Yes I AM Writing About that Dress, and Yes It IS Important

dressLast night, during a writing break, I looked at the internet, and this dress was all over it. All over Facebook, Jezebel, Gawker, Buzzfeed. People were already writing articles about how they didn’t care about the dress, that it was an ugly dress that no one should be talking about. But no one was talking about the dress because it was pretty. They were talking about it because no one could decide what color it was. To some people (like me), the dress was clearly blue with black lace accents. To other people, it was obviously white with gold lace. A handful of people saw other colors: lavender, brown, green.

Then I saw the people decrying the waste of energy of debating the dress’s color. “With all the injustice going on in the world right now, if you are discussing that fucking dress you are an asshole and please unfriend me.” That kind of thing. I agree that this kind of internet babble, the way the internet makes a thing out of everything (I guess meme is the right word), is annoying. But to my mind, the dress picture is really interesting, and not only that, it’s really important.

  1. It’s important for science and philosophy. It gives insight, a concrete example of how our perceptions do not reflect some true external reality, how our interactions with the world are shaped and often limited by our senses and how our brain interprets them. My favorite part about this particular example is how most people cannot will themselves to see the dress in any other way than how they originally see it. Most optical illusions are only noticeable as such because we can see them differently: when we look at those dots individually, they are stationary, but when we look at the pattern as a whole, it appears to be moving as though animated. With the dress picture, some people only see it as blue and black, and others only see it as white and gold. The illusion isn’t even evident unless you have another person to discuss the picture with (which begs the question of how many other such pictures exist without having been noticed). I showed the images to people at Peet’s coffee last night, and they were most frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t see the other color combination, even if they tried. This is what freaks people out—the inability to see what others see, to alter their own perceptions. I noticed myself looking at the black sections, trying to figure out how they might be gold. It seemed so baffling, since I didn’t see any gold tones in the black, and then I realized: that’s the point. Of course I don’t see the gold color. My brain isn’t showing me that. My brain is showing me black, and my friend’s brain is showing him gold. I’m sorry if you think it’s petty, but that is fucking amazing.
  1. It’s important for social justice. The ACLU noticed this importance and tweeted about it, and ended up taking a lot of shit for it, which they probably expected. Someone called it “the worst forced analogy I’ve seen in a while.” I don’t think the analogy is forced at all. There are innate differences between people. There are socially conditioned differences between people. These differences affect how we perceive the world. Therefore, to get a full understanding of reality, we need to pay attention to other people’s perceptions as well as our own. We also need to understand that our perceptions may be wrong, and other people’s may be right. I noticed so many people discussing the color disparity with the assumption that their own perception was correct. Of course, some of this was joking, but I saw a lot of serious comments from people trying to explain how the other side could be misinterpreting the image, along the lines of, “I think some people are noticing the blue tint in the white sections and darkening that tint to convince themselves that those areas are actually blue.” This shows how our brains work: of course our perceptions are accurate and other people’s are false. In order to create a just society, we need to learn to question our own perceptions and value the perceptions of others.
  1. It’s important for teaching. It’s a pretty common teaching practice to introduce units about prejudice and stereotyping by showing the class optical illusions. The illusions show students that what seems evidently true to them is actually influenced by their expectations and assumptions. The Academy for College Excellence, a program for at-risk students, does an exercise called What You See is Not What You Get, showing optical illusions to help the students open their minds to new experiences and viewpoints. For these students (emancipated foster youth, former gang-involved students, students with disabilities) who have been traumatized and hurt in the past, the illusions are an important lesson in how to respect each other and feel safe sharing their different views and experiences. Illusions turn out to be pretty radical lessons for a lot of people, providing an experiential understanding of how we limit ourselves when we stick rigidly to our own viewpoint without entertaining others.

I guess this all means that I need to respect the viewpoints of those people who think this dress debate is the most annoying thing to ever happen on the internet. I can agree: people proudly declaring themselves “team blue/black” or “team white/gold” is pretty annoying, and turning it into a debate misses the point entirely. But I think there is a point, at least I see one, and that’s why I’ll be showing this picture to my classes next week, to see what we can learn from it.

photo credit: http://swiked.tumblr.com/post/112073818575/guys-please-help-me-is-this-dress-white-and

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Fantastic Negrito!

deadly betties elevatorEvery Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, me and my gang of tiny women friends (and some normal-sized women friends and honorary male guests) punch, kick, and grapple on the concrete floors of a warehouse basement. Yeah, it’s badass. I don’t mean to brag, but actually yeah I do. We’re really proud of our space, which came to us filthy and neglected, which is still pretty gritty but relatively clean and extremely functional. The warehouse is partitioned into work areas rented by artists, musicians and small businesses. A few of our neighbors are annoying, like the woodworker who would smoke in the indoor hallway just outside our door and leave benches reeking of toxic varnish there, or the people who lock themselves in the sole bathroom for fifteen minutes and get mad if you ask them to hurry up. But we have some extremely cool neighbors, too. We used to have an Afro-Cuban jazz band next door, and a troupe of African dancers who left for a trip to LA to audition for America’s Got Talent and never came back. Come to think of it, I hope they’re okay. Maybe they’re famous by now; they definitely had talent. 

The king of the building is Xavier, who runs a gallery and music studio up on the top floor. They have art shows up there once a month. They also have concerts; one night as I was leaving, I climbed up onto their stairs and listened to the most amazing African drumming (a lot of Africanness in our building, awesomely). And one night, when we arrived for our training session, Xavier was playing with his band on the ground floor, right outside our bathroom and freight elevator, with a band that included his young son (I’m guessing around 5 years old) on drums. They had the loading dock open and were playing for the neighborhood. They sounded beautiful. It was hard to tear ourselves away to start our training. 

Yesterday when my clock radio woke me up, the announcer was saying something about a band from West Oakland who had won a contest to play on NPR in Washington DC. I was like, cool, go Oakland! Then they said the name of the band: Fantastic Negrito. And I thought, hey, I know that band name. Isn’t that… Then they played some music, and I was sure: our upstairs neighbor! I ran to my computer to confirm it. It was true! A beautiful, prize-winning song. Not only was there a picture of Xavier and a story about him, but a video of him and his band performing inside our freight elevator. Which makes sense; it’s a pretty badass place. 

I would also like to note that I have woken up to the music of people I know on NPR two other times, both used as the interval music between stories on Morning Edition. Once it was a Julian Lage song that my brother-in-law played on, and once it was a very obscure early-2000s band from Ann Arbor that I still can’t figure out how Morning Edition got a hold of.  Basically, I want everyone I know to be on the radio because there is no awesomer way to wake up. 

Doing Writer Stuff

Ariel Gore
Ariel Gore

Last week, I attended TWO writing events. That’s a big week for writing events! The first one was an in-person writing workshop taught by Ariel Gore on Saturday, 1/28. Ariel is the editor and founder of Hip Mama magazine, and she is a brilliant writer and writing teacher. I’ve taken online classes from her a couple of times, but I was especially excited for the analogue version. It was a great chance to meet in person some writer’s I’ve seen around online and to catch up with the work of some writers I already know.  I shared two pieces about my grandmother, one fiction and one nonfiction, that I’ve been working on and will submit for publication soon. I love sitting around with other writers, reading each other’s work and giving feedback. I guess that’s why I became an English teacher, so I can get paid to do that kind of thing. I’m so appreciative of writers like Ariel and Tomas Moniz (who hosted the workshop at his house) who work to create community among writers in the bay area and beyond, so hermits like me don’t moulder away alone in their dark coffee shop corners. 

Zocalo Coffeehouse
Zocalo Coffeehouse
Soma Mei Sheng Frazier
Soma Mei Sheng Frazier

And then on Thursday, 2/5, Zocalo Spits premiered in San Leandro with the most amazing lineup of readers and musicians! Hosted by the always fabulous Michelle Gonzales and Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, this event played to a packed house at Zocalo Coffeehouse, which is easily the best coffee shop in the east bay or probably the world. It’s a giant space with easy parking access, reliable wifi, tons of power outlets, and great coffee, tea, and food–perfect for any work-from-home types.  I have met so many incredible writers at Zocalo, and tons of teachers, all of us hunched over our laptops with our headphones on. Two of those writer/teachers, Michelle and Soma, decided we should look up from our work for a few hours once a month and celebrate all the great talent in San Leandro and the Bay Area. This month featured readings by Ariel Gore, Paul Flores and Jackie Graves, and incredible music by Candace “Antique” Davis. My friend Diane Rinella also read during the open-mic portion of the evening.  It was so moving to see such amazing artistry right where I usually grade papers and write novels, and to know that my friends made it happen. Some day I will have to give back to the community and organize my own event. But for now, it’s nice to sit back and enjoy all the events going on around me all them time. 

Michelle Gonzales
Michelle Gonzales
Diane Rinella
Diane Rinella