Parable of the Polygons: segregation and "slight" racism

The point I am making is that to flippantly use the term ‘racism’ in the title is disrespectful to those oppressed by racism and serves to diminish the struggle of real people against the genuinely horrible effects of US apartheid. It is a privilege of the powerful to redefine/dilute language to maintain cognitive dissonance from the suffering being perpetuated in their favor. (It also relates to how marginalizes communities use this same mechanism to dull the power of derogatory language and ethnic slurs, by co-opting verbal expressions of hate, retaking ownership, and transforming them into terms of endearment.)

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Considering this statement is ambiguous at best and inaccurate at worst, I’d be more cautious with the criticism. Do you specifically disagree with the conclusions they draw or just with their approach?

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use the term ‘racism’ in the title

It is interesting that the simulation doesn’t do what you are talking about. You’re criticizing the simulation over something Boing Boing did. They are two different entities.

There is no ‘probably’ or ‘less clear’ about it. The urban ghetto was an orchestrated plan by white leadership in this country. Discriminatory loan policy, city “redlining”, unequal distribution of the GI Bill, dismantling of urban industry, the highway system, and homegrown terrorism.

The construction of the Ghetto
The Case For Reparations


My issue is with the misuse of language by Mr. Doctorow in the title.

Again, I am criticizing Mr. Doctorow for headlines that misuse language in a way that is detrimental. This miscatagorization perfectly exemplifies the microagressions of the status quo used indescriminantly (unintentionally or intentionally) that diminish the ability to address very serious issues facing those with the least amount of power.

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Fair enough. The simulation seems to be specifically about “bias” (i.e. prejudice) and its effects on diversity. I do think the blog post lends itself to discussing racism from a systemic perspective. As in, the parable is not exactly about racism, but it is related to racism.

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Racism is an invention of the powerful to maintain control. Prejudice is universal and not specifically tied to the false idea of race. Racism is a specific system originally built as a defense for land-holders and controlling interests, the majority of which are _________. (Fill in the blank)

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His use of the term “racism” in the heading to denote prejudice rather than a system is not accurate, yes.

It is counter to the goals of fighting racism to make the perfect the enemy of the good. The thing the post points to is a worthy thing, and posting about it on BB is reaching a large audience and using the term “racism” might capture more clicks and encourage the spread farther than if he used the more accurate term “prejudice.” So it is good, overall.

There is always work to do to be better, but this is a good thing, despite the misuse of the term from someone who is trying to be an ally. It is imperfect, but it is a step in the right direction. Forward – even on shaky legs – is a good thing.

Racism is not the most accurate term. That doesn’t remove from the positives this post accomplishes.


In my opinion, this is a very narrow view. What you are referring to as “racism” I would call “institutional racism” or “systemic racism”, to differentiate it from the actions of specific individuals.

Moreover, even in that case, your statement seems to imply that modern racism is mostly perpetuated malicious “controlling interests”, rather than the apathy of the privileged. I think the simulation addresses the need for individual awareness to solve a systemic problem, which doesn’t seem like a bad way to go (headline notwithstanding).


I do not think it’s possible to get a sufficient majority of people consistently working towards increased diversity. It’s worth a try, but I fear it won’t work.

I think discrimination is most efficiently reduced when something is no longer seen as an important discriminating factor, or just as one among many.

Is a black computer scientist less like me than a white garbage collector? I happen to be a white computer scientist. As far as I can tell from introspection, I think my classist prejudices are more deeply rooted than my racist prejudices. Does sexual orientation count more or less than race? How about political opinions?

Unless everyone agrees that “race” is the defining characteristic that should compel me to feel different more than any other difference, segregation should be solvable without everyone actively preferring diversity. Note that this would just solve the problem of segregation, not discrimination or any other problems stemming from prejudice.

Has anyone thought about a simulation where every little shape has multiple properties, and every shape has a different definition of “like me”?


1. Small individual bias → Large collective bias.
When someone says a culture is shapist, they’re not saying the individuals in it are shapist. They’re not attacking you personally.

This is a really important point that gets a lot of arguments hung up on “not all men”-type fooforaw. If I say that gamer culture is sexist, I am not saying that you, personally, are sexist.


Sounds kind of like a hybrid of this model and the stable marriage problem.

…and that is what we call “the trickle down of wealth”.


I appreciate your responses. Thank you for your willingness to understand and to critically engage with me on this issue.

I feel like you are trying to force an academic definition on a word. If a homeless white man throws a racial slur at a wealthy black man, we’d call that racist even though that homeless white man is not powerful and is not maintaining control over much of anything.

If a person doesn’t particularly like a neighborhood because their neighbors aren’t ‘their kind of people’ then we would call that racist if the issue was the color of their neighbor’s skin, homophobic if the issue was their neighbor’s sexual orientation, maybe just plain bigoted if it was some issue that we don’t have a ready word for.

If you want to police the way people use those words you have quite a struggle in front of you.

But even if racism is a specific system built by the powerful to maintain control, isn’t individual people discriminating against other individual people in the way described in the blog post part of how that system works? That homeless man is reminding that wealthy black man that the system is still there, even from that position of weakness. Wouldn’t people not wanting to live next to black people be part of how racism works, even if we see racism only as a system not as individual behaviour?


My daughter just went to two formal balls in a week (as a +1). There were over 500 teenagers at each ball. At the first one, the only two African Americans (actually, 50/50 like Obama) were sisters whose father is the headmaster of the most prestigious private school in the metropolitan area. At the second, there was exactly one black guy from one of the most affluent suburbs. (We actually know the families IRL, which is how we know these details.)

So yes, classism can overcome racism, in that a black person can rise to such prominence that they will get invited to traditionally white events. However, do you really think there are only two African American families in the entire Chicago area with the wealth and power to be considered appropriate guests to a formal ball? Really?

Racism means that a token number can rise above classism…but no more than that.


Yes, I assume classism currently doesn’t overcome racism in present-day American society. I didn’t mean to claim that it did. My observation of my own personal prejudices has nothing to do with present-day American society (I’m in Austria, Europe).

For invitation-only events, we’re not dealing with the subtle, not-particularly-hostile “I’d rather not be a minority there” that leads to large-scale segregation in the simulation. If you don’t invite members of the minority, that’s real racism, which is not what the polygon experiment is about. But I assume the same racial lopsidedness happens even with events where everyone could come if they wanted to.

Also, it’s hard to analyse racism vs. classism, because in the presence of racism, class strongly correlates with race. The two -isms become hard to tell apart in that context.

So, some definitions just to get my original point across:
“real” X-ism: I behave negatively towards people who differ from me according to property X.
“slight” X-ism: I feel uncomfortable when the overwhelming majority of people around me differs from me according to property X
X-segregation: people sort themselves according to property X.

The original point of the article: “slight” X-ism leads to X-segregation.

My theory: “slight” X-ism mixed with “slight” Y-ism mixed with “slight” Z-ism roughly equally won’t lead to any segregation at all.
Claim: We will never eliminate every kind of “slight” X-ism from society. But we can at least try to achieve some kind of healthy balance between the X-isms we can’t eliminate.


It’s also a completely normal everyday use of the term.


Yes, it brought to mind “East end boys and West end girls”.