Still, we sing

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.

This entry was posted in equity, mental health, public scholarship, racism, social justice, social media, women in math. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Still, we sing

  1. Greg Ninety-One says:

    (Warning by Adriana – this comment is dismissive of harassment and might be upsetting for anyone who has gone through it.)

    Piper’s earlier post (“Get Out of the Way”) was not just controversial. It called for me and for people who look like me to leave our jobs. If this is not harassment, I’m not sure what is.

    In Piper’s current post she writes, “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.”

    I have to tell you, when a member of the editorial board of one of the AMS blogs writes that I should quit my job because I’m the wrong color, gender, and orientation, I feel pretty targeted. And when the AMS continues to condone this message by leaving that blog post on its web page, I don’t feel safe.

    Granted, I’m not getting death threats hurled at me like Piper is. But when I go up for tenure, what if my department decides that they’ve got enough cis white het males and
    it’s time to take the advice of the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog? I’m the sole support for my family (disabled wife and two children); who will take care of them if I lose my job and health insurance?

    I’m glad Piper is still singing. I don’t know if I will be for much longer if her words have the effect she desires.

    • Adriana Salerno says:

      So, I think one of the biggest controversies stemmed from not reading the post in the way it was intended. Granted, you can critique the way it was written and your taste is your own. Maybe you would have written this another way. Maybe I would have too. The main point was that there is an underrepresentation problem, that is historical and pervasive, and that won’t actually be fixed or even evened out in our lifetimes, even if all the white men decided to quit. I invite you to try this math problem. Try to think about whether, even if men didn’t quit, every university only started hiring white women and people of color (which is not even possible, since there are not enough people getting PhDs for that to happen.) Look at the numbers of professors at each stage, and which percentage are women and people of color. How long would it take to even it out so that the number reflect the proportions of those groups in the population? This is almost impossible. Piper suggested a non-solution, a solution so outrageous no one should take it seriously. What we should think about then is how do we work on improving things, and how do we work on acknowledging that there is a fundamental disadvantage to some groups when it comes to being represented in mathematics, and some unearned privileges that come from being in the powerful majority. Brian wrote a great analogy to this in this post, and I invite you to read it. Also, please read Piper’s follow-up, since she explains a little bit more how she came to think of the blog post After you read those, and read them carefully and not as a personal attack (which they most certainly aren’t – we don’t know you or your life and we are not trivializing other struggles), please come back here and share your thoughts. I suspect you are past being swayed, but I invite you to try.

    • Shaelee Ruz says:

      The original blog was not harassment. Please look up the word hyperbole for further guidance regarding the original post mentioned.

      Why are white-her-cis males so upset? (Rhetorical question for the aforementioned group to ask yourselves. Imagine if you were actually, regularly judged to be lacking based on your gender, sexual orientation, or skin pigmentation?-again that is rhetorical. Would you be made and scream some hyperbole into the world? Would you want to?)

  2. graduate student says:

    Piper, thank you so much for writing this.

  3. ... says:

    To Greg Ninety-One:

    The very first sentence of Piper’s post says “…, or at least take a demotion.”. Still in the first paragraph: “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.”. The penultimate paragraph continues to leave you quite some room away from “leaving your job”: “This is about shifting perspective. I know you’re not going to quit your job, but I want you to understand that you should.”.

    Your emotional response to Piper’s post is understandable. I encourage you to take in those emotions work through them, digest them, and give more thought to what exactly Piper was saying and how exactly that might change you or your situation. You seem focussed on the highly (highly) unlikely event that Piper’s post will have a traceable negative impact on the continuation of your career, rather than focussing on how this post can change your perspective on your fellow (say female) mathematicians who do routinely have to deal with random white male colleagues holding lazy ideas about why they were hired and using this to get their tenure delayed or denied. I know some pretty stellar women in math who are being treated like crap by their departments. That is the power structure in which this conversation is happening.

    Your description of yourself as “the wrong color, gender, and orientation” (from Piper’s perspective) also speaks to how much you’re letting your emotions take over. The point is that you are quite the opposite. You are (like me) “the chosen color, gender, orientation”. This doesn’t make you invincible, but it does overall have a positive effect on your life (all else equal). You mention not feeling safe, you talk about the power of an AMS blogger as if it was something to behold–if it really came with so much power, do you think they’d let so many women do it ;)? But your “chosen” status does make you relatively safer than those Piper is speaking up for. I mean, women can have really well-respected people say really great things about them and still have random dudes in their department be like, meh, I don’t know why we hired her. And have that matter. That is lack of safety. I can understand the reaction of *feeling* targeted and not *feeling* safe, but I do admittedly have trouble understanding that those feelings have lingered with you this long. I mean, the whole tenure-track (and postdoc and grad school) things is emotionally intense, and not *feeling* safe is (sadly) quite common and understandable (another problem our community needs to address), but attributing some of that to some power you think this blog has over your life just seems to lack perspective. Sorry to put it bluntly, but I’m not sure how else to put it.

    If you’re department decided when you were up for tenure to deny it based on Piper’s post, I think that would be crappy. It would be crappy to you, but it would also be crappy to Piper’s point. It would just be some lazy way out, missing the point completely. There are so many other things a department could do to take in Piper’s words and make positive change with them. But again, I want you to take a minute and think about other perspectives. Like do you think that the kinds of privileges you are used to have made it easier for you to assume you can continue your career? How many women, people of color, etc out there do you think have decided to *preemptively* end their math careers early because they had children to take care of and had no confidence that their abilities would be properly recognized?

    And, not to be that person, but as wikipedia will tell you of harassment: “it is characteristically repetitive”. How many people have suggested you quit your job because of your privileges? How many times has Piper done it? Referring to one call for you to quit your job from someone who has no power over you and your situation done for the purposes of a thought exercise is really disrespectful to all of those people out there getting harassed.

    I’m sorry to say, but I find it hard not to see your reply as a series of straw-men with which you are struggling. Those straw men are indeed frustrating, but luckily are indeed only straw-men. I think your struggle is authentic, and I don’t mean to erase the feelings you have, but I really do think you are not taking the correct perspective on what Piper has put out there and how it fits into the world we live in.

    Finally, and this is not a response to the words in your comment, but a meta response to the fact that you wrote this response here. This post is about some serious, persistent, aggressive harassment someone has a received. Harassment they have received that is part of a very definite pattern of gender- and race-based harassment of people whose goals I assume you at least think of yourself as supporting. Harassment that has in this case, and more so in more general cases had strong negative impacts, as was the goal. You seem to have tried to tie your comment into this by bringing up how you feel harassed and targeted, but to me this comes off like a calculus student trying to take a sum out of a square root to get the answer they want. You’ve got some things you want to express, I get that, but this post isn’t about what you’re talking about and trying to tie in what you want to talk about with this post has led you astray. So, as a last suggestion I’d say how about you think about how it feels for someone receiving the kind of harassment discussed in this post to have you talk about Piper’s previous post as “harassment”? What is your response saying to them?

  4. I. Long says:

    Thanks for sharing all the fear Piper’s post conjured up in you, Greg 91(% of academia). I’m more interested in hearing how you’re thinking of helping to address the systemic inequities that her piece so boldly confronts. Those who cannot address this are unqualified for promotion anyway, if they are at an institution that has any commitment to diversity and equity at all. It is this kind if ignorance that makes the individual who uncritically harbors it (as well as all of us) unsafe.
    P.s. it is obscene to follow “I’m not getting the death threats she is” with “but what about my tenure?” The very blind spots such privilege facilitates.

  5. Allie says:

    As I understand, Piper’s blog post was a thought experiment to try to get people to think about what it’s like to be an underrepresented minority (not to get them fired from their job!). Based on Greg’s comment, it seems to have worked (partly). I’ve been harassed for my gender (actual harassment, which is different than what Greg seems to take the word to mean) which led me to feel physically unsafe enough that I *did* have to leave my institution. This kind of thing happens routinely for women (especially women of color), men of color, and other minorities in math and STEM departments; these people also have families who need to be supported, etc. Conversely, I have never seen a white man pushed out of their job because of their race or gender (and it is wildly unrealistic to imagine it will start happening due to Piper’s post). As mathematicians we should care about statistical significance. Rather than becoming defensive about something with a negligible probability of occurrence, folks like Greg should try to should turn around their defensiveness to use it as a tool to better empathize with the types of people who actually *do* have a sizable chance of career obstructions for unfair things like race, gender, etc.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Based on this experience, is the AMS setting up initiatives to protect people from online harassment etc., (as outlined by Tressie Mcmillian Cottom)?

  7. Greg Ninety-One says:

    I appreciate the care and candor with which each of you have answered my earlier post, and I will try to do the same.

    To the extent that I can, I do indeed understand that I live and work in a system that unfairly and massively rewards people who look and act like me. When I would sit down in a classroom, I fit the dominant default mode for a math student, and when I now walk to the front of the room, nobody questions my right to be there. When I speak up in a faculty meeting, nobody questions my tone or my message because of my background or my looks. I get to calmly sail on a quiet sea of assumptions and stereotypes which continue, to this day, to support me and my work. Not only that, but I get to do so while remaining blissfully unaware of the issues facing my fellow mathematicians.

    (As someone else said, Newton might have stood on the shoulders of giants; I stand on the shoulders and backs of unnamed generations before me who were denied the many opportunities that I take for granted.)

    And so, I’ve read carefully the various responses to Piper’s “Get Out The Way” post, in particular Adriana’s recommendation that I read Brian’s comparison of anti-racists to environmentalists and his discussion of the value inherent in making people uncomfortable. I’ve read the many comments on Piper’s original post, and I’ve carefully read the comments here.

    And I’ve taken some time, and thought about things, and thought about them again, and then, taking Adriana’s advice to “read them carefully and not as a personal attack” I read them all once more.

    And I’ve thought about my students and about my children, and about the better world I hope we can move towards for their sake and for their future. And with this in mind, I look at my earlier post with embarrassment and regret.

    Because I have to admit that, in the end, and with some difficulty in getting there, I have to agree with Adriana, and Brian, and Piper, and others: one way to get people to confront these issues is indeed to challenge them to consider their own privilege, and a controversial blog post can do just that. It certainly did that for me. My initial reaction (and my initial post) was, as many of you pointed out, grounded in fear, but I hope that in this response I’ve shown that I have finally arrived at a more thoughtful consideration of these issues that Piper’s post raised.

    It’s taken me some time, and I’ve gone back and forth on this for a while, because really, who wants to be challenged about their privilege? But I return once more to thinking about my students and my children, and about the bright hope that shines through their eyes, and about my desires to create a more fully inclusive classroom experience for everyone, and about, once again, my dreams for that better future for them all. May they have a better world than we have now. May they not have to face the issues that my fellow mathematicians (Piper and innumerable others) have had to deal with on a daily basis.

    And so, in the end, I can say that Piper’s post had, for me, after much struggle, exactly the intent she wanted.

    I apologize again for my earlier post. I apologize as well that my earlier post, in talking about my perceived harassment from her post, trivialized the many horrific responses Piper received via social media to her original post. I can only offer in response my heartfelt thanks to Piper for being brave enough to raise these issues and to effect this change in my own thinking.

    And if I can change my thinking, maybe there’s indeed hope for that better future that we all dream of for all our students and children.

Comments are closed.