A view of mathematics from behind the veil (unabridged) by Robin Wilson

Editorial Note: In the book, Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey, Robin Wilson shared his story. His original essay was too long to include in the book, given its format. We’re grateful to Robin for allowing us to share his essay in its entirety with you here.

If we think of mathematics as science that is free of bias, it might be hard to comprehend how there is any other explanation for some groups’ lack of success in mathematics other than the fact that they are less capable.  But when we investigate how privilege plays out over the course of history, over one’s lifetime, and over the course of one’s day, we can see how one can be placed in a position to either access or be denied access to an equal chance at participation in society.  And societal participation includes participation in the mathematical community.  In her article, “The Culture of Exclusion in Mathematics Education and its Persistence in Equity Oriented Teaching” [Louie, 2017], Nicole Louie describes what she calls the “culture of exclusion” in the mathematics classroom:

“The restrictive and hierarchical culture that has historically dominated American mathematics education limits all students’ access to rich and meaningful mathematics learning experiences and further limits many students’ opportunities to develop identities as mathematically capable learners and thinkers.”

One of my first memorable experiences with the culture of exclusion in the mathematical sciences happened in my transition from middle school to high school.  My mother, as a teacher herself, was keenly aware of the denial of opportunities to Black students in STEM in our school system.  She also knew that in many school systems, including mine, a student’s status in math at the end of the 5th grade determined a student’s ability at access the nation’s top universities.  So, she engaged me early on in extracurricular activities around mathematics and science.  She signed me up for a science-themed summer program in elementary school. Later, she got me involved in the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) Program at my middle school.  The summer after I took pre-algebra in 8th grade, my mom placed me in a self-paced algebra class that was offered at a local college and taught by a college instructor.  I struggled through the course the entire summer and suffered the experience of always being the slowest one, but I survived the long days in class and the long bus rides home on public transportation.  When I went to my high school for the first time to meet my guidance counselor, who happened to be a middle-aged white person, he looked first at me, then at my record, and placed me into pre-algebra again. Despite my summer spent learning algebra, he convinced me it that it was in my own best interest to repeat the pre-algebra course.  My mother, on the other hand, upon learning about my schedule, marched up to the school the next day to demand that I be placed in the appropriate mathematics class—algebra.  She knew that if I did not have access to that algebra course, then I could not access Calculus, which was then and is still an unstated admission requirement at many elite universities.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to reflect on the significance of this experience.  If I hadn’t been given the opportunity to take algebra as a freshman, I’m not sure where I would be today.  I’m sure it’s possible that I would have still gone on to become a mathematician, but it would have been following a different path with more obstacles.  What’s of much bigger concern to me, though, is the thought of how many students, like me, were placed in mathematics courses below their ability level by this same counselor or by other staff in similar positions of power. These gatekeepers were unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) undermining the education of so many students. Multiply that number across all the high schools in my hometown of Sacramento, the state of California, and the country, and the impact is staggering.

My high school was a public one and was exposed to its share of violence; more than a few of my peers were victims of gun violence and the prison industrial complex.  For these students, having greater access to mathematics early on could have made a very real difference in their lives.  For many students today, the issue of access to a quality mathematics instruction can literally mean life or death.

I remember an incident I experienced in my junior year.  I was at my school on a weekend, and when I walked past the cafeteria, I was surprised to find it full of people.  I stopped to look through the window, trying to figure out what was going on inside.  I didn’t recognize many of the people. I also noticed that the students didn’t really reflect the entire demographic of our school, which was very diverse.  After asking someone what was going on, I found out that it was a math competition!  So, there I was, literally on the outside looking in, first wondering why I hadn’t been invited, then feeling glad that I wasn’t invited because I didn’t think I’d fit in or perform well anyway.  It’s interesting to look back on that experience from the perspective of a student who was capable and interested, but who was not invited into the math community in high school.  In addition to being denied access to a mathematical enrichment activity, I was also denied the opportunity to network and build mathematical relationships with other students and teachers from the whole metro area. This perfectly illustrates an experience in which a student (in this case, me) may have been capable of performing well or excelling in a specific math community but was not invited into the room to even find out.

In high school, I never thought of myself as “good at math.”  Calculus was a struggle, and I was even persuaded by my Calculus teacher not to take the AP exam for fear of harming her strong record of students succeeding on the exam.  Despite my lack of success with AP Calculus the first time around, not to mention my mediocre SAT scores, I was accepted to UC Berkeley just before they pulled the plug on Affirmative Action in 1995.  It wasn’t until later, after I graduated with a degree in mathematics with “honors,” that I realized what poor indicators of success those SAT scores really were for me, as they have been for many others.

Before I arrived at Berkeley, I was recruited through my high school MESA program to attend the Professional Development Program (PDP) program at Berkeley.  This was the program that Uri Treisman started to help African American and Latinx students become successful in Calculus classes at the university.  The program helped provide a safe space for me to learn where I could be myself and didn’t have to sacrifice my identity to participate.  It was a place where I was welcomed, where there were lots of other young people that looked like me, dressed like me, listened to similar music, and shared an interest in STEM.  I was entrusted with a key to the building, and even the custodian for the building became an advocate for our cause because of the long hours we would spend in that space.  It was the program director, Lana Fukasawa, (who, by the way, did not have a math background)—and not one of my teachers—who was the first person that I recall expressing confidence in my mathematical abilities. It was because of her persistence that I eventually decided to give the math major a try.

One incident that affected me deeply while I was an undergraduate was something that happened to some friends that were in my PDP cohort.  A small group of them were taking the same upper division math class together, and one day, they garnered up the courage to visit the department’s social hour where students and faculty mingle over tea and cookies.  This group of students ran into their instructor at the event. They overheard him say to his colleague when he saw them that the department was going to need metal detectors for the group of “thugs” that were taking his course.  These young math majors were frightened and outraged, and they rightfully decided to take the issue to the undergrad coordinator.  To their dismay, after waiting outside of the coordinator’s office for some time, when he finally showed up, they realized he was the person that their instructor had been talking to.  Undeterred, they took the issue to the department chair and the response that they received was: “Welcome to Berkeley.”  This incident was a shock to all of us in our small community and was a rude awakening to what we already suspected: that we were not welcome in the math community at our university (which was all of the math community that we could see), and that we would have to fight for our right to be in our math classrooms each and every day.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of walking into my upper division math classes at Berkeley and having to confront head-on the negative stereotypes about who could and should do mathematics.  It was one thing in the large, lower division classes, where it felt like it was possible to hide.  However, the upper division classes were much more intimate.  I still recall the almost transparent thoughts on my classmates’ faces on each first day of class. Their looks told me that they thought I was in the wrong room.  And the thoughts were almost as transparent when I didn’t leave once the class started.  And then again, the feeling of surprise when I showed up again the next day.  It’s possible that some of this was in my head, but I’m convinced that much of it was real.   My own response was to lean a little more into my cultural tropes—to wear my pants a little lower, to make sure to keep my skullcap on, and to keep my big headphones around my ears until class began to make the point that I was going to embrace my identity and that I also wasn’t going anywhere.  These feelings also forced me to put on my mental armor to protect myself from the stereotypes and micro-aggressions and push to harder, to show up for help as often as I could, and to place some demand on my instructors for their support despite their lack of engagement or interest in my success.

As an undergraduate, I was not invited into the math community by any students or faculty in the math department at my own university, but I was included in the emerging scholars program community which operated in a different space.  It was outside of the department but at the same time provided a “safe passage” that we could take to get in and out of the math department space.  Almost no faculty in the math department ever expressed the slightest interest or confidence in me or my abilities until the last week of my senior year when I handed in my honors thesis project.  Looking back, I find it puzzling that I had never even heard of the Putnam exam until my 4th year of graduate school and probably learned about the Math Olympiad around the same time.  I didn’t even know colleges had math clubs for students until I became a faculty member.  Instead, my “math club” was the peer group that I formed in the PDP program. It was the community of role models and mentors that I met through joining the National Association of Mathematicians, attending the NAM Undergraduate Mathfest conferences. It was the mathematicians that I discovered on my own by spending lots of time on the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora website.  These experiences in racialized mathematical spaces also caused me to seek positive and safe spaces where I could learn mathematics. I spent time studying mathematics at Morehouse College and the University of Ghana, Legon as an undergraduate and Howard University as a graduate student.

I am confident that my experiences with racism in mathematics are just the tip of the iceberg of the culture of exclusion that exists in STEM spaces.  This culture of exclusion extends beyond the classroom, and it serves as a gatekeeper of access to the mathematics community.  It also provides a barrier for access to the formation of positive mathematics identities, for access to careers in the mathematical sciences, and for the discipline of mathematics to be of service in the fight for social justice for underserved communities.  It is a culture that values theorems over people, a culture that can turn a blind eye to not just racism, but also sexual hostility, harassment, and assault.

Looking back on these experiences, I am reminded of the work of Dr. Ebony McGee whose research seeks to understand students’ racialized experiences in mathematics and engineering spaces.  I have found that my experience mirrors much of her research findings.  In her work, she shares the story of Tanisha, and Black engineering student who also felt a sense of exclusion from students and professors.  She says that “I know I’m not crazy.  And [I] see them looking at me, and they are saying, ‘You don’t really belong here.’” [McGee, 2015]. I see affirmation in McGee’s work. I find that as a faculty member working to teach and mentor other students, especially those who are likely to face similar challenges, her research provides a healthy and sustainable outlet for the racialized experiences that I still face.  One thing that Dr. McGee’s research has made clear to me is that no matter how effective a teacher I am, no matter how good a mentor I am, and no matter how strong a researcher I am, I will not be able to teach, mentor, or research myself out of systematic racism in STEM.  For this to occur, to quote Dr. McGee, “The culture of STEM departments must be indicted and completely revamped to accept the full humanity of URM people in STEM” [McGee, 2021].

Things turned out alright for me in the end, but I wonder how different things could have been if I had been exposed to the same opportunities that many of my peers and classmates in high school and college had access to.  In some ways, it’s as if my experience in mathematics has taken place behind a “veil,” to borrow a phrase from W. E. B. Du Bois as it was articulated in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk.  For Du Bois, the veil is a reference to the experience of blacks in America in which there is a world that they can see—and are in many ways a part of—but cannot access in the same way as their white American counterparts.  As Howard Winant explains in “The New Politics of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice” [Winant, 2004]:

“For Dubois, the veil not only confined and excluded black people, but it also protected them from at least some forms of white violence and domination.”

He goes on to say that, because of this double consciousness that is imposed by the presence of the veil, “the veil not only divides the individual self; it also fissures the community, nation, and society as a whole.”  This metaphor plays out in the mathematical sciences as a fissure in the mathematical community that also passes beyond the community into the discipline itself.  At the same time, seeing the world through this veil has its advantages as it gives an extra perception of depth through which to see the world that others without similar experiences cannot access.

For me, the repercussions of these experiences have been profound.  My identity as a mathematician, how I see my role as a faculty member, how I relate to students, and how I relate to and socialize with others in the field are all shaped by these experiences.  Now, as a full professor with little left to prove, I still find myself wondering from time to time what it would be like to experience a bit more entitlement around mathematics. I question where I belong in relation to many of my peers.  When the imposter syndrome rears its head, nowadays I am able to remind myself that there is no “syndrome” that I am suffering from. That feeling comes from the fact that I have been positioned as an imposter by the experiences with structural racism in mathematics that I’ve been forced to confront [McGee, 2021].  Yet I often still wonder what it might feel like to be able to participate fully in the mathematics discipline without it having to be so much of a struggle.

References:

  1. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Classic. pp. 116-117, 1903.
  2. Louie, Nicole. “The Culture of Exclusion in Mathematics Education and Its Persistence in Equity-Oriented Teaching.” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 48 (5), 488-519, 2017.
  3. McGee, Ebony. Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities: A Framework for Exploring Racialized Experiences and High Achievement Among Black College Students. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, Vol. 46, No. 5 (November 2015), pp. 599-625.
  4. McGee, Ebony. “Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation”. Harvard Education Press, 2021.
  5. Winant, Howard. The New Politics of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Robin Wilson is a Professor of Mathematics at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The product of the public school system in Sacramento, CA, he attended UC Berkeley where he developed a passion for teaching mathematics as a student in Berkeley’s Professional Development Program started by Uri Treisman. He joined the faculty at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona in 2007 after an appointment as a UC President’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Mathematics at UC Santa Barbara. Dr. Wilson was a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University in 2014 and a Visiting Professor at Pomona College for Fall 2017. His current research interests include both low-dimensional topology and math education.  

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