Can mathematics be antiracist?

In 2017, mathematics education professor Rochelle Gutiérrez wrote that “mathematics operates as whiteness.” Word of this spread quickly, leading to a strong backlash of hate mail and offensive comments on Gutiérrez’s social media [1]. This soundbite is often quoted without context, so here is some context:

“Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as White. School mathematics curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans. Perhaps more importantly, mathematics operates with unearned privilege in society, just like Whiteness.” [2]

In this sense, at least in the U.S., one could certainly argue that mathematics operates as whiteness. In this blog, I would like to pose the question: Can mathematics do otherwise? Can mathematics be antiracist?

Last semester, I developed a class called Inequalities: Numbers and Justice, aimed towards non-majors. My students ranged from undergraduate seniors to students in the local high school, with majors ranging from Government to Chinese to Computer Science. It was the second incarnation of a course I had taught years ago, in which we worked through the ideas in Gutstein and Peterson’s Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers, which was written at the middle-school level [3]. In Inequalities, my hope was to develop these ideas into a college-level course.

Over the course of the semester, we explored how notions of fairness and equality have been considered from the point of view of mathematics and economics. What ways were these ideas defined, and given the definitions, how can they be measured? We covered topics ranging from the misuses of statistics to gerrymandering to racial capitalism and climate change. In the end, students were able to appreciate the complexities of fairness, the deep inequities that capitalism produces, and questioned the idea that mathematics is politically neutral.

Can mathematics, specifically beyond the K-12 level, be antiracist? Are critical mathematics pedagogy (the application of critical theory to mathematics education) and “higher” mathematics (college mathematics and beyond) necessarily in opposition to each other? Social justice is a popular phrase these days, even in mathematics circles, but what does it mean? In a recent volume, Mathematics for Social Justice: Resources for the College Classroom, editors Gizem Karaali and Lily Khadjavi describe the work as part of a “national movement to include social justice material into mathematics teaching” [4]. While the volume represents an important effort in bringing discussions around race, gender, class, and power into the college mathematics classroom, I am left wanting more.

Attempts to shoehorn social justice into mathematics curricula perhaps say more about the political leanings of the teacher than anything else. At the same time, we must be wary of diversity initiatives in mathematics which simply reproduce a different class of scientists that perpetuate structures of domination and oppression, in place of work to dismantle the whiteness which mathematics operates as, and to truly equip students for a world of growing inequality and climate catastrophe. After all, would it have been better if it were nonwhite people who developed the atomic bomb? Or the technology to surveil, incarcerate, and deport vulnerable communities?

These small-scale reforms to the system leave the larger problems of capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy intact. As Piper H. wrote in an earlier post,

“Most of us do not have good role models for what a feminist math department would look like. I have this talk that I give and afterwards, I will often get concerned white men asking me what they can do to fight sexism. But they’re not really thinking about ending sexism. They’re thinking about progress. They want to know which benefits the cis male hoarders-of-power can offer to women so that we don’t feel so bad and complain so much and contribute to such dismal numbers. This is natural, reasonable even, but sexist all the same.”

Indeed, what would a feminist — an intersectional, anti-racist, and class-consciously feminist — math department look like?

Should mathematics be antiracist?

Before we consider the question further, we ought to ask whether mathematics should be doing the work of social justice. Such questions have been asked for some time now in the physical sciences. See the update below.

To be certain, mathematics educators have thought long and hard about the ways in which mathematics education intersects with issues of race, gender, class, and power, at least since Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed [6]. The teaching of mathematics is deeply embedded in politics, and inasmuch as some would prefer to view abstract mathematics as occurring in a vacuum, the social dimension of mathematics education has wide implications.

But what about the majority of college mathematics professors who are not trained in mathematics education but in mathematics? They are highly involved in the production of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors and the maintenance of power structures in college mathematics classrooms and departments. These mathematicians are not hired primarily based on their pedagogical ability, even at many liberal arts schools.

There are practical and cultural differences between research mathematics and mathematics education (let us admit this binary for the sake of discussion). One could say that mathematics education is concerned about the formation of mathematically literate students, the interplay between oppression, power, and privilege in the context of mathematics education, especially in K-12 settings; whereas in mathematics, we are concerned about mathematics qua mathematics, often as divorced from social reality (except as applied to the physical sciences and engineering). Indeed, in my field, number theory, it is a common boast that the solution of famous problems like Fermat’s Last Theorem are of no immediate practical use. Therefore, simply to attempt to have abstract and socially-engaged mathematics at the same time is to have a kind of a mathematical double-consciousness, and to attempt to bridge the two is a highly non-trivial  endeavor.

Nonetheless, one thing is clear: if mathematics is political (and also racial and gendered), then we must be on the side of justice, whatever that may look like. In other words, if mathematics can be antiracist, then it ought to be.

Towards a critical research mathematics

Mathematics education research has made it clear that the teaching of mathematics is a highly political act. But what about the content of mathematics? In other words, what kind of “pure” mathematics might be useful for antiracist mathematics? Is that even the right question to ask? Can the abstractions in college mathematics and beyond, ideas from say, category theory, differential geometry, or abstract algebra open up new ways of critically approaching the social?

In Inequalities, we discussed applications of social choice theory, metric geometry, and random walks to gerrymandering. Some of this follows the work of Moon Duchin’s Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG) at Tufts and MIT, which is doing exciting work, especially given the upcoming 2020 census. We debated Andrew Hacker’s controversial op-ed, Is Algebra Necessary?, which advocates for replacing the standard mathematics curriculum with “citizen statistics” that would “familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.”

We also spent time on fair division, a subfield of behavioral economics initially studied by mathematicians such as Hugo Steinhaus [7], which continues to hold the interest of mathematicians [8]. More complicated fair division problems lead to matching problems in graph theory, for example the Gale-Shapley algorithm in the Stable Marriage problem. The latter was applied to the School Choice problem of matching students to schools, as described in the module [9]. This is an example of a class of problems that construct simplified models of social reality, as one does in the physical sciences, in order to study it.

Another example is the Petrie multiplier, which describes a power law in a model of sexism. The model assumes that men and women are equally sexist, similar to the way that the Schelling model of segregation assumes that people are equally (non)racist, and simply prefer to be with their own kind [10]. One might argue that this approach reveals mathematical laws that force certain phenomena to occur, without discussing how external factors might intervene in reality. Might it be possible for models of social phenomena to account for the complexities of race, gender, class, and nation?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to the questions I am asking. This small sampling suggests a handful of possibilities for mathematics as, say, an intersectional, anti-racist, and class-consciously feminist enterprise. In any case, if we can agree that mathematics can operate as whiteness, then we have a moral duty to ask how mathematics might be otherwise. There is much work left to do. With the strength of our combined mathematical creativity, what might we come up with if we dared to imagine?

Update: (1/2/2020) A previous version cited work of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein that was not yet published. I have removed the reference and apologise for the error. Here is the proper reference. See here, here, here, and here for a sample of the work that is presently published. I readily acknowledge the erasure and antiblack racism perpetuated consciously and unconsciously by nonblack people such as myself, including in science and math, profiting off the work and labour of black people. I’m willing to be called out on that. It was also brought to my attention that there are other people such as Danielle N. Lee, Stephani Page, Raychelle Burks, and Jedidah Isler too who are doing similar work in other realms of science.


[1] Gutiérrez, R. “Why Mathematics (Education) Was Late to the Backlash Party: The Need for a Revolution.” Journal of Urban Mathematics Education 10.2 (2017): 8-24.

[2] Gutiérrez, R. (2017b). Political conocimiento for teaching mathematics: Why teachers need it and how to develop it. In S. Kastberg, A. M. Tyminski, A. Lischka, & W. Sanchez (Eds.), Building support for scholarly practices in mathematics methods (pp. 11–38). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

[3] Gutstein, E., & Peterson, B. (Eds.). (2005). Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers. Rethinking Schools.

[4] Karaali, G., & Khadjavi, L. S. (2019). An Invitation to Mathematics for Social Justice. Mathematics for Social Justice: Resources for the College Classroom, 60, 1.

[6] Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing USA.

[7] Steinhaus, H. The problem of fair division, Econometrica 16 (1948), 101–104.

[8] Brams, S.J., M. Kilgour, and Christian Klamler. “Two-person fair division of indivisible items: An efficient, envy-free algorithm.” Notices of the AMS 61, no. 2 (2014): 130-141.

[9] Glass, J., & Karaali, G. (2019). Matching Kids to Schools: The School Choice Problem. Mathematics for Social Justice: Resources for the College Classroom, 60, 155.

[10] Schelling, T. C. (1971). Dynamic models of segregation. Journal of mathematical sociology, 1(2), 143-186.

Posted in equity, hiring, intersectionality, math education, social justice, transparency in teaching | 2 Comments

Round-Up of JMM 2020 Sessions on Issues of Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice

Post by Editor Luis Leyva

The 2020 Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) will be held on January 15-18, 2020 in Denver, CO. As per tradition, this pre-JMM blog post highlights scheduled sessions with talks focused on issues of diversity, equity, and social justice in the mathematical sciences.

The list below was compiled by flagging JMM lectures, invited addresses, workshops, special sessions, invited paper sessions, and contributed paper sessions with talk title/abstracts in the online Scientific Program that address structural inequities and social experiences relevant to the mathematical sciences.

Please note that this list is no way comprehensive and should not imply that other sessions do not address issues related to equity or justice. Also, this list is not intended to present an “equity/non-equity” divide in the JMM 2020 program. Rather, this list aims to provide a birds-eye view of promising sessions for inclusion/exclusion blog readers who plan to attend JMM 2020 and wish to immerse themselves in dialogue pertaining to equity-oriented perspectives and issues. Readers are encouraged to add to this list with comments below.

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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.

Spoiler: It’s me you’re looking for

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!

Diversity Statement

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.

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statements in the hiring process

With the publication of the December edition of the AMS Notices this week, equity-minded mathematicians have once again taken time out of our busy lives to respond to an editorial by AMS Vice President Abigail Thompson. In it, Thompson suggests that hiring committees should not be required to ask for diversity statements, and that forcing people to use rubrics she deems as “bad” to evaluate diversity statements from candidates is tantamount to asking for a loyalty oath a la McCarthy era. This is a false equivalence, a weak argument, and frankly a dangerous one on par with “reverse racism” claims. Asking for people to identify how they will create an environment (for students and colleagues) that allows EVERYONE to flourish and be welcomed into mathematics is not equivalent to political persecution. Disliking an enforced rubric is fine, but jumping from that to the Red Scare is overly dramatic and problematic. Anyway, much of this has been said already, in different places, very well. We at inclusion/exclusion wanted to do two things with this post:

  1. Give a forum for people to comment on the Notices piece (“A Word from… Abigail Thompson”), beyond responses in the form of letters to the editor. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. We will post disagreements with our stance and counterarguments, too, as long as they are made in good faith (read: racist/sexist/homophobic comments and ad hominem attacks will not be approved).
  2. Give a few resources that we find particularly useful when thinking of these issues. For example, if you want to learn more about WHY people might want to require diversity statements, read this terrific piece by Chad Topaz. If you want to read what some really smart people are saying on Twitter, threads by @MBarany, @dagan_karp, @stanyoshinobu, @dtkung, @j_lanier and @mathprofcarrie are particularly insightful, in different ways. If you want to read a letter some of us drafted to send to the AMS Notices, you can go here (and if you agree, you may want to consider signing the letter).

Finally, even though we are disappointed by the publication of this opinion piece, we are heartened by the response of many in the math community who care about and support processes that lead to more equitable and inclusive math departments.

Posted in equity, hiring, participation, social justice | 17 Comments

Let’s Listen

Guest Author: Thomas Goodwillie

Last spring I taught a course at Brown University called Race and Gender in the Scientific Community, and I’d like to say some things about what that was like for me. I have the idea that by reflecting on this experience I might manage to breathe a little new life into the overused and inadequate words “diversity and inclusion” for some of the people who read this. I’ll tell the story of the Race and Gender course, and I’ll tell some other personal stories, too. There’s a common theme to this set of narratives: it’s all about learning and changing by paying attention to what people have to say.

This post is aimed at people who have good intentions but who also have a tendency toward complacency. I think that there are a lot of us in that category. It’s easy to see oneself as being committed to opposing racism and sexism and other wrongs (such as class prejudice, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism), and it’s easy to agree that these wrongs ought to be addressed in one’s own professional world; yet at the same time it can also be easy — at least for someone like me — to have only a fairly abstract idea of what is actually wrong, and only vague ideas of what anyone might do about it.

Teaching the Race and Gender course has played a part in (partially) opening my mind and my heart to some hard realities. And I don’t simply mean that the content of the course has had an impact on me. Perhaps even more, it is the students and the process that have had an effect.

The main message of this post is: listen and learn.

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Changes for inclusion/exclusion

I am writing this post to announce that I have stepped into the role of Editor-in-Chief of this blog. This might raise some questions, and it’s a good time to write a little about how I see the blog, plus we’d like to hear about your ideas.


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AWM Moving Towards Action Workshop

Join AWM at the JMM 2020 in Denver, Colorado for this important event!

When members of the mathematics community are made to feel unwelcome in our profession, the success of mathematics as a whole is put into jeopardy. This workshop is focused on understanding and creating welcoming environments (providing actionable information and process change plans to mathematics department interested in driving cultural change at their respective institutions) so as to invite more people to enter and persist in STEM disciplines.

The Moving Towards Action workshop to improve the culture and climate in the mathematical sciences will take place in conjunction with the 2020 Joint Mathematics Meeting (JMM) in Denver, Colorado on Tuesday, January 14, 2020.

Left to Right: Vicki Magley (UConn), Rebecca Renard-Wilson (Think. Create. Engage.), Tuba Özkan-Haller (Oregon State), Stephanie Goodwin (Wright State)

The 2020 Moving Towards Action Workshop will feature

  • A welcome from AWM President Ruth Haas (Hawaii)
  • An introduction to the findings and recommendations of the NASEM “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences,” by report co-author Vicki Magley (UConn)
  • An interactive session to build skills for recognizing unintended barriers that your university may have in place, led by Rebecca Renard-Wilson (Think. Create. Engage.)
  • An interactive Bystander Intervention session presented by Power Play (University of New Hampshire) and moderated by Stephanie Goodwin (Wright State University)
  • Working sessions on developing action plans for your department, led by Tuba Özkan-Haller (Oregon State University)
  • A poster session to showcase initiatives and discuss what has worked
  • Resources for you, your department, and your institution to guide conversations
  • A panel focusing on the nuts-and-bolts of implementing change at your institution: what to be ready for, and how to stay motivated, featuring Rosalie Bélanger-Rioux (McGill University), Mary Anne Holmes (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Emerita), Herbert Medina (University of Portland), and Michael Young (Iowa State University).


Space and financial support is limited to 30 participants. Applications close October 1, 2019.
Visit the website to learn more and apply to attend!
Questions? Contact Maeve McCarthy

AWM would like to thank the NSF for their sponsorship.

[Editorial Comment: We would normally expect a post to go beyond advertising a workshop, but the goals of the workshop and its approach to changing the culture of mathematics feels so novel and important that I wanted to help get out the word.]

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Inclusive Practices: Syllabus and Day One

I’m on leave this year to be visiting faculty at Smith College. As a result, I get to rethink all of my teaching. It’s a new context, so in general it feels like a great time to take stock. Smith is also a college founded on goals of justice in educational access, which both challenges me to be my best and makes me feel a bit more licensed to push these issues. [For example, one of my mathematics colleagues, whom I believe to be cisgender, spontaneously normalized talking about pronouns in the context of mathematics without any of the buffering discussions I’ve seen around these moves in other contexts!]

So I get to [and feel inspired to] (re)write and re-imagine my syllabi. I took this as an opportunity to collect the recommendations about inclusive practices for syllabi. In practice, it was hard to separate the syllabus from the work of the first few days, so there is some boundary flexibility, but it’s my personal belief that it’s best to do most of these things live and collaboratively (such as in class on the first day) but also to make sure that these values are made explicit informal elements of our courses (such as the syllabi). This post is my attempt to list the ideas of which I’m aware.

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Posted in inclusive pedagogy, introduction, supporting students, universal design | 2 Comments

The future of AMS-MAA Meetings + MathFest 2019 Equity Round-up

As you may have heard, the AMS and MAA will move away from co-organizing JMM after 2021. This week, at MAA MathFest 2019 in Cincinnati, OH, the executive directors of both the AMS (Catherine Roberts) and MAA (Michael Pearson) will host “A Conversation with AMS and MAA on the Future of Meetings”. Here is their description:

Last year’s announcement that AMS and MAA would discontinue shared management of the Joint Mathematics Meetings has raised questions among many in our community about how we can sustain the value of the collaboration associated with this annual event beyond 2021.

This session will allow leadership of both organizations to share their vision for the future, including annual and section meetings, and new initiatives to provide professional opportunities for members of our community. You are also invited to provide feedback directly to AMS at  and

I have several concerns with this change related to the mission of this blog:

  1. In my career, I have seen the gap between the AMS and MAA narrow. While neither the AMS nor MAA is completely focused on teaching or research, they do stand as symbolic short-hand for these dimensions of faculty. This symbolic short-hand impacts their memberships and programming. However, what had initially seemed, 15 or more years ago, like a forced choice between scholarship and teaching was becoming a false dichotomy. Honestly, I (and many others) hope that these two professional organizations will recombine to further support this change in the way we as a discipline view being a mathematician. I am worried that this progress will be undermined and regress if the MAA is no longer part of JMM.
  2. Within the first concern, some people in higher education seem to conceptualize equity as a concern within teaching. I worry that any separation between teaching and research will further isolate some members of our community from discussions of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. I worry that this change will mean that we are less able to engage all mathematicians in important discussions of equity.
  3. It is my understanding that the AMS is happy to continue having MAA programming at this re-imagined JMM management. This is positive in my mind, but as anyone who has looked at systems through an equity lens knows, there can be big gaps between an action being technically possible in a system and it actually happening (not to mention happening easily). Moreover, it can matter a lot who is in the room for decisions and when in the flow of design people get access to those decision.

Put simply, even trusting the good intentions and skills of the AMS and MAA leadership as I do, I think it matters exactly how this change is effected, and I think the recent progress made in the mathematics community related to equity is still fragile and particularly sensitive to these changes.

Fortunately, I also think that the most powerful tool for making this transition positive is already in reach: sustained engagement by people across the mathematics community, especially people asking about the implications for equity in our conferences and our community. I am concerned because I think there are possible paths through this change that lead backwards, but I also genuinely believe that we can avoid the worst paths and counterbalance many of the possible negatives together. So, in the end, I am encouraging you to attend this invited conversation with Roberts and Pearson if you are able and to give feedback through the links above.

And now that I have your attention, here is a list of other events related to the mission of this blog at MAA MathFest 2019.

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Decolonize Academia #KūKiaʻiMauna

If you follow me on social media, you will know that lately I’ve been posting almost exclusively about the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project that is supposed to be built on/in Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaiʻi. I’ve never blogged about it though.

The main reason I haven’t taken this on is that my writing is inherently selfish and the fight to protect Mauna Kea is not a time for me to be selfish. You see when I blog, I share my experience and I grapple with the burdens of being marginalized. In my home on Oʻahu, though, I grapple with my settler privilege. When I write I am secretly hoping to write something awesome that people will love and share (sorry, not sorry). When I blog, I am demanding space. And in Hawaiʻi, brought in by the University of Hawaiʻi, living in housing subsidized by the University of Hawaiʻi, I am already taking up too much space.

This is not going to be a revolutionary piece on why we should protect Mauna Kea and stand with all indigenous people who fight for their land. They have already said and will continue to say all the most important reasons for their actions. Please educate yourself.

Morning meetings, Mauna Kea, 2019
Photo by: Eric ʻIwakeliʻi Tong

I am writing here because silence is violence, because finding no use for my privilege is a privileged mindset. I write because there are people I can reach, as a non-native, with whom I can communicate, and it is my burden to do so. (Though again, others are better equipped and it is a shame that anyone might be getting their first glimpse of this now.)

Mathematicians need to know that we in academia—especially those of us in STEM—are in the middle of a struggle for our humanity. (Well, humanity has never been what it claimed—much like America has never lived up to its self-image—but let’s just call it humanity.) I do not know the entire history of the TMT project, whose idea it was, or who decided Mauna Kea was the best spot, but I do know that kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) had no power in the decision-making process. I know that those who have taken and destroyed so much could never be trusted with a site as precious as Mauna Kea. I use precious instead of sacred, following this definition, because many of us haven’t unpacked our religious bigotry when it comes to how we discuss indigenous beliefs.

The ability to view a mountain as precious is something that colonialism and capitalism has stolen from us.

I’m going to say it again.

The ability to view a mountain as precious is something that colonialism and capitalism has stolen from us.

My first semester at UH, I taught Business Calculus (zero stars, btw, do not recommend). I was supposed to tell my students how to maximize profit by minimizing, among other things, the cost of labor. The cost of labor. Nowhere in my book did it explain that labor was actual people with families to feed. Nowhere in my book did it explain that the cost of labor was how much you paid people who were counting on this money to survive. At no point did it discuss how to know if you were mistreating labor. The idea that you can apply calculus to human lives was taken as a given. And I was supposed to show them how to do it. Even when it’s not Business Calculus, our apolitical abstract lectures perpetuate the idea that there is nothing precious.

Right now, Indigenous people and their settler allies around the world are saying ʻAʻole TMT: No TMT. They are doing this not just because Mauna Kea is precious, not just because it is sacred to Native Hawaiians, but because they know first-hand what happens when their land is taken. We are hundreds of years too late for this kind of favor, hundreds of years and countless lives too late to request this level of trust.

Ihumātao solidarity, police vans in the background, Mauna Kea, 2019
Photo by Eric ʻIwakeliʻi Tong

The mathematics community needs to care about this for many reasons. First, these are our students. One of the barriers to success for marginalized and first generation students is the disconnect between their academic world and their home life. When kūpuna (grandparents, elders) are being arrested, when kānaka maoli have to do the arresting, when Hawaiian scientists are being erased, when Hawaiians opposing construction are being mocked as “backward,” and when all of these degrading interactions are played out in national media, these are aggressions on native people everywhere, and our indigenous students shoulder this burden.

Second, those of us who work at research universities are complicit in the state violence acted upon a community who is explicitly posing no threat. The Governor of Hawaiʻi declared a state of emergency because his interests were being threatened, and the university’s interests are being threatened. He went on TV and attempted to portray non-violent (and frankly, life-affirming) protest as a threat to public safety. This type of action is not necessary if you are doing ethical research, and should not be
supported by anyone in academia. We have to reevaluate what we think our quest for knowledge is worth, and whom we’re willing to force to pay that price. Any argument that only discusses the wonders of discovery can be used, for instance, to experiment on humans without consent.

Lastly, all of this ties back into something we’ve discussed here before, namely humanizing mathematics. From recognizing the humanity in our own students, to recognizing science and math as human endeavors, we must break free from this colonized/capitalist metric that sees humanity as a distraction. Indigenous voices, history, and knowledge will be essential to decolonization and sustainability. The time to start listening is long, long, overdue.

A scene from the workshops
(Puʻuhuluhulu University)
Photo by: Eric ʻIwakeliʻi Tong

I will close with something personal because as valuable as abstract reasoning can be, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t personal.

The first people I met on Oʻahu were white moms who were mostly military wives. They had their own community, and I wasn’t sure how they fit into my desire to understand the local culture(s). Turns out, they didn’t. After many months and many hours in traffic spent just to “socialize” my three year old, an entire mom group abruptly cut me out of their lives over a Facebook thread. I had posted a link about white privilege on a thread where they were complaining about Black Lives Matter, and this was too much for them. I was stunned. Not that they were upset, but that they didn’t think it was worth getting through. My only thought was: “How are you going to burn bridges with people when you live on an island?!” It seemed so clear to me that this was an unsustainable attitude. I would later read about Hoʻoponopono, the Hawaiian process of conflict resolution, and this would be my first connection (however loose) with Hawaiian culture.

I never learned as much local history as I wanted. I never got past the second
chapter in my ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi book. I couldn’t figure out the politics of sovereignty,
or remember the right language regarding the US relationship to Hawaii. I wasn’t even
sure if I should be saying aloha and mahalo. Really, the only thing that was immediately
clear to me was that we should definitely not be building an Earth shattering telescope
on pristine land, especially not sacred Earth, especially not stolen land.

Last year was the first time I attended a demonstration about Mauna Kea. I am
embarrassed to admit I was shocked at how much I agreed with what was being said. I
knew I supported kānaka maoli as an ally, but I still had not unpacked my bigotry that doesn’t have a place for “sacred” things. I expected to hear about ancestors and traditional practices, things that have been abstracted away from me without my consent. Instead I heard about sustainability, about accountability, about abuse of power, about mismanagement and lies. At the end of the event I was about ready to stand arm in arm and face the police on the Mauna.

And then they sang.

I have the privilege of being moved without feeling the exploitation. I have the privilege
of wishing I could go to the Mauna for selfish reasons. But I am also a Black American
who longs for that sense of the sacred that racism took from me. While it may seem silly, Black Panther was amazing for me on so many levels—especially when it depicted a society thriving through a mixture of an Indigenous culture and futuristic technology. In school I was told that viewing mountains as sacred was primitive, or, at best, quaint. In school I was taught that we had moved on from valuing nature for how it sustained us, and we were now properly in the era of doing whatever we wanted because we’re so smart and technologically advanced.

It’s 2019, and the United States has concentration camps, and one of my Senators is chairing a Special Committee on the Climate Crisis while his own State was taking police action against some of its most beloved elders because they were breaking with US protocol of legislated desecration of natural environments. It must stop. Mauna a Wākea is my first sacred mountain. It is the first time I have been willing to take a risk for a natural resource. My link to the Mauna is through the kānaka maoli organizing resistance and the kūpuna getting arrested and through the realization that this is the only way forward. It’s 2019, and maybe we’re all going to hell, but if we don’t stop TMT we will be going there a little bit faster.

Kū Kiaʻi Mauna
Kū Kiaʻi Mauna
Kū Kiaʻi Mauna


Mahalo nui loa to Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, Sara Kahanamoku, and Katie Kamelamela for help with this piece.


[Editorial Comment: While this blog and its authors do not speak for the AMS, we hope all readers will take seriously the challenge to think about research as an institution that impacts the world that we often view as outside our explicit inquiry, especially readers who identify primarily as researchers.]

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