Repost: "Thanks, Doc."

Sep 28 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Reposting due to recent comment thread. This post originally appeared on the blog 8/28/2008.


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.

10 responses so far

  • UCProf says:

    I had a student who was Mexican-American. He's was actually born in Mexico and entered the US with his parents at a young age. This was about ten years ago. He got legal status through one of the amnesty programs, maybe in 1986 or 1994.

    His case demonstrates why there is a lack of people like him in research faculty jobs.

    Here are some things I remember: His parents had little educations. I think they had a third grade education before starting work. His father worked in the US at a warehouse, his mother worked cleaning buildings. He received a lot of pressure to "get working." School costs money, it doesn't pay. So he should finish school as soon as possible and get working. His entire extended family was like that.

    He had a lot of self motivation, but his parents didn't understand his goals. Example: He told me the morning of the SAT, he was up at 4am helping his father move some stuff at a warehouse. He left the warehouse dirty and sore from working to take the SAT test. He obviously never took a SAT preparation course. He scored well, but going to a school away from home was not even considered. He needed to stay close to his family.

    He went to a conference in Washington DC, while he was a graduate student. He was nervous/scared about it because it was his first time on a plane.

    After he finished his PhD, a post-doc at an institution in another city was out of the question, because he had to stay in the same city to take care of his parents.

    He ended up being a great student and researcher. He took a full time job at a community college. I think he would have done well as a professor at a research university like UCLA or USC, but he would need to do a good postdoc for 4-6 years first to be competitive for those jobs.

    He went off and landed a job teaching at a 2 year community college close to his parent's home. It paid fairly well, $60-70k/year with full benefits.

    His parents and family are extremely proud of him. He is a college professor and they don't see the difference between him and a professor at UCLA.

  • drugmonkey says:

    This is a perfect example of why I think the sort of kneejerk anti-affirmative-action variety that says that "well it is only supporting the people who are middle class already and don't need the help, so why should they get it over me?" with respect to the the diversity policies at elite Universities is misplaced.

    It isn't going to happen in one jump. We cannot expect that the only affirmative action policy that is "fair" takes only a candidate such as you mention, with multiple cultural/opportunity hurdles to navigate.

    It is the child of this guy who is going to be situated to make a run at the upper ranks. And this child will be the offspring of a professor ad will have more opportunities for academic engagement that have opened up as a consequence. Does this child "need" affirmative action policies? maybe, maybe not. but if this child is a professor at a top ranked University then there will be the opportunity for others to see someone like them sitting in the chair. and that will have an effect on the pipeline.

  • Grumble says:

    I have a minority student in my lab now, with a background much like the one UCProf desribes. It's a very interesting experience: this person is incredibly smart and has a level of motivation that is far higher than most of my other students, yet struggles with some things that those with more privileged backgrounds find fairly easy (e.g., writing). As the mentor, I'm in a position to do something about these deficits by doing some actual teaching - something it's a pleasure to do with someone so motivated and bright. I think this person is going to have an illustrious career, not only as a scientist but also as someone who can show that science isn't monochromatic and who can attract and mentor minorities.

  • kalevala says:

    The latest emphasis on communicating your research "effectively" (and "storytelling" and "presentation") further bias the selection process to favoring those who sound/look/write according to a very narrowly defined standard. Sometimes idiosyncracies are tolerated/embraced, but only if they aren't easily assigned to a particular cultural sphere.

  • Anonymous says:

    Image does not equal identity. You seem to have missed this rather obvious but very important fact. So let me say it again so it finally sinks in with you: image does not equal identity.

    I am white but also Hispanic and most definitely very underrepresented in my field. But thanks for letting me know that according to you, I don't count since I don't look the part. Luckily, the people around me are much more enlightened.

    Incidentally, how the hell do you know that the person UCProf was talking about is non-white? Because all Mexicans are brown?

  • kalevala says:

    White Finnish-Americans are also very underrepresented in my field. What's your point?

  • Anonymous says:

    @kalevala: Are you really this clueless?

  • drugmonkey says:

    according to you, I don't count since I don't look the part

    If you are talking to me, I think you are mistaking what I mean. In this one example I referred to in this old post, the overt identity was visual and skin tone / physiognomy based. The triggering conversation about sex diversity in faculty hires, well, ditto, generally there is immediate recognition by most people that the new hire is male or female.

    But this is not saying that the visual is the only thing. It is that there should be overt recognizable characteristics to serve the part of the goal that is encouraging other people to see this career path as something that they might achieve. Sometimes those are not visual characteristics. Sometimes they are.

    And there is another part of the diversity goal that has to do with fair opportunity for the candidate herself. This particular post wasn't really about that part of the goal.

    how the hell do you know that the person UCProf was talking about is non-white? Because all Mexicans are brown?

    I am missing the comment where anyone other than you jumped to this conclusion. You mean Grumble's "monochromatic"? mmmkay. Not clear that Grumble's "much like" comment linked those two things strongly imo...

  • kalevala says:

    As a white hispanic myself, I know image provided my ancestors (and myself) an inordinate amount of influence and privilege in the homecountry. Claiming unity with non-white hispanics is therefore similar to a white American appropriating Black culture because, hey, America!

    That our European genes took a wild detour before arriving here doesn't matter. Therefore I call BS on the "underrepresented" claim. There are a million unique shades of white in this country, each of them technically underrepresented. That's not the point.

  • Anonymous says:

    @kalevala: How ignorant you are! I *did not* claim that my experience was the same as that of a nonwhite Hispanic, but since members of my immediate family(!) are often seen as nonwhite, I am quite sensitive to it. Hispanic is an ethnicity and encompasses whites and nonwhites alike. I have much more in common with my nonwhite family members and Hispanic friends (of all shades) than I do with the average white person in the US. From the language that I speak at home , to the foods, customs, etc. I'm not going to renounce that because my skin color doesn't fit your stereotype.

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