Race & Anti-Black Racism in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Malik Boykin/Kaylah Paras
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
Kaylah Paras: I'm Kaylah Paras, an undergraduate concentrator and recent graduate in behavioral decision studies, and I'm speaking with Professor Malik Boykin about the recent panel discussion on Race & Anti-Black Racism in America. Good afternoon, Professor Boykin. How are you?
Professor Malik Boykin: Hey, Kaylah! I'm doing well. How you doing?
Kaylah Paras: I'm doing well as well, thank you. So I really appreciated the stories that you shared during the panel discussion on Race & Anti-Black Racism in America. I was really struck by the story you used where you were a second grade student being reprimanded for recognizing the erasure of Native Americans in your history lesson. As you explained, this history as well as the history of Black people is systemically omitted from the formal curriculum. In your opinion, what's the most effective way to challenge the hierarchy of information and center black stories and histories?
Professor Malik Boykin: I really think that this exists on a couple of levels. The most change will come by trying to fight this fight at a political level, making it known to your county, the executive school board people and so on and so forth that you want the textbooks that don't erase these stories, that whoever you're getting these textbooks from, if it's these people or those people, like nah, these ain't the books we want, and we really want to reject this version of the stories. And I guess to be able to do that you have to first know that the erasure exists and so then you also have to learn this stuff on your own as best as you possibly can, learn other people's histories as best as you can. And then take that to go challenge, but also teach it in your home and teach it in your community and correct people when they're talking nonsense and give them the opportunity to learn about different things and talk about it at the dinner tables and wherever you can.
Kaylah Paras: Was that your experience in your home being raised?
Professor Malik Boykin: Absolutely. I mean, it's hard to really quantify what that experience is like being raised by a pioneering Black psychologist. That really informs a lot of my experience as well as my mother, who passed away when I was pretty young, but she was an attorney who was advocating for children and had worked in the school systems and had her own experiences with race and racism. You know, she grew up in a segregated Gary, Indiana and then went to Hampton University. My parents met at Hampton in the 1960s and had participated in Civil Rights movements and my mom took me to the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington when I was a little kid. And so it's kind of like, did I have the full context of what that experience meant? No. Did I know that I was at an event that was celebrating Martin Luther King where people were advocating to get his birthday made into a holiday? Well, I at least understood that part and that stuck with me. And the importance of the many people that showed up to advocate for that is part of my mom's imprint on me as well. So I've got two people who were standing up and using their voices and their parenting for advancing these ideas and sending a child forward into the world who was oriented in this manner.
Kaylah Paras: It's amazing that you were able to grow up in that situation with those types of role models and have those experiences from such a young age. In the discussion you also explained that you learned to contextualize the violent harassment directed towards you through the informal curriculum of hip hop with artists like Chuck D, KRS-One, and Ice Cube serving as your educators. As both a professor and a musician yourself, could you speak more about your own experience with consuming and creating music as a means of educating yourself, educating others and coping with the trauma of anti-Black racism?
Professor Malik Boykin: Yeah, totally. You know, when I think about what I just said, right? Like the answer to your last question, there's a KRS-One or a Boogie Down Productions song called “You Must Learn” from like 1990 that basically says the same thing. And I go back and listen to that song now and realize that it had a profound effect on me when I was younger, but then when I go back and listen to it after all the things I've been through to this point; police harassment, having police kill my friends, getting socialized to learning about historical experiences of other people, not just black folks, you know what I'm saying. But also getting socialized to understanding more of the history of Black folks across the planet, right? Like, we don't learn about, you know, the Afro-Brazilian struggles like we should, and the Afro-Haitian struggles like we should, but KRS told us that in ‘90, [Laughs] Right? He was telling us about things that I didn't relearn until I was trying to really dig into the psychology of race as a PhD student at Berkeley. And I'm retreading, like “why does this name sound so familiar?” We're talking about Blumenbach and the biological racial realism. Ohhh, KRS-One was talking about that in ‘90. Went over my head. I caught some of them, I didn't catch all of it, right. And, you know, further he had a “woop-woop, that's the sound of da police” and some of these other songs that really foreshadowed the kinds of police harassment experiences that I would have or that I saw. You know, I remember in the same era, ‘89-90, somewhere in there, one of my dad's PhD students got brutalized by the police. And this is not some riff-raff out here causing trouble, as people try to project that image onto folks. It's like, nah, you could be a Black man pursuing a PhD and you’re getting read all the same, right? Like what does Fannie Lou Hamer say, “whether you got your PhD, a DD or no D, we're all in this bag together.” I remember my father being a character witness in a police brutality trial for one of his PhD students when I was 12 [or] 13. What does that mean? This is the kind of stuff that KRS-One is talking about. Got it. The gaps are kind of filled in for me because I'm getting a lot of this context from Ice Cube, KRS-One, and Chuck D.
Kaylah Paras: Do you feel like you use your own music in a way, the music you create, to also carry forward that type of education to other people?
Professor Malik Boykin: Absolutely. In a very real way that’s one of the points of what I'm doing. I'm trying to make funky music, fun music that also educates. I was just on a podcast I recorded like last week called “Heal n Hip Hop” [with] Nick V and Liza B, and they were like, “Yo, we went and cross-referenced all these names in your song and I learned so much.” Like in the section where I'm talking about Miriam Makeba and Haile Selassie and all these folks that I name drop in the song, and they're just like, “I didn't know about all of this stuff!” I had another friend of mine just tell me, “Yo, flat out, yo, that song changed my life. Like I literally sat down and cross-referenced all of these things and it just opened up my eyes to a whole new experience.” And with a song like with “Dancing for Freedom” at this point in time having gotten me basically played over two million times on TikTok, I don't know who's heard this and where they were and what it did for them, right? I saw a young sister, a young Black girl -- couldn't be older than 15 -- made a Black Lives Matter video to “Dancing for Freedom” and with text talking about “Why do people want to kill us because we're Black?” and she's in this video with her fist up. I don't know who she is! I don't know how this song came on her radar! I commented under it like, “Yo, this is powerful.” And she's like, “I'm gonna cry because you saw my video! Oh my God!” And I'm like, “I want to cry cause you made it!” [laughs] You know what I mean? So it's an extension of what I hope that I can bring to the classroom or to lectures and things in that nature and get some of these ideas to people that aren't reading the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology or any of the other places that I'm submitting manuscripts.
Kaylah Paras: It is profound how far of a reach your music has had and how much you've been able to affect people's lives. Some of your current research focuses on algorithmic bias so I'm just wondering how has anti-Black racism found its way into machine learning? And in what ways do you anticipate your research will challenge the racist idea that injustices involving humans enveloped in Black bodies are normative and expected?
Professor Malik Boykin: Yeah, totally. And I'm gonna explain this as best as I can in, like, sound bites because this stuff can get pretty complicated quickly. But machine learning decision algorithms are only really going to be as good as the data that they're trained on. They are designed to look for patterns for decision-making in data to then go forward and make decisions based on what they were trained on. But if they're trained on, let's say, some county where some amount of judges have enacted a lot of bias against Black people, and you train an algorithm on this data, that algorithm that is fit, that is making decisions from that point forward, is going to reproduce this bias and maybe even reproduce it even more intensely than existed before. They're going to pick it up like, “Oh, Blacks? No bail.” Whatever it is. And then this ends up becoming part of the information that people are using to make decisions. These instances where putting your hand under the faucet and the faucet’s not picking up, the algorithm is not picking up the human hand under the faucet to turn the water on because it was not trained on data that included enough black hands to make any sense out of this so it’ll just reproduce this bias.
And so what we know is that there are a group of people that are like, “Get rid of the algorithms.” And then there are a group of people that are like, “Maybe we can work with the algorithms” or “We're stuck with the algorithms, let’s fix them.” And what I'm trying to figure out is, is one way of fixing them statistically versus some other way of fixing them statistically, is one of these statistical definitions of fairness better and more ethical than the other. And does it shift if the persons that are getting shafted by the algorithm are members of your group or members of another group. If that changes, then we have some clue to what people actually think is fair. What do people think is fair for their own group? And then let's try to apply this to everyone more broadly. And so that's the long game, that's where I really want this to ultimately go. And it's just a lot of questions to ask and answer within that realm, especially since we're also using algorithms to detect diseases that are potentially deadly and there could really be [a] human life loss toll that could be mitigated by fixing algorithms. So I just think it's exceptionally important and a place where we really just need to be asking better questions and trying to make better sense of the solutions that are available.
Kaylah Paras: Yeah, I agree. I think your work is so fascinating and I cannot wait to see all of the papers and publications that come out of it.
Professor Malik Boykin: Hey, me neither! I can't wait! [laughs]
Kaylah Paras: Yeah! Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today. Thank you, Professor Boykin.
Professor Malik Boykin: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me as well. Thank you, Kaylah Paras.
Student Voices is a feature of the Race & in America digital publication series developed by the Brown University Library. Our theme music is “see the unseen” by Butter. Explore the series at DigitalPublications.Brown.edu