Get Out The Way (Part 2)

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My name is Piper Harron, and I consider myself a product of a color-blind, sexism-blind environment. Let me tell you, it sucked.

I don’t mean to say that I was aware at every step how unhappy I was with a society that centered white cis men, just that it took a lot of sacrifice, and left me feeling less than fully human.

It was a journey coming out of that. A journey that led to my PhD thesis and this blog. A journey that I describe in a talk I’ve given in various universities around the country. In my thesis, here in my personal blog, and in my talk, I give voice to all those thoughts and feelings I was never allowed to express. When you’re marginalized and someone hurts your feelings, it’s very possible that they A) didn’t mean to B) had no idea it was hurtful C) have been taught explicitly that it is okay and D) will get offended if you tell them otherwise.

In all of my non-math writings (and some of my math writings), my goal is to express myself and in doing that, to give voice to all of those people who are not saying what they feel or are not feeling what they actually feel because there is so much pressure not to.

But I don’t speak for everyone, or really anyone. I speak only for myself. My life has been unique. Yet when I talk about my own pain, I am always surprised by how much it resonates across boundaries.

The talk that I give about my journey to “liberation” is always well-received and always produces a lot of conversation afterwards. People thank me for saying out loud things they thought only they went through. People open up about situations they’ve been in and where they’ve been let down by academia. It’s really quite wonderful. And then someone will ask me, “What can white men do to make things better?” And I will look at this person who seems genuinely interested, but ultimately human, and I wonder what can this person do? I am not a solutions person. I am a naming of the unnamed person. But I feel obligated to say something useful, so I will search my mind for some kind of practical advice, and then I’ll open it up to other suggestions from the audience. This always works well, but is ultimately unsatisfying for me, because practical things that white people can do will not set me free. White supremacy is pretty adaptable; taking easy and practical steps to increase diversity is not in itself dismantling privilege, and often privilege will find a way to prevail. As important as progress and practical solutions are, what I want to talk about is ending oppression. What I want to do is upset the status quo.

So one day I sat down and thought, what is my real, completely impractical, unfeasible, non-starter answer to what white men can do? It’s they can get out the way; they can quit. Not just increase the number of seats I have at the table, but actually leave the table all together.

Why bother advising the impossible? To get people to think. I expected people to understand I offered no practical solutions, but to challenge themselves to reevaluate their current practices.

On a more plausible and yet ultimately unrealistic level, I also suggested we stop hiring white cis men, and I asked people evaluate their knee-jerk negative reaction to such a call. Why? Because if you’re comfortable with only hiring men (as long as they’re “the best”) but you can’t fathom hiring only women, that is a problem.

Who is my audience anyway? Generally speaking, when I write it is for and about myself. By extension, I am writing for and about all those people who feel the way I do. These people are disproportionately marginalized and othered members or affiliates of academia, but it’s definitely not only marginalized people and it’s definitely not all marginalized people. When I am writing something “thought-provoking” I am aiming at academics who consider themselves to be advocates for marginalized people. I expected people to understand that I am just saying my opinions on the internet with no power, and to understand I don’t speak for the AMS.

Since it needs to be said, I will say it. Yes, I want all of us to consider whether we are entitled to what we have (probably not) — that includes myself and my husband. No, I don’t want us all to be jobless. We are all people with needs, but we all need to be vigilant against an oppressive dominant culture.

Since it needs to be said, I will say it. I do not represent anyone but myself. I have the opportunity to blog for the AMS because I give voice to things that aren’t said in academia regarding inclusion and exclusion, which was one of the goals of the blog.

Anyone interested in practical initiatives should subscribe to the AMS blog “inclusion/exclusion,” which covers a wide variety of topics related to marginalized and underrepresented groups in mathematics.

2 thoughts on “Get Out The Way (Part 2)

  1. Katrin Wehrheim

    Thank you so much, Piper, for your clear, brave, and – above all – wise words!
    Whether you’re helping us form our own thoughts into more brave and clear words, or confronting us with ideas to choke on – you are doing the math community invaluable service … I hope this will be recognized wider at some point … or at least have the desired effect 😉
    Practically, I hope that more of us can take a stand in their departments and voice the simple fact that any cis-white-male hire is a missed opportunity. (Yes, that’s a fact). The follow-up view that has coalesced for me thanks to Piper’s writing is the deduction from that fact that cis-white-male hires are thus never “the best” choice.
    More follow-up thoughts:
    * Yes, if we don’t have other ‘qualified’ candidates then that’s our recruitment and evaluation criteria failing.
    * No, your colleagues likely won’t agree … but maybe such ‘radical views’ will become a little less unfathomable with every time they hear them.


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