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The need to recognize that good people can do bad things


I recently had a discussion with some fellow astronomers at an off-campus function about diversity and best practices in hiring for academic jobs. I was advocating taking active measures to ensure that unconscious biases were avoided or at least marginalized. However, as discussions of personal biases tend to go, one of the participants in the conversation took offense at the notion that he might be biased. This is understandable since no one wants to count biases among their defining characteristics.

I attempted to assuage his concerns by telling him that one can have biases and act in a biased manner without being a biased person. I feel this distinction is important. It goes for racist and sexist behavior, too. I can act in a sexist manner, perhaps (often?) not even trying to, without being a sexist person (and to be sure, I have done so in my past ). Similarly, someone I work with and admire greatly can say something that is racist and I can take offense to their statement on the grounds that the statement was racist. But by taking offense and calling out the action, I am not saying that my colleague is a racist person. They were not born a racist, doomed to forever walk the earth with a white hood over their head. But even the best of us well-intentioned, decent people can occasionally slip up and say something offensive.


As a bit of an aside related to my last paragraph, I encourage you to watch this quick 3 minute video on how to deal with racist (*ist) comments:



Okay, but I didn't necessarily start off this post to talk about how to deal with racist slip-ups. This post is inspired by another class of comment that often comes up in discussions of diversity, namely that we should trust our colleagues to do the right thing because, after all, our colleagues are good people.

That certainly sounds nice. But two things about this idea:

1) The notion that most people do the right thing most of the time is a statement that is made by someone who has a privileged background or is currently in a privileged position. In my various interactions, the person is typically white and male. So I'd argue that it is fairly easy for these people to assume the best about people in academia. (Note that privilege can simply be a relative, rather than absolute state of being). For example, it's unlikely that the person arguing for relying on the goodness of their colleagues has ever been sexually harassed by a professor, and I'm willing to bet that he's used to getting the benefit of the doubt about his ideas when discussing science with his white, male peers.

These benefits are not always enjoyed by women and minorities in astronomy specifically, and academia in general. I've heard far too many of the same types of stories, and had too many of my own experiences as a minority. This highlights something I've been thinking on quite a bit lately: privilege is usually invisible to those who have it (Hat-tip to Prof. Katie Hinde, who brought this idea to my attention in a recent discussion.) It is very easy for a person to see equity and fairness all around them if they come from a place of privilege. For example, a white male professor will generally have a difficult time seeing how women in his field have a difficult time at conferences, or angst about an impending two-body problem.

Another key point here is that I've heard very few people say, "You know, I have a lot of biases. I'm constantly acting in a biased manner. I recognize this about myself and I'm working on it." This goes back to the fact that we tend to think the best of ourselves, especially when talking to others. So if a discussion wanders into the subject of unconscious bias, I've noticed that people (me included!) tend to assume we're talking about other people, those few people who are biased people with bad intentions. But since there aren't many evil people out there, this whole unconscious bias thing can't be that big of a deal, right?

But that's the very point of unconscious bias: we aren't conscious of those biases. But they do have very real, measurable effects on those around us. So we ignore them at the peril of our colleagues and, I'd argue, the intellectual strength of our institutions.

2) The second thing to say flows naturally from point (1) above. An examination of the history of the United States reveals a long tradition of enacting laws that are fundamentally unfair to minority groups. Indeed, it's difficult (impossible?) to identify a time in our history when people were treated as if they were truly created equal, as our Declaration of Independence states. From slavery came share cropping and Jim Crow laws, followed by systemic poverty due to redlining  (for example, millions of Black people tried to move from the South to the North, only to find that Black people were allowed to live only in certain neighborhoods as poignantly described in The Warmth of Other Suns) and state administration of federal aid programs (see When Affirmative Action Was White. Women couldn't vote until last century and were barred from vast swathes of the American workplace until only recently. Gay people couldn't marry until last year, and even now they can do so only in select states.

Yes, Professor Doofenshmirtz is evil and very much biased
against minorities and women in science. But he also doesn't
actually exist. 
The laws that set up these huge inequities for minorities were not established by a cabal of evil people in a secret laboratory in a distant cave. As silly as it is to say this, in talking to people you'd think that this is what they assume.

But here's what I've been working up to in this post: The history of unfairness and bad treatment of minorities was perpetrated by law-abiding, good people. 

Jim Crow laws were not enacted and enforced by evil villains. They were advocated for, voted on and enforced by good, community-oriented citizens who generally considered themselves to be fair and evenhanded people. People like my white grandparents were those who ensured that school busses didn't serve my Black father's neighborhood, and forced him to walk long distances to and from school. From the vantage point of privilege (i.e. if you were a white, middle-class American), people like my white grandparents people were good people, and in many ways I'd have a hard time arguing against this (they are my grandparents after all!). But with the benefit of hindsight, we can clearly see that they did horrible things to large portions of our society.

Law-abiding, community-oriented white people pouring food and drinks
on Black protestors asserting their basic rights to share a lunch counter
with white patrons in Jackson, Miss., in 1963.
(AP photo/Jackson Daily News/Fred Blackwell).
So my view is that we need to actively counter things like unconscious biases, microaggressions, benevolent sexism, and all forms of harassment because it is simply not sufficient to rely on the goodness of people in our organizations. Not because people are intrinsically bad. Rather because even the best collections of individuals can act in ways that lead to inequities. This happens because (1) our privileged positions (should we enjoy them) are generally invisible to us, and (2) because bad policies and actions can, and frequently do, come from fundamentally good people. Like it or not, you can have the best intentions and act in a manner that makes life difficult for someone you work with.

Only by having our consciousnesses raised by talking to minorities and women about their experiences; reading research about biases; learning about our nation's often ugly history; and by abiding by rules put in place to counteract these tendencies (rather than rolling our eyes at, e.g., sexual harassment training sessions) can we actively work toward a more equitable and inclusive field of study.

I think this is all good stuff to spend a few minutes thinking on as we enjoy our day off in commemoration of Martin Luther King's birthday.

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