When I occasion to read Princeton FML, I’m typically looking for some light entertainment, perhaps a chuckle or two at the emotional abuse hurled at posters struggling with depression. So when I happened upon the site the other day, I was surprised to notice a real change in the site’s philosophy, specifically with respect to its use of polling.
In general, the polls on Princeton FML provide a slightly different lens into campus than posts. Whereas posts are personal and allow us a glimpse into the life of an individual, polls – in which anyone navigating the site can vote – pose a single question, intended to uncover how a particular issue is viewed in the public eye. Normally, these polls are a waste of time. I don’t give a shit “which act at Lawnparties you are most looking forward to.” I’m not the goddamn USG social chair, and it’s certainly not independently interesting. Recently, however, the following query was posed: *“if you couldn’t be the race you are, what race would you want to be?”* After my initial surprise (what is this, Google ads for eugenics journals? I’m reassured that there is no follow-up question asking me to measure the circumference of my skull), I was somewhat impressed that the moderators had decided to broach such a topic as significant as race. And I think that the poll – its mere existence as well as its results – provides some insight into campus racial dynamics that are worth exploring.
The fact that this poll went by, voted on by some but otherwise ignored, speaks to the unusual place we occupy within society as students at Princeton. I’m fairly certain that this kind of question would be considered unaskable to the general public. I can imagine the public outcry were a polling company or news source to pose such an awkwardly blunt question about race. While a poll wondering about our least favorite race might have engendered a negative reaction among students, questions like these are fair game. At the same time, as I mentioned, this poll wasn’t typical fare for Princeton FML. The difference isn’t simply that the other questions are superficial and this one a bit deeper. It’s that those questions are the ones generally talked about on campus. When I meet someone and am forced to make small talk, if it’s around Lawnparties or the Orange and Black Ball, chances are we will talk about Lawnparties or the Orange and Black Ball. (Are you going to be there? Maybe we’ll exchange a head nod.) What I don’t do is follow up an introduction by dropping a question about the person’s favorite race. If people talk about race outside the context of an academic debate, it’s probably in a late night conversation with roommates or good friends. We may be open-minded about the possibility of a collective meditation on race, but no one would know. The introduction of this poll thus not only marked a change in tone for the site, but quietly made public an otherwise private issue. While this is noteworthy, and potentially a significant contribution to campus discourse, the execution and results need to be assessed in order to determine whether opening up the conversation in this way was in fact a positive development.
The poll options were the following: White, Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Inuit, Hispanic, Indian.
My reaction upon seeing these was immediate. Seriously? That’s it? Where are the Caucasoids, Mongoloids, and Negroids? (I had to get those from a Google search, promise). But actually – what happened to Pacific Islanders? Isn’t Hispanic an ethnicity? Why is Inuit the only Native American option – was there a National Geographic article I missed? I’m no sociologist, but this all makes me kind of uncomfortable. At the same time, any idiosyncrasies in the poll options tell us more about the architects of the poll than the voters. And while it may be a fun exercise to psychoanalyze the moderators on the basis of a poorly phrased question and its politically incorrect answers, that is probably a waste of everyone’s time.
So let’s see what you bunch of racists voted for:
*White – 30%, 125 votes
Black – 16%, 68 votes
Asian – 15%, 64 votes
Inuit – 11%, 47 votes
Middle Eastern – 11%, 46 votes
Hispanic – 11%, 44 votes
Indian – 6%, 25 votes*
The results are fairly puzzling. There are five times as many people who want to be White than Indian? Inuit is really in fourth place (no offense)? The moderators think that the Asians won’t notice that their portion of the vote has been rounded down from 15.27 percent?
Questions abound, but the unfortunate thing about online, anonymous polls that can register multiple votes per person if you clear your cache, is that it’s difficult to get a good sense of the underlying factors at play. Nearly all explanations are circumspect, since any interpretation necessarily relies on the racial makeup of the Princeton FML community, as well as on how successfully the poll was implemented. And while I don’t want to get into any BS about how “scientific” the poll is, (let’s get double-blind, randomized control trials up in here), the truth is, the complete absence of rigor does make it harder to give convincing answers or explanations for basically any interesting questions we might have.
That being said, we may be able to draw some general conclusions from our data. To do so, it helps to think about why someone might want to be another race. It could be for aesthetic reasons – appreciation of the skin color, the typical physiognomy. Maybe it is an exercise in crude stereotyping: black people are good at sports, Asians are good at math, Inuits are good at bobsledding, etc. Most importantly – for it’s normative implications, that is – it could be due to a lack of comfort with the place of one’s racial community within the broader fabric of society, and the impressions that others are better situated.
The poor turnout for Indians seems at first to indicate that they might be the worst victims of such stereotyping, but I think that the results might actually be a product of misunderstanding. Let’s be honest – when you saw “Indian,” a part of you wasn’t sure whether it was talking about Native Americans or people from Southeast Asia. (This is Columbus’s legacy at work.) I don’t know exactly how widespread or how persistent that reaction was, but it nonetheless raises the possibility that instead of viewing “Indian” and “Inuit” as separate options, receiving 5% and 11% respectively, we should instead re-classify them together under the broader (and heretofore neglected) category of “native American.” This makes the results more palatable, and presumably meets the bar for good social science.
But more jarring than the lack of votes for Indians is the apparent desirability of whiteness. I’m not sure I get it. Do that many minorities here want to bicker Cottage? I don’t have a clear idea of what we should expect the results to have been, but 30% strikes me as high regardless. Digging a little deeper into the numbers could help make this clearer. According to a statistic I just found online, 63% of Princeton is white. If we assume that the readership of PFML is similarly distributed to the University at large – which seems reasonable – then with some quick math we know that 81% of the non-whites would have to have voted ‘white’ in the poll to achieve the 30% result. That’s pretty high. Alternatively, we can assume that the readership of Princeton FML is disproportionately non-white. Given that this is a site about bad things that happen to people, this would be similarly disconcerting, and the results would still be somewhat skewed in favor of whites. It’s also possible that a bunch of white people voted for ‘white,’ despite the poll’s instructions. Maybe there are a bunch of closet racists lurking online, or maybe they just wanted to see the results without having to think about which other race they’d like to be. Either way, that’s pretty messed up.
Are these results due to active difficulties facing non-whites, or are they reflective of a general tendency to valorize whiteness within the campus culture and/or American society? It’s impossible to say from the poll results alone, and I’m not sure it’s worth speculating further. After reflecting on the poll a bit, I still find myself still unsure as to where I stand on the question of its value. On the one hand, it allows us a glimpse at how hundreds of people feel about an important issue. On the other, the results are troubling, and could serve to reinforce pre-existing insecurities. At the same time, if people really do feel this way, it may be worth knowing and confronting as a community, in some more expressive fashion. This normative unclarity is only compounded by the epistemic difficulties that emerge from our lack of background information and from the unscientific implementation of the poll. But perhaps this state of ambiguity is for the best, for it is this ambiguity, this grayness, which allows us to continue to discuss, and to debate, to recast and to regroup.