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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Defaults

“Default, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves...”
No, that doesn’t seem quite right. I don’t think Shakespeare had Cassius talking about defaults, did he? But it’s what I think of when we just assume that defaults are somehow fated instead of being a decision that we ourselves make.

Now I’m not talking about any of the first three familiar definitions of default as given by the American Heritage Dictionary:
1. Failure to perform a task or fulfill an obligation, especially failure to meet a financial obligation: in default on a loan. 2. Law Failure to make a required court appearance. 3. The failure of one or more competitors or teams to participate in a contest: won the championship by default.
No, I’m talking about the fourth definition, which is split into two specific versions:
4a. Computer Science A particular setting or value for a variable that is assigned automatically by an operating system and remains in effect unless canceled or overridden by the operator: changed the default for the font in the word processing program. b. A situation or condition that obtains in the absence of active intervention.
Definition 4a, of course, is merely a recent narrowing of definition 4b, which is the more general case.

So what does all this have to do with real life? I thought about it when I listened to people describing Barack Obama as “black with one white parent.” Why not “white with one black parent”?

Perhaps it’s because white is the default in our society. If white is the absence of any other color, then a person of mixed race is automatically considered to be the non-white component. It’s not logical, but that’s how the default works. We have a fair number of mixed-race students in Weston — probably it’s a comfortable community for mixed couples — and it’s interesting to see how they are identified. For the purposes of record-keeping the idea is that people will self-identify, although it’s considerably muddied for those under 18 since it’s actually the parents who do the labeling. If a white mother and Asian father label their daughter as white, that situation is very different than if the daughter herself picks that label. My unscientific claim is that the community has a whole considers mixed-race person to be black if they’re half black and half white, Asian if they’re half Asian and half white, Latino if they’re half Latino and half white. I don’t entirely understand what happens if the default race isn’t present; a small amount of evidence suggests that a person who’s a black-Asian combination is considered black, but I don’t really know about other combinations, and I don’t have the faintest explanation for what’s going on in the completely non-white combos. In the case of white being the default, the only real explanation is racism, even though it is unconscious racism.

Returning for a moment to the question of Barack Obama... here is a pair of questions and answers from an interesting interview in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who is half white and half Indonesian:
Do you think of your brother as black? Yes, because that is how he has named himself. Each of us has a right to name ourselves as we will.

Do you think of yourself as white? No. I’m half white, half Asian. I think of myself as hybrid.

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