The Academia Ghetto

Jan 24 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I’ve been spending an increasing amount of my time struggling with a major problem many minorities wrestle with as we strive to succeed at university and beyond. I speak of the Minority Academia Ghetto*.

What is the Minority Academia Ghetto, you ask? Why, it is the state of mind that awards, programmes, initiatives, etc are pointless unless a white dude can win it, serve on it, or vote in it. I realize many senior monks’ responses are ‘get yours and tell everyone who thinks otherwise to fuck themselves’, but the reality of the situation is that Everyone Who Thinks Otherwise comprises a substantial amount of my academic peerage.

For example, I hated being funded by ‘minorities in science’ programs because I would see people’s faces clearly change  from excitement, when I mentioned I did work at Yes We Rock and You Can Suck it Uber Institute, to mild disdain when I explained where the money came from, or the name of the program.

I remember when I went to give a talk at Uber Symposium, and finding out that because I was a minority I was part of the only initiative forced to present together, rather than under the proper scientific categories of our work. Fewer people stayed for our section than the others.

I sat awkwardly while Department Y buddies shart all over Department X for ‘so blatantly’ going after women and minorities because ‘it saved money’.

The fact I’m a NSF awardee is mentioned at least once a week. My prior fellowship, for childens of the underrepresented lands, was never mentioned, or lauded, even though the payout difference is negligible.

I’m not even going to count the number of times I’ve been at a meeting or conference and see a wave dudes fleeing a room, only to walk in and find out it’s the ‘promoting diversity in academia’ lecture.

I am constantly filled with irrational anger when I see a plenary talk schedules and the only brown face I see is in the ‘Diversity iz Awesome’ section and the only Vagina wins the ‘Ladies are Totes Scientists too’ award. I’m filled with frustration, because since they exist, people feel comfortable only including minorities when the fine print tells them to, but if they didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be included at all.

I am at an impasse (and like lots o’ comments), so please, share your knowledge on how to deal with such things. And if your response is ‘dude, kill all that affirmative action shitte', I totes agree. I just don’t know if we can get all those dudes in the ‘good ole boys’ network to forfeit their totes unfair privileges.

Figure 1: Aka Concise History of Just About Every Power Dynamic Ever

*Insert your favorite slur for a neighborhood daring to have lots of non ‘real Americans’ here

26 responses so far

  • Geeka says:

    I did a rotation in a lab in which the PI explained to me that I would love the lab, because the lab worked on stuff that helped little babies, and because I was a woman, that should appeal to me. I ran, fast and hard to another lab, which the academic chair told me not to join because they were a boys club.
    They weren't a boys club, they were a speak your mind, get respect club.

    I'm so annoyed with the whole idea of women having to be in the more nurturing aspects of science. It's total bullshit. My science is good. Doesn't matter how I go to the bathroom.

    What do I do? Basically I use my initials. I want my work to speak for itself.

  • Sleepwalker says:

    In the lab I did my PhD research in (in Scotland) all the cheap labour in my group were female and normal but if you hadn't gone to Cambridge and weren't male there was no hope of getting up the ladder. As soon as anyone left they were replaced by more cheap labour. Technicians were doing hard work and PhD students were slaving away but things were running down and grants were not being renewed. Now I see a shift to most PhDs being from overseas. I was in life science research. No answers here, if I had them I would have got a job inmy line instead of ending up in retail.

    I was awarded an entrance bursary on merit for my undergraduate degree and it went to 'deserving' students with excellent grades. It was awarded alongside golfing bursaries and never felt like an achievement because the bit about being poor came before the fact I still won it for my smarts.

  • dorid says:

    Thank you. I'm sick of reading posts about how "fair" and "unbiased" science academia is, and how all the stuff I experienced in the 70s (which is surprisingly like some of the stuff my daughter is going through now) simply doesn't happen anymore. Of course, those posts are written by white males...

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Consider the anti-affirmative action, "reverse-racism" and assorted tropes for what they are. Continuation of more naked discrimination designed to keep the playing field white and male. Letting these sentiments affect your career choices is a bad thing, right?

    It isn't easy to deal with "girls can't do X because...." or with "minority X can't do Y because..." either. But many folks ignore that because they find it stupid and it becomes no more than a point of ridicule. Not a point for self-criticism.

    Same principle.

  • Bashir says:

    It does give a bit of a "oh look a fish that can ride a bicycle!" vibe when they are only included when explicitly demanded, as opposed to being integrated into the general program.

    I was on a minority fellowship for a few years and we also had the segregated conference presentations thing. I can't recall what the explanation was, but it ended up being us in a separate room that no one else visited.

    (The fellowship was otherwise very good. And has of course since been cut due to funding constraints.)

  • Katharine says:

    Only thing I can think of is keep a running file of names of people that do this and if you're ever asked to review one of their grants give it the worst review you can give it.

  • GMP says:

    A great post and a great cartoon!

    There will always be people who will look down on other people for gender or race (also disability, national origin, religion etc). You cannot change them but you can try to avoid them and minimize their influence on your decisions and career. What you can most certainly do is convince yourself that you should not expect or crave approval from such people, because (a) getting it would be nearly impossible and (b) getting or not getting it would never ever have to do with your skills anyway. So they are a poor investment of your time and energy. A lot of covertly racist/sexist white d00ds are painfully insecure; they talk down not because of anything that is wrong with you, but because of all the things that are wrong with them.

    You should take any advantage you can get, and I mean ANY, especially financial, during your early career. Who cares if it's a minority fellowship that enabled you to get your foot into a great school, upon which you did kick-ass work? No one can ever say that your Cool Journal papers were accepted because you are a woman or a minority. Whatever gets your selected over hordes of other qualified candidates. But what if someone says "She wasn't qualified, she's just a woman/minority!" Well, that's really their problem, not yours. No elite place takes unqualified applicants (or faculty for that matter) even if their color is green or they have 3 kinds of multipurpose dangly bits.

    Things in academia are so competitive that whatever enables you to get any kind of edge and build your CV is a good thing. Putting pride (not go for minority-only programs) before pragmatism (taking advantage of minority-only programs, especially if they come with serious $$$) is never a good idea: so some snooty white doods will shun a session for minorites? Whatever, it's their loss. Just keep on keeping on and build up that CV. Besides, some of the most kick-ass fellowships around are for women (such as the L'Oreal fellowship) and you should be mighty proud to be one of the recipients.

  • take the money and run. as drug monkey said, the idiots will exclude you regardless. they just need a reason. LOVE LOVE the cartoon!

  • Yeah, I have a trainee in my lab who is funded by a minority scholarship and my advice to him was to take the money, run and don't look back. Become the shining petal you know you can be and kick some sciencey ass with the funding.

    Hmmm ... I guess that means I agree with DM. Sigh. The rest of the week can only go downhill from here.

  • GMP says:

    I just read over at DM's how you hate it when people tell it to ignore the assholes, so I have to add another comment.

    You cannot change assholes, so focus on what you can do, which is: (a) avoid them as best you can (I know, you cannot do it 100% and they are everywhere and seemingly in charge of everything) and save the energy for when you absolutely cannot, (b) work hard and ensure your record looks as good as possible for your career stage, (c) surround yourself with as many supportive people as you can, (d) above all preserve your sanity and your passion for your work, for which (c) is necessary, and (e) show up repeatedly at all the important meetings, whether you feel welcome or not, and let everyone know you are not going anywhere. The key to belonging is stubbornly insisting that you do; I can tell you this from a standpoint of often being the only women in a room of 50, 100, 200 people in the field.

    I can also tell you that even now I will get comments on grant reviews such as "she needs to show us she has the ability to do this cool stuff she proposes" (because having 20 pubs on related problems in top journals is apparently not enough to show I can pull it off; the shit I propose is too cool and too hard for someone like me to do, I suppose). It's irritaing but I sure as hell am not going anywhere. Revise and resubmit, with boldface "PI's qualifications" and a detailed explanation "Why no one else in the whole world can do this, asshole. Especially you."

    You need to impose yourself on the assholes. They will never be welcoming, but you need to let them know you are not going anywhere regadless. That requires that you preserve your passion and your sanity by avoiding them whenever possible and getting as much support as you can. After being around long enough and doing good work, people do become desensitized to your otherness, and I do believe that most will accept and respect you as a member of the community. (But again, you first need to survive until that happens. )

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    You get mad, you rant in safe places, and you say to yourself, "Well, I'll show that so-and-so just how wrong S/HE is!!!!" It's going to piss you off, it probably should piss you off, because if it doesn't, you're not paying enough attention. Seriously, don't skip this step. :)

    What I've done to cope (beside the above), is applied for anything and everything relevent funding-wise and stuck my nose as much as possible in departmental going-ons.

    The funding has been interesting, as I've not gotten the "women in grad school" awards I've applied for but I have gotten some of the "minimum GRE score" ones open to "all." A history of independent funding is all I want, source be damned. Tho it was kinda ironic I didn't fair as well against other women as I did against men and women.

    As to the sticking my nose in stuff, I am out-spoken and somewhat demanding because that is what you have to be to get what you want around here. Ya know what, I've gotten most of what I've asked for too, because when I want something I've done my homework about why it's in the best interests of the dept to give it to me (extra travel money, extra post-quals courses, etc). My CV is more rocking for it, I appreciate my dept's support of it, but no one was going to give it to me unless I asked for it.

    And maybe I'm wrong, but I like to hope that "everyone who thinks otherwise" isn't going to do so hot in the long run by excluding a significant portion of the world from their pool of potential mentors/mentees - and thus they won't be our "peers" forever. I can dream anyways...

  • HFM says:

    What GMP said, 100%.

    If you stick around long enough, the assholes will forget you're not a Real Academic(TM). Not that it really improves their opinion of all those other poseur minorities; I've lost track of the number of times I've been told I don't count as one of *those*, since I am clearly not a moron despite my tragic lack of Realness. (How I've gotten this far without shanking anyone, I do not know. Perhaps because those dinky plastic knives at conferences are useless for the purpose.)

    But that's beside the point. The question is, should one avoid taking opportunities directed specifically at a minority group, so that one demonstrates the ability to compete on a "level playing field"? I say: hell no. Take the money and run.

    There is no such thing as a level playing field. If you aren't a Real Academic(TM), things will always be a little bit uphill. People are a little less likely to hear you when you talk, and a little less likely to think your idea was a good one. If it was, they're a little less likely to remember it was yours. Senior figures are a little less likely to see their younger selves in you, and a little less likely to give you a helping hand. If you fail, you'll get a little less benefit of the doubt. None of this is codified; most of it isn't even intentional. But it's real. And it adds up.

    So yes, every once in awhile, there will be something with a big explicit handout for diversity, and the Real Academics(TM) will whine about how they don't get anything like that and waah life's not fair. But they do get handouts, every day.

    If you take the help you can get, it can lead to better ass-kicking. Which leads to more opportunities to kick bigger, shinier ass. Which leads to an awesome CV with which to pwn some doubting fools. You can ignore the assholes, but it is so much more fun to beat them at their own game.

  • FCS says:

    +1 on everything GMP said.

    I would also like to add - when someone says something stupid, call them out on it. Someone in the blogosphere, I forget whom, had a fantastic repertoire of comebacks , like -

    "You only got that fellowship because you are a woman"
    "Yeah, my vagina got those 13 papers to Nature accepted. Ain't it talented!"

    When people make racist comments I try to confront them directly; usually they acquiesce. Once people are challenged beyond their comment it's quite difficult for them to uphold their argument.

    • thehermitage says:

      Sorry FCS, you got stuck in comment moderation limbo and I just know noticed you. I'm such a malevolent blog goddess.

      I like that advice, I attempt to challenge people when they say stupid ass shit that really gets on my nerves, but on some days it's exhausting. But I shall soldier on in the face of adversity!

  • I love that cartoon!

    I agree 100% with GMP. Take the money and run. There is no such thing as a free lunch--to stand out in a sea of qualified applicants, prior fellowships can make a difference. There is nothing you can do to change the mind of an asshat. To keep your sanity, avoid them when possible. If you can't, do your best to keep your cool. In my experience, people sometimes forget the WORST of offenses and remember that Prodigal Academic lost her temper (what a bitch, so emotional).

    I also agree with GMP that you need to keep going to meetings, even when people stare at you. You need to act like you belong, and bring the science to back you up. You will find allies, you will make contacts, and your CV will thank you. FWIW, it sometimes helps me to remember that my mere presence at the table probably annoys the jerks at least as much as their existence annoys me.

  • thehermitage says:

    Oh my goodness peoples, this is like...more comments than I'm used to for the usual verbal spewage post. I don't know if I can type long enough to reply individually to all my awesome peeps!

    Geeka: I hate that meme that women seek out 'nurturing' or 'impactful on meatbags' roles because of our inner mother goddess bullshit. It just makes it more impossible when we attempt to do 'manly' scientific subjects (WTF?), like we don't have enough of an uphill battle to start with. Just replacing one stereotype (we're incompetent) for another (we like to help squishy baby thingies!)

    Sleepwalker: That sounds...horrendous. I think we tend to get so joyous on the tiny footholds we gain moving forwards that we miss that there is a SHITLOAD of things that are still epically messed up with the system.

    Dorid: I actually went to a 'Ladyparts in Science' lecture recently and everything this esteemed full professor with white hair was saying had happened to me at least once. I was depressedsauce.

    Bikemonkey: I just find it frustrating that no matter how right I am, and how wrong they are, they will still find a way to slither out on top because they 'earned' it. Blerrrggghhhhhh.

    Bashir: That's the perfect analogy. It makes you feel like you're in a circus 'oh hey, minorities can do science too, gee willikers!'

    Katharine: Hahahahahahahahahaha, that makes me smile!

    GMP: That is the kick to the hindquarters I needed, thank you. You always get what I'm trying to say, even with the misplaced prepositions and bad spelling XD.

    ScientistMother: It is really one of my fav cartoons of all time. I shall always take the money and run. I just want all the other money too. Basically, it all boils down to Hermitage is greedy ^^.

    PiT: It's only a matter of time before you're smothering your Doritos in MFing Jameson.

    Pharm Sci Grad: I've seen too many assholes get promoted through the ranks because they are 'so good at what they do it's ok they're a total racist/misogynistic/homophobic dickbag'. My cynicismdar is broken *tear*

    HFM: Ahh, the dreaded 'oh but you're one of the good ones' position. I already get that sometimes, actually, and I want to shank someone. But better that than ignored. I will attempt to ass-kick to the best of my abilities!

    Prodigal: I shall put my ass-kicking face on and continue to rub shoulders with the Real Academics (TM). But I lieks to wallow in the 'why I gotta jump twice as high' angst sometimes, heh.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    For the record I believe it was the great SciWo that coined "take the money and run" in this context.

  • neurowoman says:

    Totally agree with the take the money and run idea; but also, I think we shouldn't underestimate the success-begets-success psychology. Even somebody who looks at a minority/fem award and part of their brain thinks, yeah but it's not a real award, another part of their brain thinks, award! despite themselves. So maybe it's a net wash for the jerks, it's a net positive for reasonable people. And any award makes your getting the next award more likely (somebody talked about this on their blog -GMP? Gerty-z?), so it's a useful stepping stone toward landing the 'Real Academic TM' awards.

  • MZ says:

    Agree with "take the money and run". I had a colleague ages ago who refused to apply for what she called "Girl Money". I told her to just mentally relabel all those other fellowships etc. as "Boy Money." Because the reason we even need anything called Affirmative Action is not because the playing field is level, but because, as that fantastic cartoon illustrates, it has always been unbalanced.

    We need to be more clear about how much bias is ALREADY present in those awards, fellowships, etc. That by-now old Wenneras and Wold Nature paper about re-examining male and female applicants for a Swedish postdoc is good, and there are tons of other examples of how we are, right now, consciously or not, allocating lots of things to the majority. Let's be more vocal about the bias that is there. This means making some people realize that they, too, didn't get their job, or award, or whatever solely based on their science -- it was because people favored their race or gender.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    And if your response is ‘dude, kill all that affirmative action shitte’, I totes agree. I just don’t know if we can get all those dudes in the ‘good ole boys’ network to forfeit their totes unfair privileges.

    CA outlawed race-based "affirmative action" in 1996. Two years afterward, two students were admitted to UC Berkeley. One was an A-student, a track star, and a district-level science fair medalist who got special dispensation from her principal to simultaneously enroll in calculus and Academic Decathlon at 7 am in the fucking morning. The other was a B-student whose only extracurricular was Drama Club and who couldn't write a UC-standard five-paragraph essay to save his life. One of these students attended a Catholic high school on the LA Harbor with the apathetic children of longshoremen, most of whom went to community college. The other went to an exclusive private school in one of America's wealthiest neighborhoods with the offspring of UC, Stanford, and Ivy League alumni, most of whom migrated in wholesale cliques to their parents' alma maters. One of these students was (well, half) black, while the other was white. One of them had a Korean mom who would have kicked her half-Korean butt if she'd come home with a lousy B-average. I'm going to let you guess which one was me. :)

    I can think of more than one white and affluent Berkeley classmate who turned out to have mysteriously won admission with B-averages, few extracurriculars and no advanced math classes. I know because they voluntarily divulged this information to me. They definitely did not reflect the majority of students admitted to Cal, but they existed, which is the important point. See, CA outlawed race-based "affirmative action". CA did not outlaw affirmative action in the form of legacy admissions, nor did CA outlaw affirmative action in the form of favoring a transcript from a rich person's high school over a transcript from a nobody's high school. This is because it never occurred to CA voters, including my own father, that there could exist such a thing as an underqualified white student.

    After all, everyone knows that every white student who gains admission to an elite institution got there on "merit", right? Whites and Asians are genetically smart and hardworking. Blacks and Latinos are genetically retarded and lazy. "It's not our fault if God made people that way. It's not our fault that this is the way it is. If you'd just admit it, we'd reclaim our glorious history as a meritocracy." Sings the chorus to this day. Vomit.

    The worst part is that I was way too self-absorbed, depressed and overwhelmed to give a flying fuck about why Cal had chosen to admit any given one of my classmates, but I nevertheless encountered several white students at Cal who blamed my admission on "affirmative action". By the way, several of my high school classmates, who had watched me win medal after medal and prize after prize for four years, nonetheless did that, too. Dude, I hadn't even submitted a single college application when the ban on "affirmative action" went into effect! The number of black students, too, had precipitously dropped at Cal long before my parents loaded my boxes into their van and drove me to my dorm room. I doubt that it ever occurred to these individuals to question the record of any white student.

    Last summer, a furious opponent of "affirmative action" wrote a letter to a local paper here. A self-identified white male, he derided affirmative action's proponents for punishing people like him for having the sense to study hard in school instead of playing B-ball with the gangsta homeboys. No, he actually said that. It wasn't clever enough to be funny. I would quote him verbatim, but I am really not in the mood for reading that letter again.

    I'll be damned before I side with white (or Asian, for that matter) supremacists who couldn't contain their revulsion of blacks and Latinos for a billion dollars apiece and who deny, deny, deny the whole time they're caricaturizing brown people as Mambo and Sambo apes. Fuck everyone who pretends that the only "affirmative action" that has ever existed in the whole wide world is race-based (or sex-based), that all university admissions and scholarships fall into the two categories of "Handouts for Undeserving Brown People and Women" and "Pure Merit", that helpless white A-students everywhere are being displaced from elite universities by sullen brown imbeciles hell-bent on "oppressing the noble white race" Birth of a Nation-style, that having a brown friend or professor or grandchild is somehow incontrovertible proof of not being racist toward brown people, and that there is no such thing as motherfucking selection bias.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    Dude, I was also going to say that I agree with you here.

  • thehermitage says:

    MZ: That's exactly it. They think their way is meritocratic and anything else is not, and it is contrary to a majority's interest to admit so. Just Arglebargle!

    Drugmonkey: Throwing down some knowledge since...well we don't want to make you feel old. ^^

    neurowoman: Greasing the path of the inevitable juggernaut? I likes it.

    Juniper: Wall o' Truth plus a TL;DR version. You are so pro! I agree with you 100%.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    That $&$?&!&$ Ward Connerly who drove the bus on Cali's retrenchment on affirmative action at the Universities was a businessman who made his pile in no small part with setasides for, yep, minority owned businesses. Ladder puller, thy name is Ward $&$?$?$ Connerly.

  • Ace K says:

    Wow very interesting discussion. I am a minority plus disabled but was not a US citizen when I was a trainee so I couldn't even apply to those things and my country never has any money for diversity if it even exists there as a concept.... Now that I am a US resident, I am apparently considered white and there's nothing I came across for disabled researchers. Anyway at faculty level, supporting diversity doesn't seem to go much further than lip service as far as I can tell unless you find people willing to help you. I guess what I am trying to say is, I would have liked very much to be able to apply for minority funding, but maybe the grass is not as green on the other side. Still money is money. Take as much of it as you can!

    I agree with much else GMP said. It does get better in time. It's not a pure meritocracy but since that's the idea, you can win some by simply being good and productive. Point to your long list of pubs and smile. You're right to be annoyed and I wouldn't say completely lose your anger about things. But at some level you may have to accept that you may simply have to be better than the more privilege (and in turn you might have some privileges over others). Academia is no different than anywhere else. You cartoon is unfortunately reflective of the truth.

    My advice is also to look for a more welcoming department/community at least at your home institution. My uni has only 20% female TT faculty but my department is 50%. It makes a difference to my well-being and confidence to not have to fight 100% of the time. Find mentors and supporters. I know they always say that but it's true.

    basically, hang in there & kick ass

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