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.