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Blinded by my privilege

A large, visible knapsack.
I was recently talking with a female astronomer about diversity in astronomy. At one point, she said, "You don't know what it's like to be marginalized in your dept., to not have people listen to you and talk over you. To not give you the benefit of the doubt." Now, keep in mind that my conversation partner is white. I was a bit taken aback by her comment, and I blurted out, "You think I don't understand?! I am a Black man in America. At Harvard. In astronomy. There are of order 10 other Black people at my station in life. Until only recently I was rarely given the benefit of the doubt! I understand marginalization."

I could tell that she was, in turn, taken aback. I think that in her view I was just another man enjoying all of the associated privileges of being male in astronomy. To be sure, I do enjoy many membership benefits. I can look around the room in faculty meetings and see other men. Lot's of 'em. But it was obvious to me that she overlooked a major detail: even though I'm a man, I am far more of a minority in any astronomy gathering than she is. Not that it's a competition. I'd honestly rather lose the who's-more-of-a-minority contest. 

However, before I was able to feel too self-satisfied, I recalled a time when I did forget about my membership benefits. Indeed, I was totally ignorant of my privilege, to the detriment of people I was trying to help. 

(I should give a warning here that this all happened about four years ago, and the details were/are somewhat fuzzy. I talked to some of the people involved and they fortunately remembered details that I had forgotten, blinded as I was at the time.)
Two-body gravitational potential, from Wikipedia

The setting was at Caltech in one of the Career Advice Hours I and a postdoc, Anne-Marie Cody, periodically organized for the postdocs and grad students. The idea was to invite some of our younger, more community-minded colloquium speakers (e.g. Scott GaudiLisa Kewley, etc.) and local scientists to hold a "panel discussion" with our younger scientists. The students and postdocs would ask questions about time-management, applying for jobs, career goals, the challenges of being a junior professor, etc. These advice hours were generally very useful for everyone involved, including myself. As such, I derived a lot of satisfaction in seeing them succeed.

One of the advice hours involved an actual panel of three (or four?) postdocs who were hoping to soon make, or were making, the transition to being junior professors at other institutions. Three of the panelists were men, and one was a woman. About midway through the Q&A, a student asked "Do you like being a postdoc?" The panelists went down the line---first, all the men talking about how wonderful it is, how free you are to be a scientist, etc. Then the female postdoc spoke in much less positive terms. I and other men in the room immediately began to attempt to "correct" this negative view.

Another of the women in the room was the Caltech graduate student representative, Gwen Rudie. Gwen and I had interacted on numerous occasions to talk about science, the state of the grad students in the dept, sports, life as a grad student, among other topics. I always found Gwen to be extremely mature and insightful, and we had built a very good rapport over my first year in the department. Note that the female panelist was/is in a two-body relationship, as were most of the women in the room. The male panelists were not, as Gwen recalls---I had totally forgotten the gender and relationship status of the panel members. It just goes to show what you notice when you're in the minority and what you don't when in the majority.

With regard to the two-body problem, Gwen raised her hand and commented, "Women in astronomy are statistically much more likely to be partnered with men in astronomy, and as a result the two-body problem---in addition to being a barrier to reaching gender parity in the field---also makes 'just enjoying' any stage in your career more challenging since you are always worried about the next stage. It seems like the system is set up to be maximally awful to people like me who are in two-body relationships." 

Upon hearing this comment, I felt immediately defensive, and oddly, protective. Up until this point we were having what I saw as a very constructive and positive discussion about the challenges of finding a job in academia. Job-hunting is difficult, yes, but these were people at Caltech. There was no reason to get all down on the process that would in all likelihood greatly benefit most of the people in attendance. Looking back I can see that I was feeling protective because I had benefitted from the system, and I was unfamiliar with the uncertainty experienced by dual academic couples. But at the time I wanted to protect against this negative view.

So without thinking too much about it (I gave it about 1.5 seconds of consideration), I spoke up in a loud professorial voice from the back of the room and said something to the effect of, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! I don't think that's a fair assessment of the problem. Maximally painful? Com'on, Gwen! You're all at a top institution, poised to find good jobs upon completion of your Ph.D.'s. Sure, having an academic partner will make it a bit more challenging, but you have to have a clearer view of how good your prospects are! If you're taking such a negative view of the process, perhaps you should evaluate your mindset, and maybe talk to a therapist."

I know. Right? Yikes! Talk about being insensitive. Instead of listening, I did what people in the majority all too often do when people in the minority speak up: I tried to minimize her concern and externalize the problem. There's no problem. If there is, it was her problem, not the system's!

Image from The Atlantic:
At the time I was (foolishly) feeling pretty good about myself. Internally I was dusting off my hands and feeling quite satisfied that I squelched that unnecessary bit of negativity that threatened my nice little job discussion gathering. Yup, that'll do the trick, now on to more important business!

Following the panel discussion one of the male grad students, a friend of Gwen's (not her partner) who noticed that she was distressed at the meeting, knocked tentatively on my door and asked if I had a few minutes. I did, so he stepped gingerly into my office and closed the door. He said, "You know, you really hurt Gwen's feelings yesterday with the way you downplayed her concerns." I immediately got defensive and said something "eloquent" like, "Blah, blah, blah, too sensitive. Blah, blah I didn't mean to hurt her feelings, what she said could be harmful for the moral of her fellow students, blah blah." I then had the bright idea to send an email to Gwen that amounted to a classic non-apology apology. You know the routine: "I'm sorry if what I said made you feel bad." 

(I know. Right?)

Fortunately for me, and for Gwen, she was far more mature and composed than I was in that moment. Two days after the job discussion meeting she knocked on my door and asked me if I had 15 minutes. I did and invited her to take a seat. "No, if you don't mind I'd rather stand." She then told me, "I need you to understand something and I need you to listen to me until I'm done talking. What you said to me in front of all those people made me feel the most marginalized and unimportant that I have ever felt in this department. Also, you told every single person in that room that if they saw a problem in our field, it was their personal problem rather than one that might be caused by an institutional bias, not one that we should all band together to change. One that meant our perspective was skewed. You implied that we were the problem---not the system. Finally, I know you are an advocate for mental health issues, so consider that the way that you told me to seek a therapist for my attitude on this issue was just about the worse way to do so."
Cartoon from the New Yorker Magazine
I started to talk defensively, saying "smart professorial" things like, "I'm disappointed in you for talking so negatively when you are a leader among the grad students. Don't realize how damaging what you said can be? Don't you realize that I'm on your side?" When I saw the anger and hurt on her face, I suddenly stopped. I realized it was just me and Gwen in the room at that moment. I realized that what she said, "What you said to me...made me feel marginalized," was not a statement I could argue against. I said those things, and the result was that a person who I respected and cared about felt horrible as a result of my words. She didn't call me a chauvinist. She didn't say I was a bad person. She correctly pointed to my action and told me the result.

I also realized that I hadn't actually given much thought about how institutional barriers that not only exist for racial minorities like me, but also for for couples in dual-academic relationships, both men and women. However, given the underrepresentation of women in astronomy, the problem is most prevalent for women and has the greatest negative effects on their career prospects. I thought I was doing good, with a clear perspective on the problems in our field. But my male, single-academic -relationship privilege had blinded me to a problem facing a ton of people in our field. The problem wasn't the attitudes of young people. A much better explanation of the problem is that the system is flawed and needs to be fixed by people who have the power to do so.

I was sitting there in my office chair, with Gwen standing by the door, and it felt like an eternity. I heard my father's voice in my head. "Son, humility is not weakness. To be humble is to be strong." My dad's voice was right. Gwen was right. I looked up and said, "Gwen, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I hurt you. I screwed up. I take responsibility for what I said and how it made you feel. Please tell me what I can do in the future to not make this mistake again."

Gwen was definitely not expecting that, at least not in that moment, not after I had stubbornly tried arguing with her. She took a few moments and she said, "You need to realize that as a professor, your words carry a great deal of power, especially for grad students. First, please be careful before you speak to students and know that, even if you don't mean them to, your words can cut deeply. Second, please learn about the issues facing couples in astronomy so you can take a more informed stance in the future. Finally, don't do something like issuing a department-wide apology. It's not necessary. I accept your apology." (This is all paraphrased, BTW, but you get the idea. Gwen was and is an extremely thoughtful, mature and powerful woman, despite her junior standing). 

I took Gwen's advice, and started talking to women in the department about their struggles in dual-academic relationships. I talked with men and women in other departments, and I talked to my group members. I was shocked to find that about 80% of my research group members were in relationships with other academics. I looked at the string of outstanding young professors that Caltech lost to other institutions because of the university's inability to accommodate their spouses. I saw how family-unfriendly most university policies are. And I saw how the two-body problem is really the Two-Body Problem, and the capital-P problem is not just the couples', but it's academia's problem as well because it is increasingly impacting our ability recruit and retain talent. 

I recounted this story to Joan Schmelz, the chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) during her visit to Caltech a couple years ago. She said, "Wow, you were on the road to Damascus, huh?" Seriously. And thanks to Gwen's strength and patience, I saw the light. It was soon thereafter that Joan invited me to join the CSWA.

So why is the topic of privilege popping up all over the place on my blog and elsewhere lately? Why do minorities and women keep "harping" on this buzzword? Well, my story is a clear demonstration of how we are often blind to our privileges, and our blindness can cause us to do great harm, even if unintentionally. "Power obfuscates; oppression clarifies." 

I was blind to my privilege when I marginalized Gwen's valid concerns. I am the bread-winner in a single-income household. I'm also straight and male. I slide pretty neatly into the mold of an academic. This mold was created decades ago when the traditional US household involved a straight, white man and a woman who was unable to be employed outside of the household (what my conservative friends often refer to as the good ol' days). Many brilliant academics are now finding that they don't easily fit into this mold, to the detriment of their relationships and the weakening of our science. But despite this obvious problem, I was blinded by my desire to protect the system that had rewarded me so handsomely. 
How you can use your privilege for good. The full cartoon is extremely insightful and helpful, so I highly recommend that you, dear reader, take 2 minutes to check it out if you haven't already.

Privilege blinds us to the problems that our scientific community faces. But if we recognize and acknowledge our privileges, in whatever form we are able to enjoy them, then we open ourselves up to the type of true learning that leads to creative solutions, which benefits those who lack privilege. And by so doing, we can start shaping a more perfect meritocracy, a system that rewards people for their creativity, insights, knowledge, communication, pedagogical skills and productivity, rather than how well their life choices mesh with the rigid, outdated system we call academia. 

Knowing about your privilege provides clarity that leads to solutions, which will eventually lead to the meritocracy that we currently do not have, but greatly desire as scientists. Further, once aware of your privileges, you can harness them to help others, and help improve the quality of our field of study for everyone involved. 


Dukes said…
Thanks to Aaron Wright for forwarding this to me. And thanks to John for so thoughtfully documenting his experience for the rest of us to learn from.

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