Challenge for JMM2020

tl;dr I am challenging AMS and/or MAA to invite and promote a speaker and/or panel to a main stage to openly discuss the very real issues facing marginalized members of our community.

For the past two years I have been invited by the AWM to participate in their panel related to activism or inclusion. Being on panels is always somewhat awkward for me. My main claim to fame is (if you will) my self-expression. This only counts as activism or in any way noteworthy because of the (toxic/oppressive/erasing) context in which I live. I don’t participate in or research initiatives. I am not on any front lines (except when the front lines come to my inbox). Yet because of the specific things I say, people invite me onto their platform. I respect that, which is why I say yes, but I always feel out of place.

At the panel this year, the first question was asking us for practical ideas. I (repeatedly) declined to comment. When I did speak, the first thing I said was that I hate these panels. Every AWM panel I’ve attended has contained a self-selecting audience, disproportionately women, people of color, and I imagine queer. We, who can not breathe the air of academia without choking, sit in a room and discuss the poor quality of our environment and we ask ourselves what *we* can do.

While this important yet discouraging conversation ensues, I have to ask myself do the AMS and MAA actually care? Are they doing anything to challenge the status quo? Note, this is a different question from asking whether they promote inclusion. For instance, inclusion/exclusion is hosted by the AMS, but they officially have no stance on what we say here, and it’s certainly very easy to be a mathematician and not know about our blog. It is my personal opinion that the AMS and MAA and a large number of mathematicians are more or less supportive of our goals, but are simply not willing to take risks in the name of justice.

It’s not hard to be sympathetic to non-radical decisions. Most of us are socialized to rationalize away the actions of the status quo. Well, we often think to ourselves, I can understand why this person in power made this choice, because after all, tHEy made the decision with a whole population in mind. Now, if you’re reading inclusion/exclusion, you probably know that this is certainly not an excuse, but it’s especially laughable when we’re talking about math.

Have you ever attended a math talk that was advertised as being for a broad audience that did not in any way include you? Did you ever, before you realized you weren’t supposed to learn from math talks, feel bad about your lack of understanding when a talk in your field went over your head? Was there any concern shown for your comfort or well-being? Or did you learn to adjust your expectations?

When I think about why the AMS and MAA might be hesitant to accept my challenge, I imagine it is because they value order. They want their base, the disproportionately white and male mathematician, to have a good time and feel as though the Joint Meetings are worth attending. Even though these same men do not care for the comfort of the women they’ve refused to hire, the people of color they’ve dismissed, the trans people they’ve deadnamed or misgendered. In the mathematics community all comfort does not matter.

Frankly, if a graduate student can be told that the problem they’re struggling with is trivial, then I should be able to say the same thing about racism. I should be able to take for granted that everyone understands that sexism is the reason there are fewer women in math and I should be allowed to dismiss it as obvious if asked.

Just so you know, this is not theoretical: I know of two specific instances when the opportunity for something subversive came up, but it was ultimately softened into a more palatable, feel-good time. Since these weren’t my events, I am not planning on giving any more information on this. And I don’t really care if it was an AMS/MAA decree or soft encouragement or whether it was a decision made by the host(s)/speaker(s) in light of expectations.

It is imperative that the experiences of marginalized mathematicians and students be heard by all mathematicians. Mathematicians are participating in the hoarding of knowledge, beauty, resources, access, and power, and it is not only bad for business (assuming your business is furthering knowledge, and not creating and maintaining an elite class), it is immoral.

So here’s the deal. I challenge AMS/MAA to change whose needs they cater to. And if they won’t, then I guess I will challenge ALL OF US to #DisruptJMM. They have decided that allowing us our own sessions and panels is sufficient, as though the issues of oppression are only relevant to a small portion of us. All of us must face the ways our incentivized indifference is hurting others and ourselves. Since the mainstream mathematician has repeatedly refused to hear our voices where we’re allowed to be, we must bring our voices to them, wherever they are. We must let AMS/MAA know that we are highly dissatisfied and that the way to maintain “order” will be to take on our fight.

Normally I’d leave it here, but I suppose some of you will want to know what I mean (or more to the point, what I don’t mean) by #DisruptJMM. Since most of us want to remain employable, I am not imagining anything newsworthy (unless you have tenure…), but I would love if everyone, particularly allies, who supports change in the mathematics community made that visible and audible throughout the event. If you’re giving a talk, open it with a #DisruptJMM slide including a brief statement of solidarity and/or a shout-out to a relevant cause. At JMM2019 there was some sort of silent nod to the Women’s March in the form of stickers. That was merely in-group camaraderie. I want mainstream mathematicians to know that you do not share their support of the status quo.

I want AMS/MAA to see either that we will not be relegated to our own private spaces or that we don’t “need” to be.

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9 Responses to Challenge for JMM2020

  1. Brian Katz says:

    At a recent workshop I attended, Robin DiAngelo talked about how white people often want to know “what should I do?” at the end of anti-racist trainings. Her response was discomforting.

    She reflects the question back at us white folks, asking us how we think it’s possible that we could be (seen as) fully functioning professionals, many who oversee the development of young people, without already knowing what to do about racism. Flipped this way, the question should become: what would I do to learn about racism and anti-racist allyship if my life depended on it? Why have I not done that work? What will I do first to rectify this gap? Because make no mistake, people’s lives DO depend on it.

  2. Victor Piercey says:

    Those of us with privilege need to stop shifting the burden of the hard work we owe onto the marginalized. It isn’t up to the victims of oppression to tell the oppressors how to change. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to experiences, but we owe the effort to everyone else.

    From a systems thinking perspective, we need to understand the system and our role in it’s perpetuation. Our roles are the leverage points for change.

  3. Troy Landis says:

    I’m not sure I’m qualified to chime in but I will anyhow. Being in the trenches with people of varying backgrounds and ethnicities, I see very little racism amongst the truly downtrodden. I volunteer at a homeless shelter. For whatever reason, racism or anti-anybody doesn’t really tear its ugly head until some are held accountable to the same expectations as everyone else. The few that cry foul or attempt to play the card are the ones that refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. This is the same for all the groups I’ve observed. Transgender, white, black, doesn’t matter. The majority of those that we serve are kindhearted and very appreciative of the help they receive.

    • Piper says:

      I’m not sure what this is a response to, but I think you are using a different definition of racism than I am. The racism you see amongst the truly downtrodden would be in the way certain subgroups have poorer outcomes just because of race. If you’re telling me everyone can be kind and everyone can be unkind, I know that. But we have systemic problems that need to be addressed.

  4. Catherine A. Roberts says:

    Thank you for this piece, Piper. I appreciate your insight, as well as your willingness to challenge me and our profession. I urge anyone with an idea, concern, worry, thought, etc. to speak directly to the AMS about the JMM here:

    Your words won’t disappear into a black hole, but will be answered by the AMS Executive Director and then considered by the new planning committee reimagining this meeting for 2022 and beyond (when the AMS will be solely managing the meeting on behalf of the many participating organizations and groups).

  5. Carrie Diaz Eaton says:

    I’m hearing.

    Part of the answer is just that we need to make sure that diversity conversations are happening more often than one panel. And I’d love for executive leadership to help share the burden, ensure continuity of organizing such events, and stand up for members trying to do this work. I’ve been in situations where a proposal was softened and it didn’t feel good. Though in the case I am thinking, a responsive leadership really came to the rescue and actually enhanced the activities. But I’ve seen it go the other way just as easily in other organizations. Frustrating that this is still happening widely.

    Okay, so y’all gotta reshare this post regularly so I remember to add my Disrupt slides. I think this is a great idea. Maybe it catches on everywhere #DisruptMath!

  6. Michael Pearson says:

    The MAA recently adopted a new vision statement, to work towards a society that values the power and beauty of mathematics and fully realizes its potential to promote human flourishing.

    The work of the MAA is done by our members. As the February/March issue of MAA FOCUS highlights, we are a diverse community. The future of mathematics depends on continuing to face the challenges within our professional community, embedded as we are in a world still unable to fully face the deep injustices due to our racist history. At MAA MathFest this summer, we’ll celebrate the Golden Anniversary of NAM and the 100th birthday of David Blackwell, while we also recommit to work towards a future where all of us are able to thrive.

    I look forward to working with all who share our vision.

  7. Untenured Prof says:

    At the first JMM Diversity Panel that I attended years ago, a very prominent woman speaker addressed the question “What is unconscious bias?” by telling a story from early in her career at a big corporation. She said that in the 80’s, there was an Indian manager that only hired men from India, and that was an example of unconscious bias. No one in the audience spoke up or questioned this story. Not the (white) lady who previously asked, “How can I help?” I was too shocked to say anything then, and never had the chance to make up for it, but the story was problematic for many different reasons:

    1) The speaker chose a safe minority group to draw the villain of her story from, as there were only two, maybe three Indian people in the packed room.

    2) Was this situation really describing *unconscious* bias? Or could it have been blatant bias? I imagine that being an immigrant in the US in the 80’s would make one very interested in forming teams that speak your native language, have a similar educational background, etc.

    This was the last diversity panel I ever attended at a JMM, so I don’t know if the speaker is still telling this story, but if so, I hope someone speaks up. That’s one small thing you can do.

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