The Scicurious Brain

The Scicurious Brain

The Good, Bad, and Weird in Physiology and Neuroscience

Guest Post 2: Automatic ‘othering’


Please welcome the second in the guest post series, the fantastic D-list monktress, Hermitage!

So, I’m one of the ‘bloggers you’ve never heard of’ that Scicurious has graciously invited to be part of her diversity guest post series. Which Sci made very clear is supposed to be an uplifting outlet for all of the e-rage about the Biology-Online debacle, and not a “Look at all the non-white friends I have” segment for SciAm. If I were on token black PhD student duty, I totally would have increased my base charge of $0 by at least 200%*. I have standards for my e-famewhoring.

Disclaimer: If you are the type of person who reads a post, then shakes their head while sighing, “this would have been really compelling if they'd had better copy-editing,” we should both agree that we're good people and go back to our respective NPR/lolcats lives. Similar rules apply if blatant disregard for grammar makes you cry, or if you've ever made a grumbly comment on overuse of memes by The Kids of Today. Not that you’ve been properly appraised, let’s dive right in.

Figure 1: Being the token black academic is a super stressful job, especially now that I’m expected to have views not only on the debt ceiling, but also Kenya AND muslin.

*Note to people who continued reading even though the disclaimer totally applied to them: this post will not get any better.

“Dr. Lee’s post pertained to personal correspondence between her and an editor at Biology-Online about a possible assignment for that network.” (Source)

Now, I am going to ignore the (imo) logical fallacy of calling an email exchange about requesting someone's professional services—followed up by a youtube video advising young bloggers how to navigate such requests—a personal correspondence. No, today muffins, we will discuss a different topic: that stories about scientists interacting with and navigating through the broader scientific community have no place in Srs Science Bsns Discussions. This is total le bullshit, now let us walk through why.

As far as I’m aware, when white d00d BSDs do campus visits, it is considered Srs Science Bsns time. They are sponsored by graduate departments, swarming with professors and students trying to get BSD facetime, and sport someone important is here so don’t dumpster dive this time tapas. And when said BSD graces the plebeians with their imminence, we sure as fuck aren’t gathering around adoringly for them to read us the results from their 1e7 glamourmag publications. We want to hear the personal saga in the scientific equivalent of defeating Mount Everest. We want to hear about the context of their career progression, their successes and failures—both for admiration and also to benchmark ourselves against it, “could I ever achieve that?” If that’s not the stamp of official science approval, I dunno what is.

Of course, if said BSD is a woman or a person of color, it is often immediately perceived as a ‘diversity’ or ‘outreach’ event.

Which brings me to my second point, which is an academic’s simple existence as a non-straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied white man is still automatically ‘othering’. This is also a perfect example of the academy talking out of both sides of its mouth, because we are inundated with breathless reports of how we simply must get more diversity in STEM fields to push us to the next level. We smile and tell potential recruits that they are needed to provide new perspectives and viewpoints. Except when you do join the STEM Borg, you’re supposed to leave your cultural baggage outside the door, but line up and smile for the ‘diversity’ promo photographs.

Figure 2: The main goal of a lot of research is to answer the what and why of certain phenomena. The what of this study is decreased retention of URM men and women from undergrad to TT. There are numbers and percent signs and statistical significances, so SRS SCIENCE y’all. The why is a combination of social biases, cultural expectations, and the phase of the Moon, probably. Is the why no longer science because it now lacks clean controls and parametric comparisons? Source: Education Career Outcomes for Women of Color in Academia.

Academics do not exist within a vacuum, their careers, and their science, are influenced by how the greater scientific community perceives and interacts with them. Louis Pasteur’s establishment of germ theory is not only compelling for his elegant experiments. We revel in his dogged determination to prove his theory despite hostile reactions from the medical establishment. It is his crusade against other scientists, against accepted dogma propagated by others before him, which makes us appreciate the beauty of an ironclad experiment with near irrefutable results. Researchers do not avoid these stories; we seek them out voraciously, because the context outside of simple experimental conditions makes us appreciate the data even more. However, the template for such stories has almost universally been through a white male’s lens, and when a scientist shares a story that does not fit this mold, it is confusing. When the story does not fit the mold, it must not be scientific, and therefore is to be dismissed as frivolous, or a sidebar to real science discussions.

But, dismissing these stories as ‘not science’, because the researcher in question had the moral failing of not figuring out how to make the scientific community perceive them like a white male, is a direct contradiction to wanting to increase diversity in our fields. Assuming these stories are strange one-offs, or are something to be discussed quietly in some panel somewhere while Real Scientists get on with Srs Science Bsns is what helps dropkick minorities right out of STEM. We must accept that diversity of viewpoints means our definition of what is a proper scientific discussion must change along with it. Otherwise we are directly lying to underrepresented populations when we say we need their expertise, when what we really want is window-dressing. And I assure you, there are fields that would pay a heck of a lot more for us to be their Token Minority/Female/LBGTQ/Etc friend. With, like, pensions...probably.

*Which, if we were going to insult The Hermitage using gendered, patriarchal slurs, would make her a slut. Because whores get paid, have insurance, and (in non-assbackwards countries) workman’s comp. Take this PSA as inspiration to Do Better in your internet trolling endeavors.

Hermitage is a STEM grad student who likes to make snarky comments about laboratory servitude. You can follower her on twitter: @meinhermitage, and at her blog:

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

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article