Women of Color: Who Tells Their Stories? (and why it matters)

Guest post by Courtney Gibbons

The AWM EvenQuads deck is a lovely idea. Bringing more women in mathematics into the spotlight is a laudable effort. To be sure, the intention deserves recognition.

However, it is also necessary to recognize that the outcomes are not universally positive.

Before I continue, it’s important for you to know a few things about me. I’m a white woman, a tenured associate professor of mathematics at a small liberal arts college, and I have been an active member of the AWM for a long time. I just finished a 3-year stint on its Policy and Advocacy Committee (serving as a pinch-hitter chair during my last year). Dr. Pamela E. Harris is my friend. After talking recently, we agreed that I would write this blog post as a white ally working on upgrading herself from a white ally to white accomplice. One of the reasons you’re hearing from me is that I have made a lot of mistakes as a white woman trying to do DEI work, and I hope that my reflection and growth after making those mistakes allows me to write with some clarity about them — even when others make them.

The AWM is a primarily white organization: the large majority of its leadership is white, its awards are given predominantly to white women, its volunteers are largely white. And this whiteness comes with costs: a cost to the women of color who have to navigate this white space, and a cost to the women of color in the mathematics community who aren’t fairly represented within the organization.  More generally, math has a white supremacy problem [see the AMS task force report]. I don’t mean that it is full of avowed white supremacists, but that the culture of mathematics prefers, replicates, and rewards whiteness. One of the rewards: the power to control the story of mathematics and mathematicians.

With Professor Pamela E. Harris’s permission, I would like to use her experience being featured in the EvenQuads deck to highlight some of the pernicious ways that whiteness pollutes the very noble intent behind the project.

Prof. Harris was honored to have been invited to be a featured mathematician in the deck. Having accepted the invitation, she agreed not to share with others that she would be featured (so as not to ruin the surprise of the deck’s roster of mathematicians). The surprise ended up being hers, and it was not a nice surprise.

Months after the initial invitation, Prof. Harris received no further communication about the process, the biographical information which would be included, or the image that would be used on the card. Prof. Harris was surprised and excited to finally see an image of her card as a friend shared it on social media, only to realize that the biography on her card contained a factual error. Far worse than simply getting the facts wrong, it erases the mathematicians who founded The Center For Minorities in Mathematical Sciences. Imagine having the generosity of spirit to believe that the AWM wants you as a member, only to be confronted with evidence that the AWM can’t tell the contributions of minority mathematicians apart.

Speaking for myself, I have certainly felt the urge to use my power and position to elevate women without the same privileges (whiteness, job security, positionality in the mathematics community). I have naively believed all such surprises are pleasant surprises, and I have been wrong. If you are thinking to yourself, “Aren’t you being overly politically correct? Shouldn’t the women featured on these cards be grateful for the recognition?” — please keep reading.

For one thing, women of color are often called out for being troublemakers or seeking attention.

For another, Prof. Harris lost a chance to tell her own story. Take a moment and indulge me: imagine someone who has been in a gatekeeper role in your mathematical life (if you don’t have anyone to picture, I’m extremely envious!). For me, it’s a senior mathematician in my research area. Now imagine that person writing your biography. Mine would include words like “spunky” and “firecracker” if left in the hands of this individual. Compare those words to what you would write for yourself. I would choose to highlight some facts about myself: I was a college dropout; I did not come from a family of professors; I failed 7th grade math, and that failure eventually pushed me to try harder and eventually love mathematics, which I now do professionally. I would want a chance to tell my own story to other women and girls because I recognize that the purpose of the EvenQuads deck is to help those women and girls see themselves in mathematics. The senior mathematician can’t write as a woman, but I can. I cannot write as an immigrant woman, but Prof. Harris can.

Similarly, I can’t anticipate the reaction to Prof. Harris’s biography the same way that she can. She’s lived her experience. She knows that being outstanding makes you STAND OUT. In an effort to elevate her, the AWM may have pushed her closer to the edge of a precipice she has spent a career trying to avoid.

But don’t worry, this post isn’t all doom and gloom! I have some suggestions for the AWM:

  1. Read Prof. Adriana Salerno’s excellent blog post about apologizing. [link]
  2. Read and reflect on the AMS Task Force report. [link]
  3. Commit to specific actions that will address the wrong [for example, raise funds for a second printing of the deck; produce the deck in collaboration with the living featured women mathematicians — and give them the power to craft the biographies of the late mathematicians, too]

I’ve got some advice for my general well-meaning reader, too. When someone shares their experience with you, especially how something you did made them feel, pause. Stop your reaction in its tracks and remind yourself that you are being trusted with someone else’s experience — probably because they believe in you, even if you messed up. I am grateful to have been the beneficiary of such belief (and I’ve messed up plenty of times!).

This entry was posted in introduction. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Women of Color: Who Tells Their Stories? (and why it matters)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for writing this and I am sorry that Dr. Harris had to go through this. I can imagine if I was in the same situation as Dr. Harris, I would be first mortified and then angry that it happened (especially since it could have been easily avoided!). I had no idea about this issue, but it speaks volumes of the ways some try to tell others stories. I am shocked the writer of any of these card biographies did not check with the actual person if they were living to make sure not just that the facts were correct, but also that experiences were being properly conveyed and to see if there were other the person wanted highlighted.

    There is always a discussion of intent vs. impact and while I am sure the person who wrote this didn’t intend for this to happen, the impact is outsized and now puts Dr. Harris in a position of having to correct it rather than AWM.

  2. Kathryn Leonard says:

    The AWM EvenQuads committee response to Dr. Gibbons’s post, including corrections to factual errors, can be found on the AWM Responses page here: https://awm-math.org/policy-advocacy/endorsements/

    • Piper says:

      Your response claims that there is a factual error in this post, however we ran the sentence in question by the person who experienced it. And when I look at your bullet point list I don’t see any refutation of the actual claim. I really wish you had left Dr. Harris out of your response.

Comments are closed.