In Defense of Not Telling Me What TF I Can and Can’t Think About

This is just an angry little note to myself, because I understand I have no business talking about this.

I am a mathematician, and a pure mathematician at that. I am a black woman who studies the structures of abstractified numbers. And why do I do this? Because it’s effing interesting to me and blessedly someone is willing to pay me for it. Mostly white dudes.

So here I am, thinking about things that don’t exist, for the sheer joy of it, and getting paid, and talking to others about how we can get more marginalized people to have access to this wonderful world of logic-driven make-believe, when my friend sends me this:

Although derided by many white and white-affiliated critics as trivial and naive, discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humour and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded. I see no more important foundational consideration for art than this question, which otherwise dissolves into empty formalism or irony, into a pastime or a therapy.

I applaud this paragraph in the context in which it was written, as pushback against racist art. Furthermore, I completely support any non-white person who says that the most important questions in art revolve around freeing us from the psychological terror that is whiteness.

Yet, if I allow myself to take in this paragraph as an attempt at some bigger truth, not just a weapon against racism, I do take exception to its final words.

I see no more important foundational consideration for art than this question [of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode… given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded], which otherwise dissolves into empty formalism or irony, into a pastime or a therapy.

While I grant and support the author’s opinion, of course, I can’t agree that the most important foundational consideration for art is anything that presumes white supremacy. And in fact, if we’re not in a battle over racist art, if we’re merely putting forth our ideas of the world, I would not even agree that there is “a” most important foundational consideration for art.

Admittedly I’m a big fan of the idea that in times of war (i.e. oppression), certain “nice” considerations must be set aside (like respectability and white dudes’ feelings). In that vein, it makes sense for marginalized people to decide for themselves that they are definitely not interested in questions that don’t address their own liberation. But I don’t consider it a moral imperative. I do believe that dominant people are morally obligated to dismantle their privileges, but let’s not pretend that “what questions we seek to answer” are the only domains of privilege. A white pure mathematician has plenty of room to unpack and dismantle without switching over into social justice driven applied math, for instance.

I’m not an artist! I’m not in the humanities. I do, however, enjoy thinking. I am a black woman who enjoys thinking, and I don’t appreciate being told that I may only ponder questions that start with my own oppression. If you deny me my passions, if you take away from me that which is simply pleasing, you have not liberated me. Many things must slide in times of war, but not all things. Not pure ideas, not pleasing harmonies, not sentences so delicately crafted you accidentally hold your breath as you read them.

Yes, there is a lot of work to be done. We must stop teaching racist points of view, and we must definitely ask the questions of “how we might seek to live in a reparative mode” in light of the oppressive forces that try to erase us. Just don’t tell me those are the only questions I am allowed to think about.

Don’t tell me that my interests are “empty” “pastime” or “therapy.”

We should be striving for a world without white supremacy, but in a world without white supremacy there are still questions about art, and questions about number theory. White people don’t get to own abstraction and formalism.

White people have taken so much already. Don’t let them take ideas, too.

I sent my friend the following riff, in defense of non-racist aesthetic pursuits. It could not replace the original in its original context, but I would like to add it to the universe:

Although derided by many justice-minded scholars as trivial and naive, discussions of aesthetics, when not weaponized against discussions of appropriation and representation, go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to thrive as beings whose needs will always go beyond the basic necessities. Given the devastating realities of racial, gendered, and capitalistic violence on which our lives are founded, we absolutely must be committed to pursuits of justice and reparation. Yet, I take no pride in seeking a liberation which abandons the heart and soul, and I would not trust anyone who forces that choice upon me.

One thought on “In Defense of Not Telling Me What TF I Can and Can’t Think About

  1. Nageswari Shanmugalingam

    Thank you, and please know that you are not alone-there are other colored female mathematicians working in the area of pure mathematics, taking back a bit of ground to ourselves.

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