Who will celebrate you?

Guest post by Noelle Sawyer

You’ve reached the end of your mathematical career. There is a celebratory conference in your honor. Who is speaking? Who is invited?

Your career is cut short, but it was stellar. A prize is named after you. Who are the recipients?

You didn’t get your flowers while you were here, but after you die, a lectureship is named in your honor. Who is giving the lectures?

If the image you conjured in your head is a group of cis straight white men, I need you to question that. Why and how, in a celebration of you and your mathematics, are the people doing the celebrating all the same?

You may have seen or heard me say this recently, and I stand by it: If the only way you can celebrate me after I die is by giving more things to cis straight white men, then I ask that you do not celebrate me.

What is the harm to you and your legacy if a mathematician with different identities than you speaks in your honor? No, really. Ask yourself.

Some of you may be distressed at this moment. How can you be properly celebrated by any other group of mathematicians when all the best mathematicians in your field are white? They’re all men. As far as you know, they’re all cis and straight. Again, now is the time to ask yourself questions:

  • Are those really the best mathematicians, or are they the ones that I see the most?
  • Are they getting published the most because they’re inherently better, or are there politics and other circumstances to consider?
  • Does my mathematical circle just look a lot like me?
  • When was the last time I spoke to a mathematician of color at a conference?
  • Do I know any trans mathematicians?
  • Is there someone in my field who gatekeeps to make sure that ‘the best mathematicians’ always look the same?
  • Am I gatekeeping?

That’s just a list to get us started.

In recent weeks, I have been asking how speakers are chosen for the Maryam Mizrakhani lecture at JMM. The AMS renamed the Gibbs lecture, one of the AMS invited addresses, and held the first Maryam Mirzakhani lecture in 2020. I have been told that speakers are chosen regardless of race or gender. That the goal of the invited lectures is to celebrate excellent mathematicians. As a result, two of the three invited speakers have been white men so far.

I’ve gotta tell you: When I hear people making choices for something “regardless of race or gender” all I hear is “we’re going to pick white men and you can’t stop us.” That’s not me putting words in anyone’s mouth. That’s using my experience in life so far. Not considering race or gender very rarely works out for people who are not white men. When you do things without paying attention to color or gender, of course you can ‘accidentally’ pick a white man every time. Now is the time for questions again: Why do you think that most of the ‘excellent mathematicians’ are white men? Are there reasons that white men might be more prolific at an earlier stage of their career than others?

Should you continue that pattern by highlighting white men who are already recognized as being excellent mathematicians by their peers? Are there other mathematicians who are just as deserving, but have been given fewer opportunities to stand in the sun and have everyone see them as having value?

The AMS can do that. The AMS can give the validation that a mathematician is excellent by having them give an invited lecture at JMM. The AMS can put a mathematical stamp of approval on anyone’s CV by simply extending the invitation. So why is the AMS so worried about making choices regardless of race or gender to celebrate excellent mathematicians? You make the rules, AMS! You can make this decision. The only thing standing in the way of the AMS is the AMS.

An excerpt from an email I sent in response to finding the criteria for choosing a speaker lacking:

If the guidelines for choosing speakers do not directly address the bias with which speakers are chosen, what is the point? Why did the AMS name a lecture after Maryam Mirzakhani  and not a Fields medalist from a different year? The AMS made that choice because she was the first woman and first Iranian to win a Fields medal. Now with the 2022 speaker, you are not celebrating people who are not men, people of color, or mathematicians outside of the US. Without more guidelines, the speakers will continue to be white American men, and while I’m shocked that it took until the third lecture for this to happen, I’m still disappointed that it happened at all. Again: What is the point?

The arguments I have heard about guidelines boil down to four points. Before you think these are comments paraphrased just from members of the AMS leadership, some of these are from your very own colleagues!  I will answer each argument in turn:

  • Would Maryam Mizrakhani have even wanted the lecture named after her to have guidelines based on race/ethnicity/gender/nationality?
    • This is an interesting point that we cannot answer! But also I don’t want more lectures named after people who would have an issue with this. To this I say: If you can prove that she wouldn’t have wanted this, simply name the lecture after someone else who would have.
  • We don’t want this to become known as the lecture that’s for women or people of color!
    • The suggestion here is that reserving something important for people who are not white men will devalue it. That is, dare I say, both racist and sexist.
  • We’ll miss out on so many great speakers if we have fewer white men speak!
    • I promise that the white men you want to invite are giving other talks. They are not being hidden away. No one is blocking their shine. However, you’re missing out on great speakers now who are not as readily invited to be plenary speakers at conferences.
  • We can just reserve some other lecture or prize for women of color, since you want one so bad.
    • Why not this lecture? What is wrong with putting guidelines in place for one of the AMS invited addresses? Do you want to give us something less fancy? Again: Ask yourself why.

I’m going to repeat my private comments in public:

While this may be a careless coincidence, making that choice feels deliberate and malicious. Just this year, I read the report of the Task Force on Understanding and Documenting the Historical Role of the AMS in Racial Discrimination. All 68 pages. Nothing in it surprised me because I exist in the mathematical community as a Black woman. However, the report touched on this particular issue already. On page 47, speaking about the Section Program Committees: “The charge of these standing committees lacks concrete instructions on how to seek a diverse set of speakers beyond gender.” So far, the speakers for the Maryam Mirzakhani lecture have not even been a diverse group based on gender.

It’s not just about this lecture. It’s about having to see an announcement for the “Fellowship for a Black Mathematician”. It’s about not once attending a special session at a sectional meeting with more than two other people of color. It’s about the AMS repeatedly informing me and my community that it does not care enough to be careful with its choices and how they affect us. 

I am asking with this email blog post that the AMS:

  • Write clear guidelines on how speakers will be selected to give the Maryam Mirzakhani lecture and include specifics about ensuring that there is representation of gender, ethnicity, and nationality.
  • Publicly post said guidelines.
  • Select another speaker for the 2022 Maryam Mirzakhani lecture.

The final question I want you to ask yourself:

Why not?

Some notes: 

Since I first drafted this post, I have been encouraged to join an AMS committee. I respectfully decline. I will most likely continue to do so unless I see evidence of change happening without me there. If the wheels aren’t turning before I get there then I, Noelle the untenured Black woman mathematician, will not be spending my time trying to grease them. Instead, I have spent time sending emails which state my case and are the points I would make in any committee meeting. Really, remove the points about Maryam Mirzakhani being a brown woman herself and replace names; you could read much of this post word for word to make any argument for making changes to any named lectureship, prize, or award.

I have been told that the Prize Oversight Committee was created to work on the problem of how the AMS chooses awardees for prizes and lectureships. It has been in existence for approximately the same amount of time as Maryam Mirzakhani has had an AMS invited address named after her.  

I have also been told by the AMS president, Ruth Charney, that ensuring a broader distribution of speakers for named lectureships has been specifically added to the agenda for at least one AMS committee. I hope that’s true, and I hope to see change.

[Editorial: The guest author selected the featured image to summarize the tone of this piece.]

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4 Responses to Who will celebrate you?

  1. John Golden says:

    Good piece and a welcome challenge. I don’t see a feature image, though.

    • Brian Katz says:

      The featured image is what goes with the link when shared on social media (eg Twitter and Facebook). Usually we pick an image in the post, but since this was not present, I wanted to make sure readers knew the source and purpose.

  2. Notes from the inside says:

    As an anonymous commenter I want to stress that the following is only supposed to convey factual information about the process. It certainly seems consistent with the quote from the task force in the main post above.

    I was once on an AMS committee to choose plenary lectures for a big conference (within the last ten years). I felt that there was clear pressure for the committee to achieve something close to parity when it came to gender, as well as finding a balance between various areas within mathematics. There was no consideration either implicitly or explicitly regarding any other axis of diversity. I couldn’t say whether the pressure came from the particular makeup of the committee or was more institutional, but it certainly wasn’t in the form of any official guidelines.

  3. CUrgo says:

    Real and utter, non-morbid but sincere honesty here: I would prefer not to have anything named in my honor or be remembered whatsoever. Any mathematical result I may have had a hand in uncovering that is deemed useful and worth remembering should be attributed to the wider mathematics community.

    I would prefer not to have any kind of acknowledgement of anything at the end of my life. A quiet, barely observed exit suits me best.

    If towards my later years one would approach me about something — anything in my name — I’d be inclined to have all that work or effort or money redirected towards something else entirely.

    Some of us are deep, profound introverts and this can impact our preferences even after we’ve gone. I love and applaud that this point was sincerely considered or included when contemplating Dr. Mizrakhani‘s possible wishes.

    Apologies for the off topic first bit, but I also love the sets of questions that the introductory prompt set up, even though said thought experiment initially disconnected me from the piece. I love being encouraged (and encouraging others) to critically re-examine presumptions and biases, and this particular post achieved this in truly lovely ways. Kudos for that.

    The notion of choosing speakers (or award nominees) without regard for diversity or identities is a flawed way to highlight accomplishments from a diverse spectrum of mathematicians. A more effective approach is to choose with those considerations and values in mind.

    Anyways, thanks for a thoughtful post and major hugs / support on preferring not to “just join an AMS committee!”

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