As many of us look forward to the sense of community at the Joint Meetings this week, we should remember that conferences include many situations that are fraught with the danger of harassment and alienation, especially for people in our community with less power or privilege. We can be better.
This short post was inspired by the attention that has recently publicized harassment and marginalization issues at Political Science, Psychology, and other disciplinary conferences. Below, you will find list of articles, ranging from first-person narratives to survey research to suggestions for code-of-conduct policies. Because the articles below are from other disciplines, I thought I would share three short anecdotes that I have observed at math conferences to help connect with these articles.
(1) I know at least two pairs of mathematicians who are regularly called by each other’s names, and these are stars in our community. Honestly it feels like White mathematicians are saying that people from other races all look the same. In both cases, the mathematicians have reclaimed power over the situation with humor, but we can do better than treating our colleagues as interchangeable representatives of their race.
(2) I have heard from multiple sources that many Black mathematicians have interactions with fellow conference participants that make them feel like they don’t belong. For example, I have seen a Black mathematician wearing a conference badge be approached as though he worked at the conference hotel. This kind of micro(?)aggression is a mechanism by which White people can make others feel like they don’t belong. Let’s do better by setting a default assumption that people of any kind in the conference spaces belong there unless they tell us otherwise.
(3) I have heard many, many requests for speakers to use microphones or to use them more carefully. In the past year, a fellow conference participant came up to me to say that the sound amplification systems are particularly important for people with hearing difficulties and that the refusal to use them feels like arrogant ableism, regardless of how loud the speaker thinks they are able to talk. We can be better about making sessions accessible to a wide variety of participants by checking the assumption that what feels like enough for one person might not be enough for us all.
The point is not to make you feel bad about these anecdotes: they are in the past, and in the moment many interchanges feel less clear cut. For example, there are lots of reasons that people use incorrect names, and the impact differs person to person, but the sum total of these episodes is still problematic. The point is to learn from them. Rather than being paralyzed by guilt or worry, we should channel this energy into inclusive and anti-harassment actions. I strongly recommend that you read this excellent paper by Vernon R. Morris and Talitha M. Washington (https://arxiv.org/abs/1710.09674), which ends with 10 concrete strategies for improving diversity and inclusion in STEM. These strategies require the work of both individuals and professional organizations, and readers can start or continue working on them this week at the Joint Meetings.
I challenge us to be better, to stand up and speak out when others can be better, and to work to change the forces that sustain harassment and marginalization in our community institutions, now and forever. We can be better.