As a rule, I do not discuss math with mathematicians if I can at all avoid it. I would like to tell you why, but it’s complicated. You can never make assumptions about a marginalized person’s character based solely on behavior. Oppression creates behaviors that wouldn’t otherwise be there, and if you are not going through the same oppression, you can’t know how you would behave. People have made a lot of assumptions about me because of my actions with respect to math.
I must not like math. I must not like math enough. I don’t find math research interesting. Maybe I should be doing something else. It’s okay if it’s just too hard. It’s okay if academia is not for me. If I really want to make a difference, I should work for NSF.
When you give off the impression of struggle people really expect you to Totally Understand Yourself And Your Motivations And Precisely What You Want Out Of Every Experience. I know plenty of mathematicians who have waned in their desire to be in academia, but their presence was never scrutinized and their worth was always taken for granted.
I can count on zero hands the number of times I was asked “Tell me, who or what crushed your mathematical curiosity?” When I stopped talking about math, not a single friend said “Have I done something to make you uncomfortable talking with me?” Nobody questioned whether I felt safe asking questions. They just built up their assumptions and their judgments. It became a thing. That thing they knew about me, you know, how I don’t talk about math. Whatever my problem is.
I hated it, but even still, it was better than discussing math.
It’s not that my friends had terrible intentions. Nobody was mean to me, nobody consciously laughed at me. There’s just a way that mathematicians have been socialized (I guess?!) to interact with each other that I find oppressive. If you have never had someone mansplain or whitesplain things to you, it may be hard for you to understand what I’m going to describe.
Usually, friendly conversation involves building a shared perspective. Among other things, mansplaining and whitesplaining involve one person of privilege forcing a marginalized person into a disagreeable perspective against their will, and not allowing them a way out. If you are someone averse to negative labels, it can be silencing. My experience discussing math with mathematicians is that I get dragged into a perspective that includes a hierarchy of knowledge that says some information is trivial, some ideas are “stupid”; that declares what is basic knowledge, and presents open incredulity in the face of dissent. Maybe I would’ve successfully assimilated into this way of thinking if I had learned it at a time where I was at the same level as my peers, but as it was it was just an endless barrage of passive insults I was supposed to be in on.
I got used to bracing myself. I got used to analyzing my self-consciousness. I prepared for every meeting with my advisor with a list of pre-approved mathematically sound sentences and questions. I got used to explaining that I wasn’t fluent in math. That I was different from everyone else. I let them win, because the alternative was too big an emotional sacrifice.
In preparation for my defense, I gave a talk in a friend’s class to a group of graduate students. It was my first ever math talk. At one point, my friend asked a fairly simple question about what I’d said (based on something she’d misheard) and the foundations of all my knowledge shattered and I was basically like “Maybe everything I’m doing is wrong and/or illegal, I don’t know.” Did that happen because it’s an essential part of my personality that would be with me no matter what? Did it happen because I’m a woman who was raised as a girl in a misogynistic society that expects women not to know things and to apologize for existing? Did it happen because I am a person of color who went to school with white people and learned that I don’t get to define my own experiences and my own knowledge? Did it happen because I learned that mathematicians believe some mistakes are morally reprehensible? I don’t know. I can’t know.
I can only wonder if there are people out there who think the way I think who are suffering in math or who got pushed out or never tried, and what a loss that is.