October 31, 2013 | 36
I doubted myself many, many times in the wake of all of this. Why did respond to that email in the first place? I should have just ignored it altogether. Then none of this or this or this or this or this would have happened at all. But that is a very selfish wish and driven completely by fear and personal anxieties. And frankly, it is the antithesis of who and what I am: I live out loud; I wear my feelings boldly on my sleeves. I have no poker face. When I am sad; I frown and cry. When I am happy; I smile and laugh – loudly.
But that’s not what a scientist is (supposed to be). Scientists are reserved and conservative in demeanor. Young women with PhDs don’t curse or roll their eyes or speak in informal tones or make references to underground hip-hop songs about street fights. We certainly don’t voice our frustration with larger systems of unfairness on esteemed platforms.
I have been told this by many people throughout my science career, including some commenters of this blog. No one said these things to me but those were the words and feelings that came to my mind on Saturday morning October 12, 2013, as I was trying to process Scientific American Editor-in-Chief Mariette DiChristina’s words when she explained why my post was pulled the previous day. By the time I hung up from that phone call, the tears were falling down my face. I was reminded of the many times I was given the impression (or sometimes explicitly told) that my issues were of no interests to anyone else. “You aren’t being professional enough. That’s not an interesting science question.”
Far too many times, students and scientists like myself have been told that our pain points are not worthy of the academy’s attention. We should stick to something more objective, less personal. That’s the appropriate way to make headway in science. Maybe; but there have been so many times where I found myself listening to or reading the accounts (personal and professional) of some other fancy-pants scientist and thinking nothing he is saying is the least bit relevant to my life, but still his words are golden. His viewpoints are canon. Canon because science – for so long – has been defined by those who dominate it. They say what is professional, what is acceptable, what is universal. The feelings, the experiences, the complex-hard-to-articulate interactions of women and persons of color and even more so women of color or just random aberrations. Science can be a sad, lonely, and overwhelming world and for much of my career (since college) I have struggled to have my full voice heard in science. For the last 7 years, blogging has been my megaphone to express all of my true, complicated feelings about science, academia, education, activism, justice and life.
My voice is sassy, urban and like most other scientists — no-nonsense and confrontational. However, when these traits are packaged in the body of a stout, round face, youthful-looking, working-class black girl with a Southern Drawl and fierce side-eye it is often perceived as less intelligent and rowdy. What makes this more infuriating (and sad) is that those doubtful and dismissive assumptions never go away. Never! Your degrees, your appointments mean nothing. Even when you do clean up, tone down the sass and present yourself accordingly, you still get interrogated about your expertise and experiences.
No wonder what I expressed was interpreted as a personal rant by so many. When the field has so few people from diverse backgrounds who might testify to completely different experiences, then it’s no wonder why so many regard our experiences as individual problems that should be handled off-the-clock. What will it take for the experiences of women, people from working-class families or immigrant families, persons of color and women of color be considered an authentic part of the whole, as representative of a larger narrative? This is what I (had) hope(d) my blog post would represent.
I didn’t think any of the contents of that post were off-base and I made the case that it offered important professional development lessons to students, scientists, science communicators and non-scientists alike. After all, I and other SciAm bloggers often share personal, passionate accounts of our experiences. To her credit, Ms. DiChristina said she would look into my assertion and get more details. And she did. She called me back early the next day. This time she had more details for me – from the legal department. And as has already been explained, things have been confirmed and the post was reinstated – no revisions needed. However, I completely understand why many folks were still put off. I, too was left feeling some kind of way by the change of explanation.
However, the truth is I really wanted to get back to normal. I wanted the attention to wane and I wanted to go back to feeling okay. That didn’t happen – at least not how I wanted it happen. I have since had come to terms with all of it. (It was a lot at first. Thank you to every one who supported, with tweets, blog posts and mirroring the original post. A special thank you to Dr Rubidium, Dr. Isis, Kate Clancy, SciCurious and Janet Stemwedel for coming to my defense.) I really do appreciate Ms. DiChristina’s personal apology and the formal apology/explanation from SciAm over the pulling of the post. Sometimes hard things happen to force long-overdue conversations and plan next steps. Part of coming to terms with all of this means getting things done – not just for me, but the bigger picture matters, too. Many folks have asked how I am feeling, what do I want (reaction-wise). I care about what I have always cared about: sharing science with broader audiences. I would not have planned such a publicly painful scenario, but I am grateful nonetheless for the opportunities to have these conversations about diversity and inclusiveness in science and science communication.
I know I have used a lot of words reflecting back on the incident. This is my first time writing since the post was pulled. I’m pulling myself back together here. Like a few others, I believe that it was my tone or how I presented the message that caused the post to be initially flagged. Miscommunications across cultural lines are not new – and definitely not new to me within science. If indeed it was the reason, then we all need to get ready for the transition. New individuals from diverse backgrounds are arriving to science. They each represent new voices to communicate with varied audiences, different tones, deliveries, metaphors, references and styles. I doubt it will be a breeze, but I am sure it will be enlightening.
I am also heartened by the responsiveness of the editorial team of Scientific American in the wake of this and the subsequent storms. I trust positive conversations/action about inclusiveness and safety will happen. And some have begun already: guest posts at The SciCurious Brain from new/diverse voices about Diversity in the Sciences and Science Communication. Moreover, I am quite excited about some of the more formal next steps which include me working with Scientific American to co-write a feature about women from diverse backgrounds in the sciences. Plus, we (I and SciAm) are discussing additional ventures to foster more science communication opportunities for wider audiences.
Some positive things have come from this; and I am glad. I’m quite excited about the future where more diverse, complex and unique voices in science can be heard. Stay tuned y’all.
Archive of the entire *whatever-it-was* graciously curated by Liz Ditz. Standing with DNLee against sexism at biology-online.org, and Scientific American’s cowardly conduct