I am not your genius

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You’re minding your own business, leading your life, doing your thing, maybe you’re a child, and some adult will look at you and smile too enthusiastically and tell you you must be so smart.

You’re minding your own business, leading your life, doing your thing, maybe you’re a young adult, and a peer will listen to your story and say you must be a genius.

You’re minding your own business, leading your life, doing your thing, maybe you’re the mother of two, and someone you’ve never met will hear about you and tell their spouse you must be a genius.

Of course, this is not everyone’s experience. Many people mind their own business, lead their own lives, do their own thing, at whatever age, and get told they probably shouldn’t bother with that genius stuff. Many people, simply for existing, get told that they are not so smart, and should aim a little lower.  Many people are told that people like them just aren’t as good at certain things.

The system that holds some of us up is the same that pushes others of us down. There isn’t one without the other.

The myth of genius is that there is something objective and innate within a person that naturally separates them from the rest. This has never been the case. Genius (at least in its modern form) has always been subjective, from without, and required the collusion of a great many people.

Please don’t talk to me about intelligence or innovation or assume that I’m denying the accomplishments of those we call genius.

The fact is, those we call genius are far from the only people to greatly contribute to our collective knowledge, nor are they always solely (or at all) responsible for whatever we credit them with.

Collectively we have some ideas of the characteristics of a genius, ideas which are very much subject to the unavoidable gender and racial biases we collectively have. Those of us who are not geniuses, which is most of us, use the term as a label to separate out the special people. For what? And we revere (our versions of) the special people of the past.  For what?

Here are my opinions of what we get for our efforts:

1. child prodigies who misunderstand their place in the world, and how they fit in with the rest of us
2. identified-as-gifted children who feel pressure to maintain their “genius,” sometimes to the extent that they avoid anything that might be challenging
3. children who “know” they are not geniuses, who “know” they are bad at “smart” things, who use this “fact” to inform their choices
4. an education system that values only one way of learning math (and viral memes mocking any attempt to change this)
5. a research community that is results- and star- driven, that doesn’t value work that non “geniuses” might value or excel at, perpetuated by hiring practices and publication choices.

In other words, we get a system that at every step of the way tells certain people not to bother doing math. Those people, due to external forces, are disproportionately women and people of color.

I am not your genius.


I am happy (overjoyed, really) for your support, but some of the comments I’ve seen have given me pause. This may be completely unnecessary, but just in case: please don’t use a compliment as a way to distance yourself from me. Do not assume that there is anything innate in me that sets me apart from you or anyone else. I have had a particular mix of marginalization and privilege which has led to something surprising. None of this is all my doing. What happens next is not entirely in my hands. It often takes a particular mix of marginalization and privilege to start to rattle a system.  Don’t ignore my privilege, my marginalization, or my ignorance, because doing so would only support the status quo.

Please continue to share your experiences with me, so that I may learn.  If you are in a position of power (academically, racially, gender-wise, etc), please use these conversations as inspiration to find ways to dismantle the oppressive hierarchies.  If you are not in a position of power, take care of yourself.

Things I have looked at:

http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/ (“How Not to Talk to Your Kids”)