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.

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

  1. Helen G. Grundman

    Hi Piper,

    Thank you for defending the aesthetics of pure mathematics. I initially didn’t go to math graduate school, since doing so would be self-indulgent and not “fighting the good fight.” But a friend of mine pointed out to me that there are other battles to wage, some of which can only be waged by women with math PhD’s. So I’ve spent many years enjoying my mathematics and mentoring (particularly women) in the subject’s joys and the sometimes scary people you meet along the way….

    I’m writing, though, about one line you wrote that makes me very sad: “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).” Of course, it’s a personal decision just how important other people’s feelings may be and whether or not membership in a certain group (e.g., white dudes) makes a person’s feelings less important. So I certainly won’t tell you that you’re wrong.

    What I do want to point out is that this attitude is something that spreads. Do not doubt, that many “white dudes” feel oppressed, and some of them with good reason. Your attitude as to what must be set aside in times of oppression, implies that it is fine for these people to ignore my feelings, along with those of anyone else who is not in the group that you have put them in. This makes the world that we live in a much less happy place, making it more difficult for many of us to enjoy doing mathematics…or much of anything else. It saddens me that you not only believe in this approach, but feel that spreading the idea is a good thing.

    In case you can’t tell, I’m a hard core pacifist. I’m not concerned with who started what. I’m concerned that I stand up for what I believe in, but do not stoop to using the weapons that I do not believe in. Hurting individual’s feelings is not something that I want to do. I know that it’s harder to get people’s attention without using such weapons, but I strongly believe in striving to do so.

    Just my two cents,

    Helen

    1. Piper Post author

      Hi Helen,

      Sorry it took me so long to see and reply to this. It has been difficult for me to get back into things.

      So, just as a side comment, when people with more power offer their opinions to those with less power, it’s always more than “two cents.”

      Anyway, to be frank, the sadness of white women in positions of power is basically unwelcome here. The feelings of white women are often leveraged against the lives of people of color. This is not a safe space for those feelings which can be so dangerous to people I care about.

      To be more specific, you came here to tell me that something I wrote made you sad. How much time did you spend trying to figure out why I said it, or why I hold that view in the first place? For how much time did you attempt to sit with your discomfort? (Believe me, I’ve sat with internalized the pain of white people my whole life.) You say that my views would lead to marginalized white dudes not caring about your feelings. I’m going to assume we’re talking about e.g. a white man with disabilities who is demanding access and doesn’t care about how inconvenient it is for you, and doesn’t want to have to be nice to you as you try to deny him his basic human rights. Provided the white man is not fighting for an accommodation that would discriminate against people with disabilities who aren’t white men, I’m going to agree with him that your feelings don’t matter.

      If de-centering the feelings of privileged people spreads, as you suggest, I will be a very happy person indeed. You are presumably unaware of the pain caused by privileged people getting to have their feelings, reserving the rights to their feelings, feeling comfortable leaving three paragraphs of commentary at the hint that someone might encourage someone else to disregard their feelings. You say hurting individual’s feelings is not something that you want to do. Great! What exactly are you doing to stop from hurting the feelings of marginalized people whose struggles you do not understand? White people hurt the feelings of people of color all the time. I’m talking about the good white people! Cis people hurt the feelings of trans people all the time. Our society encourages it, fosters it, maybe even demands it.

      I write about not caring about the feelings of “white dudes” because when I care about their feelings I start “understanding” that I do not deserve to live without assault, that I do not deserve to be paid fairly. I start “understanding” that I should shut up. I start “understanding” how valueless I am. And without understanding this at all, you tell me to be careful because my attitude might spread and cause you pain. Well, guess what. That hurt my feelings.

      When we first met, you made a casual joke at my expense and then attempted to get me to help you with your job without any compensation. It was all very socially acceptable and probably not very memorable to you. It hurt my feelings, but there was no socially acceptable way for me to say anything. So I didn’t.

      I have made a personal vow to stand up for the humanity of the oppressed. I talk to so many people who have given up so much of themselves, or had so much taken, by just regular old mainstream casual “innocent” oppression. I tell them that they do not have to live like that. That they can get angry (if it helps them), that they can ignore the precious details of why so-and-so wasn’t trying to be racist, that they do not have to value the white (etc) tears that make everyone forget about black (etc) pain. I stand by that 100%.

      -piper-

  2. 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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