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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh and the Resistance Color Code

There are a thousand and one ways in which our misogynistic and racist culture is passed on and fortified. This is a story about one of them.

I was reminded of this one by the recent testimony about the serial sexual abuse of young girls by the youthful Brett Kavanaugh. It comes from my own education in technology. That began with an early interest in electricity and electronics. One of my earliest accomplishments in the field was earning a Merit Badge for Electricity from the Boy Scouts of America. It must have been about the same time I was first learning about resistors, and the color code used to mark them.

Resistors are electrical components used very frequently in electrical or electronic circuits. They are used to provide resistance to the flow of electricity. That resistance is measured in Ohms[Ω]. An Ohm is a measure of, well, electrical resistance. The unit was named after Georg Ohm, a 19th century German Physicist who gave us Ohm's Law, among other things. 1Ω really isn't much resistance at all, so in electronics, more often we talk in terms of kiloohms or megaohms. Resistors come in a wide range of resistances, and since most are very small, simply printing the resistance on them, something like 470KΩ, just isn't workable. I wouldn't have been able to read them even when my eyes were young. Instead they are marked by a series of colored bands. Each color stands for a number, or a power of ten. The colors are Black = 0 or 100, Brown = 1 or 101, Red = 2 or 102, Orange = 3 or 103, Yellow = 4 or 104, Green = 5 or 105, Blue = 6 or 106, Violet = 7 or 107, Gray = 8 or 108, White = 9 or 109.

Typical Resistor Color Code Chart
Now you know how to read resistors, so long as you can remember the colors used, and their proper order. Mnemonics can be very helpful in remembering sequences like these, and that is where the connection to the Kavanaugh saga comes to mind, because the most widely used mnemonic for teaching the resistance color code has been this:
Bad Boys Rape Our Young Girls But Violet Gives Willingly
As you can see, the first letter of each word in this memorable little phrase corresponds to the first letter of the color that occupies that position in the resistance color code. As such, it has historically been an easy way to teach this essential piece of knowledge for anyone working with electrical or electronic hardware. I was probably first taught it, with a snicker, about the same time I was earning that Merit Badge in the Boy Scouts.

Now, it is easy to see that this racy mnemonic also taught something else to the overwhelmingly male technology students it was aimed at. It made the violent crime of rape out to be something frivolous, while at the same time it divided women between "good" and "bad" depending on if force was necessary to have sex with them. It also was, all by itself, another barrier women had to overcome to pursue careers in a number of well-paying, male dominated, fields.

Years later, I found there was an even worst version of this mnemonic. Perhaps I was shielded from it because it combined racism with the misogyny. This is from a European electronics manual:

Here is an industry-standard mnemonic e-mailed by Bill Woods for recalling the order and value of colour-markings on resistors. Although a politically/socially dubious phrase, it has nevertheless served to teach budding electronics engineers the code successfully for many years.

"Black Boys Rape Our Young Girls, But Violet Gives Willingly."
I wasn't shielded from discrimination as I developed my technology career. In this version, "our" applied both to the men who needed to remember this bit of technological trivia, and the "young girls," and it went without saying that both were understood to be "white." This racist version may indeed be more popular in Europe. The Daily Mail had this report about a teacher using it lately:
Teacher who taught pupil racist 'rape' rhyme so he
could remember lesson is guilty of misconduct

25 February 2011
Teacher James Hersey of Hove, East Sussex, holding a circuit
board: He claims the rhyme he was taught in the 1950s
helps to remember a colour coding system for resistors
A supply teacher who taught a racist rhyme to a pupil - which included the vile phrase 'Black Boys Rape Our Young Girls' - has been found guilty of professional misconduct.

James Hersey, 68, taught the shocking mnemonic to a 16-year-old boy who was revising a wiring colour coding system for electronic resistors.

He taught the boy the ditty: 'Black Boys Rape Our Young Girls, But Virgins Go Without.' Each word represents the first letter of the colours in the code which are; black, brown, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, grey and white. More...
Hersey's version of this little ditty packs quite a few "collateral" social lessons into this memory exercise. In addition to the trivialization of rape contained in all versions, and the racist element added to some versions, his version promotes the view that women or girls who are raped, are raped because they want it, after all, "virgins go without."

Christine Blasey Ford's heartfelt testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court showed the lifelong damage that can be caused by teenage acts of sexual violence that are encouraged and trivialized by teaching methods such as this one. I'm not sure if this mnemonic is still used anywhere else in the past seven years. I certainly hope not. Clearly, it's time has passed.

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