Saturday, December 28, 2013

Old school racism and subsequent self-righteousness

I am a Research Associate. That's my title. But at my research-oriented university, there are scads of Postdocs. (All of our titles are capitalized like that.) Someone in the Postdoc Office decided to throw a mixer and invite both the Postdocs and the Research Associates. I was happy to go, as I don't meet a lot of university people outside my department and I'd been missing the company of people so recently forged in the fire of grad school hell. 

I work in a bubble. My project is very community-oriented so I usually face away from the university and out towards our neighbors. When I'm focused on campus, I interact with folks from the College of Arts and Sciences, the LGBT Center, the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, you get the drift. It is easy for me to forget that most of my university is focused on hard science and medicine. We are a tiny slice of humanities in a sea of quantifiable data. 

So I show up to this postdoc lunch, which is at the biomedical research building, a twenty minute walk away from the Social Justice Institute in below-freezing weather. It was like entering another world. Then I remembered - all of these people are scientists. I can argue all day that anthropology is a science, especially archaeology and physical anthropology, but I do think of myself as more of a humanist, a social scientist on those days when I whip out my qualitative data analysis software.

Secretly, I love science. In high school, all I wanted to do was become a biologist. I was lucky to go to a school where we were doing recombinant DNA experiments (admittedly low-level stuff) back in the 1990s. I took the regular 4 years plus an independent study. I love the smell of Bunsen burners. I rocked at calculus. I even was only a little squeamish when the rat-mom we were breeding ate her litter over the weekend. Then - well, life. I dropped out of college for four years and when I went back, I felt out of the loop in science and I met anthropology, that dark mistress that promised answers for all of social conundrums I encountered during my extended hiatus from higher learning. In my heart of hearts, I know I could have been one of them, the lab-dwellers, in their white coats and safety glasses. 

The second thing that struck me at this little mixer was that there was 2:1 of men to women. It wasn't all men, but it definitely wasn't parity. Throwing anxiety to the wind, I made myself a burrito bowl and approached a table. Seated were three men, one white, two Asian (and the reason for me mentioning race will become apparent shortly). Eventually, the other half of the table was filled with three more men and another woman, but our conversations stayed divided into halves. 

Two of the men were in physics and the third was in biostatistics, although his PhD was in theoretical mathematics. We talked about where we went to grad school, at which point the white guy gestured wildly at his hat until I noticed that he went to my alma mater. So there was that. He talked about loving that tiny little Washington town while I talked about how eager I had been to get out of there.

We did the "What department are you from?" chit-chat. I had to explain what social justice is, never mind that the university has an entire (albeit small) institute devoted to it. Trying to relate it to their experiences, I mentioned Engineers Without Borders, at which point, one guy was like, "so it is about science." Sigh. 

When I brought up the fact that I worked on racism, the white guy looked at me and asked, "But has it been scientifically proven that certain characteristics don't go with certain races? I mean, Asians don't want to lose the idea that they are inherently good at math, right?" With this, he looks to our two tablemates for support. One shrugs noncommittally and the other says, "Not necessarily." But at this point, my self-righteousness is going full force. "Of course it has been proven scientifically," I thunder. I launch into the full-blown, by-the-book, American-Anthropological-Association rant about differences between "races" being less significant than those within the categories along with the concepts of social constructs and hegemony.

He then looks at me and says, "But isn't it true that people from Europe and North America are smarter than other people? Like, hasn't that been tested?" Oh my god, I think to myself, he's serious. I spend a good portion of my days thinking about institutionalized racism, structural racism, neoliberalism, neocolonialism; I had forgotten that people are still flat-out racist, in an interpersonal way that goes beyond white privilege. I then hold forth on what exactly those tests measure and how it is a form of imperialism to believe the Global North is somehow better, smarter, more sophisticated, whatever, than all other human societies. I hadn't been that riled up since grad school. I have to admit, it felt good.

The community I work in struggles with the image many Black communities struggle with, made even more problematic by the fact that my university often tells new students, particularly freshman, not to cross the bridge (where this community starts) because they will be subject to violence. The racial tensions are high and are compounded by the wealth surrounding the university and the dire economic straits experienced by many in this community. All that to say, I am sensitive to how people talk about this community.

One of the Asian guys asks me how safe this community is, as he has heard it is dangerous to ride the bus (which I do everyday) and he worries about his wife. I tell him the reputation is overblown and that the people are lovely and that I like working in this community. Then the white guy tells us that he heard that "In Cleveland, twenty years ago, a white person didn't have to stop at red lights at night because they would be carjacked by Black people." At this point, I asked him if he realized how crazy that sounded. He got defensive, saying that wasn't what he believed but that's just what he heard. So I asked him what he was trying to achieve by repeating that story. He pretty much stopped talking after that.

I continued to talk to my tablemates, who are doing some really interesting work, even if I can't follow the specifics. We had a good conversation about economic disparity and how hard it is to meet new people in the city. Finally, lunch was over and I returned to my office, feeling like the defender of the oppressed, the voice of righteousness, a gladiator. I told my co-workers about the encounter and we collectively railed against injustice. I even posted about it on Facebook.

A week later, I met up with one of the guys I met at that lunch, who is originally from Hong Kong. He mentioned that I seemed to be looking to him for support when the white guy was saying some outlandish things but he understood that this guy might have never been exposed to any of these ideas. He told me a little about how he grew up and it made me reflect on my own privilege. I wondered if I might not have been equally oblivious to social justice issues had I continued down my path to biology without all the hiccups I experienced while growing into myself.

I wouldn't have changed the encounter. Someone needed to call that guy on his bullshit and maybe make him think about why he was saying the things he was saying. But was I arguing with him because I was being an ally? I was enjoying the sense of  self-righteousness, of knocking him down a peg from his white, male, cis-gendered pedestal. I liked repeating the story and coming out the hero. Upon reflection, I even hesitated to blog about it. In the end, I feel like the story bears re-telling, not for my stunning command of anti-racist rhetoric, but as a reminder that old-school racism still exists, and not just in the backwoods of Mississippi (speaking from personal experience and not to disparage a whole state's worth of people). It is present in our institutes of higher learning. Institutional and structural racism are not simply legacies but are actively enabled. I needed to be reminded of this.