The Unintentional Racism of “Science of Character” #CharacterDay

Colorblindness is Racism, it’s Also Poor Design

This is a cautionary tale that I hope can serve as an example of the need to talk about race in the faculty room, meetings and in the classroom. For me, this as an example of what not to bring into our schools and to know how to examine what we as teachers are being asked to teach.

I first learned about the “Science of Character” after hearing somewhere about character day, a promotion from a group I knew nothing about who were aimed at schools to get involved in character development with students. It sounded like a nice message and I was all set to jump on the bandwagon when a colleague shared the video. Immediately, I could appreciate the high video production value and the good vibes from the upbeat music. The slick video, sharp edits, beautiful b-roll and the model-like narrator with bright lipstick, straw-blonde hair tucked under a large stylish hat and imagery of her showing light emanating from her like a guru gave the impression that this character thing would be a big deal.

Goodness was I wrong.

Screenshot from letitripple.org & Tiffany Shlain

Some 20 seconds into the video, the narrator who I later learned to be Tiffany Shlain, uttered these words;

“New science proving that if you focus [on self-improvement] then you can develop your character and ultimately live a successful meaningful successful and happy life, no matter what your circumstances.”

www.letitripple.org

Immediately I became uncomfortable, seeing a direct reflection of ideas from “The World Is Flat” by Thomas Friedman who’s premise was that digital globalization was flattening the world in the sense that economic opportunity is now everywhere due to the 2000’s digital revolution, even among historically marginalized groups. This idea Freidman pushed in his 2005 book, we will all more equally share in opportunities together in the digital world, has yet to become true, even as globalization marches on.

The “no matter your circumstances” suggestion by the micro film studio called Let It Ripple and Tiffany Shain is ignoring the oppressive reality of generational poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia of which these communities deal with at all time, similar to Friedman and other Futurists. Circumstances of marginalized communities are paramount to whatever self-improvement stuff this video guru wanted folks to engage in. So, when I heard in this “Science of Character” video that my students and I can all improve ourselves and become happy, no matter our circumstances, I began to wonder what kind of science this was given how clearly untrue and accidentally racist the notion is? That journey led me to some conclusions that I’ll summarize here:

  • The scientific work quoted for the “Science of Character” concept is an encyclopedic book called Character Strengths and Virtues and is the underpinning of the “Science of Character” video. The book does not and has never tried to claim scientific proof that character development leads to a successful and happy life. The book is instead an encyclopedic work to guide a very small movement called Positive Psychology.
  • The Let it Ripple filmmaker team conceived of and made the “Periodic Table of Character,” not any scientists or psychologists and doesn’t appear in the so-called scientific work quoted in the video.
  • Let it Ripple (LiR) itself appears to be a small group of diverse filmmakers led by Tiffany Shlain. It appears that no scientists, psychologists, education professionals or anyone else participated in the video’s production.
  • The LiR organization appears to operate primarily as a promotion machine for Tiffany and her professional work, not as an organization dedicated to do their mission’s work.
  • Telling anyone that no matter their station in life, they hold the keys to their success is patently unproven, deeply racist and inexcusable as school curriculum.

There is No Science Backing Up the Science of Character Claims

I did some research on the claims made in this video and went as far back to the beginning as I could to try to understand where this Science of Character idea came from.

While the “Science of Character” phraseology appears to have come from Tiffany Shlain and her tiny group of filmmakers, the concept of self-help appears to go all the way back to a book called “Self-Help” first published in 1859 by a government reformer named Samuel Smiles who, among other things, suggested that, “poverty was cased largely by irresponsible habits.” Also consider this quote from Mr. Smiles, “…it is always highly gratifying to our self-love to be told that someone else is to blame for what we suffer.” The world of self-help began by removing race, gender and economic realities that keep poor communities poor. This theme appears to be common in the world of self-help with positive phrasing that everyone can be their very best, should they only try and follow the guru and provided instructions. Tiffany Shlain sells this self-help message incredibly well with “Science of Character” and her other works that include something she calls a “Tech Shabbat” where the scourge of the online world can be solved with a weekly screen-free day.

Back to the Science of Character video, I view this concept as one part self-help and one part inspiration from Character Strengths and Virtues, a book published in 2004 that aimed to classify positive traits in a sort of encyclopedia. To describe this book as proof of the Science of Character is not only false, it is a distortion of the work attempting to be done within the micro community of psychologists that call themselves Positive Psychology. Moreover, the traits used in the Science of Character video are still being debated by those in the Positive Psychology world, most recently contributions are being made to shrink down the set of characteristics to something smaller and possibly more useful. This Positive Psychology movement is small, theoretical and unsettled. Therefore, the Science of Character is claiming scientific proof for their ideas, however there is no such evidence and never was.

The Let it Ripple Materials are Dresses up as Science, but Isn’t Scientific.

Digging around the Let it Ripple site, I found that a school can buy copies of the Periodic Table of Character where at the same time I could find no mention of such a thing anywhere else on the web. Nothing. The Character of Strengths and Virtues book is some 800 pages long and even there I see no mention of the Periodic Table of Character. Finally, I discovered that the few filmmakers of Let it ripple and Tiffany Shlain made up the Periodic Table themselves. Not only are the Science of Character video claims unfounded, the video’s main framework for those claims, The Periodic Table of Character, is completely made up by the filmmakers! It appears that organizing this list of positive characteristics in the same shape as the Periodic Table of elements was done to make viewers think that their work was scientific in nature and to connect with viewer’s lived experiences around the real periodic table of elements. This effort is dishonest at best.

Let It Ripple is a Promotional Tool for Tiffany Shlain

Tiffany Shlain appears to benefit the most from Let It Ripple, starring in all of it’s videos as a fashionably dressed and attractive star who holds the knowledge needed to be happy in life; she is framed as the guru. Tiffany is featured in the groups photography, her personal Twitter feed is on the LiR home page and there are many sections dedicated to her personal website, her personal speaking and her other projects that don’t fly the LiR flag, but are her name only. Moreover, the site’s newsletter comes from Tiffany’s email address. Now to say “their” when referring to Let it Ripple seems fundamentally wrong. Instead, what all the evidence on the LiR website suggest is that the organization is Tiffany Shlain and she is the organization, along with a small yet diverse group working in support of Tiffany. While I can’t say that this career building method is wrong by itself, many folks brand themselves with an organization after all. However, the effect here is deceptive in a way that might make you trust their conclusions as scientific fact through Tiffany’s work, her Periodic Table of Character and other concussions as science, as fact or as anything other then her own thoughts and feelings as a self-made filmmaker.

Digging even deeper into LiR, I made a quick financial search on guidestar.org (source of public information on non profit organizations) comes up with a main address that happens to be a home address In northern California that Zillow.com lists as a multi-million dollar home. That information on Guidestar appears to belong to Tiffany personally as she is known to be a resident of that community. Recent videos appear to be shot in her home office and in a kitchen during a Zoom styled meeting video where baking bread is a central feature of community. Thus, the Let It Ripple organization appears to be a professional way for Tiffany to promote herself and to enrich herself in a highly public self-help styled career, all likely run from her home.

Colorblindness is Racism – back to the video

“No matter your circumstances” is the line in the Science of Character video that grabbed me and led me to this blog post. Digging into the science, Let it Ripple and Tiffany Shlain only happened because I wanted to understand the accidental racism of the video I watched. I can’t help but wonder what kind of video that could be made if “circumstances” were considered, if the fraudulent scientific proof was removed and if the main purpose wouldn’t be to promote Tiffany so directly. What would be different about this video? Would this video even be possible to make? How do you tell a poor student that they can lead a happy life if only they work on their own kindness? How do you tell a POC (person of color) student that they need to work on humility or optimism to lead a happy life when systematic structures or racism impact them each and every day? How do I tell a student who identifies as LGBTQ that they need to work on gratitude or creativity for that happy life and it is their self-improvement needing work, not the discrimination they face?

I cannot and will not tell students that their own self-actualization is solely dependent on their own efforts. I must place who we are into the context of the society we live in. I need to discuss privileges and other perspectives. I wish that Let It Ripple done the same.

Both the world of self-help and the general nature of Positive Psychology present as colorblind works and is a trend maintained by Tiffany Shlain throughout all of her work under her name, The Moxy Insitiue film studio (also Tiffany) and Let it Ripple. It is important to mention how enjoyable the videos are and how nice the easy answers pedaled in the video are to want to believe. I want to believe them. I want her videos to be true. I want simple self-help materials to be all the answers I need. But it is here I need to check my privilege. I need to check my male gender, my middle/high economic standing and I need to check my whiteness (I’m half white with a white surname) at the door and begin to dig deeper into the colorblindness of what I offer my students. I need to check my SEI program, my math books, my library and I need to check special programs like #CharacterDay long before they are ever adopted by my school.

But it doesn’t stop or start with with things like, “Teach like a Pirate/Champion,” “Mindfulness as a replacement for counseling/therapy” or “Science of Character.” I need to look at my textbooks that are heavily male and white content, I need to consider what personalities are in the videos I show and what messages they send my students. I need to account for race in every bit of educational materials I adopt if I want to ever say #BlackLivesMatter and mean it. Finally, I need to address what I do to avoid tokenism.

I need to have a lens to help me see color, gender and LGBTQ when I help decide what goes in my school and what stays out. Programs built on thin or from no evidence of effectiveness and are colorblind are things I now need to recognize as “educational snake oil.”

How Do We Decide What to Follow and Use in Education?

As a suggestion, here could be a good way to begin to sort out what programs, consultants and ideas to bring within the walls of your school. Things and people that are personally appealing to you isn’t enough to adopt something for your school program.

How does this Resource, Product or Consultant…

  • support their claims with hard evidence and do I have time to evaluate it?
  • present the limitations to their work?
  • account for gender, race, sexual orientation and economic realities of my students?
  • fit the cultural context of my school community?

Also, things to ask yourself:

  • In what ways can I measure outcomes to evaluate what if any affect this has on my students?
  • Am I willing to do the work to do this measurement and adjust my practices accordingly?
  • Am I willing to account for gender, race and sexual orientation as I measure outcomes?
  • Can I engage my whole community to help me evaluate possible programs?
  • Does this help my neediest students on up?

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