Monday, May 5, 2014

Ain't I a woman? At the intersection of gender, race and sexuality

Today's guest post is by Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a Martin Luther King, Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow at the MIT Department of Physics. She specializes in theoretical cosmology and has an interest in formal issues in field theory and relativity. She also serves as an informal academic advisor for most of the very few underrepresented minority women physics majors at M.I.T.

In 1851, former slave Sojourner Truth asked white feminists, "Ain't I a woman?" when they refused to let her speak at a women's conference because she was Black. One might hope that in 158 years, that speech wouldn't seem so essential and relevant. But at the 2009 Women in Astronomy conference, my first foray into non-race oriented equal opportunity efforts, we were told the news was good: women had made significant gains and equality was on its way. There was no substantive mention of race beyond Peggy McIntosh's talk. But I knew the truth. I have been looking at the NSF and AIP statistics myself for years, and I knew that the news was not good for Black, Latina, and Native American women. Those numbers hadn't changed too significantly in three decades. How could they possibly be telling us that the news was good?

As a queer Black (cis)woman, I live at the intersection of multiple minority statuses. More of my time than I would like has been sucked up in trying to fend off the marginalization that society's structures foist upon anyone who has even one of these identities. More of my time than I would like has been spent thinking about a way out of those structures and trying to convince others to help.

And here's one thing I want out of: the phrase "women and minorities," a phrase I used to use a lot myself. As part of the effort to push for equal opportunities in STEM, I  used it repeatedly for over a decade, thinking that I was advocating not just for strangers but also for myself. At some point however, hearing other people use it began to grate on me. A lot.

That underrepresented minority (URM) women aren't doing well in STEM signals just how well other women are doing: they are gaining ground that should be ours too. So, it's clear that the phrase "women and minorities" is failing us. It's clear that the "and" in that phrase is functionally an "or." And in that "or," people like me, our individual experiences, and the statistics most relevant to them are rendered invisible. What those 2009 celebratory pronouncements should have said was, "The news is good for white women." Implicit to how they were stated was the suggestion that all the women are white.

But I was there. And I am still here, and I still find that my most challenging experiences with discrimination are an awful non-linear combination of how people respond to my gender presentation, to my racial/ethnic presentation, and the assumptions people make about the socioeconomic class I grew up in (or rather people thinking it's okay to say bad things about people who share that socioeconomic class). To separate those things out is akin to suggesting that an inseparable differential equation can be magically transformed into a separable one. It's complete nonsense, and it has no place amongst scientists.

When I’ve mentioned this to friends and colleagues, people have asked what I think we should say instead. Some have suggested that we try to come up with a single umbrella term that captures everyone in one shot, such as "underprivileged" or "marginalized groups." I understand the impulse, but I think it's important to use explicit statements rather than vague ones, not unlike what is expected of us in publications about our research. We must clearly acknowledge what we are talking about instead of tidily sweeping it under an easy-to-digest word or two.

These phrases give me pause for additional reasons too. Other queer cispeople of color have written elsewhere that it is the racism, not the homophobia, that often scares us the most. I am in general hesitant about a conversation and vocabulary that doesn't explicitly hone in on racism with the intention of taking white supremacist structures to task. I say this not because I am opposed to discussions about, for example, ableism, but because I believe that in order to combat -isms, we have to talk about each and every one of them explicitly.

Thus, I think it's important, when talking about race, "privilege" and equal opportunity, to say things like "people of color and white women." Or "underrepresented minority women and men and white women." I think that last phrase has a particular utility because different peoples of color face different challenges of representation, and that phrase is of the right specificity for most conversations around race and equal opportunity in STEM. (Although not all: there's been some research around the discrimination that Asian American women face, and “Asian American” includes several underrepresented groups, which people often fail to recognize. Moreover, Native Americans often identify as citizens of nations whose land the US settled on, not members of a race.)

It’s also important to name the opportunities that white women do have relative to the rest of us, given that almost all women's gains in our fields are amongst white women. I've seen some white women in astronomy throw their weight around to close down discussions of race because they thought gender was more important. The capacity to successfully do that is a statement of power relative to underrepresented minority women. It is an abuse of power, and it is important to recognize that even though white women experience marginalization, they are still more empowered to participate in it than genderqueers, women, and men of color. Using the phrase "white women" explicitly draws attention to that complexity. White women and underrepresented minority women are not the same demographic, and it is important to appreciate, note and very seriously commit to doing something about that.

One reason I reject “underprivileged” is because what we are talking about are not privileges, they are rights. I have a right to be treated like the equal of my straight and/or white and/or male colleagues. That I am sometimes not treated that way means that I am being denied rights -- equal opportunities -- not privileges. When a professor asks all of the white presenting postdocs what they are working on, only asks me whether my name means I'm Indian and then tells me about the Indian student they had one time, I am not missing out on the privilege of being treated equally, I am being denied my right to be treated equally. I think that as much as the word "privilege" has served this discussion well -- and I think Peggy McIntosh is **super** fabulous -- I think we need to let go of it and start framing the discussion as one about rights and equal opportunities because that is what we are talking about.

I realize an immediate objection some may have is that people are looking for a convenient phrase that doesn't feel unwieldy. But there is absolutely nothing convenient about the need to have these phrases, about still feeling 163 years after Sojourner Truth's speech that her words are relevant to the daily experience of many. If dealing with an unwieldy phrase is already too scary, I think we're in a lot of trouble.

After all, we are the human race, the ones who (maybe) recently found footprints of the first 10^-34 seconds of the universe's existence in data gathered in the harshest cold conditions our planet has to offer. I think we can handle a few extra words. It is such an easy thing in comparison to the enormous task of shielding traditionally underrepresented people in STEM from the white supremacist, patriarchal, hetero- and cissexist structures that it has inherited from wider society. The reasons to do this are manifold, but the most important one is this: LGBTQ people of all colors and people of color and white women of all sexual orientations are the equals of straight white (cis)men, and it's time to rebuild (scientific) society so that equality is structurally foundational to it.

This won’t really happen under the moniker of “diversity by including women and minorities” though. As Jelani Cobb wrote recently in The New Yorker:  "To speak of diversity, in light of this country’s history of racial recidivism, is to focus on bringing ethnic variety to largely white institutions, rather than dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with." That includes recognizing that not all the women are white, nor are all the Blacks (for example) men. Other, more popular reasons to dismantle these structures, which include building a better talent pool for a stronger, more capable scientific community -- as well as experiencing the wonders of diversity -- are side effects of equality, not solutions to inequality. So, let’s keep our eyes on the prize: equality for everyone.