I will make this brief. I have not read all of the things people are saying about diversity statements, and thus I don’t feel like I’m in any position to contribute to the conversation. That said, I did want to share my personal experience with those following the dialogue.
Imagine fighting to stay in academia, knowing how many people don’t value you, knowing every department you apply to has a “diversity” problem, and then being asked how you will help with that problem.
It’s almost comedy. Departments light on melanin, lacking in queerness, filled with mathematicians who took a traditional route through elite education, want to know how underrepresented applicants can fix this lack of representation, but we can’t just say “it me.” So now you’re staring at your screen wondering how to say “I’m Black” in 500 words, knowing you’ll be competing against white men who have Participated in Initiatives.
It’s funny because when I explain why I support diversity in a job application, what I’m doing is trying to convince them that I will work to support people like me. But I’m people like me! I’m working to get a job! I support diversity!
Full disclosure: I have never been on a hiring committee so I’m only speaking as an applicant. I have no idea how any of this works, or what they actually want, or whether any of it matters. I just know that I have not had an easy enough time in academia to justify being marked down for an unimpressive diversity statement. More to the point, if they are asking people regardless of background to provide this kind of statement, they are most likely unqualified to assess the statement they receive.
The following is what I managed to write. Enjoy!
Nobody ever told me I should be a mathematician. I was consistently a top scorer in math tests my entire childhood, but I was given no guidance. I was a quiet Black girl with an affinity for mathematics and I was praised as an anomaly but offered no support. My first year as an undergrad at NYU, I mistook the effort required to learn Linear Algebra for a sign that I was no longer competent, and stopped taking math. Nobody checked in on me. My junior year, I took Elementary Number Theory for fun and excelled at the beginning but stopped doing the work due to outside commitments. The professor would later recognize my talent and lament my final grade when saying he couldn’t write me a letter of recommendation for grad school, but at the time he did nothing. I am a mathematician by sheer will and stubbornness, in spite of the many indications that I was neither wanted nor needed. My life’s story is a sequence of anecdotes on how to keep marginalized people out of math: every decision I made to stay was hard and came at an unreasonable price. That I am still here, still fighting, is itself a statement of diversity.
In 2013, I gave up on fitting in. It had been four years since I’d left Princeton, and I had to face my own failure. I knew there was no way I could succeed in writing my dissertation and defending my thesis, if I did it the “right” way. Instead, I wrote my dissertation in a way I could understand. I made it a document of my heart, one that I could love and feel proud of. This was an act of resistance, and defiance, but at the time it was my only choice. I simply could not do what had been implicitly asked of me. This was my first diversity initiative. My PhD thesis was written for all of those who, like me, felt pushed out of mathematics by a culture which can feel intent on shunning diversity. People loved it. The response was overwhelming. Even to this day, four years after I first put my dissertation online, I still get emails from people thanking me for giving them hope, telling me they came across my thesis at just the right time. Many diversity initiatives miss the need for hope to counteract the isolation that non-inclusive spaces create for those who do not belong. I fight to make space for myself, and in doing such I make space for others, and that is how you build diversity.
In everything I do, I fight against:
- the idea that there is only one path to mathematics
- the idea that there is a correct way to study mathematics
- the pressure to sound like an expert, rather than work in concert with others to build mutual understanding
- the pressure to conform to the lifestyle of a mathematician with no other obligations
- the hoarding of knowledge
- complacency in the face of large-scale social problems.
I fight against these things in my classrooms, in office hours, in department meetings, at invited speaking engagements, on conference panels, and in my writing.
By putting myself out there, by being open about the obstacles I’ve faced, by letting myself be vulnerable, I continue to break down the barriers between the myth of the mathematician and marginalized people like me. I have already made a difference in many people’s lives. I have had many women and people of color tell me that I give them hope that they can succeed in math, or that they feel less isolated knowing I’m out there fighting for them. The difference-making actually goes both ways. I only applied for my first postdoc after finding out that I wasn’t alone. I had no idea that my PhD thesis was going to be the start rather than the end of my career.
I am committed to working on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion, because I am Black and queer and committed to staying in math. A department where marginalized students are uncomfortable is a department where I am uncomfortable. Yet, I can only do so much. I hope that a university that solicits diversity statements is one that would see my value and actually support me if hired.