%). Unitarian Universalists (1%).
Can you see what all of these groups have in common?
No. No you can’t. If there’s some hidden factor uniting Wall Street senior management and furries, it is way beyond any of our pay grades.
But what I noticed when I looked up those numbers was that in every case, the people involved have come up with a pat explanation that sounds perfectly plausible right up until you compare it to any other group, at which point it bursts into flames.
For example, Some people explain try to explain declining black interest in baseball by appeal to how some baseball personality made some horribly racist remark. But Donald Sterling continues to be racist as heck, and black people continue to be more than three-quarters of basketball players.
Some people try to explain black people’s underrepresentation on fanfiction websites by saying that many of them have limited access to the Internet. Okay. Except that black people are heavily overrepresented on Twitter, making up double the expected proportion of that site’s population.
Some people try to explain the underrepresentation of blacks in libertarianism and the Tea Party by arguing that these groups’ political beliefs are contrary to black people’s life experiences. But blacks are also underrepresented in groups with precisely the opposite politics. That they make up only 1.6% of visitors to the Occupy Wall Street website is no doubt confounded by who visits websites, but even people who looked at the protests agree that there was a stunning shortage of black faces. I would have liked to get current membership statistics for the US Communist Party, but they weren’t available, so I fudged by looking at the photos of people who “liked” the US Communist Party’s Facebook page. 3% of them were black. Blacks are more likely to endorse environmentalism than whites, but less likely to be involved in the environmentalist movement.
Some people try to explain black people’s underrepresentation on Wall Street by saying Wall Street is racist and intolerant. But Unitarian Universalists are just about the most tolerant people in the world – nobody even knows what they do, just that they’re extremely tolerant when they do it – and black people are in Unitarianism at lower rates than they’re on Wall Street.
And the article on polyamory suggested that maybe polyamorists’ high-flying lifestyle and expensive play parties price out black people. Forget for a moment that I’ve been poly for three years and had no idea this high-flying lifestyle existed and kind of feel like I am missing out. Forget for a moment that as far as I can tell “play parties” are a BDSM term with no relationship to polyamory. In my experience polyamory draws from the same sort of people as atheism, and atheism is very white even though not believing in God doesn’t cost a cent.
This entire genre seems to be a bunch of really silly ad hoc arguments by people who aren’t talking to each other. I would guess most of the underrepresentation of black people in all of these things are for the same couple of reasons.
First, some of these things require some level of affluence – I know I just said that didn’t explain polyamory, but I think it explains some others. For example, bird-watching requires you live somewhere suburban or rural where there are interesting birds, want to waste money on binoculars, and have some free time. Swimming requires you live in an area where the schools or at least the neighborhoods have pools.
Second, Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs says you’re not going to do weird things to self-actualize until you feel materially safe and secure. A lot of black people don’t feel like they’re in a position where they can start worrying about where the best bird-watching is at.
Third, the thrive-survive dichotomy says materially insecure people are going to value community and conformity more. Polyamory is still pretty transgressive, and unless you feel very safe or feel sufficiently mobile and atomized that you don’t care what your community thinks about you, you’re not going to feel comfortable making that transgression. Many of these things require leaving the general community to participate in a weird insular subculture, and that requires a sort of lack of preexisting community bonds that I think only comes with the upper middle class.
Fourth, black people might avoid weird nonconformist groups because they’re already on thin enough ice in terms of social acceptance. Being a black person probably already exposes you to enough stigma, without becoming a furry as well.
Fifth, we already know that neighborhoods and churches tend to end up mostly monoracial through a complicated process of aggregating small acts of self-segregation based on slight preferences not to be completely surrounded by people of a different race. It doesn’t seem too unlikely to me that a similar process could act on hobbies and interest groups.
Sixth, even when black people are involved in weird subcultures, they may do them separately from white people, leading white people to think their hobby is almost all white – and leading mostly white academics to miss them in their studies. I once heard about a professor who accused Alcoholics Anonymous of being racist, on the grounds that its membership was almost entirely white. The (white) professor had surveyed AA groups in his (white) neighborhood and asked his (white) friends and (white) grad students to do the same. Meanwhile, when more sober minds (no pun intended) investigated, they found black areas had thriving majority-black AA communities.
Seventh, a lot of groups are stratified by education level. Black people are only about half as likely to have a bachelor’s degree. This matters a lot in areas like atheism that are disproportionately limited to the most educated individuals. Polyamory also falls into this category – the most recent survey found 85% of poly people had a college education, compared to 30% of the general population (!). 30% of poly people had a graduate degree compared to only about 10% of the general population and only about 3% of blacks. There has to be a strong education filter on polyamory to produce those kinds of numbers, and I think that alone is big enough to explain most of the black underrepresentation.
Eighth, people of the same social class tend to cluster, and black people are disproportionately underrepresented among the upper middle class. Most of these fields are dominated by upper middle class people. The nickname for weird self-actualizing upper middle class things is “Stuff White People Like”, and this is not a coincidence. [EDIT: Commenter John Schilling says this better than I – a lot of these groups are about differentiating yourself from a presumedly boring low-status middle class existence, but black people fought hard to get into the middle class, or are still fighting, and are less excited about differentiating themselves from it.]
So I think positing that black people feel “fetishized as an exotic sexual plaything” in the poly community is unnecessary. Black people are underrepresented in the poly community for the same reason they’re underrepresented in everything in the same vague circle as poly. Heck, black people are even underrepresented in the activity of complaining about black people being fetishized as exotic sexual playthings – check out Tumblr’s racial demographics if you don’t believe me.
The eight points above add up to a likelihood that black people will probably be underrepresented in a lot of weird subculturey nonconformist things. This is not a firm law – black people will be overrepresented in a few weird subculturey nonconformist things that are an especially good fit for their culture – but overall I think the rule holds. And that’s a big problem.
A few paragraphs back I mentioned that Occupy Wall Street was had disproportionately few minorities. Here are some other people who like to mention this: Michelle Malkin. The Daily Caller. American Thinker. View From The Right. New York Post. American Renaissance.
All of these sources have something in common, and it’s not a heartfelt concern for equal minority representation.
Likewise, you know who’s got an obsessively large collection of resources on the underrepresentation of minorities in atheism? Conservapedia (Western Atheism And Race, Racial Demographics Of The Richard Dawkins Audience, Richard Dawkins’ Lack Of Appeal To The Asian Woman Audience, etc, etc, not to mention the very classy Richard Dawkins’ Family Fortune And The Slave Trade.)
Here it is easy to see that “you have low minority representation” serves as a stand-in for “you’re racist” serves as a stand-in for “you suck”. So here’s the problem:
In theocracies ruled by the will of God, people will find that God hates weird people who refuse to conform.
In philosopher-kingdoms ruled by pure reason, people will find that pure reason condemns weird people who refuse to conform.
And in enlightened liberal democracies where we “tolerate anything except intolerance”, people will find that weird people who refuse to conform are intolerant.
And if blacks are underrepresented in weird nonconformist groups, and nobody mentions that this is a general principle, that’s making their job way too easy.
So here’s why this article annoys me. In the midst of black underrepresentation in everything in the same ontological category as polyamory, people bring up black underrepresentation in polyamory and suggest it’s because poly people are “objectifying” and “preying on” them, positing that “there’s a problem” with “a standard of whiteness that erases people of color” in the polyamory community.
We know from OKCupid statistics that (mostly monogamous) white men are very reluctant to date black women, but monogamous people don’t have to listen to well-meaning friends going up to them and saying “So, you’re mono, I hear the monogamous community has a racism problem.”
But now I and other polyamorous people are going to have to answer one more round of annoying questions about “You’re polyamorous? Isn’t that a bunch of racist nerdy white dudes?”