A postscriptum on diversity and learning a language

“The man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are. Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling. Because they were born and raised in a given social order and in a given system of values, they believe that any other order must be “unnatural,” and that it cannot last because it is incompatible with human nature. But even they may one day know fire, hunger, and the sword.”

— Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind

I grew up in Europe, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I’ve often had to try to explain my country of origin to those born and raised on this side of the Atlantic. Facts can be learned. It’s the lack of imagination that can be the greater problem. It’s disbelief that learning is in fact needed. It’s making assumptions instead of asking questions. It’s demanding a simple picture where the truth is complex. It’s presuming social or political homogeneity where the reality is ripe in conflict and discord. It’s failing, or perhaps not wanting, to understand just how far the circumstances of a different time and place might be from the here and now. and to accept that, were we placed there and then, we would likely behave the same way as those who were in fact so placed.

I’m neither a historian, nor a social scientist, nor willing to accept an unpaid second job. I can only do it in small steps, for my own pleasure. Even just for that, I needed a language that I could use. I needed examples and templates, in English, that I could try to work with. For a long time, I could not find what I wanted. English-language history books, for the most part, neither understood nor cared much about our life down on the ground. At the same time, I had too little in common with those Eastern European writers whose goal in writing was to distance themselves from their own background before witnesses who shared that background and, often, the distancing. That was not the argument I wanted to have. History has already passed judgement on communism and I’m satisfied enough with its verdict. I do, however, want to argue with those who view us with a mixture of pity and condescension, who consider the details of our history unimportant, who dismiss without looking the artistic and intellectual accomplishments of the Eastern Bloc as “couldn’t possibly have been any good,” who bounce the word “communism” here and there like a beach ball but have no idea how that system actually worked.

If you are reading this, you may have already seen my last post on the legacy of Communist and Soviet symbols in Poland:

I learned to give little thought to the walled-off parts of the city. The [Soviet] soldiers were easy to ignore in my daily life: they marched through our streets on their way to or from exercises, but otherwise they and their families stayed within their gated communities. I grew up mocking the unkempt buildings with newspapers in place of window curtains, but also reading children’s books from the Russian bookstore, which was open to the public; as a university student, I returned there for mathematical monographs unavailable in Polish. We resented that the Soviet food stores were well stocked even when ours were empty. Poles, especially children, would sometimes sneak in and shop there: a guard might look the other way, a Russian woman might allow a Polish kid to come in with her. I dreamed of travelling the world, becoming a scientist or an astronaut, but did not know and probably could not imagine what it might be like to live in a city without the Soviet army.

For comparison, here’s an article on how living with Confederate flags and statues in the south of the US was “like having a crazy family member.”

For those of us not born and bred below the Mason-Dixon, it can be really jarring to encounter symbols of the Old South sprinkled all over the place, as though by a casual hand. But given the ubiquity of these symbols, it makes sense that you’d kind of have to let them fade into the background, or you might never leave your house. […]

Everyone deserves to have local pride; it’s just that for a lot of black people in the South, getting to do that means having to swim in the racial messiness that comes with civic life there. The cultures of Southern black folks and Southern white folks have always been defined by a peculiar, complicated familiarity. That might explain why so many black folks have — by necessity — come to look on displays of the Confederate flag with something subtler than apoplexy, why Naima just rolled her eyes at the flags on her campus and moved on. Like a lot of black Southerners, she clearly had a lot more practice holding all of these ideas in her head at once than we Northerners do. The flag matters to her. Of course it matters. It’s just not the only thing that matters.

That (read all of it, it’s worth the time) is the closest thing I’ve seen from an American author to a description of how we lived with communist flags and statues. This is not an isolated example. Here’s another: this essay reads very differently if one remembers “Nie lękajcie się” (“Do not be afraid”), Pope John Paul II’s famous invocation to the Poles, and its significance or the protest movements in the 1970s and 80s. And this is just from the last week or two. I could make a much longer list here.

There is a persistent myth that African-American writing is a narrow literary niche, of no possible interest to anyone other than African-Americans themselves. A few effete white liberals might assign themselves such readings as penance for their skin colour. Nobody will buy a book where the main characters are black. Nobody will be able to identify with a black main character. Books by black authors are routinely placed in the African-American studies section, regardless of their actual genre or subject area, as if to shield “normal” (read: white) readers from an unsolicited and unwelcome intrusion.

I’m neither black nor American. Yet, I’ve spent a good deal of time reading black writers over the last few years. I read them for reasons that are selfish, hedonistic, sometimes utilitarian. I read them because an Eastern European like me has no trouble taking them seriously. Because it’s there that I have, more or less, found the language I needed.

I am not claiming easy parallels or analogies. I’d be the first to warn against them. Nor do I agree on every subject with every black author I read. That should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. If I insisted on agreement of opinion as a condition of learning, I would never be able to work in academic mathematics. And black writers are as likely as anyone else to ignore women and remove them from public view. That said, there are reasons why their language works for me especially well.

This is not only a matter of talking about communism, or only about Eastern European history. I had the same problem with thinking about, and trying to explain, my experience as a woman in mathematics. Clearly, I was not going to learn that from my male colleagues. Nor did I learn much, in terms of either language or understanding, from the “resources for women” webpages set up by various mathematical organizations. For the most part, these were limited to links to studies whose results I, more or less, knew or suspected already. This is not a complaint. These organizations represent large and varied groups of people and must be be mindful of that in expressing any opinions. They build bridges and look for allies. I’m sure I have benefited from their advocacy.

But then there’s N.K. Jemisin:

Reconciliations are for after the violence has ended. In South Africa the Truth & Reconciliation Commission came after apartheid’s end; in Rwanda it started after the genocide stopped; in Australia reconciliation began after its indigenous people stopped being classified as “fauna” by its government. Reconciliation is a part of the healing process, but how can there be healing when the wounds are still being inflicted? How can we begin to talk about healing when all the perpetrators have to do is toss out dogwhistles and disclaimers of evil intent to pretend they’ve done no harm? […]

Maybe you think I’m using hyperbole here, when I describe the bigotry of the SFF genres as “violence”. Maybe I am using hyperbole — but I don’t know what else to call it. SFF are dedicated to the exploration of the future and myth and history. Dreams, if you want to frame it that way. Yet the enforced SWM dominance of these genres means that the dreams of whole groups of people have been obliterated from the Zeitgeist. And it’s not as if those dreams don’t exist. They’re out there, in spades; everyone who dreams is capable of participating in these genres. But many have been forcibly barred from entry, tormented and reeducated until they serve the status quo. Their interests have been confined within creative ghettos, allowed out only in proscribed circumstances and limited numbers.

Every day, our language becomes more and more diluted, in committee meetings, through tone policing and demands of the workplace. We water down our speech to make it more acceptable, only to have that interpreted as our wildest-dreams starting point and to be asked to step back from it. This is repeated many times until our truth is all but unrecognizable under the layers and layers of compromises. We need other writing–fiction and nonfiction, blogs, social media, public and private–to remember what that truth might look like and what words it might use. Our imagination itself is a revolutionary act.

While we’re at it, I would also like to offer my highest praise for Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, starting with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I love the idea of using social order as the supervillain: omnipresent, all but omnipotent, imagined and described in vivid detail, far more dangerous than any psychopath from Bond movies. I love that the heroine is thrown into the game at the highest possible difficulty setting, under a check and mate before she can even start. She is smart, resourceful, thoughtful, and yet none of this will save her. The best she can do, perhaps, is redirect the game by manipulating the stakes of her defeat. I love that she’s clear-eyed about it: uninterested in deluding herself with false optimism, she spends the little time she expects to have learning history and figuring out the power dynamics, and what an education it is. No, it’s not depressing. It’s a great story, an unpredictable high stakes gamble with no holds barred. Expectations are not so much defied as their existence is not even acknowledged in the first place.

Jemisin has said explicitly that her identity and experience as a black woman informs her fiction writing. It infuses her novels with thought and speculation on political power, social conflict, history, identity: all the things that I love reading about, and that also make her stories so much deeper and more compelling. I’d love to be able to say that I don’t choose the authors I read based on their gender or skin colour. I certainly wouldn’t ignore or boycott an author just based on that. If Jonathan Franzen had written The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I’d read him, too. But he didn’t, and Jemisin did, and the reasons why she did are not separate from who she is. And, again, I could make a longer list here.

I should be done at this point, but I’m not. Just a few days ago, I saw this report fron the Aspen Ideas Festival where the mathematician John Allen Paulos is quoted on his interactions with a school teacher he disliked:

Later that season, The Milwaukee Journal published the averages of all the Braves players. Since this pitcher hadn’t pitched again, his ERA was 135, as I had calculated. I remember thinking then of mathematics as a kind of omnipotent protector. I was small and quiet and he was large and loud. But I was right and I could show him. This thought and the sense of power it instilled in me was exciting. So, still smarting from my earlier humiliation, I brought in the newspaper and showed it to him. He gave me a threatening look and again told me to sit down. His idea of good education apparently was to make sure everyone remained seated. I did sit down but this time with a slight smile on my face.

We both knew I was right and he was wrong.

Oddly, this particular teacher did give me a potent reason to study mathematics that I think is underrated: show kids that with it and logic, a few facts, and a bit of psychology you can prevail over blowhards no matter your age or size.

The public face of mathematics, especially research mathematics, is white and male. Some events feature only white and male mathematicians. The Aspen festival’s math session allowed a few women writers and educators on stage, but not researchers, thus perpetuating the myth that in mathematics, men do the research while women “prefer” teaching and supporting roles. (Finding male research mathematicians who also write and educate never seems to be a problem.) The critics of the status quo argue the need for diverse perspectives and role models. The defense often rests on the assertion that since the laws of mathematics do not depend on gender or race, diverse perspectives should not matter; we should simply pick the best expositors and not worry about quota. It might be added, usually by those who did not look very far, that there were no appropriate women available.

I’m sure that there are readers who will see that article and think “wow, awesome, I need to learn some mathematics.” There may well be other mathematicians who have similar stories. But it did not and could not work that way for me. Girls and women are rarely praised or rewarded for “playing smart”; instead, they might be resented or put in their place. A schoolgirl might still act that way, but the story would not end there and would likely be a little bit less triumphant. Nor would it be uncommon for the teacher to tell her that it must have been her boyfriend who  figured that out. I’ve heard of such cases, and no, that did not end 50 years ago. I’m not the right person to speak to the experience of black children, but I’ve read enough to know that the matter is far than straightforward. And, the title of the article notwithstanding, I doubt that many schoolkids (regardless of race, gender, or anything else) would try it with an actual class bully instead of a teacher. It might not be worth a beating.

It’s great that this worked for Paulos. Good for him. But it makes me sad that so many good counterpoints and alternatives remain all but invisible. I’d like to read about that other kid who was hated by classmates because of his or her smarts and who had to learn to manage those smarts like a handicap. And about the other one who outsmarted adults over and over again, became an insufferable asshole, then had to unlearn it as an adult over the decades, slowly and painfully. And the one who never got around to that last part. And the one who, in an inverted version of Paulos’s story, had mathematics used against them as a bullying tool. And the one, likely a girl or a student of colour, who beat her teachers at math on a regular basis but was nonetheless discouraged from studying it. Maybe that last kid persevered anyway; maybe not.

I know that such stories exist. I’ve heard all of these and more, often from women. I’ve read them on personal blogs and social media. I seek them out because, in addition to everything else, they are such great stories. But the official public face of mathematics rarely ventures that far. Instead, we produce advertising materials. Tales of adversity are fine as long as they end well enough, include a happy note and a three-point action plan for success, and are not too heavy on moral ambiguity, at least not on the part of mathematicians. It is only fitting that they are usually told by men, and white men at that. Women’s paths to mathematics are often more complicated.

If there is one analogy or generalization that I’d like to make, it’s this. You don’t know your audience. You have no idea who they are, where they are coming from, what they are looking for, why they care. Maybe you never even knew that they existed. It’s pointless to try to outsmart them by offering them what you think they should want when you don’t even know what their game is and how they play it. If you offer them well-meaning motivational stories and nothing else, it’s possible that they will be inspired to learn more mathematics. It’s also possible that they will decide that mathematicians are book-smart but very naive about how the rest of the world works, that their lack of imagination is appalling, that they cannot be taken seriously by those who might have had good reasons to put that newspaper away and, maybe, just smile quietly when no one was looking. That, of course, has been the public image of mathematics for a long time. There’s a very easy way to fix that. Let more people tell their stories, and give them the same visibility that the white dudes are getting.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

%d bloggers like this: