Wednesday, May 4, 2016

When bathrooms and supernovae collide: Anti-LGBTQ legislation is hindering participation in science

By MacKenzie Warren

MacKenzie Warren (very recently) completed his PhD in Physics at University of Notre Dame. He will soon begin a postdoc at Michigan State University. MacKenzie's research is in computational modeling of core-collapse supernovae, particularly the role of nuclear and neutrino processes in the explosion mechanism.

Spinning off of Jessica Mink’s earlier post "On Becoming a Woman Astronomer", I have written this post to offer another perspective. My experience has been very different from Jessica’s in many ways: I am a trans guy (female to male) and I am transitioning while in graduate school. I never “planned” to transition in graduate school. My trans identity snuck up on me, as is often the case, and this is where I find myself. Taking time off from school to transition isn’t financially feasible and waiting until I have tenure is too far off in the future and too uncertain in today’s job market, so I am doing my best to manage the situation as it is. But that is a story for a future post. Today, I’d like to talk about bathrooms and how anti-LGBTQ legislation hinders participation in science.

As a trans person, there is perhaps nothing that I hate more than worrying about bathrooms. Believe me, I would rather be spending my time thinking about other things (such as science). But just as every woman has a fear of her next sexual harassment experience, trans people fear what we will face the next time that we use a public restroom.

Bathrooms are tricky spaces. Despite the fact that we all use them for the same things, they’re some of the most strictly gendered spaces that I can think of. This makes them a nightmare for anyone who doesn’t fit traditional gender norms, particularly for nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming people, who are neither, both, or a combination of man and woman, and can’t win when it comes to gendered bathrooms. This fear is not without reason: 70% of transgender people have been harassed and ~10% have been physically assaulted in restrooms.

Although I have been frequently reassured that men never notice who else is in the bathroom, I still cannot quiet my nerves when walking into a men’s restroom. This took its toll at a recent conference, the first that I attended since coming out. In order to avoid other people, and therefore the possibility of an incident, I found myself using the restroom during sessions. I waited until the room was empty to emerge from the stall. I missed entire talks for the sake of peeing in peace.

All of this happened to me, a white masculine-presenting transmasculine person, and in a state where I can legally use the men’s restroom. I have considerably less to fear than transfeminine people (who bear the brunt of society’s transphobia) and particularly black trans women (who experience even higher rates of discrimination and violence and are at the deadly intersection of racism, sexism, and transphobia). Recent anti-LGBT legislation is only worsening the existing discrimination against, and the vulnerability of, trans people.

There has been an upswing in the number of states attempting to regulate which bathrooms transgender people may use and/or legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people. Anti-trans “bathroom laws” make it illegal for trans people to use bathrooms, locker rooms, etc., corresponding to our gender identity. Enforcement of these laws relies on the problematic and frankly offensive assumption that cis (not-trans) people can identify trans people on sight. Even though there has never been a reported case of a trans person attacking anyone in a bathroom, such laws continue to dehumanize and demonize trans women as dangerous predators and antagonize additional hatred and violence toward trans women and transfeminine nonbinary people.

All of this extends far beyond trans people and bathrooms. Anti-LGBTQ laws make it legal, on religious grounds, to discriminate against someone due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity in many contexts. These laws further limit LGBTQ people’s access to goods, services, employment, housing, foster/adoption services, and medical care. Basically everything.

Currently, North Carolina and Mississippi have such anti-LGBTQ legislation in place. Additional states have similar bills in the works. This year, more than 100 different anti-LGBTQ laws were introduced in 22 states. This includes states where major astronomy and physics conferences are scheduled to take place. For example, Tennessee has luckily tabled its anti-trans “bathroom bill” for this year’s legislative session before the AAS Division of Dynamical Astronomy meeting at Vanderbilt University.

In light of these new laws (and the possibility of more to come), the full inclusion of LGBTQ astronomers in our field is at risk. Astronomers, physicists, and planetary scientists should stop hosting conferences, workshops, summer schools, and other meetings in states with anti-LGBTQ legislation. To facilitate this, I urge you all to sign an open letter, urging conference organizers to stop hosting conferences in states with anti-LGBTQ legislation. I also encourage you to pass on this message to anyone who is planning a future conference.

This should not be viewed as a punishment for researchers in these states nor purely as an idealistic act of protest. We must ensure the safety and well-being of all conference attendees. LGBTQ researchers attending events in these states will be at risk for discrimination and harassment, such as being turned away from hotels and restaurants. Transgender researchers traveling to states with anti-trans bathroom laws also risk legal repercussions and violence for using public restrooms (which can include restrooms at state universities). It is unconscionable of our field to require LGBTQ individuals to put so much at risk in order to participate in science.

The American Physical Society recently commissioned a report on the LGBTQ climate in physics. Their first recommendation: Ensuring a safe and welcoming environment at APS meetings. It is impossible to create a safe and welcoming environment if the conference is occurring in a state where discrimination against LGBTQ people is legal.

Let’s not forget the LGBTQ people, including scientists and students, living in states such as North Carolina and Mississippi, who will face these risks and barriers on a daily basis. The impact of these laws on LGBTQ people, particularly trans women, is very real. There have been many public threats of violence against trans women using public restrooms. Calls to a trans suicide hotline have doubled since HB 2 was passed in North Carolina. Lives are on the line and we must take a stand against this legislation.

If our field is truly committed to equity and inclusion, we must address the legalized discrimination of members of our community and commit to protecting our most vulnerable members. It is impossible to stay focused and committed to research without access to such fundamental rights as shelter and medical care or when facing harassment and violence. Now, more than ever, we need to stand with our LGBTQ community members and ensure that all interested researchers can fully participate in science.

Monday, May 2, 2016

"Mistakes were made": The case for proportional response to harassment

EDITED: As of 10:30CST, to deal with my failures of intersectionality and racism.

This year has led the “revelation” (in quotes, because y’all… we knew) that sexual harassment in the academy is alive and well. Through the heroic efforts of some, in the most egregious occurrences sanctions have been enacted. But we are left with a question - How do we prevent history from repeating?

In particular, how do we not end up in the situation where we are cleaning up 10, 20, or even 30 years of ongoing harassment that *finally* culminates in disciplinary action. Due to our current system much of the process is opaque even when people are found to be repeat offenders. How do we not take part in the institutional shuffle that so often follows revelations of harassment? How do we protect our community? How do we expose the systemic harassment that is happening to people who are not white women? How do we *change*? 

We still are very stuck focusing on heterosexual relationships when we talk about sexual harassment. But as the recent American Physical Society report on climate for LGBT physicists exposes, we are doing only a mediocre job at making our workplaces safe for people based on sexual orientation and gender minorities. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, agender, transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary face very mixed environments at work, and that experience is worse if you identify as a minority on more than one axis. This is often left out of our stereotypical vision of sexual harassment. Yet in report after report, such as the one above, we see the deeply damaging consequences of this harassment we rarely speak of.

Our current system appears to be predicated on the wildly inaccurate assumption that the job of the system is to protect poor hapless male faculty from the devious Lolitas (and they are always young women) that fill their lives (and of course their classrooms and labs). These assumptions are built on an outdated (as if it was ever otherwise) cisgender heterosexual fantasy world. Like so many things these days, we fail to protect those we claim to be thinking about, we endanger people we never imagined we would endanger, and we don’t know how to move forward. Huge swaths of harassment go ignored because they do not fit into the stereotypes we imagine, or fit cleanly into past experiences. People who are minoritized among several axis often find they are heavily discredited or disbelieved when it comes to reporting harassment. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising that the majority of "headline" cases we have seen about enforcing harassment have had white women at their cores (As so eloquently discussed here by Sarah Ballard). We need to extend and expand to keep our vulnerable community members safe.

I think we’re going about it a bit wrong.

I want to make something *exquisitely* clear here at the start. I believe people who harass should have consequences. I do not regret the actions that have been taken against our notorious harassers. I think the system does too little, too late. I think many people, especially junior or other vulnerable people have their careers derailed or destroyed before anyone knows to worry about it, and that is extremely unacceptable. I also believe that the way we’re dealing with it now doesn’t, in the end, fix that. I want to think about what we’re missing in this "all or nothing" framework and how we might repair or rebuild our approach.

As these news stories broke (news stories always, because our institutions operate under shields of impenetrable silence), I had more than one person ask me, as these harassers were being exposed and dealt with, “Oh god, am I harasser and I don’t even know it?”

The short answer is yes.

The slightly longer answer is - You are, but. You are likely not a predator. You do not believe you are above repercussions. You forget, sometimes, that you have the potential to be a bull in a china shop when it comes to issues of gender, race, and sexuality. You do harm without thinking because you are not a “male astronomer” or a "white astronomer" or a "straight astronomer", you are just an astronomer. Maybe you were young, maybe you made a mistake. You misjudged a flirtation, or you were a jerk. You crossed a line you thought you could get away with. You pushed your luck. You did not imagine how offensive your question would sound. We’ve been there. And so, the power built into the kyriarchy of our system means that you can do damage without batting an eye, and inevitably you have. Those mistakes have very real consequences. We need to hold ourselves accountable.

Some might think of what I’m discussing as microaggressions. And it is true that microaggressions are a part of this. It is important here to recognize that the theory of microaggressions was developed by Chester Pierce in his revolutionary work at Harvard and Mass. General regarding racism and health effects in the United States. Although racism & sexism are still very much embedded in our society, they are not the same, and the way we both deal with them and react to them is different. His work on microaggressions was extended by Mary Rowe to expand the application beyond race. But I am including things beyond microaggressions.

This is a conversation I think we are afraid to have, in no small part because our systems are so skewed in how they deal with any sort of complaint. How many times have we heard “He made me really uncomfortable, but it isn’t something to ruin a career over.” Holding someone accountable for their damaging words or actions should be a thing we can do without “ruining” their career. Our current system deals so poorly that it puts the onus entirely on the person being harassed to do a terrible kind of accounting. Who has more value? Your mental and physical health? Or the career and wellbeing of your harasser? And because the stakes are set to be incredibly high, people in power seem to find it easy to dismiss complaints out of hand. Mix that in with unconscious bias and you begin to understand the truly toxic environment academia has become.

I want to see a system where a careless sexist remark, a lingering touch, or an email asking a student out for a date can be reported, can result in protection and satisfaction for the victim, as *well* as a learning experience and proportional consequence for the offender. I want to not keep sheltering faculty who constantly question the competence of our students of color, or who make "offhand" racist comments in class - but are excused because "They're old." or "That's just how Y is, you know.". I want us to be able to hold people to account for harassment in a straightforward way. And then perhaps we teach *most* people that respect and communication is crucial, and that power differentials do matter, and society and its ills don't get left at the door when we enter our buildings. Our current options of endurance or scorched earth are unsatisfactory and problematic. At its worst, our system converts possible abusers into confirmed abusers, because there are almost no consequences for most of their inappropriate behavior and abuse.

What could this new system look like? Fundamentally, it will have to be rooted in our institutions but I believe we could test drive something locally within departments. It will require a lot of community buy in and cooperation. New things are hard, and we will screw them up. It will mean signing on as a department (for example) to have *meaningful* trainings about inclusion, racism, and sexism. It will mean equipping all of us with tools for bystander intervention (training which some Universities already have available) so when mistakes are made we can intervene, discuss, apologize, and learn. The system will require meaningful and increasing consequences, some as small as requiring apologies, or mediated meetings, or attending trainings. And some as severe as fines or firing. I think we have to base it in the work being done in the restorative justice movement. I think we need to move as much power and agency as we can back to the people who are experiencing harassment.

We have relied for too long on the “whispernet” because our current system continues to fail us, but unfortunately whispernet hasn’t protected us adequately either. In particular, early career field members often do not feel like they are valued - by their senior colleagues, or by their institutions. They see the value is placed on their senior colleagues, even those who behave reprehensibly (“But he is such a great physicist!”) and learn very quickly the implicit message about their value. This valuation is always colored by the inherent biases that we carry in our societies, and so unsurprisingly we see the reflection in our constantly disappointing demographic reports. People who are minoritized are not thriving in our field because we are repeating the failings of our society, instead of creating systems that will support their voices and prioritize their survival.

Returning to those people who ask me “Am I a harasser?”. Many of these people also ask me “What can *I* do?”. Add your voice and your hands to instituting systemic change, in your department and in our field.

These systems and teachings CAN NOT only come from the work of minoritized people and communities. Those of us who have some privilege need to take on the work of supporting programs to protect minoritized community members and create change.

Does all this change seem unlikely? Maybe. But maybe to me it is worth imagining that we can learn and grow, rather than accepting that we will just continue on, pushing out marginalized colleagues through our carelessness and contempt. I’m not interested in accepting that, and will continue to try and fix it. I do hope you’ll join me.

Author's Note: When I wrote the first version of this, I handled poorly issues of intersectionality in harassment. I apologize for harm done for those who read it, and hope in its revision it speaks better to the future I'd like us to strive for. I used old and lazy framing, which in and of itself is racist. I forgot the fundamental rule that work worth doing is worth doing correctly the first time. I aspire to do better in the future, and appreciate being called in to make corrections in the present.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Discovery Program Series: VERITAS (PI: Sue Smrekar, Managed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

This post is part of a series discussing the recent NASA Discovery Program mission selections for further refinement. From the 27 proposals submitted in November of 2014, NASA has selected 5 missions for further refinement in the next year. Part 1 of the series focused on the overview of the Discovery refinement selections and an interview with the Lead Program Scientist for the Discovery Program, Dr. Michael New. Part II focussed on the Psyche Mission (PI: Linda Elkins-Tanton, Arizona State University, Managed by JPL). Part III will focus on the NEOCam Mission (PI: Amy Mainzer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Managed by JPL). Part IV will focus on the Lucy Mission (PI: Hal Levison, Southwest Research Institute, Managed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center). Part V will focus on the DAVINCI Mission (PI: Lori Glaze, Managed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center). Part VI will focus on the VERITAS Mission (PI: Sue Smrekar, Managed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory).

Mission Overview: VERITAS

 VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography And Spectroscopy) is aimed at understanding one of the most fundamental questions in planetary evolution: Why are the twin planets Earth and Venus so different? Venus and Earth are nearly the same size and bulk compositions. Yet Earth ended up supremely habitable and Venus a sulfurous hell, where the surface temperature is hot enough to melt lead. Understanding how these two planets arrived at their present state is essential to understanding the evolution of rocky planets like Earth, and thus for predicting whether the Earth-sized planets in other solar systems are likely to be habitable. VERITAS will investigate Venus’ geologic evolution by obtaining global maps of high-resolution radar imaging, topography, and near infrared spectroscopy to constrain surface composition. This wealth of data will provide rich opportunities for discovery and inquiry for the next generation of planetary scientists and bring the information available for Venus on par with that for Mars, Mercury, and the Moon. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

AASWOMEN Newsletter for April 22, 2016

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of April 22, 2016
eds: Daryl Haggard, Nicolle Zellner, Elysse Voyer, & Heather Flewelling

This week's issues:

1. Social Justice in the Physics and Astronomy Classroom
2. White Privilege Conference 17      
3. President’s Column: Combatting Bias in the Trenches
4. The complex role of gender in faculty hiring
5. How Marvel's 'Thor' Contest Empowered a Group of Young Women Science Buffs
6. Why We Need Intersectionality Week  
7. Job Opportunities    
8. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter
9. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter
10. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter

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1. Social Justice in the Physics and Astronomy Classroom  
From: Daryl Haggard via womeninastronomy.blogspot.com

At the beginning of this winter term (in Montreal we don't even try to call it the "spring" term), I tried for the first time to directly address social justice issues, including racism and harassment, in my physics classroom…

With considerable trepidation, I tackled this the way brand new faculty tackle most things, I just tried something. And yes, it was clumsy. I share my experience here because I want to embolden other junior (and senior) faculty to take a stab at this conversation and because I would like to learn from those of you who have made (or will make) similar attempts.

Read more at

http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com/2016/04/social-justice-in-physics-and-astronomy.html  

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2.  White Privilege Conference 17
From: Ed Bertschinger via womeninastronomy.blogspot.com

White people who want to improve the experiences of others have to work against the socialization and norms of society, which convey fear of people of color, of Muslims, of transgender people, of people with disabilities, and so on. If it was possible to be unaware of this fear and its impact before, this year's presidential campaign should make it clear to anyone, regardless of her/his/their politics, that we live in a divided and troubled society.

Read more  

http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com/2016/04/white-privilege-conference-17.html

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3. President’s Column: Combatting Bias in the Trenches
From: Nicolle Zellner [nzellner_at_albion.edu]

In her column, AAS President Meg Urry urges us in the community to think about how to combat gender bias in proposal reviews.

Read more at

https://aas.org/posts/news/2016/04/president%E2%80%99s-column-combatting-bias-trenches

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4. The complex role of gender in faculty hiring
From:  Nicolle Zellner [nzellner_at_albion.edu]

"Gender bias in hiring is not blatant...but gender-associated differences in productivity, postdoctoral experience, and institutional prestige of degree-granting institutions—which are likely due to bias against women during the training process—largely account for the observed gender imbalance in computer science faculty hiring networks."

Read more about hiring computer science faculty at

http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2016/04/complex-role-gender-faculty-hiring

Read "Gender, Productivity, and Prestige in Computer Science Faculty Hiring Networks" at

http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.00795

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5. How Marvel's 'Thor' Contest Empowered a Group of Young Women Science Buffs    
From: Nicolle Zellner [nzellner_at_albion.edu]

“Natalie Portman's physicist may not be returning for 'Thor: Ragnarok,' but her character has forever changed the lives of 10 girls from around the country who excel at STEM studies.”

Read more at

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/how-marvels-thor-contest-empowered-884464

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6. Why We Need Intersectionality Week
From: Meg Urry [meg.urry@yale.edu]

At the annual AAUW National Convention, a group of Younger Women’s Task Force chapter directors got together to discuss social justice, including the topic of intersectionality. As a result of those discussions, the first-ever YWTF Intersectionality Week will take place May 1–7.

Read more at

http://www.aauw.org/2016/04/13/intersectionality-week/

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7. Job Opportunities


For those interested in increasing excellence and diversity in their organizations, a list of resources and advice is here: http://www.aas.org/cswa/diversity.html#howtoincrease.

- Assistant Professor of Astronomy (tenure-track), University of Hawai`i at Hilo (Big Island)
   http://hilo.hawaii.edu/uhh/hr/vacancy/982

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8. How to Submit to the AASWOMEN newsletter

To submit an item to the AASWOMEN newsletter, including replies to topics, send email to aaswomen_at_aas.org

All material will be posted unless you tell us otherwise, including your email address.

When submitting a job posting for inclusion in the newsletter, please include a one-line description and a link to the full job posting.

Please remember to replace "_at_" in the e-mail address above.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
9. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWOMEN newsletter

Join AAS Women List by email:

Send email to aaswlist+subscribe_at_aas.org from the address you want to have subscribed. You can leave the subject and message blank if you like.

Be sure to follow the instructions in the confirmation email. (Just reply back to the email list)

To unsubscribe by email:

Send email to aawlist+unsubscribe_at_aas.org from the address you want to have UNsubscribed. You can leave the subject and message blank if you like.

To join or leave AASWomen via web, or change your membership settings:

https://groups.google.com/a/aas.org/group/aaswlist  

You will have to create a Google Account if you do not already have one, using https://accounts.google.com/newaccount?hl=en  

Google Groups Subscribe Help:

http://support.google.com/groups/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=46606  

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10. Access to Past Issues

http://www.aas.org/cswa/AASWOMEN.html  

Each annual summary includes an index of topics covered.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Social Justice in the Physics and Astronomy Classroom

At the beginning of this winter term (in Montreal we don't even try to call it the "spring" term), I tried for the first time to directly address social justice issues, including racism and harassment, in my physics classroom.

In the months leading up to this attempt, I read that having diverse role models in the sciences is a good place to start, but not a replacement for an open, candid conversation about bias in STEM. (If you have a reference for this study, please contact me. I can't relocate it!) I'm a white women and a physics professor and perhaps that's a useful combination for some students to experience, but my mere presence doesn't prompt them to think about the core issues that lead to bias in physics and astronomy. Me standing there doesn't openly challenge them to consider racism, ablism, unconscious bias, or even gender discrimination. My desire to talk about these issues crystallized at the end of last year when Justices in the US Supreme Court used the physics classroom as an example of a place where diversity couldn't or shouldn't matter, to the outrage of many physicists and astronomers, outrage also articulated eloquently by Jedidah Isler in her NY Times Op Ed, The ‘Benefits’ of Black Physics Students.

With considerable trepidation, I tackled this the way brand new faculty tackle most things, I just tried something. And yes, it was clumsy. I share my experience here because I want to embolden other junior (and senior) faculty to take a stab at this conversation and because I would like to learn from those of you who have made (or will make) similar attempts.

Here's what I did:

1. On day one, near the start of class, I gave a short anonymous survey:

Find a piece of paper, DON’T write your name on it. 

Answer these simple questions:
   –  Take a moment to look around at the members of our class. Does this class look normal to you? In what ways yes, and in what ways no?
   –  What are you most excited about learning in this class?
   –  What is your greatest anxiety about this class?
   –  What are your greatest excitements/anxieties outside of this class?


Pick one answer and share it with the person sitting in front of or behind you...

Turn your questionnaire in when you pick up PS #1 at the end of class.


2. Then I introduced myself, talked about my research interests, told them about my unlikely career path, and also about my attempts to learn about and work toward equity and inclusion in STEM. I used both my non-traditional career path and my own commitment to equity to segue into a description of the fraught comments from the US Supreme Court.

3. As a part of the latter bit, I read out loud Sarah Tuttle's essay, Racism Doesn't Belong In My Classroom.

At the end of this 1-2-3 my classroom was dead silent. If you could look at my slides, you'd see that the next one features a linearly polarized plane wave. Seriously. The transition was just about that abrupt. I desperately wanted to bring this conversation to my students, but I didn't manage to make it a conversation at all. I could hear them thinking, "We're in Canada, what does the US Supreme Court have to do with us?" "Why are we talking about this?" "Are we ever going to talk about Optics?" "Does she even know anything about Optics?" "Is this going to be on the exam?" And I wanted to scream, "Didn't you hear the part about training revolutionaries?"

It was awkward. You can see my impostor syndrome kicking in as I struggled to express how much this conversation meant to me and how clearly I saw that I hadn't approached it well.

After that, I provided my students with several excellent suggested reading lists from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and John Johnson (here and here; which mercifully do include some discussion of race and racism in Canada). And I dropped it.

My actual, real, live discomfort with talking about discrimination in a physics classroom manifested in me: (1) not making it a real conversation with my students, (2) not having a plan to meaningfully integrate either the student surveys or the concepts themselves into future discussions, and (3) not returning to it as a theme over the rest of the term.

Which doesn't mean that I won't try it again.

As I finally sat down to write this post, I rediscovered an excellent set of blogs from Moses Rifkin. He describes a rich 6-day curriculum which draws from his training as a physicist and teacher. The AIP also has a nice set of Teaching Guides on Women and Minorities in the Physical Sciences. And I'm sure there are other great resources out there.

My first foray was not a smashing success, but I remain committed to this endeavor. It's too important to the future of physics and astronomy, and for people inside and outside of STEM, for me to drop it altogether. These actually are our future leaders. So, if you have additional resources and/or have tried to facilitate a similar conversation in your physics classroom, please contact me. I would like to learn, to learn from, and (if you're game) possibly to share your story.

Further Reading:

1. An open letter to SCOTUS from professional physicists drafted by the Equity & Inclusion in Physics & Astronomy group and signed by over 2000 astronomers and physicists

2. The ‘Benefits’ of Black Physics Students by Jedidah Isler

3. Racism Doesn't Belong In My Classroom by Sarah Tuttle

4. A U.S./Canadian Race & Racism Reading List by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

5. Required reading for those who prioritize diversity by John Johnson

6. Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom by Moses Rifkin

7. Teaching Guides on Women and Minorities in the Physical Sciences from the American Institute of Physics

Monday, April 18, 2016

White Privilege Conference 17

Last week and this weekend I attended the 17th White Privilege Conference, held in Philadelphia. The conference examines the challenging concepts of privilege and oppression, and helps participants build strategies to advance equity and inclusion in their lives and their institutions. I was a first-time attendee. The conference was both challenging and informative, and while it was personally very enjoyable for me, it was not necessarily so for others. As a senior white male, I have a lot of privileges, and whether I intend it or not, whether I am aware or not, these privileges generally come at the expense of others. This conference does a great job of opening eyes to this inequity and to illustrating the difference between intent and impact.

White people who want to improve the experiences of others have to work against the socialization and norms of society, which convey fear of people of color, of Muslims, of transgender people, of people with disabilities, and so on. If it was possible to be unaware of this fear and its impact before, this year's presidential campaign should make it clear to anyone, regardless of her/his/their politics, that we live in a divided and troubled society.

The conference title suggests an opportunity for white people to learn about their privilege, and indeed this is a big part of the experience. But who are the teachers? Is it people of color or other white folk?

The language can be off-putting or uncomfortable to those unused to social justice terminology. A person who has never recognized their privilege, never learned how other people are treated differently, can easily deduce that being told they have privilege is the same as being told they are a bad person. My advice is to get over it, just as you got over your PhD qualifying exam. Being an astronomer conveys many privileges, and so does having a college degree or being white in a department store. What is bad is when privilege combines with stereotypes and power to create systemic oppression. By oppression I mean unfair, unequal treatment that limits the ability of others to achieve their goals or potential. It does not have to be a conscious act of the privileged.

There are plenty of examples of oppression of women in astronomy ranging from men speaking over and not giving credit to women, to biased hiring and promotion processes, all the way to sexual assault. The oppression is greater for women who are also racial, religious, or sexual minorities. While the focus of the White Privilege Conference is on race dynamics, there is a strong current of intersectionality.

The conference had a remarkable set of plenary speakers and workshops, and participants got many opportunities to see white privilege in action. This ranged from a white male speaker who took extra time and said he would do so despite being asked by the organizers to conclude his talk, to many black people bearing the burden of white people's anxiety and microaggressions. This is hard work, and those with privilege have a difficult time unless they can show great cultural humility, as described by pediatrician and social activist Melanie Tervalon.

UPenn psychologist Prof. Howard C. Stevenson summed it up very well in his concluding plenary address. "Courage is seeing yourself as the racial elephant." I recognized the truth of his statement, "You are the elephant in the room." As a senior white male, I carry that with me and must never forget. Stevenson's concluding question turned this revelation into the possibility of healing: "Are you ready?" That is, am I ready to call out the elephant of my white privilege and then to use that privilege to halt oppression and serve others?

As lawyer, activist, and inspirational speaker Vernā Myers said in her keynote, "When enough of us are willing to forfeit our privilege, then all of us get to live in justice."

Are you ready? Are you willing? Come to the next White Privilege Conference and see!