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Context and Variation

Context and Variation


Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.
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Toxic or Just Tough?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’m working against too many deadlines as usual and am unable to write a long blog post. But I was pretty troubled by this piece in The Nation the other day… troubled because the hard work and brilliant insights of black women I respected were being turned into something far more sinister. Suddenly white women and some women of color were claiming that black women were hurting their feelings on Twitter and contributing to a toxic culture. Then we have Amanda Palmer’s recent comments about allies being “allowed” to fight for change (and a comparison between the backlash against Macklemore and… 12 Years a Slave). On this, Tom Hawking writes:

“But let’s follow it through to its logical conclusion: the privileged must be “allowed” to fight for change or… what? They’ll take their bat and ball and go home? They’ll say, “Well, we tried, but shit, no one liked us, so hey, back to oppression!”? We’d better stop being nasty to Macklemore or he’ll stop “fighting” for gay rights, and then what will The Gays do, eh? C’mon now. What she’s really saying is that straight white men must be made to feel as comfortable as possible as potential allies or they’ll get miffed.”

Listen, allies, male or female, we don’t always get a cookie. And we don’t always deserve to be the ones out front. And it’s ok if someone calls us on our mistakes. Just because they don’t always do it gently doesn’t mean you have to pathologize it.

So for now I’ll leave you with a few links to some great pieces you should read in full:

And suggest you follow @FeministaJones, @thetrudz, @Karnythia, @suey_park, @prisonculture, just to get started.

So why am I writing about this stuff on a science blog?

This may surprise you, but people do science. And power differentials, racism and sexism influences who wants to do science, and who gets to do science, and what science gets the most attention from, say, the top journals of science.

You guys likely know about Henry Gee outing Dr. Isis, a despicable move by a senior editor at Nature who used his power to try (unsuccessfully I might add) tear down an up and coming Latina junior scientist. You must read Dr. Isis’s take on it first.

“So, while I am “ok”, were his actions “ok?” Of course not, and they give me pause. I have undoubtedly been vocal over the last four years of the fact that I believe Nature, the flagship of our profession, does not have a strong track record of treating women fairly. I believe that Henry Gee, a representative of the journal, is responsible for some of that culture.  That’s not “vitriolic” and it’s not “bullying”. That is me saying, as a woman, that there is something wrong with how this journal and its editors engage 50% of the population (or 20% of scientists) and I believe in my right to say “this is not ‘ok’.”  Henry Gee responded by skywriting my real name because he believed that would hurt me personally – my career, my safety, my family.”

Gee used all the resources available to him to try and hurt Isis, because he felt personal hurt for her calling out the sexism at Nature that many, many others in our community have also railed against. I want to share one last quote, this one from Michael Eisen’s recent post on the topic:

“Apparently Gee felt aggrieved by comments from Dr. Isis, who he claimed was using the veil of anonymity to slander him.

“Having myself come under fairly withering criticism from Dr. Isis, I feel somewhat qualified to speak to this. She has a sharp tongue. She speaks with righteous indignation. I don’t always think she’s being fair. And, to be honest, her words hurt. But you know what? She was also right. I have learned a lot from my interactions with Dr. Isis – albeit sometimes painfully. I reflected on what she had to say – and why she was saying it. I am a better person for it. I have to admit that her confrontational style is effective.”

People of color and other oppressed folks aren’t around for us to get to have our Hallmark moments of realizing our privilege and becoming better people. When they speak truth to power it is not necessarily to educate you or for your benefit, and their goals may be completely different than yours. That means they aren’t always going to be careful and protect your feelings when correcting you. The cool thing is, if you listen and you do the work, you can do better. Mike listened. So have many others. I’d like to think I have too. And I still screw up plenty, I just try not to take it so personally and understand the broader cultural context in which I’ve been raised.

And that process is motivating and inspiring, without the cookie. Where I sit, if this process results in more scientists that are people of color and women, contributing their diverse perspectives, expertise, brilliance and interests, it’s a win.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Jennifer Ouellette 12:30 am 02/1/2014

    Fantastic piece, Kate. It’s painful to get called out on our privilege — and we all have it, in some form or another — but the grown-up response is to suck it up and cop to our blind spots. And, hopefully, learn from the experience. :)

    Link to this
  2. 2. tuned 10:22 am 02/1/2014

    It still looks like a lot of rock throwing back and forth from out here.
    Doesn’t this belong in Rupert Murdochs’ “News Of The World”?

    Link to this

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