"Thanks, Doc."

Aug 29 2008 Published by under Diversity in Science

Watching Michelle Obama speak at the Democratic Convention this week was awe inspiring and hope uplifting for many Americans and others worldwide. I was feelin' it myself. But what really hammered home the real message here, for me, was listening to various media interviews with African-American women. They explained in both humble and soaring terms how important it was for their dreams, aspirations and parental hopes that Michelle stood up there, brilliant, black, beautiful, charismatic and, let's face it, just plain fabulous. Her strength and will as an advocate for the downtrodden, her country and her family alike was a big hit for women everywhere who finally, finally see families that are just like theirs making a serious run at the US Presidency.
This reminds me of a phenomenon experienced by a scientist with whom I am familiar.
"The conversation usually ends with 'Thanks Doc, it means a lot'."


It is no news that US research science looks like a little bit of apartheid. White folks are overrepresented in the faculty ranks and overrepresented in the trainee ranks down to the undergraduate level, relative to the general US population. Frequently enough relative to local city or state populations as well. African-Americans and Latino-Americans are considerably underrepresented. [Don't yeah-but me with your favorite allegedly overrepresented group in the comments, it is irrelevant to today's discussion.]
In the service ranks, this is a different story. Visit a few Universities around the country, attend scientific meetings in the usual hotspots of Washington DC, New Orleans, Atlanta, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago and unless you are in complete denial or completely oblivious you notice something. African-Americans and Latino-Americans (and some additional nonwhite ethnic groups) are considerably overrepresented in the service ranks. Administrative assistants, janitors, animal care techs, facilities staff, hotel and convention staff..you name it. These national realities are not just anecdotes, of course. Every time we talk about affirmative action issues in the Academy on a national level, the dismal stats are related.
I make my views on casting a wide net and dismantling artificial barriers to success in science pretty clear in my blogging. I argue this both from the perspective of an advocate for my scientific domain who wants progress made and as an advocate for the individual scientist and his/her career.
Michelle Obama and the scientist who receives the "Thanks Doc" conversations remind me of another important, perhaps more important, reason for dismantling artificial barriers to science career success.
It matters that "people who look like me, are like me, have families like me" are a highly visible part of the landscape. It matters a lot. And this is why I will smack down knuckleheads who bleat on about quotas and "taking slots from the more deserving" and crap like that. First, of course, because those types (almost hysterically, unbelievably, overrepresented in the fizzycyst population) display a fundamental intuitive misunderstanding of populations, central tendencies, variance in the distribution and the rarity of extreme talents. Second, because they disingenuously ignore the warm fuzzies, opportunities and biases associated with the vast majority of the Academy looking just like them. Third because these morally shriveled little wankers are just plain fun to tweak and can be tangled up in their inconsistencies and hypocrisy with little effort. But I digress.
Unsurprisingly, the scientist to whom I am referring looks somewhat other than the vast majority of independent scientists at the University in question. Actually, I think people have a fairly difficult time discerning just what ethnic association fits but lets just say "nonwhite", pointedly underrepresented in science. Of a variety with which many people who work in support roles at the University in question identify. Ethnicity pegging is not helped in that this person does not speak, act, associate, recreate, hobby-ate, idea-ate, iPod-ate, etc in any particularly ethnically-specific or stereotypic ways that I can detect. This observation is quite important. Unlike Michelle Obama, for whom many aspects of the identity package are consistent with the women being interviewed on the radio this week, this scientist basically only looks "like them".
My subject scientist relates numerous conversations which follow a common thread. Some staff person will drop by the office to say "Thanks Doc. It's really important to see one of us in this office doing this job."
That is the crux of the issue. Image is important. Identity is important. It matters to the larger issues of diversity that we have readily apparent, quotidian, barebones diversity. It matters to our social fabric of opportunity and fairness. It matters to the fundamental principles of what it means to be an American citizen when we are talking politics. It matters to the fundamental principles of the Academy as well.

27 responses so far

  • thanks DM for reminding me of one the reasons why it is so important for me to not give up on this PhD thing. I just posted on how my cultural upbringing effects my science, so its timely that you talk about the "whiteness" of academia. The lack of diversity has so many implications, it has to do with such simple things, such as the number of times I am asked about whether or not I had an arranged marriage, to others understanding that you are trying to balance a family & science career when you have the added factor of the culture belief of a "woman's" place in ingrained in your family. How I wish I knew more woman PI's that had the same ethnic background as myself.

  • To add, I by no means intend to say that "white" culture doesn't have a "woman" place theme in it as well. There is just something inherently different in how I, and others in my ethnic group, feel how situation is. It is a intangible that is difficult to explain in a comment.

  • Kim says:

    My home state was pretty much all white when I was growing up, and the first couple of times I left home it really freaked me out that *everyone* in service roles was non-white. I felt like I'd been unknowingly complicit in something that, now made explicit, I wanted no part in.
    And, separate issue, it always kind of sickly amuses me that the people I hear most often bitch about being displaced due to "reverse discrimination" always seem to be in fields where the pool of non-white/non-male participants is vanishingly small.

  • neurolover says:

    "It matters that "people who look like me, are like me, have families like me" are a highly visible part of the landscape. It matters a lot."
    Indeed it does, a point rarely understood by people who are so used to looking like those in power that it never occurs to them that it is otherwise.

  • One of your finer efforts DM. That last paragraph, in particular, needs to be framed. I don't mean Nisbet framed; I mean actually put in a picture frame that people should look at every day.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    With respect to Kim's point, I recall a couple of peers going on the job market and visiting Universities in locations that were melanin challenged. Peers who grew up and spent all their college/grad/postdoc years in locations with a bit more diversity. Shocked. Deep shock that places like this actually exist in our country.
    [added in proof- Not that they reported any unpleasantness or bigotry or anything like that, just a shock to the visual system.]
    Having spent much time in such locations, I just laughed. And then I stopped when I realized that this failure of big city coastal America to fully understand how homogeneous some areas of the rest of America really are explains an awful lot...

  • cashmoney says:

    hey now! how about that Cullen Jones anyway! should we ask rajib 'n greg what the swimming gene is???

  • bill says:

    Nice one, DM.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Actually AM, it would be better if we had an Obama First Family to put in a frame and look at every day.... 🙂

  • DrugMonkey says:

    thanks DM for reminding me of one the reasons why it is so important for me to not give up on this PhD thing.
    It's tough, ScientistMother, because I for sure as heck wouldn't suggest that someone put up with a career path that is hard and can be soul sucking just for the purposes of not letting their peeps down. That's the kind of personal decision that I respect, for sure, and FSM knows there are times where we've all searched hard for the reasons to keep going. but I would draw the line at prescribing for anyone if you see what I mean.
    I did enjoy the Tubman quotes by Clinton, Mama B's advice about "bloody his nose Joey" and Obama's "keep on going" thematic element. Inspirational thoughts that anyone can use in tough times...

  • leigh says:

    i was pretty stunned to note the minuscule numbers of minorities at my local Big Name Uni, particularly in my own department. i'd venture to say that my local work environment is among the most diverse in the local atmosphere, representing 5 countries and many cultural heritages. i find the environment highly stimulating, with so many different perspectives and so much to learn from my coworkers. when our single minority phd candidate finished her degree, i got to meet her family. and the pride that was shining in their eyes was beyond amazing, truly. i was deeply affected by it. i have seen many defenses, but nothing like that. ever.

  • Leni says:

    DM wrote:

    Second, because they disingenuously ignore the warm fuzzies, opportunities and biases associated with the vast majority of the Academy looking just like them.

    There recently was a discussion at Dispatches regarding this very same issue. Ed mentioned the privileges that come with being white, male, and middle class and you would not believe the resulting bellyaching. "What privileges? I never got any privileges!" And "Nobody gave me a million dollars when I turned 18."
    Well, I'm sure you would believe it, but you get the point. A lot of just petty, childish, hyper-defensive crap. They were just entirely unwilling to acknowledge that the problem exists.
    I just liked how plainly you put it here.

  • juniorprof says:

    Just want to say that I am white, middle class and male and I am well aware of my privileges. People such as those described by Leni make me ill (and I distinctly remember that ridiculous discussion at Dispatches).
    I love this post and I cherish the diversity that I am encompassed by at the University where I work. It reminds me everyday of why I chose to come back to this country after several years abroad (in Canada).
    Finally, I have to admit that I absolutely melt everytime I see Michelle Obama speak. She has a gentle grace and elegance to her powerful speaking ability that I have never seen before. I have noted, moreover, that whenever I see her give a speech I am compelled to give another donation. Amazing how that happens. Her husband's not bad either.

  • PhysioProf says:

    When Rob Knop was in the throes of his failure to achieve tenure, he got into a knockdown dragout fight with Zuska and others over whether he--a white dude--benefited from unearned privilege.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    My thought is that when people are told "you have some privileges" what they hear is "You had it made in the shade simply by exhibiting your dangly bits and skin reflectance and have had nothing but a career of ease".
    This leads to much protestation, I find.

  • Leni says:

    Yes, I can understand why they get defensive. Having seen the struggles (and sometimes the failures) of some of my white friends from less well off families, I sympathize with it too. To a point.
    And I've had those feelings myself. (Not for being male, but for being white and middle class.) I didn't understand it until I was willing to listen to others describe what it felt like to look in from the outside. Or until I saw firsthand how it affected them. In order to listen, I had to not be defensive about it. And maybe eat a little humble pie.
    The Rob Knopp thing sounds ugly. I'm glad I didn't see it. I hope it didn't end too badly.

  • AS says:

    You have no idea how much this post means to me, DrugMonkey. Thank you for helping to encourage minority scientists to work hard and press on, simply through your willingness to compassionately and intelligently discuss this complex issue. And thanks to all the commentators who have posted before me. My world is brightened by thoughtful people like you.

  • another female post-doc says:

    and how would you explain most of the foreigners (Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Russian etc etc) as PhDs and post-docs? These people are seriously exploited because of visa condition etc etc. looking at my basic science department at big university in very big city, it feels like that there is hardly any white American who wants to do Science.
    I like all the inspirational themes, but certainly don't like to get fooled by them. 🙂

  • AS says:

    and how would you explain most of the foreigners (Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Russian etc etc) as PhDs and post-docs? These people are seriously exploited because of visa condition etc etc. looking at my basic science department at big university in very big city, it feels like that there is hardly any white American who wants to do Science.
    I like all the inspirational themes, but certainly don't like to get fooled by them. 🙂

    ARGHHHH. After weeks and weeks of lurking, I find one of the ONLY SciBlogs where the authors work in the field I want to career in AND the commentators don't strike me as (smugly!) biased against blacks like myself. Then I open my big fat mouth to awkwardly express my overwhelming appreciation-- whereupon someone decides that she simply can't suppress the insinuation that minorities don't face underrepresentation in science at all.
    I can't stay away from SciBlogs, but every time I come here, I inevitably get angry. And I come for the science, not the politics. Well, fuck. If I have to choose between allowing myself to get so angry I shut down and let all the people who don't get it to have all the fun or "foolishly" energizing myself with inspirational themes to press on toward success, I will choose the latter. At least I live in the 21st century and not the 1950's.

  • Alethea says:

    @AS: Please do make that choice. Live in hope and become the example you would like to find for yourself.
    @DM: "this failure of big city coastal America to fully understand how homogeneous some areas of the rest of America really are explains an awful lot..." I went from growing up on one coast to grad school on the other coast, benefiting from like-me role models the whole time, and then moved out of the country. I can't tell you how gob-smacked I was each time that Bush "won" the presidential election - not once, but twice.
    I learned from that reaction that [(a) I was naive and (b)] I am in a political and intellectual minority of Americans, on top of other flavors of minority/majority-classing that had already occurred to me.
    I also retained how absolutely empowering it can be when you *do* find a role model and mentor. So I'm thrilled that Michelle Obama can be in such a visible position, and that Barack shows so many young Americans that *they* can. I had voted for Hillary, but the whole time have been glad to be given a choice between a feather pillow and a soft, comfortable place. (Don't grill me on why I voted Clinton, just saying that all her supporters are far from being disgruntled.) Back to science.

  • Kemist says:

    'ARGHHHH. After weeks and weeks of lurking, I find one of the ONLY SciBlogs where the authors work in the field I want to career in AND the commentators don't strike me as (smugly!) biased against blacks like myself. Then I open my big fat mouth to awkwardly express my overwhelming appreciation-- whereupon someone decides that she simply can't suppress the insinuation that minorities don't face underrepresentation in science at all.'
    I think she meant that 'foreigners' rather than 'minorities' are very well represented (some would say overrepresented) at the graduate level, and I can confirm that this is quite true, even here is Canada. The most likely explanation is that, unfortunately, a science career is not, for most of us, very lucrative, and it doesn't justify getting in a huge student debt. It also true that foreigners get massively exploited because of their non-resident status (I've seen people getting paid half of what I got before the uni passed laws for a minimum stipend) Though I do not know what that has to do with underrepresentation of minorities in science jobs. I just don't understand people who dismiss other people because of their melanin levels (One of my collegues, a french of turkish origin, once told that she was told to give up her studies by a *respected professor*. Because she looked kind of arabic. Mind boggling.)
    That said, go for it, don't let such comments get in your way. There is a shortage of *americans* in american labs, like there is a shortage of canadians in canadian labs. We must train our own brains too :).

  • dajokr says:

    Late but glad to see people still commenting on this superb post, even better than the usual excellence I see from DrugMonkey.
    My white, blue-collar, factory-town upbringing limited the colleges to which I could attend but conferred to me the privilege of being white and male. I started with way more advantages than I could ever know but would not realize until I went to college in the inner city and grad school in the South. The further along I got, the more lucky (and embarrassed) I felt.
    Somewhere along the line as an asst prof I got involved in minority student recruitment and had the tremendous pleasure of seeing two of our recruits graduate as valedictorians - yes, some people crashed and burned and didn't take advantage of the opportunities they earned, but I saw more people succeed than fail, all because they were finally given a break for once in their lives. I was fortunate enough to help administer the generosity of a gentleman who felt that the one way to improve minority presence in the health professions and science was to provide role models for the next generation. But I truly felt that it was me who was being given the gift, to use my training and this philanthropist's endowment to share my expertise with folks who didn't look like me but who shared a love for science and wanted a life better than one from which they had come.
    I now live in a small Southern city with a population of 45% self-identified African American folks and I am a minority faculty member at a historically-black college/university, or HBCU. It is an experience I recommend to any white scientist who thinks they have had it tough.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I am a minority faculty member at a historically-black college/university, or HBCU. It is an experience I recommend to any white scientist who thinks they have had it tough.
    Now that is some serious putting-money-where-mouth-is, my friend. My hat is off to you.
    If you don't mind me asking, how minor of a minority are white faculty at your HCBU? How major of a majority (assuming here) are African American faculty?

  • dajokr says:

    The people you should really admire are those who got a HBCU undergrad, went to Harvard Law or Stanford MBA, then came back to become faculty at their alma mater. They could go anywhere but they've expressed to me their love for their school and desire to lend a hand like they received.
    To your question, the melanin-challenged comprise 15-25% of HBCU faculty across the U.S. as opposed to >80% at predominantly white institutions. I took note at my last meeting of 19 administrators: 15 black faculty primarily of Southern U.S. heritage with a Caribbean-African American and a first or second-generation African colleague. I was the most creamer-colored of the remaining four, with the others Middle Eastern to SE Asian. Interestingly, there were 50% women across the board.
    The student body is about 84% "black" - I still have discomfort using the word "black" but my colleagues use the term for clarity over the more cumbersome "African American." Even less-than-tan colleagues I've come to know, from faculty to security personnel, still refer to themselves as black. The terminology seems to grow more complicated as one goes north but I'm not a sociologist - I'm still pursuing my liberal arts self-education in this regard.
    I've had many incredible experiences but I'll leave your readers with one: when addressing new students about the relevance of their being here, especially those first-generation college students, a dean said, "you are the people your ancestors prayed here." You could hear a pin drop.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson on being invited to deliver a prayer at "an inaugural event":

    "It's important for any minority to see themselves represented in some way," Robinson told the newspaper for a story in Monday's editions. "Whether it be a racial minority, an ethnic minority, or in our case, a sexual minority. Just seeing someone like you up front matters."

    Word up, Bish!

  • Just clicked here from one of your posts on 2 Feb - I forgot how much I liked this one. Thanks for drawing our attention to it again.

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