Itʼs the little things

Usually “Itʼs the little things” refers to the details that really help make something spectacular. However, for me these words have taken a different meaning recently. It reminds me of little things that I have experienced and which have affected my self identity as a mathematician and made me question my place within the mathematical community. Itʼs the small actions or words or micro aggressions (regardless of intent) that take me out of doing mathematics and bring only selective parts of my identity front and center.

Here are a few of my recent experiences fitting within the context of “Itʼs the little things.”

I was honored this summer as a recipient of an MAA Alder award for exceptional teaching by an early career mathematician. Not only this, but my dearest math friend also received this award. Two Latinas received the award in the same year! I was over the moon. We were eagerly waiting for the event ceremony to take place, as a woman came up to us and said “Ok girls letʼs get you to the stage.” And there it is. Girls. We are being recognized with a national teaching award and we get called girls. I spoke up and said that I am a woman and would appreciate if she not refer to me as a girl. I likely wouldnʼt have done this, but my 13 year old daughter was present and witnessed the exchange. I addressed it mostly to show my daughter that she too can speak up when things bother her and can do so calmly and respectfully. Yet, there it was. This little thing shifted my focus and mental space from the wonderful celebration about to take place, to feeling small and childlike – not at all feeling like an award winning mathematics educator.

Fast forward a few weeks and I am at a math workshop, sitting in a room with 40 other women. The hour is set aside to discuss challenges of being a woman in math. Iʼve been to many of these events in the last decade. I never feel better afterwards. Instead I am drained. The conversations are predictable. When should we have children? “A womanʼs reproductive clock doesnʼt align with the tenure clock” we were told – shouldn’t the tenure clock adapt to our reproductive clocks—I wondered. Move from service to leadership positions, since “service doesnʼt count, but leadership does.” All fine topics of conversation. But the conversation shifts when I point out that the experiences of women of color (WOC) are different and that I believe most of the challenges I have faced stem from racial discrimination – of course separating this from misogyny and sexism is impossible.

Yes, the experiences of WOC in math are different – we agreed. Yet it was suggested that more conversations are needed so that people can better help WOC. Iʼve heard this multiple times and in various settings. I now have a programmed answer. So much so that I can recite it from memory. “It is not the job of underrepresented minorities to educate others on systemic issues we did not create. Just as everyone in this room is capable of taking an abstract mathematics research paper and work to understand that, they too can learn from literature on these topics.” Full stop.

Not satisfied with my response, I was asked if I would answer personal questions. I asked if those could be googled. They said “No. What if itʼs a personal question. Would you answer?” I finally ended the (public!) conversation by saying that asking me personal questions during a math workshop is robbing me of the mathematical experience I came to be a part of.

There it was. I came to the event for the mathematics and the collaboration. Yet Iʼd been (once again) reduced to being a resource on issues of diversity for those that are unwilling to do their own research. Luckily, a friend that I highly respect commented that such actions are a form of “emotional hijacking.” She was right.

The rest of the day I spent replaying the situation in my head. Not being able to truly immerse myself in new math as I had intended on. I worried about what my comments may mean for any future collaborations with others in the room. Will I be labeled a “trouble maker” or “angry.” Will they later tell me, as a past colleague in a leadership position did, that my emotions were unwarranted, especially as I am usually so “articulate.” Thatʼs another little thing.

These little things build up and become big things. Like a snowball down a hill they carry weight. They change how I perceive myself and my worth. All regardless of someone’s intent. We should work on addressing the little things. Of course this requires understanding other’s challenges within the mathematical community. I just ask you to first google questions you may have in order to stop taxing underrepresented minorities with work you need to do.

If a google search fails you, I present you with the following resources to learn more about microaggressions, how to be a better ally and mentor, and how to design and implement effective mentoring programs:

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2 Responses to Itʼs the little things

  1. Helen G. Grundman says:

    Thank you, Pamela. This is beautifully expressed!

    And, as if you didn’t know, don’t ever let the fear of being a “trouble maker” silence you!

  2. Carina Curto says:

    “But the conversation shifts when I point out that the experiences of women of color (WOC) are different and that I believe most of the challenges I have faced stem from racial discrimination…”

    I’m a little puzzled. Why did you bring this up in the discussion if you didn’t want to talk about it? It sounds like the people in the room were well-meaning and genuinely interested to learn from your perspective. I guess I think it’s important to appreciate potential allies, even if sometimes it’s frustrating to have to explain things they could learn on their own. At least they’re willing to listen. The people who pose the biggest challenges are not.

    In any case, I read your post with interest. Thanks for sharing.

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