I am a female, black, heterosexual, Texan, X-er.
I bet that right now, you are judging me by my demographics? You may think that you know what my life has been like because I am female, or because I am black, but doing so means that you are judging me, and I’ve been judged this way my entire life. To most people, I am a statistic on a piece of paper. A photo of my face is enough for people to think that they know me.
Do you know what this is called folks? It’s called prejudice.
People on all sides of the political arena today are making broad sweeping statements based on race, sexual orientation, age, and whatever else we feel the need to divide ourselves by. In doing so, they are reinforcing that there should be differences maintained between these groups. We need to look at each other as the individuals that we are instead of assuming that we know everyone’s problems by one look at their stats. By classing some as privileged and some as disadvantaged based on a cursory look at their appearance, we are reinforcing the harm that we wish to eliminate.
So if you haven’t already blocked me for voicing my opinion, listen to my story.
I like science. No, I love science, and I do well in it. When I was in college, I took as many Biology and Chemistry courses as I could fit into my degree plan. One day, I heard that there was a mentoring program. When I asked about it, they said that I would be paired with someone who was like me, but further ahead in their career. By spending time with them, I would learn more about the little things that people don’t teach in classes. I would meet other people who might give me advice. The person would have experience and would help me navigate the path I would be going on.
I was excited to be mentored, because I did have problems. I was the only person in my family who was interested in science. I saw teachers who were from actual science families. Can you believe that? Families where all of them are in science? I had never imagined. Think of the things they learned at their parent’s knee! I wanted to learn about how you got into graduate school, what kind of classes I needed to take, how important GRE scores were, could I get a job in research science?
The mentor that I was matched with was a black, female, mid-level administrator who worked in the college (I think she was in human resources). She took me out and we talked. She didn’t like science or math. She knew no one in these fields. She had not gone on to graduate school. She had not taken any of the courses I had, nor was she from a science family, or knew the ins and out of the things that I was hoping to learn. What she could tell me about is how it is to be female and black. I already knew how to be female and black.
We went to a few lackluster meetings that didn’t reveal much of anything to me, until one day I brought my older sister along. She and my mentor got along swimmingly. They chatted and talked about all kinds of things. I ate my salad.
The moral of this story is, in looking at me, the mentoring program only saw that I was a black female. They thought that I would be helped by pairing me with someone who has the same demographics instead of someone who has the same interests or the same challenges. I would have been more happy to be placed with a white, male, research scientist than the woman I had been placed with. I would have been more satisfied with a male hispanic, first generation physics graduate student who could tell me how to overcome the difficulties of not having been exposed to the science culture at a young age. By judging me by my appearance, whoever was choosing the mentors was doing me a disservice. None of my interests were even considered, it seems.
Now that I am older, I realize that this may not have been the entire story. I thought that they were avoiding pairing me with someone who shared my interests, but it may have been that white, male, scientists don’t sign up for mentorship programs. I suppose that people who volunteer for them are people who wished that they had had them. People who want to help those less fortunate navigate the difficult world of college.
The truth is that I didn’t find college difficult. I found it liberating. I wanted to learn how to get ahead, not to learn how to stay in school. All I learned from the program is that people looked at me and thought that I couldn’t even do that. I learned that even the programs which should have encouraged me to succeed could only see my skin color, they could only see my disadvantage. They gave me help, only because they expected me to fail. I shook hands with my mentor, thanked her for her time, and never saw her again.
When you assume that a person will have problems because of their sex, you are reinforcing sexism. When you assume that a person will be disadvantaged because of their race, you are reinforcing racism. When you assume that a person will have no problems because they have the same demographics as most of the people in that field, you are using prejudice to judge them. Looking at a person first by their identity takes away a bit of their humanity, a bit of their individuality. Look deeper!
We need to first see people as individuals. That means not to treat what you think are their problems based on broad statistical analysis. It means asking them what their problems are. It means working to minimize inequities due to finances, or educational background, or geographic area. It means putting up ladders to help people and not saying that you should get on because of your demographics, and you can’t get on because of yours. If you want to know where the angry white men come from, some of them are the ones who weren’t even considered for things like that mentoring program, because why would a white man need to be mentored? If you think that no white man should need help, then guess what. You just judged a person as unworthy because of their sex and race. Guess what that makes you?
Work the problem without prejudice. Individuals are not statistics. Identity politics should die.