Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sharing status

My husband and I have passionate debates about theological virtues.  (This beats having arguments over money and politics, in my book!)

For me, the hyper-rational, geeky mathematics professor, it's no surprise that wisdom/prudence is the pre-emnient virtue.  For my husband, the uber-manly/bicycle-racer/National Guard re-enlistee, it's courage/fortitude that rises to the top of the list.  I think we both acknowledge that charity and justice ought to be high up there, but the truth is our own strengths shine brighter in our eyes than our weaknesses do.

Today I'm going to side with my husband and write about the virtue of courage.  And I'm going to do it by placing myself in a position I hate being in -- that of victim/underdog. You can probably tell from my posts that I like seeing myself as completely in control, master of the situations I encounter.  But when I go to math conferences, I often find myself in the unhappy (I think) position of being asked to talk about the status of women in math.  Dang.  I HATE that!!!  No, really.  The men at the conference get to talk about math; why can't I just talk about math, too?  Why do I have to talk about social issues, something I'm really, really not good at?  Do the men at these conferences appreciate how lucky they are, not having to deal with this stuff?  Why don't the men talk about gender imbalance, while women talk about math?

But the truth is that most people are in a position of unappreciated power.  I speak English well; there are parents at my children's school for whom English is a second language. How often have I spoken up for them?   I'm caucasian.  How often have I spoken up at conferences about issues affecting mathematicians of color?  I'm able-bodied.  How often have I spoken up about handicap access?  (Answers: never, hardly ever, not at all).  My mathematical colleagues and friends who are African American, or who are in wheelchairs, or who are blind -- they'd certainly appreciate not having to be the ones to speak up about diversity; they'd love to talk about mathematics, their chosen field.  Just like me.

It takes courage to realize that you have power just because of your gender, or just because of your skin color, or just because of your current level of health.  And it takes a LOT of courage, I've learned, to speak from this position of power.  My friend Amanda, an African-American Quaker, says that it's her white friends, not her black friends, who are nervous about talking about race.  We white folks are worried that we'll say something that brands us as racist or insensitive, so we err on the side of caution and say nothing at all.  I admit it; I'm a coward.

Giving money to a cause I believe in is easy.  Speaking up in public about that cause is intimidating.  Still, I've come to believe that a devotion to charity and justice isn't just about writing checks.  It's also about putting your mouth where your money is.

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