I ran into a colleague from another department the other day. Someone whom I’ve known for years. Someone whom I consider a friend. She greeted me, “Hey Hector, how are you doing…”
It’s not the first time that this has happened, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Now it’s true that, because I am clearly a Latino, I probably look a lot more like a “Hector” than a “Herbert,” but nevertheless you figure that they would get my name right after my 23 years on the faculty here at Loyola Marymount University (LMU).
The incident reminded me of the many other times that I’ve been called “Ricardo” or “Fernando” by other colleagues. This is probably because there are a couple of other male, Latino faculty at LMU who are in age close to me. They are in totally different departments (one in Psychology and the other in Political Science) and don’t look at all like me. (Well, or maybe they do since all us Latinos look alike…;-) Anyway, I thought these incidents might be interesting to write about since they are likely to have happened to fellow ethnic minority mathematicians, and are likely to continue to happen to future faculty from underrepresented groups.
The truth is that if you are from an underrepresented group in academia (and probably other professions), you are likely to be confused in name or in person by others who are not used to seeing folks like you around. I am certain that there is no ill will nor maliciousness nor prejudice coming from my colleagues, but it can be somewhat annoying to have to say, “I’m Herbert not Fernando.”
But the moral for this BLOG is that I try to not let these incidents nor perhaps other similar ones get to me. They are part of the story of being one of the few ethnic-minority faculty on campus. There simply will be situations that are annoying but not worth my energy to fight or get upset over. If I did, I’d have a lot less energy for the battles that are important and that are worth my time and effort to advocate for diversity.
So, my message to those young mathematicians out there who are of backgrounds that are not so common in the profession, be aware that there is a chance that you’ll be mistaken for others “like you” (or perhaps not so much like you). Your response to these incidents is something very personal. My one bit of advice is that if you do decide to respond by “calling someone out” on something, try not to let it upset you. There are many important battles to fight on the diversity front, and sometimes being upset will help in those fights, but being upset requires a lot of energy. That is, try to use your “upsetness” wisely!