It's Difficult To Talk About Diversity When You Feel Ignorant And Are Afraid To Give Offense

Well, February has come and gone, Black History Month is over for another year, and we've had the first round of the Diversity in Science carnival. I am sure some of you who blog may have thought about contributing to this carnival but didn't for a variety of reasons. Maybe, like me, you had family issues and/or health issues going on; I almost didn't make it to contribute to the carnival myself. Maybe your job was making you crazy. Or maybe you thought to yourself, "I am not an expert on diversity. I don't want to offend anyone. I don't really know how to go about writing on this topic. I don't really know any black researchers in my field. I'd better leave this to people who really know what they are talking about."

Well, if I had had to wait until I was an absolute expert on Black History in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to write a blog post for the Diversity in Science carnival, it just never would've happened.

As it was, I felt a mild sort of panic myself. It's been quite some time since I was active in the research world, and I don't really know anyone these days in the areas I used to work in. I don't know if things have changed much since I left research, but here's an anecdote that will give you some idea of what my little corner of the research world was like.

At a conference during my second postdoc, my boss introduced me to another postdoc he had known for many years, from her days as a student at Wayne State University. We hit it off immediately and enjoyed talking with each other not just about science, but about life in general. At one point she confided in me how very difficult it was to be the only African-American woman in our field of research. "Oh," I said, "there's at least one more! I know because I saw her give a talk at the [major conference in our field] one year." "Really!" she exclaimed. "What year? I've gone to the conference every year for the last five years and I'm sure I would have met her." I told her which year, and then I said, "I was sort of bothered by her boss, because she gave the talk but then when it was time for questions he stepped in and took all the questions while she had to just stand there at the side." My new friend burst into laughter. "That was me!" she said. "That was my first talk! I was still a student. And I was so afraid to talk to that room full of white folks that I asked my thesis adviser to stand there with me and handle the questions so I didn't have to!" It seemed she really was the only black woman in an international field of thousands of researchers.* I had thought I felt lonely and often frightened as one of very few women in a sea of men, but I had been able to take for granted my "belonging" there on the basis of race.

As the days of February went by, I kept thinking about how I might contribute to the carnival. I cast my memory over my experiences in industry and realized I had not had the chance to get to know or work with any African-Americans in any of the several companies I worked for. And yet it is most surely not the case that there are no African-Americans in the pharmaceutical industry. I just don't know them, or know about them. I did finally settle upon writing about a fantastic woman I got the chance to know through a program specifically dedicated to cultivating a diverse female leadership in academia.

And so I think it might be worthwhile for us to talk about coming to the realization that one may have an "in principle" commitment to diversity, but an "in practice" near complete lack of knowledge of who, except white males, has contributed to one's field. And then we should ponder why that might be so. What are the forces that cultivate this sort of ignorance in all of us? How hard is it to take the first step to combating that ignorance? Where are the places one can turn to for information? What happens if one just Googles - can you learn anything? How about if one stops by the librarian's desk and asks "hey, how do I learn about African American contributors to my field?" Are there books available in one's college bookstore or local bookshop or college library? And if not, what is the significance of that? Just how hard is it to uncover meaningful information about the development of one's field, the contributors to that field?

I understand the desire not to appear condescending, to not want put something out there that makes it look like you think you are so with it when you feel completely clueless. But I think throwing up our hands and saying "well, I can't write anything if I can't write something perfect" is a sort of abdication of responsibility. Even just writing about our struggle with figuring out how to write about this might be useful. Not necessarily for young people of color looking for role models but for other white dudes and dudettes who are similarly afraid to speak out for fear of speaking wrongly.

Because, I think, we need to be doing this not just to provide more information for "them", but to be educating ourselves as well, as part of the process of changing our own minds and entrenched ways of thinking. As the months go on and the next installments of the Diversity in Science carnival come along, I hope more people will take a chance and write something to contribute.

*It is a sad commentary on that field and academia in general that neither she, nor I, nor any of the other three women I worked closely with in my field ended up becoming professors. I won't comment on myself but all the rest of them were very highly talented researchers.

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This is a great post, Zuska, because it articulates exactly what so many people don't seem to get. Being an ally "in principle" is not enough, if you are serious, you need to be an ally "in practice" and in order to do that, you might need to learn something along the way. Thanks for all of your wonderful blogging this week.

well, admittedly I suffer from an excess of hubris but at one point I got irritated enough by some jackholery on teh Intertubz that I just said screw it, I'm going to go ahead and flail away at how I see diversity issues on the blog. I figure if I step in a big pile then I'll take my lumps from people who know wtf they are talking about, apologize to the offended and try to learn something new. so far it is working out okay.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

What an excellent post. I definitely feel like I am an ally to underrepresented groups (other than women) in principle rather than in practice.

You have phrased this so nicely. My fears exactly when discussing/writing about diversity in science. My ignorance, my fear of saying something wrong. You will be a great host for the next round.