Here’s What It’s Like When Self-Appointed High Priests of Reality Presume Your Incompetence
An interesting editorial this week in the Los Angeles Times talks about why the academic field of Philosophy is so white: “One of the main causes of homogeneity in philosophy, we believe, is subjectivity and bias in the evaluation of philosophical quality.”
I found the editorial to be a satisfying read because essentially everything they say applies to theoretical physics, especially my corner of it, high energy theory (that is, particles, cosmology and fundamental physics). Here’s an example of where philosophy and theoretical physics, where we are making things up that may or may not have some bearing on reality, mirror one another:
What makes some works of philosophy good and others meh? It’s not straightforward. In biology, you synthesize the protein or you don’t. In math, you prove the long-standing conjecture. It’s not always entirely clear in these fields what separates the good from the meh, but there are substantial external standards and constraints. Philosophy, in contrast, is partly about challenging existing standards. We admire philosophers whose central arguments are nearly impossible to understand, or who speak in paradoxes, who accept seemingly bizarre views, or who display dazzling skill with formal logical structures of no practical significance . . .
It’s almost aesthetic, the assessment of philosophical quality.And like aesthetic judgments, it’s shaped by a huge range of factors — how well the view fits with your hopes and preconceptions, whether it’s argued with confidence and flair, how clever or wise the author seems, how much other people admire the author.
I’m sure some theoretical physicist would nitpick whether this is a perfect phenomenology of the praxis of theoretical physics or not. But, it’s close enough — we value technique that can dazzle, even if its highly abstract. There’s a reason that theoretical physics and philosophy sometimes intersect. Much of what is considered smart and therefore popular in theoretical physics is really about contemporary aesthetic sensibilities and how physical problems are construed in any given era. (See the history of the aether in Einstein’s time as an example of something that seemed smart but was actually very stupid.)
Let’s talk more specifically about reasons #TheoreticalPhysicsSoWhite. Here’s a practical one: Physics departments rely heavily on GRE scores for PhD admissions, despite the fact that what they seem to most strongly indicate to us is what the race and gender of the test taker are (being white or Asian and male is better, everything else is worse). The GRE general seems to tell us nothing about future success as a researcher, and the Physics GRE may not tell us much besides how someone will do on qualifying exams, so it’s a test that tells us how you test. Again, it doesn’t really say much about research, which is what the PhD is really about. Many departments use cut-offs where they ignore all applicants below a certain score, and it’s not unusual for that cut-off to be higher for people who are interested in high energy theory, partly because competition for those spots is fiercer and partly because of community lore about high energy theorists being smarter.
So, given that Black people and women score several standard deviations below white and Asian men on the GREs, it is literally an accident that there are any Black theoretical physicists and not a surprise that there’s only one practicing Black woman theoretical cosmologist/particle physicist with a PhD in the United States, me.
Next is where things get more murky and arguably a lot uglier. Let’s say a Black woman gets through the door. Let’s call her Shanda (a name which means Shame in my grandfather’s first language of Yiddish, by the way). Studies (which you too can Google) show that Shanda is going to be presumed incompetent at every step of the way:
- Her classmates will assume she’s less intelligent than the white men in her cohort.
- Because of her name, which is generally understood to be a name that typically non-white people have, her applications for research opportunities will be discriminated against. It’s fair to assume that this extends to graduate, postdoctoral fellowship and junior faculty applications.
- When she works as a TA or professor, her students will assume she is a less competent teacher.
- Her failures will be seen as representing the whole race. Her successes will be seen as exceptional.
- She will be presumed less naturally competent, the darker skinned she is and the curlier her hair.
- Supreme Court justices will state from the bench that she is incompetent.
- If her gender presentation is butch or otherwise nonconforming, her competence at being gender conforming and therefore easy to work with will be presumed to be lesser.
Here are some phenomena which aren’t studied but I think Black physicists — especially those of us who are women and/or gender minorities — would widely agree are at play:
- If she engages in pro-Black activism, her commitment to physics will be questioned while no one will question the commitment of her white classmates who spend their free time camping and rock climbing.
- If she engages in pro-Black activism and has been doing this longer than the men around her, other members of the community will naturally assume that a man who is more senior who finally speaks up is more competent on the subject of pro-Black activism.
- White women will feel confident that they can assess the relative pain of sexism vs. racism more competently than her.
- When she speaks up in a meeting, she may be told her idea is not very good; then if someone more senior, whiter or male repeats her, that person is more likely to be credited having a good idea.
- If she speaks with a dialect or accent that is not associated with white middle class English, people will assume that she is less intelligent and not fairly assess her ideas.
- Her students are more likely to assume that she is an undergraduate/disbelieve that she is the classroom authority.
- When a white person in her building doesn’t recognize her, they may threaten to call the police or actually call the police and label her an intruder, which will remind her that no matter what she achieves in life, she will always be seen as a threat and only sometimes recognized as a competent member of the community.
- Sometimes instead of believing she’s an intruder, they will believe she is part of the cleaning or other service staff who have zero specialty knowledge in physics.
- When she goes to give talks at other institutions, her expertise will sometimes be seen as so unnecessary that people will choose to ask her questions about her hair, her heritage, her earrings and where she and her parents are from, rather than try to learn from her about her research.
- When she goes to give talks at other institutions, she will sometimes be asked to spend precious scientific discourse time talking about matters of race and diversity instead, under the assumption that her scientific competence is less important to the visit than her “being alive while Black” competence.
- This will happen at her home institution too.
- At conferences, scientists will ask the men she is with what they are working on and ignore her. They may also assume she is “just the spouse.”
- If she is the spouse of a fellow male physicist, rumors will fly around that she only has her current position because of her more competent partner.
- She will be told by classmates and sometimes people senior to her that her presence is partly or entirely for the sake of enlarging their dating possibilities. Rather than talk to her about her ideas, these “colleagues” will sexually harass and sometimes assault her and then tell her it’s all complimentary behavior.
- She will be told that she hasn’t earned her job — isn’t competent — but rather her presence is an entitlement through the largesse of (what are actually virtually non-existent, mostly white-woman benefiting) affirmative action programs.
- She will read in newspapers, magazines, online publications, and amicus curiae briefs that there are no qualified Black applicants for jobs in her field.
- She will get no support from her department while she tries to juggle research and mentoring the various underrepresented minority students who desperately depend on her. Then people will “wonder” why her publication rate is lower than that of her white male colleagues and suggest that it is due to fundamental incompetence on her part, rather than on the part of the department’s mentoring strategy.
- Being capable of mentoring underrepresented minority students will not be seen as a sign of competence that is relevant to scientific progress but rather “niceness” and/or poor priorities. Note that this is not only a judgment about competence but also the value of underrepresented minority students to the field.
Let’s talk about #18 for a second because I’ve got a great real life example. Last year I had a rather memorable experience. I was giving a student advice about attending a minority-serving conference that I have previously co-chaired when a white woman colleague who could hear the conversation stepped in. Rather than asking me to step out of the room for a second for a coffee or to show her where the bathroom is, she decided that she should, in front of my student, question whether I was giving competent advice to the student about Black community traditions around attire in professional settings and some of the history behind how these traditions had arisen. She told my student that I was giving her bad advice, apparently not considering whether she owed me the professional courtesy of privately criticizing me, rather than undercutting me in front of a student.**
You see, in the eyes of her white colleagues, Shanda, or Chanda* as the case may be, isn’t even competent or expert at being part of the Black community. White people always know better, even about the Black experience and Black history. Even if they aren’t American, which this woman wasn’t.
We are presumed incompetent at every turn and then are left staring aghast as white people wring their hands about “how we are going to solve this gosh darn diversity problem!”
I suppose if we magical negroes could just enjoy working in a hostile environment, it would all be fine.
On top of everything I listed above, there’s what the L.A. Times editorial comes back to, conscious and unconscious bias against our ideas simply because a white man isn’t the person having them:
It’s not that white men are innately better philosophers than women and people of color. It’s that white men have better command of the cultural apparatus of seeming smart. As undergraduates, they enter the classroom with more self-confidence. They see faces like their own in front of the classroom and hear voices like their own coming from professors’ mouths. In the philosophy classroom, they see almost exclusively white men as examples of great philosophers. They think “that’s me” and they step into it. Those around them, their professors and fellow students, see them and think that person sounds smart — and these students are then further encouraged.
In light of this, here is their ending, which is really a reminder that contrary to popular belief, (white) scientists are subjective and so are their scientific evaluations. It is up to us to constantly and extremely consciously unpack those biases in order to be better thinkers, evaluators, and human beings:
The next time you’re tempted to dismiss a piece of writing — not just a work of philosophy, but any work that requires subjective evaluation — consider that your judgment likely reflects a range of influences that are difficult to see, many of them probably unlovely, culturally specific, and unrelated to intrinsic value.
*Yeah, my name IS NOT pronounced Shanda or Shonda. No Sh at all.
**Although for the record, doing this in private wouldn’t have been much better. White academics should accept that one of the blessings of being white in a white supremacist society is that they will never know what it’s like to be Black and never be able to competently speak from experience on the subject. The woman involved missed out on an opportunity to learn because she was too concerned with correcting my incompetence to be able to competently recognize her own. It’s good to be consciously incompetent — that’s where learning truly begins.