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The Problem with Overfitting to the Data in DEI: How Jazz Can Help Us See More Clearly
In the world of data science, overfitting to the data is a well-known pitfall in which patterns in a specific sample are generalized to the entire population. Unfortunately, this flaw also occurs in the way we often approach diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Many DEI theorists take evidence of bias against a particular group and overgeneralize it to the entire population, which leads to crude and inaccurate framings and conclusions, both about the population itself and others deemed to be part of the so-called oppressor class. Indeed the actual framing of black Americans and other people of color as “oppressed” and of white Americans as “the oppressor” is evidence of this overfitting.
Consider the very real and painful experience of U.S. banks denying mortgages to African-Americans on account of their skin color. This is one factor that has led to a disparity in wealth accumulation between African-Americans and their white counterparts. But to take this fact and turn it into an axiomatic generalization of “what it means to be black in America” is a mistake, as much an error as it would be to reduce the Irish-American experience to one of poverty, disease, and slum-like conditions as was pervasive in the early 1800s. Not to mention that to take “wealth-accumulation” as the end all be all of a life well lived is its own problem that has its roots in certain uniquely American misapprehensions of what the pursuit of happiness actually means.
Though discrimination is part of the history of black life, it is not the only fact of our existence and acting otherwise transforms the experience of being black into an academic problem to be solved.
Let me be clear here. To perceive a person as an academic problem to be solved is not merely a technical error in one’s perception. It is fundamentally evil.
To perceive a people as an academic problem to be solved is its own kind of oppression. Though proponents of this method claim to be antiracist, they commit the same sin that racists do in that they treat people of color like infants, a role they cast us in because they seek to increase their own obtuse sense of self-importance.
Understanding this dynamic is key here and it does not matter if the person doing the casting is black or white. Regardless of their skin color, what is common is that, much like the openly avowed supremacist, they lack a deep sense of self-worth and overcompensate for this by seeing people of color as embryonic babies whose dependence upon them is proof of their own omnipotence.
In other words, and tragically so, this belief system lies in a deep desire to be supreme all while claiming to fight against supremacist ideology.
This is a worldview that ought to be pitied rather than merely condemned, for condemnation will do nothing to solve the existential problem of insecurity. And true as it was in Baldwin’s time as it is now, the usually liberal person who confronts the problem of racism in this way is deeply and profoundly insecure.
And as Baldwin pointed out, the proof of this lies in the fact that they can deal with the black person, “as a symbol or a victim” but not as a human being.
This is a tragedy. And to internalize this world view as true, or good, or just, is its own kind of slavery, one dependent upon a particularly deep and pathological form of narcissism, and one that is incredibly difficult to escape since it pressures a people to identify as privileged victims in the name of their own liberation.
An example from pop culture here may be instructive to demonstrate how this dynamic plays out. In the show, ‘The Shrink Next Door,’ which is based on a true story, the psychiatrist Isaac Hershkopf, (played by Paul Rudd) slowly but surely, methodically, and ravenously, inserts himself into his patient’s life: , Marty Markowitz who is played by Will Ferrel .
In the beginning of the series, it is clear that Marty is a bit of a man-child in need of assistance from a therapist who can help him navigate the world so that he can go about his life without being crippled by anxiety in the face of the unknown. But the psychiatrist that he happens upon is a narcissist, “Dr. Ike,” a man whose own self-esteem has been damaged due to his absent father who never loved him and dead brother who he could never replace in the eyes of his father. And so, as often happens in the human condition, Dr. Ike overcompensates for this by turning Marty into a perpetual victim, one who must depend upon Dr. Ike for his own self-esteem and who by doing so gives Dr. Ike external validation.
Dr. Ike ingratiates himself into Marty’s world, eventually gaslighting and manipulating him into turning his finances, home, and entire life over to him.
Now, eventually Marty wakes up to this but it takes him 27 years.
Yah. Read that again. 27 years.
That’s 27 years of lost time, time that could have been spent cultivating a true and meaningful relationship with his nieces and sister, the woman who actually truly, genuinely cared for him, but who was instead shunned and completely shut out for, again, 27 years, because she dared to question Dr. Ike’s authority.
Now for those of you who know narcissists, this probably sounds familiar, and it is precisely the dynamic taking place in so many DEI departments today. This is a lesson that all of us need to heed and heed very carefully.
In a culture that confuses the mass consumption of things for a life well lived, it becomes easy for us to confuse being minimized with being accommodated. But that is exactly what’s going on when the black experience is reduced to a problem to be solved, the very existence of which externally validates the blustering, indignant, narcissistic activist who gets off on fantasies of playing God. This has nothing to do with liberation for black people; indeed, it is yet another form of oppression. It is a trap of epic proportions and a great temptation both for those hearing this siren call and for those singing it – regardless of the skin color of those partaking.
This is what overfitting to the data does. It creates a frame problem where the black experience is reduced to a crude binary that reads something like this:
"All black people are oppressed because white supremacy culture is pervasive and the very air we breathe." On its face, this seems innocent enough. After all there’s plenty of historical evidence that systemic racism and discrimination has impacted Black people tremendously.
But saying that and saying that white supremacy is the very air we breathe are two very, very different things, and the latter is a red flag that narcissism is in the air.
It’s another example of a script as old as time and it’s worth training your eye to see it so that you don’t fall prey to it. Again, revisiting ‘The Shrink Next Door’ is instructive here. In episode 6, Dr. Ike tells Marty that not only should he turn over his Hamptons house to him, but to deliberately lie to others about whose house it is so that others won’t take advantage of him – all while its clear that Dr. Ike is taking advantage of him.
The dialog goes something like this:
[To Marty] Dr. Ike: Do you want people to take advantage of you?
Marty: Of course not.
Dr. Ike: I didn’t think so. You know I’m doing this for you, to protect you.
This is a bait and switch. It’s what happens when Ursula tells Ariel in The Little Mermaid that she can help her if she but sign away her voice. ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ is a classic Disney song that is as catchy as it is a warning sign. As always, the devil is in the details.
This statement about so-called whiteness and white supremacy culture which on its face appears to be helping black people is yet another form of colonization-by-narcissists, the very mental slavery that Bob Marley taught us to emancipate ourselves from.
Again, to actually believe that white supremacy culture is the very air we breathe – as ubiquitous and omnipotent as God himself – is to believe that white people are in fact superior. To achieve that kind of power would be a feat that indeed only the Lord himself could accomplish. This belief undervalues and understates the elegance and vitality of black life a) in general, and b) in spite of suffering.
To reiterate, the issue here lies not with wanting to fix a system that denies loans to black people; such a system must and ought to be fixed.
But it cannot be fixed by narcissists since it was narcissists who built the system in the first place.
It can only be fixed by people who are in pursuit of freedom and who understand that real freedom and autonomy lies not in the accumulation of capital for its own sake but in the taming of the mind, in the liberation of the human spirit, which includes material concerns but which also transcends it.
This is long and difficult work that is messy as fuck. As any good Buddhist or Christian knows, the taming of the mind is perhaps the most difficult practice to engage in since one is perpetually falling into the temptation of being enslaved to one’s emotions – whether that emotion is fear, anger, rage, lust, or greed. I know I am and I know that this is a source of slavery which is precisely why I train.
The narcissist cannot solve this problem since the narcissist doesn’t see that it is a problem in the first place. He is trapped by his own emotions. So, as you can see, this is a frame problem all the way down.
And to solve the frame problem, one must broaden the frame.
And this is where such African-American traditions that elucidate the fire and passion of black life – traditions like jazz, as both an art form, and a discipline – can be useful.
I was born and raised in the birthplace of Jazz, New Orleans, Louisiana, and I’m a musician and a dancer, so this is especially important to me. Jazz, like all great musical traditions, is a useful corrective that trains its practitioners to unlearn overfitting to the data. In a jazz session, improvisation, or what Dizzy Gillespie calls “keeping time” is key and this is no small thing. Keeping time is not the same as keeping the notes. And he points this out while teaching a class of musicians, he says you can miss the note but if you keep time any note you play will be correct.
The ability to improvise, as any musician, dancer, actor, or artist will attest, is a skill set that is relevant not just for art but in one’s approach to life in general. It denotes an ability to be spontaneous and joyful even in the face of suffering whether it be the suffering of Jim Crow or the suffering that comes in having to confront the unknown. This is the kind of freedom that cannot be measured by GDP or with the accumulation of “things.”
Albert Murray described the characteristics of this freedom as “dance orientation” and “impromptu heroism culture” and he noted its centrality within African-American life. The notion that “black people can dance” is but an inkling of a far more exciting truth about the role that dance plays in African-American life. The reason why we can dance has less to do with some genetic predisposition for movement and more to do with a capacity to know, in our bones, that life is short and full of suffering but it is also sublime, so sublime that it brings one to tears, and the only noble way to meet that gorgeous paradox is with the kind of presence that empowers us to keep time, to play, to be present, to improvise, with whatever life brings us, and that is what it means to be free.
Many cultures have produced folks whose genius lies in the fact that they know this. Zen monks in Tibet who study to tame their minds know this. Bob Marley knew this. Socrates knew this. Maya Angelou knew this. Nina Simone knew this. Christopher Lasch knew this. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. Andre Malraux knew this.
But we have forgotten and it is now our duty and our birthright to remember.
Jazz and every free-styling discipline from Hip-Hop to Mindfulness practices allows noise into a frame, which then gives the player insight, empowers her to recalibrate, and then use that very process to transcend the previous frame she was stuck in. This is not merely an aesthetic delight or a fashion statement. It is an attitude and antidote to the terrible reign of the narcissist whose pathologies pervade our culture, whose insecurities cause her to crave omnipotence, and to depend like hungry ghosts, on the attention of others.
This is a recipe on how to transcend suffering. It is a discipline that we, both black and white, rich and poor, republican and democrat, liberal and conservative, millennial and gen z, ignore at our peril.
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