This, 2017, has been a rough year for many of us in the USA who care about equity, diversity, inclusion, and basic human rights. We have seen attempts (some successful, but thankfully not all) to encroach on the rights of women and LGBTQ people, we have seen an emboldened white supremacist movement which sees itself as a reasonable response (it isn’t) to the basic and fundamental premise that black lives matter, we have seen more murders of trans individuals than ever, and cruel immigration policies being enacted, families being ripped apart. We have also seen a much more vocal resistance movement, and in particular in social media, many of us have been finding our voices and speaking loudly and unapologetically about our experiences and demands of basic human decency. This has not come without backlash, tone policing, and virtue signaling, and in particular in academic settings it seems like we are no longer safe to express our opinions without fear of losing our jobs (were we ever?).
Yesterday I read a really awesome blog post by Tressie McMillan Cottom on exactly this point: universities and other institutions claim to be a haven for academic freedom, but in fact too many buckle under the pressures of social media demands and remain mostly very conservative and cautious. This is a must read, so go there and then come back here. You back? OK, then. One of her main points is that it doesn’t take much to make a controversy, and that universities need to be proactive and supportive of their scholars doing public work in their response. She gives a set of guidelines for this, which I will quote here (I know, you read it, but in case you didn’t…).
“If you are investing in public scholars and public scholarship (and I hope you are, with a few caveats) then you should ask yourself if:
1. Your institution has a first line of defense for email and phone call onslaughts.
2. Your institution has a protocol for threats against researchers/professors/teachers.
3. Your faculty governance has any awareness at all of what social media means to public scholarship.
4. Your faculty governance has a clear policy of representing faculty against media/social media attacks.
5. Your professional organization provides resources for besieged members, i.e. legal resources, mental health counseling, etc.
6. Your union has a policy on academic freedom that accounts for how new media blurs the lines between professional and personal selves across various mediums.
I will stop at six because that seems like a good place to stop.”
So hey, how about we try to share this with our colleagues, Deans, union representatives, and yes, professional organizations (like the one we’re blogging for)?
This gets me to a more specific point. Piper wrote a post about her experiences from this end of the harassment machine. As many of you probably know (some of you may have only read that post and are now reporting back to Campus Reform, whatever), we published a post that was quite controversial and had some real repercussions for the AMS, the math community, but in particular Piper. It took several months before she felt she would write again. Two follow-up posts were published, one here and one in Piper’s personal blog, The Liberated Mathematician. The draft of this current post has been up on WordPress since the beginning of August, and the editorial board debated long and hard whether to publish it in this platform or not. Mainly, we as a group were concerned that it might be “too personal” and potentially leading to more backlash.
On the latter point, I really don’t think, especially given Dr. McMillan Cottom’s post linked to above, we can avoid controversy by just not writing. I mean, maybe we can, but then what is the point of having a blog that, among other things, gives a voice to marginalized people if those people have to behave in a way that makes the privileged and powerful comfortable? How could that change anything?
Secondly, on the point of being too personal. This is something we’ve been discussing as a board since the beginning of the blog. Obvious (easy) appropriate posts are ones that highlight achievements and accomplishments of people doing good, and also that take a more academic point of view on issues of diversity and inclusion in academia (although those have all gotten backlash, nasty comments, etc, too, just in the dozens instead of the thousands). It is harder to write personal posts on a blog for a professional organization. The main question I thought we should ask ourselves is whether we are giving new insight into a problem and helping people understand it, and whether this personal point of view in some way advances the mission of the blog. My post early on in the blog about struggling with depression was definitely something that fit in this category. I think Piper’s post, which I will publish in its entirety below, fits this category, in the sense that it is a personal account of a phenomenon that affects mathematicians who decide to do public scholarship and who take public stances that are subversive or controversial. The kind of harassment that sometimes ensues takes a real toll on people, and it disproportionately affects white women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.
Lastly, one of the concerns we had is whether this is something that has to do with mathematics. Mathematicians, historically, have liked to think of ourselves as “apolitical,” but that is changing. More of us are outspoken in social media, more of us are researching how best to teach and mentor all students, and more of us are calling out injustices that are inherent to our community. The more we do that, the more uncomfortable some people will feel, so even though our recent experience with trolling is sort of new (it was new to all of us on the board, for sure, and for the AMS as well), I don’t think this is the last we’ll see of it. With this post, we are trying to bring awareness of this issue, how difficult it is for the people experiencing it, and how we, in Piper’s words, will still sing.
Trigger warning: some of the images below contain strong and violent language. We have edited to remove profanity and racial epithets.
Still, we sing, by Piper Harron
I quit this post, as I quit this blog, a long time ago. Several times, in fact. Please forgive this personal moment.
I quit this post, as I quit this blog, neither because I was inundated by seven layers of hate, which I was, nor because I regret what prompted it, which I don’t.
I quit this post, as I quit this blog, repeatedly, because I am a human being and for too many days, several months ago, I was made to feel and allowed to feel unsafe in my capacity as The Liberated Mathematician.
The story on me/her is that I was hospitalized for stress in grad school, and when I left Princeton without my PhD the moral I was handed, along with my incidental Masters, was that I had done everything wrong, and when I tried to put the pieces together and plan for the future I was talked down to for being naive. The story on me/her is that it always felt like I was the only one who couldn’t make it as your rules and way of life tried to pressure me and friendly-advice me into non-existence. (Still, I sing.) The story on me/her is that your “I get to decide if it’s about race” and your “I get to decide if it’s about gender” and your love/hate relationship with the concept of “actual racists” tried to non-consensual-compromise me and “Can’t we all just be nice to each other?” me into non-existence. (Still, I sing.)
I chose to exist. Aggressively. The Liberated Mathematician was a promise to myself to strive for honesty, to expose the truth behind the tiny assaults on our well-being, to be as angry as I like, to be as vulnerable as I wish, to pour my true self into everything. To ignore any rule, convention, or etiquette that politely presumes my needs are fundamentally unimportant.
Please excuse this brief interruption, but I think I’m going to be sick.
I quit this post, as I quit this blog, in seven different unsent emails, because sometimes when a human being is made to feel and allowed to feel unsafe, like their existence is up for debate, sometimes you develop a trauma- and stressor-related disorder. This can result in anxiety and panic attacks. This can lead to an altered worldview and an aversion to things that were once important.
I am bringing this here, to the inclusion/exclusion platform because mathematics needs women and mathematics needs people of color. Mathematics and academia in general need us, and yet they are letting us be harassed into non-existence. (Still, we sing.)
I was made to feel unsafe because I received hundreds of messages fundamentally rejecting my existence (from the condescending-professional-advice to the just-shy-of-illegal-hate) via every available avenue over a matter of days. I was allowed to feel unsafe by an oppressive culture that, even when supportive, tends to under-react to white supremacy and misogyny (and everything else). Imagine being told that they will come for you and they will come for your job. I was allowed to feel unsafe because I was in emotional free-fall having no idea how my department or university would react. Their support was obviously a relief, but could not restore a feeling of safety, because in truth it may have been conditional. When people are not proactively, openly in support of your right to offend the status quo, you can’t really trust their support. Did they only support me because they happened to not be personally offended? Is there some number of disgruntled faculty that could have tipped the scales against me? These are questions I did not feel safe to ask, and I still don’t.
Support is an interesting thing. Imagine holding a young toddler away from you, facing outwards, towards something they find upsetting. Imagine supporting them physically so that they can’t fall, but still allowing them to feel scared and alone. I have received a lot of support since I started being true to myself, and this past summer in particular found many people sending very kind words. Every message meant a lot to me, and I’m sorry that I probably did not reply to them all. Yet, support is not safety. Support didn’t save me from near non-existence. (Still, I sing.)
Knowing what I know now about the disproportionate effect harassment can have on one’s mental health, I can’t help but think about all the women who have to do research while being sexually harassed. Maybe you’re on the fence about anti-journalistic, anti-academic bat-signaling hate machines running professors out of academia, but sexual harassment is no longer allowed to be up for debate. Universities are explicitly against harassment, and I would assume anyone reading this agrees. Universities now must “take steps” to “protect” the victims of sexual harassment. But there is no way that it is enough. Support is, in some sense, meaningless when it is the helpless “I’m so sorry this is happening to you” sort of support. A culture of reacting slowly and after-the-fact is simply not good enough to keep members of our community from being “He’s just awkward around women”-ed and “If you tell me what happened I’ll be forced to report it officially”-ed into non-existence. (Still, we sing.)
We must be open and proactive in our stands against harassment. We must have a culture that tells members of our community that they will be safe if they find themselves being targeted. Marginalized mathematicians need to be valued and protected, not just applauded and pushed closer to non-existence. (Still, we sing.)
Please pardon the self-indulgence, but I want you to read with your heart. I give you my story not so you can come back and talk to and about me, but as a window into the experiences of others with more obstacles and/or fewer resources. If you feel any empathy or compassion, use it, but not for me.
I quit this post, as I quit this blog, because I have serious questions about whether I should be giving myself to people, for people, who will not protect me and who will not compensate me. The time lost to managing anxiety comes directly out of my research. Remember that time you wished you had some sort of crisis to occupy your idle-finished-with-research time?
I told Adriana I had to quit, and she told me I could take my time. And that is where things stand.
It took me weeks to be able to write again. To decide The Liberated Mathematician would not be hate-written out of existence. Still, I sing.
I leave you with the previous draft of this post:
This is the fifth file I’ve started, but there’s a part of myself I no longer have access to.
I need to write, but I usually write from this pure and personal part of myself. That place is locked.
I try to trick myself in. Just feel around. “Nothing to see here,” I tell myself.
The response is slow at first. A stirring in my stomach. An odd sensation in my tongue.
It builds to a thickness in my chest, a fullness in my belly. Jaw tense, tongue and lips tingling, back warm.
Honestly, this could cost me my job. I mean, it’s not SO BAD. It’s not hallucinations. It’s not night terrors. I wouldn’t call it debilitating. It’s nothing more than the constant shouting whisper that there is something more pressing I should be dealing with. Awareness travels through my veins.
I notice my teeth. I start having figurative feelings I have no words to describe. I feel like I feel like I can’t breathe. I feel like I feel like I could throw up. I feel like I might die.
I feel trapped. Stuck. Darkly beholden. I want to purge these feelings. Or light them on fire.
But tell me again how we’re in this together. Explain to me again how I just have to want it, how it takes sacrifice. Tell me again about how hard you work.
Tears come to my eyes. I feel like I feel like I will cry.
None of this is real, yet it consumes me all the same.