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You’re not like the rest, and that is okay – Letter to My Young self

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


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Most of my life, I’ve always felt like I don’t quite fit in. Not at home, not with any of my families, not at school.  I sometimes joke that I was hatched from an egg.  But that’s not exactly true.  When I least want to admit it, I see how my parents, grandparents and other adults influenced my personality.  If you ask me, I would say I was good kid.  I didn’t really do much of anything wrong, but for some reason I always felt like I was getting into trouble. I always felt like adults (and authority figures) seem to notice me.  Call me out of the crowd, pull me out of line. And with each judgmental mentioning of my name I have a foot stomp, an eye-roll and a huff that said, “What now?!”

I look back and the truth is…. I do call attention to myself.  Not on purpose mind you.  I mean I do stand out.  My entire academic career felt like this song in playing on continuous loop.

I’m different. I’m either the female, the Black person or Colored Girl, or the one with the Big Afro, or the one from the City or something that reaffirms that science doesn’t include very many women, people of color or women of color.

However, I have also got to admit that my personality causes me to stand out too. Even as a very young child, say 4 years of age, I would give sassy responses to children and adults alike.  I wasn’t meaning to be sassy. I was just being matter-of-fact. “The sky is blue. It’s hot. I’m hungry. That’s not what you said. That’s a stupid idea.” I have never had the patience to tolerate hypocrisy, injustice, or dishonesty from anyone. NO ONE, especially authority figures.  But coming of age in the 1980′s meant adults were keen and quick to discipline children corporeally.  So, I became quite good at the mumble and transparent facial expressions.  I’m also loud.  And this has always nagged me.  Even now in my adulthood, being loud is especially contentious for Black Women as it is seen as unprofessional and playing to stereotypical expectations of inner city brown girls. The thing is, I’m usually not aware of the volume of my voice or laugh.  I’m not straining my voice. My throat isn’t exhausted. I’m speaking at a comfortable level.  When ambient noise rises, my volume increases to accommodate like everyone else.  When I’m happy or excited, my volume increases like everyone else.  When I whisper (deliberately speaking in a hushed tone), people clear across the room hear me. Always have.  I learned then that my voice carries.  (It made me natural for theatre and drama.)  I just don’t have an inside voice and folks always seem to notice me and say as much.

Presently, I a post-doc at really great university working on a project I am super excited about.  However, my adjustment to this town and specifically my department has been slow going (see my post from January 10, 2012 On Being Conspicuously Invisible).  I’m the lone post-doc in a department with not much of a post-doc tradition and I think I’m also discovering that it doesn’t have much a tradition in diversity either.  That’s neither good nor bad. But it can be lonely and frustrating.

I am quite use to interacting with white people. As blunt as that may sound, the truth is, knowing how and being comfortable interacting with lots of different types of people is a valuable and way under-rated skill in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), higher education, and academia in general.  But what frustrates me is that this skill set is mostly one-sided.  In order for individuals from under-represented groups (of any definition) to become successful we have master interacting with students, faculty and leaders from the dominant group.  Vice-versa is not required.

The result is a minority member attempting to become apart of a new organization and the existing members, if not well trained in inclusiveness, carry on passively with their daily lives.  They aren’t doing anything negative. However, the result is that the minority member is left feeling lonely and excluded from networking and social opportunities.

What’s great about being a member of the majority? It’s that awesome feeling of freedom in being able to blend in and be anonymous.  It is a mental vacation to not be in the ‘on’ mode all of the time.  It means that every little thing you do isn’t magnified and cataloged and remembered (and potentially held against you and every other member of your minority group).  It’s this blissful feeling of inclusion that doesn’t call to doubt your ability to be intelligent, as opposed to clever, or that gives you credit for speaking well when you were simply speaking in complete sentences like the rest of your peers.

It means I can be me – loud, brilliant, funny, caring, insightful, honest – and not have to stomach others crude looks, looks of surprise or turn every interaction into a ‘cultural learning moment’.  Or worry that some old school white d00d will think less of me professionally because I don’t make him feel more comfortable whenever I’m in his presence.

I hate feeling like this – like being me is somehow a hindrance to my career.  The first time I felt this way was during the pursuit of my Masters degree. And I got a pep talk from the most unexpected person.  The former Department Chair, an older white d00d – quite the Southern gentleman he was, pull me aside and told me how the light from my eyes was dimmed. He then told me that being effervescent was my gift to science and that I should never lose it or let anyone make me feel like I am a less authentic scientist because of my chipper personality.

And when I feel the blues come on, I think back to his encouraging comments.  I have experienced many professional opportunities where I can be ‘me’ and feel relaxed and can turn the code switches off.  And I rejoice in knowing that I have been blessed and highly favored in all of my pursuits.

I realize that my path to science wasn’t preset.  I arrived here by back alleys and gravel roads. I gained access to the main highway and navigated a course using tools and skills I acquired from many different mentors.  And when ever some good ole boy reminds me of how different I am, I smile and nod and thank him.  And think to myself: “Did you really think I came to follow in your footsteps?”

I haven’t gone through all of this, living simultaneously in multiple-cultures and breaking barriers only to maintain the status quo. Not a chance.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

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





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  1. 1. Bora Zivkovic 9:10 pm 03/22/2012

    This is why we love you – just the way you are!

    Link to this
  2. 2. sonherder 10:21 am 03/23/2012

    I thought I was the only one! I’m a bit older, but down to the comments and the looks it sounds like my experiences growing up. I ended up in a non-science career, but I’m glad there’s more than one of us.

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  3. 3. E81ER 5:56 pm 03/23/2012

    Your description of being an outsider in science and academia felt very familiar, even for someone like myself who physically matches the ‘traditional’ model of a scientist.

    Personally, being different was something I eventually came to accept, but the greatest challenge then became fitting-in and playing ‘the role’ enough to connect with a suitable mentor. I think you illustrate the importance of mentorship, and even the simple act of the gentleman scientist encouraging you to be yourself seemed to have a profound effect.

    Finally, it’s refreshing that you describe the interactions between yourself and your peers as a function of their homogeneous environment, rather than defaulting to intentional prejudice. If only we could all be so enlightened.

    I think

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  4. 4. Bee 5:28 am 03/24/2012

    Ah, I went to great trouble unearthing my password to post this comment. And all I wanted to say is, great post. But now that I’m typing anyway, let me add that I’m the sort of short, white, unremarkable women that nobody really notices till they stomp on my feet. Most of the time, I’m comfortable with that. But I always admire the “loud” people for their presence.

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  5. 5. CliffClark 7:38 pm 03/24/2012

    I’m an old(er?) white guy, a research scientist, and I have always felt the same way. Matter of fact, I have always thought I have suffered a bit at the hands of “the establishment” and have felt a lot more comfortable among those who have seemed less arrogant and prone to playing dominance games with the intent to win – and consequently have always felt more comfortable with women and people from minority groups, who seem less inclined to engage in these silly and demeaning games. I’m not sure that there are any easy answers, but want to reassure you and others who feel the same that you are definitely not alone! Maybe the best strategy is just to find something you love doing, find some people you can connect with and trust, and screw the rest of the world.

    Link to this

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