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  • Writer's picturerichelletanner

Putting words to discomfort in the conference room: minority status with majority privilege

I have a colleague who believes his role is as a disruptor, aggressively, in any discussion of research topics. We interacted for the first time in a collective comprised of faculty, postdocs, and students - this reading group was outside of his expertise, but he still dominated the conversation week after week. His comments directed at female postdocs and students were piercing, unnecessarily accusatory, ultimately cultivating of different levels of anger, discomfort, and sadness among all of us. When confronted, he revealed his mission as disruptor - something he had not previously disclosed - and dismissed concerns as part of a larger problem of discrimination in academia that he fully supported the resolution of. I imagine he did not grasp the nuance we tried to expose - that he was treating the young female participants differently, whether he meant to or not.

This interaction left me stumped, and harkened feelings from other interactions I have had in academic discussions - whether they be in person or online. Male colleagues that unknowingly target their female counterparts in aggressive comments don't necessarily deserve scorn, but they definitely need education. But what happens when they already see themselves as part of the solution, and more importantly, when they don't see you as part of the community impacted by the problem?

I spend a lot of time acknowledging my huge privileges, which is inherent to those of us who understand what it means to be a minority in the room. I pass as white, my parents are well-educated, and I've raced along my career path at a speed supported by my ability to fit in with the academics. But I'm a young woman in a space with very few people who look like me and experience the world as I do. My upbringing was one of an immigrant; my heritage and values are firmly Chinese. As for my age, my most irksome pet peeve is when someone compliments my resemblance to the freshmen undergrads. Those who have the most privilege do not see the issues with this statement, and surely do not think about their privilege when they open their mouths. So when I carefully outline my space in a conversation, things that I might leave implicit (like my minority status as a woman) are lost to the most privileged. I'm tired of having to say, in explicit terms, "your comments are discriminatory to me because of my status as an X,Y,Z minority". Some even think that women in academia are not minorities, that we've "solved that problem already".

Other than being a test in office-contained mediation, these types of experiences have done very few positive things for me in the past. They have made me feel that I have thoughts about a community that I don't "belong" in (since I've been told I'm not a minority), and generally resulted in increasingly introspective thoughts about my own privilege. But I've already done the work in that regard - it's time to encourage this type of thinking in my male peers that don't see the problems in their own departments. I don't have any quick fixes; writing this is more therapeutic than anything else. I just hope we can come together as a community and acknowledge the finer nuances of discrimination beyond the federally sanctioned definitions of what it means to be a minority.

See here for how my institution deals with "diversity":

In the meantime, enjoy this related video by the fabulous Rachel Bloom (and maybe get your own RBG pillow for your office, to muffle your sobs):

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