Update June 7, 2017: For a follow-up to this post, check out Piper Harron’s personal blog, The Liberated Mathematician.
Not to alarm you, but I probably want you to quit your job, or at least take a demotion. Statistically speaking, you are probably taking up room that should go to someone else. If you are a white cis man (meaning you identify as male and you were assigned male at birth) you almost certainly should resign from your position of power. That’s right, please quit. Too difficult? Well, as a first step, at least get off your hiring committee, your curriculum committee, and make sure you’re replaced by a woman of color or trans person. Don’t have any in your department? HOW SHOCKING.
Remember that you live in a world where people don’t succeed in a vacuum; most success happens on the backs of others who did not consent. You have no idea how successful you would have been if you were still you, but with an additional marginalization (not white, or not male, or not cis gender, or with a disability, etc).
Right now, I want to talk about gender equality because the fact that women aren’t actually a demographic minority makes certain arguments easier, but please know that actual solutions require women of color and trans people. Remember having white cis women run the world is no kind of solution.
Most of us have experience with (or at least have been inundated with media about) the cis het family (one cis man, one cis woman, dependents). Many would have us believe this family is the foundation of society, and maybe it is. Maybe this isn’t a good thing. It’s worth reconsidering some common dynamics many of us were exposed to growing up and still see around us today.
Suppose you are the sole breadwinner in your family. This means that your efforts get turned into money, and in a capitalist society, this money translates into status and worth. Attacks on your physical or emotional safety thus threaten the livelihood of the whole family. This feels like (and thus is) a burden, and it is a burden that you bear alone.
Suppose you are an adult who earns no income in your family. This means that your efforts are irrelevant to the status and worth of your family. Attacks on your physical or emotional safety affect you alone, and sometimes can be rationalized as benefiting the family (if the alternative would disadvantage the income-earner). This feels like (and thus is) a burden, and it is a burden you bear alone.
What does equality look like?
What does it look like when everyone’s needs are valued?
I imagine most of us do not have good models for what a feminist non-gender-binary family looks like. Most of us have seen families where one person was allowed to be more human than the other, but because everyone was IN LOVE people had warm fuzzy feelings about the inequality. It’s just the way life is, after all. Or we have examples of failed relationships because needs were not being met. Even in 2017, though, it seems unclear which unmet needs justify terminating a relationship. Divorce is still largely viewed as the sign of a mistake. Ask yourself who benefits when your sexist society views (“traditional”) marriage as sacred. Ask yourself how we’d talk about marriage and divorce if women were allowed to be. I’m convinced that mixed in with the homophobia that propelled conservatives to suddenly want government all up in our personal lives was misogyny that said it just isn’t “marriage” if you don’t have one man (ruling) and one woman (being ruled). It was decided that extending marriage rights to same-sex couples should be called “marriage equality,” but if same-sex couples do have equal partnerships it is certainly not an extension of cis het marriage.
Similarly, most of us do not have good role models for what a feminist math department would look like.
I have this talk that I give and afterwards, I will often get concerned white men asking me what they can do to fight sexism. But they’re not really thinking about ending sexism. They’re thinking about progress. They want to know which benefits the cis male hoarders-of-power can offer to women so that we don’t feel so bad and complain so much and contribute to such dismal numbers. This is natural, reasonable even, but sexist all the same.
What can we do? When every role model, when every concept you have, is steeped in sexism, what can you do?
I have no relationship advice. My husband and I are both exceptionally reasonable and good-intentioned people who think sexism is bovine poop. And yet the fact that society doesn’t support parents in general or women (and other people who are not cis men) in particular means that as we navigate life with a family and make reasonable decisions on how to cope with job insecurity and financial concerns, we end up recreating what we know. Inequality. It takes more than being good, reasonable feminists to make sure the stay-at-home parent’s needs get the same weight as the working parent’s needs. It takes more than being good, reasonable feminists to make sure that the marginalized parent doesn’t have undue burdens that they “agree” to because they feel more pressure to be reasonable by mainstream standards. My husband and I are committed to figuring out how to not just best divide family labor (which seems to be everyone’s benchmark for equality), but how to make sure each of us is actually equally free. It’s hard work, and we’re making it up as we go.
What can universities do? Well, that’s easier. Stop hiring white cis men (except as needed to get/retain people who are not white cis men) until the problem goes away. If you think this is a bad or un-serious idea, your sexism/racism/transphobia is showing.
It is worth considering your complaints. Are you worried it’s unfair to men? Are you concerned the quality if your institution would plummet? Are you worried about all the brilliant minds you’d be missing? List your reasons and ask yourself which ones you’d value over your own freedom. Women are not free, and even our allies tend to only want us equal-ish. As long as we get there on their terms, as long as they lose nothing.
If you are on a hiring committee, and you are looking at applicants and you see a stellar white male applicant, think long and hard about whether your department needs another white man. You are not hiring a researching robot who will output papers from a dark closet. You are hiring an educator, a role model, a spokesperson, an advisor, a committee person. When you hire a non-marginalized person, you are not just supporting this one applicant whom you like, you are rewarding a person who has been rewarded his whole life. You are justifying the system that makes his application look so good. You are not innocent. You are perpetuating a system that requires your participation if not your consent. When your female students of color have no role models in your department, that’s not “meritocracy”; that’s on you. Again, if you think the “great mathematicians” are disproportionately male because of meritocracy, then your sexism is showing.
I challenge you. When the applications come in, remember society makes dominant applicants look better than they are. Society makes marginalized applicants look worse than they are. There is no objectivity. There is no meritocracy. Fight for justice. Fight even yourself. Take the risk. Entertain complicated ideas. Recognize that letting your department overflow with women would not be to your detriment. Remember that without sexism, you would expect women to sometimes be over-represented. It is exactly sexism that makes sure that that has never happened.
Most of us would not feel comfortable traipsing through a homeless shelter wearing $5,000 worth of accessories, and lighting money on fire. Instead of recognizing our unfair privileges, though, we just build walls around us and project our way of life as normal. Any story you tell about how you got where you are that doesn’t include land theft, profiting off of forced, unpaid labor, illegal occupation, murder, assault, theft, psychological and physical warfare, exploitation, and a culture of complicity is, you know, a lie. How are we going to fight for others when we think we are entitled to everything that was stolen for us?
This is not about shame or guilt. Those things are useless. This is about shifting perspective. I know you’re not going to quit your job, but I want you to understand that you should. And to understand that by keeping your job and your other unearned privileges, you are running a continued debt to marginalized people and you should always be seeking ways to pay us back.
Not to alarm you, but statistically speaking you are the problem. Your very presence. I can’t tell you what is the best strategy for you to stop blocking my path. I can just ask that you please get out of my way.
ADDENDUM: Since last Friday, this post has been getting lots of comments, some of which are very inappropriate. We would like to remind our readers of a few things:
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