“Which MATHEMATICAL superpower would you prefer?” Ben Orlin asked on his Math with Bad Drawings blog. He offered readers three superpower options: super approximation, or “the ability to immediately answer any numerical question to within 20% accuracy,” super visualization, or “the ability to picture extra spatial dimensions in your mind” and super counterexamples, which is “the ability to immediately furnish the counterexample to any statement where one exists.” His post also includes an option to cast a vote for one of those powers. (I chose super visualization.)
I love Orlin’s lighthearted question, but thinking about superpowers inspired me to ponder how society distributes or withholds power and privilege.
In the U.S., February is Black History Month. This blog has already featured some excellent posts about celebrating Black mathematicians (which includes a link to the Mathematically Gifted and Black website), resources for learning about Black mathematicians (including recommendations from Erica Walker, author of Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence), “Adding to the Faces of Mathematics on Wikipedia” and more. The AMS Inclusion/Exclusion blog recently posted “An Existence Proof: The Mathematicians of the African Diaspora Website,” in which guest authors Erica Walker, Scott Williams and Robin Wilson “share reflections…on the importance that the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora Website has had on their lives and careers, and on the American mathematics community in general.” Also, in case you missed it, the JMM 2019 blog has a post about Edray Goins’ “A Dream Deferred: 50 Years of Blacks in Mathematics” MAA Invited Address.
So, for this post, let’s discuss something different related to the theme of Black History Month and power.
Let’s suppose the existence of a higher mathematical being capable of endowing people with mathematical superpowers. Here are some power problems that need to be addressed to make the mathematics community a more welcoming and opportunity-filled one for Black mathematicians and students. In the context of the superpower conversation, I argue that they need to be fixed as soon as possible, but definitely before the universe bestows people with any mathematical superpowers (no matter how cool-sounding the superpowers might be). After all, how can we justify — even in an imaginary scenario — gifting superpowers to some people when so much inequality already exists with the power structure we already have?
Many Black students still aren’t receiving an equitable mathematics education.
“Equity for black learners in math education is a delusion — a compromise consistent with other historical compromises; undergirded by antiblackness; rooted in the fictions and fantasies of white imaginaries and white benevolence; held hostage by white sensibilities and sensitivities; and characterized, at best, by incremental changes that do little to threaten the maintenance of white supremacy and racial hierarchies inside or outside of mathematics education,” according to a partial transcript of Danny Martin’s talk “Taking a Knee in Math Education,” which he gave at the 2018 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual Meeting and Exposition. (There are also posts about this talk on the arbitrarilyclose and HerMathness blogs.)
In a study of 25 mathematics classrooms in middle schools that were either predominantly Black or white, researchers found that “White teachers in predominantly black schools were more likely than white teachers in predominantly white schools, or black teachers in predominantly black schools, to respond in negative ways to student behavior, emotions and ability. For example, their response to behavioral issues was more likely to include multiple, intense back-and-forth exchanges more apt to escalate problems than solve them,” according to a news release about the study.
“The need for targeted recruitment of black teachers is as critical as ever – as is the need to train teachers of all backgrounds to handle conflicts in ways that encourage student success without showing racial bias. This can include learning to avoid drawing the class’ attention to an individual student’s behavioral issues, and learning not to unnecessarily escalate conflicts with threats to call home or send a student to the principal. Instead, they can try to understand the cause of the behavioral issue, handle it privately with the student, and approach the student with warmth,” Dan Battey, lead author on the study, noted in the news release.
Space: We need to make more of it for Black mathematicians.
“When a black woman centers herself and demands equal access, it is nothing short of revolutionary. What you can do to change math? Make. Space. For. Me,” Piper Harron wrote in a 2016 post for The Liberated Mathematician blog.
Her are some insights she shared in her “Get Out The Way (Part 2)” post:
White supremacy is pretty adaptable; taking easy and practical steps to increase diversity is not in itself dismantling privilege, and often privilege will find a way to prevail…What I want to talk about is ending oppression. What I want to do is upset the status quo.
So one day I sat down and thought, what is my real, completely impractical, unfeasible, non-starter answer to what white men can do? It’s they can get out the way; they can quit. Not just increase the number of seats I have at the table, but actually leave the table all together.
Why bother advising the impossible? To get people to think. I expected people to understand I offered no practical solutions, but to challenge themselves to reevaluate their current practices.
Ditto with highlighting the accomplishments of Black mathematicians.
One of my goals for this year is to write about more mathematicians who are Black, as well as members of other underrepresented groups. So, if you know of a math blogger from an underrepresented group (or are such a blogger yourself), please reach out to me in the comments or on Twitter @writesRCrowell.
If you could have any mathematical superpower, what would you choose?
Editor’s note: After reading “The Case for Black With a Capital B,” a New York Times opinion piece written by Lori Tharps, I have adopted that convention here.
Math-superpower I’d love to have: knowing which journal(s) to submit a given math paper to. (Not merely “a more appropriate journal”, as the “INappropriate journals suggest…)
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