Anti-racism in mathematics: Who, what, when, where, why, and how?

Dr. Erica Graham is an assistant professor of mathematics at Bryn Mawr College. Her research is in the field of mathematical biology, with applications to endocrinology and physiology. As one of the co-creators of Mathematically Gifted and Black, Graham is also committed to efforts that address underrepresentation in the mathematical sciences.

In her talk, Anti-racism in mathematics: Who, what, where, why, and how?, Dr. Graham ’Five Ws and How’ for anti-racism as my vision for the mathematical community. This is particularly important a time where the implications (and harm) that are caused by white supremacist culture are showcased widely in the media due to recent events in Capitol Hill.  As she describes in her abstract,

 “The Black Lives Matter movement, and many like it has garnered widespread support for dismantling the racist structures woven into the fabric of our society at large. The academic discipline of mathematics–alongside many institutions of higher education–has also reached a point of reckoning in its history of institutionalizing racism. We must acknowledge the necessity, not choice, of persistent and active anti-racist work in realizing transformative, long-lasting change.” – Dr. Graham, from her abstract

This session “embraced humanity in the mathematical sciences explicitly”, as Carrie Diaz-Eaton, organizer of the MAA-SIAM-AMS Hrabowski-Gates-Tapia-McBay Session: Lecture remarked.  One of the main messages throughout was the idea that the nation is reckoning with what a Black life is worth in America, and we are being asked to reflect critically about what does that means and what is our role.

She began by asking, what do you see when you think about racism? What do you see in mathematics? Some examples mentioned were defensiveness, thinking that there is only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking objectivity, and the right to comfort to name a few.


She made the distinction between white supremacy culture vs. the individuals. This distinction was very illuminating to me because, as she remarked, we have all acted in ways that promote white supremacy culture. The question becomes, how do we combat it? Parting from a definition of what antiracism is (and is not), we are reminded that antiracism is a set of actions not solely an idea or a policy.

We were asked to embrace the discomfort, be aware of our resistance, and examine our defenses. This talk was not aimed to convince us that anti-racist work is necessary or give us a one-hour solution. The style of the talk focused on discussing each of the five W’s (who, what, where, when, why), by providing a comfortable and uncomfortable answer.

And let me tell you, the comfortable answers are ones that I’ve constantly heard in my career in math. Contrasting them with uncomfortable answers felt like freeing the truth. Many times when we think of the five W’s of anti-racist work we are afraid to dive into the uncomfortable truths. But, as Dr. Graham remarked, imagine if we thought of math the same way, where would the field be? We must ask ourselves what are we prioritizing, reputations? What other upholders of white supremacy say? Are we exceptional racists or exceptional anti-racists? Truth is we are a long way from being exceptional anti-racists but we must name this behavior (or lack of behavior) so we may change it. It was a call to also reflect and evaluate myself and my actions because to be anti-racist, we must also combat racism within ourselves along with everywhere else.

“We need a bifurcation to move from racist to anti-racist.” – Dr. Graham

She concludes with a fantastic summary of the five W’s and how for anti-racism she discussed as her vision for the mathematical community.

Who: We should all, individually and collectively.

What: exert out privilege towards challenging the status quo and,

When: with immediate and persistent efforts,

Where: work within our respective institutions, organizations, and networks,

Why: to revolutionize mathematics as an anti-racist field,

How: by dismantling -thoroughly and permanently- the racist structures, policies, and practices on which the mathematical community was built.

In this summary of the talk, I can’t do it justice so I encourage everyone to give the talk a listen once its recording is shared because it is so worth-while.  Dr. Graham, thank you for your work and for sharing it with us at JMM.

About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow her on Twitter: @VRiveraQPhD.
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