Monday, October 27, 2014

Respect Isn't Enough

My colleague John Johnson recently recommended the book Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race and asked that I read it so that we could have a more informed discussion as we work together over the coming years. I confessed to him at that time that I hadn't read a book in a long time (and I am now confessing the same to you, dear Reader), but that I would try. Well, I am happy to report that I am now halfway through. The last chapter I read described different frameworks in which to understand discussions of race and privilege, and I was particularly struck by the discussion of one such framework, namely that of Multiculturalism.

In the book's definition of Multiculturalism, a multiculturalist would express understanding for different groups, celebrate an appreciation of these differences, seek to ensure diversity in their community, and advocate respect for individuals in these different groups.

Perhaps many of you might be thinking: That certainly sounds pretty good! Respect, understanding, and diversity are all very progressive words. I might even go further and argue that many members of our astronomy community strive to achieve these goals.

So, what's missing from this picture?

While the description of multiculturalism above might seem like a decent goal, it falls short in that it lacks two key ingredients. I think these two ingredients are essential for someone trying to understand why a tremendously disproportionate fraction of astronomers are straight white men.

These ingredients are power, and then advocacy.

What is lacking from the multiculturalist viewpoint is a recognition that one group has tremendous power, and that individuals who are not members of that group are systematically excluded from access to resources and opportunities. I think this perspective does a much better job of explaining the patterns we seeing in our society, whereas multiculturalists are often left somewhat at a loss to explain them. In the case of Seeing White, the group with power are white people, as the book is a discussion of race. But here I would like to move beyond this framework of exclusion in a racial perspective (i.e., multiculturalism), and into a more general discussion of exclusion that we see in our astronomy community: Despite tremendous progress on some fronts, I think that in our community of astronomers, straight white men are still largely viewed as the cultural norm, and there is little doubt that the resources are still largely controlled by this group. Thus people who don't fit that mold -- notably, for this blog, women -- continue to experience exclusion.

(No devoted reader of this blog could hold that our astronomy community is a meritocracy: It is an ideal to which we are devoted, but for our many successes there remains a constant stream of failures. I encourage the reader to take a moment and read back through posts over the past few months to remind himself or herself of the many instances in which we as a community continue to withhold resources and opportunities from women and, generally, those who are not straight and white and male.) 

Importantly, one doesn't need to have actively participated in constructing this exclusivist framework to benefit from it. I have found this to be an important point when discussing this with colleagues, because it bears upon the issue of responsibility: If I didn't create a bad thing, then perhaps I can believe that I am not responsible for dismantling it.  But if I agree that I benefit from a bad thing even if I didn't create it, then I am still moved to dismantle it. In short, respect and understanding are not enough: We don't so much live in a landscape defined by diversity as one that is defined by exclusiveness. Those who benefit from this system are still good and moral people, who upon reflection will be compelled to action. The point of my post today is to encourage that group to advocacy. So, my fellow men, I am now talking to you!

A helpful guide for being an ally with privilege is available here. But you must realize your advocacy through concrete actions, some of which are quite humble:  Reach out to undergrads at institutions from which you don't normally see applicants and encourage them to apply to your PhD program, and then offer your assistance with any questions they might have. Encourage postdocs to apply for a prize fellowship to your institution, and give them input on their proposals. Take the lead on nominating someone for a AAS prize. Encourage someone to apply to your faculty search. Serve on selection committees, and when you do, be the advocate who ensures that the short list reflects the pool and that best practices were followed. At your institutions, fight for funding for programs that will broaden the group participating in our field. You might even write a blog post about your thoughts on these issues.

And, in all these interactions, always ask yourself: Who has the power in this group? If you find, as I often do, that the answer is yourself, then please do the following: First, keep your privilege out in the open in discussions that bear upon gender, race and sexuality (see item 3 here). Doing so will take some of that burden off of those who lack privilege. Then, go and use your power to bring about a true meritocracy.