On Diversity

10 min. read

Recently I have been having a lot of thoughts about diversity in mathematics (and STEM at large) and what it means to be a white cis male in favor of diversity. Below are some of my thoughts on the matter. If you have any ideas or input feel free to email me and let me know what you think.

Approaching from the outside

Diversity is a complicated subject to talk and think about. I have given a bit of thought to the matter and I truly and honestly believe that basically any population of people can benefit from having a representative slice of the broader population included. All too often in history we see examples of when a group of people (let’s be honest here–usually rich, white men) make a decision that they think is in the best interest of society and it ends up that they either misunderstand or completely undermine the needs of populations other than their own.

From a less pragmatic and more personal point of view, I also just think that variety in thought, experience, temperment, and cultural background is healthy to a functioning society and is what inspires us to be our most creative, compassionate, and most wonderful selves.

As far as my personal background is concerned, I am a white dude who was assigned such at birth who grew up in a upper-middle-class family in a white Christian suburb of LA. I spent all of my childhood surrounded by white people and had lots of white, male role models to look up to. I have always tended to be more comfortable discussing things with women than men, but it has never been difficult for me to see myself in a position of success in my future. I identify as bi-/pansexual but have never felt a sense of belonging in the LGBT community and furthermore have usually had the privilege of presenting as straight (my partner is a woman, for instance). So I have benefitted greatly from the systems in place that favor whiteness, heterosexuality, cisgender identity, and masculinity.

Throughout my development from a child into an adult I have been challenged (and rightfully so) with my privilege and have been asked to think about the fact that my experiences are not universal and that there are people that are just as deserving of success and happiness that are denied access to these because of the configuration of their chromosomes and the way they have been traditionally viewed in society. These are very rarely easy things to think about. I don’t think anyone wants to feel responsible for the pain and suffering of people and the idea that any success I have had has been in direct opposition to the success of others is a tough pill to swallow.

After allowing my initial defensiveness to subside and getting used to the idea that, to some extent, I have profited from corrupt and hateful institutions, the only way forward I see for myself (if I am going to be able to sleep at night) is to be an agent for positive change.

Use it or lose it?

My knee-jerk reaction to internalizing this realization is that I need to use my privilege as a tool in bringing about positive change in the world. I have been given power because of the world I was born into and a lucky roll of the dice, and so the only way to avoid the cognitive dissonance of benefitting from a system I recognize as corrupt and problematic is to channel any such gains into promoting equity and diversity.

But of course there is a much scarier decision: the idea that I should shed the trappings of privilege altogether in the interest of making room for a person from a traditionally disadvantaged community. In my first year of grad school, Piper Harron came and gave a talk shortly after she wrote an article on the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog entitled “Get Out The Way” in which she starts with a startling (to me at least) idea:

Not to alarm you, but I probably want you to quit your job, or at least take a demotion. Statistically speaking, you are probably taking up room that should go to someone else. If you are a white cis man (meaning you identify as male and you were assigned male at birth) you almost certainly should resign from your position of power. That’s right, please quit.


From there, the tone softens somewhat but she never fully abandons the idea that I, as a white male, am in the way of another person being successful. It puts a pit in my stomach–I want to be liked like any other human and I want to be wanted. But that sequence of statements communicates that I need to, well, Get Out The Way.

Piper ends her post with the following:

I know you’re not going to quit your job, but I want you to understand that you should. And to understand that by keeping your job and your other unearned privileges, you are running a continued debt to marginalized people and you should always be seeking ways to pay us back.

and my (now bruised) ego desperately clings to the idea that there is some way to even the score. But am I, as she suggests, just rationalizing my desire to keep hold of my ill-gotten gains while absolving myself of guilt?

Probably. At least to some degree.

I vacillate between complacence with my current trajectory and questioning my very presence in this program and in society on a pretty regular basis. I think (hope?) that my position as a person who thinks actively about his privilege and tries to act in ways that support changing old institutions of exclusion makes my presence a net positive but sometimes I wonder if that is truly the case.

Certainly my presence is better than that of an outright racist, sexist, or other bigot, but is that really the right yardstick to measure oneself by? At the end of the day, I am another white, cis dude in math perpetuating a stereotype through my very existence.

Want something done? Then do it yourself…

There is a problem in this discussion that lies right beneath the surface of this conversation, and that is the problem of overtaxing people of under-represented minorities in the struggle for better representation. I remember when I first heard someone talk about this feeling being surprised it hadn’t occurred to me before. Of course! The very fact that these populations are under-represented in math means that they are disproportionately called upon to be role models for diversity. Especially in an environment where everyone (at least in theory) supports diversity, these people have a large amount of pressure placed upon them and they can very easily become fatigued and perhaps even burn out and fail to become successful mathematicians themselves in the process.

When the (female) grad students who started the WDRP were considering stepping down last year, there was a discussion about whether their efforts could be more successfully applied in roles where they were more visible to the community. I whole-heartedly supported their transition and this is the main reason I stepped forward to help with the administrative tasks behind the scenes. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to provide a service to the mathematical community as well as to expend some of my free energy towards creating a better, more diverse mathematical population. The very same energy (as well as my past frustrations with prelims and how the grad program was structured) spurred me on to also serve the department and my fellow grad students as graduate student representative.

In this new position of power, I felt like I could use my unique perspective of the student body and of the administration and of diversity efforts to help to allocate resources to people and programs in need. In trying to build some kind of collaboration with minority groups in math, I found what I felt was a major oversight: there was a student chapter of AWM to support women in math, but people of color and queer folk and other populations didn’t have a student-oriented group looking out for their well-being. Such a group, I figured, could help programs such as the WDRP that are led by white men but interested in helping in the fight for diversity to figure out the best way to tailor their efforts to help. Furthermore, this group could act by being sensitive to the complaints and needs of under-represented groups and make sure that their voices are being heard at all levels. Support from me as GSR and from the faculty diversity committee could ensure that this committee had a direct line to administration and to faculty at large and empower them to bring about change that could help them most.

I have been (and continue to be!) excited by the prospect of such a group. I don’t think I have much of a role to play on the committee itself, but I figured that I could help organize things and get some initial energy put into it. And so I started talking to people about my ideas.

But probably it should be done by someone else

Unfortunately (seriously this makes me very sad), the impression I get is that I kind of have no business suggesting this. I have tried floating the idea past a few people in the department who fall into these groups and have gotten mixed responses overall. Mostly people are on-board for the general idea of diversity and representation, but most of my discussions have died off over time.

At first, I attributed this to the fact that I was, in essence, asking students (who are already busy with teaching and learning) to add another meeting to their already-busy schedules to participate in bureaucracy. Fair–it’s not the most glamorous thing in the world.

But this morning I had a discussion with some people who made me think that maybe the entire problem is that I am trying to start something that under-represented groups don’t really want. Were my efforts to reach out to my friends and colleagues to garner support for my ideas actually just a form of oppression hidden under a veil of “wokeness”?

I mean, I get it to some degree. I don’t want to shove my ideas about how to “do diversity” down the throats of those people I am supposed to be helping. I honestly felt that I had a unique perspective that enabled me to see a problem that needed solving. But I suppose the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

A more frightening perspective

In my discussion this morning, I felt there was even an implicit question about whether I had a role to play at all in starting such efforts. And so we return to Piper Harron’s blog post. Is my position of privilege immediately a disqualifying attribute in terms of enacting positive change?

It’s a very frustrating proposition. I want to help and the weight of my guilt for profiting off of the backs of the less-fortunate makes me desperately look for ways to help but maybe it’s something I can never do.

It feels somewhat unfair that people who deny their privilege are the only ones that are able to escape the weight of guilt they should carry. To be clear, I categorically denounce anyone who refuses to recognize that their privilege has come at the expense of others’ happiness and success. But I suppose I am frustrated with the fact that these people “get away with it.”

I know that my frustration is, in fact, another manifestation of my privilege—that I don’t feel like I should have to carry its burden. So in the end (the way this train of thought always ends) I am happy that I am empathetic enough to understand the ramifications of my existence and to want for the best for everyone around me (and elsewhere).

Moving forward

Of course the main takeaway from this whole experience is to continue to respect the best interests of under-represented populations in every way I can. This includes taking my lumps on my misguided ideas and accepting that I was mistaken in trying to impress my ideas upon the unwilling.

I hope that one day I can get to a point where I can feel useful and empowered in making others feel useful and empowered. It is the best possible world I can imagine and I want so desperately to make that happen. Identity politics is such a difficult topic, and I have no pretense about how to best help rectify the damage that has already been done, but I really want (perhaps selfishly) to find a role where I can be part of making a better future happen.

But is aligning one’s own best interests with the best interests of others truly a selfish act? Perhaps. But maybe it’s the best I can hope for from myself.

I can only hope it is enough.