Sometimes I find myself thinking about something I wrote and then thinking that I really should not have to explain it. Apparently, today I do because there are some seriously simple thinking people in the world.
(Insert eye roll here)
On Sunday I wrote Bringing Barrio Rules to the Laboratory. There were a couple of things that I was thinking about that had me pondering the differences in the cultures I was brought up in and the cultures I find myself surrounded by in academia.
First, I was thinking about Hope Jahren. Hope exploded on the Internet this year and I find her interesting. She’s a shameless self-promoter, which I think is a talent that many women can learn from. There’s no doubt that she is smart and passionate about women in science. I think she’s a voice worth following. But, there was something that rubbed me (and many of the underrepresented women of the science communication “community) the wrong way.
When I first encountered her, her Twitter bio included “fuck the police.” This was likely a reference to a song released by the group NWA in 1988 that served as a protest to the racial profiling and violence perpetrated by the Los Angeles police. Growing up in Los Angeles, I knew that releasing that song was an extremely subversive act that, at least in my neighborhood, repolarized a lot of the racial politics. In some ways, it unified certain marginalized groups in protest against a common enemy. It made a lot of white folks openly question why minorities “were so angry” without also allowing them the context for their anger or the agency to feel wronged. It made me think about the point of frustration that a person must have to get to in order to respond with something like “fuck the police.” As a teenager, I couldn’t see myself ever feeling that angry. My views have evolved.
That song came out at a pinnacle point for racial tension in Los Angeles. People were risking personal safety and freedom to protest racial discrimination. This song was a protest of the fact that a majority group not only didn’t care about the struggles of marginalized groups, but regarded them with open hostility and assumed they must be criminals. It was hard for me to ponder how anything I could do as an academic could be akin to “fuck the police” in its personal risk or subversiveness and seemed like a case of co-opting without recognition. The same sort of lack of recognition that lets white people co-opt culture of convenience but also live in ignorance of the discrimination that people of color suffer.
And the co-opting has continued to leave me feeling uncomfortable. The other night I saw this interaction between Hope and DNLee:
And it solidified for me the source of my discomfort.
I have a hard time believing that the inconsistent use of this language is an attempt at keyboard shortcuts. I tried it on my smartphone and Siri damned near lost her shit trying to autocorrect my typing. But, I have written before about my awareness of how I speak. “Getting the barrio out” when I talk. Knowing that the way that I talk in a professional sphere and the way that I talk to the gaggle of women scientists of color that I run with is different. There’s an awareness of the need to code switch and the knowledge that, when code switching doesn’t happen, people from non-traditional backgrounds are punished. Thought of as less educated, less intelligent, and less capable. There are no consequences when majority scientists do it. If anything, they are rewarded for being hip or funny or edgy. It’s hurtful to see things co-opting by people that don’t appear to be trying to understand the perspectives of others. Indeed, co-opting by people that have openly commented on how different we are and that we should be thought of as separate. It’s another reminder that #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen.
It strikes me as co-opting a dialect without a willingness to also understand the rules that underrepresented scientists have to play by in order to simply be allowed to sit at the table (if they are offered a spot at all). Now, I won’t go as far to say that anyone “should” or “shouldn’t” communicate a certain way. I won’t ascribe rules to anyone’s outreach or communication. I will, however, say that people shouldn’t be surprised when they get side eye for the way they are acting.
Which brings me to the idea of “rules.” On Sunday I had an interaction with a collaborator that left me completely off my game. This collaborator shared a correspondence with me about our project and told me that he had to engage in some politics. He shared the political tomfoolery with me. I felt completely surprised by the situation and unsure of exactly what was happening. He intimated that I would understand when I was as senior as him and I got indignant, realizing that this had nothing to do with how advanced in my career I am. The “rules” that had dictated this political interaction were completely foreign to me and completely non-congruent with the culture constructs I had been raised in. I wasn’t ignorant. I was uncomfortable. I reflected on how often I am blind-sided by the rules of interaction and how often these rules change around me in ways I don’t always predict. Even though I consider myself to be generally savvy, I still get roadblocked by them. With this particular collaborator, I was able to articulate my frustration. That’s not usually the case. Normally, my response is to shut my damned mouth and use the new data to strategize my way forward.
So, I wondered aloud to a group of people that I interact with on Twitter how life might be different if, for one day, the majority group around us had to obey a set of rules that felt foreign to them. That’s different than occasionally co-opting them when it’s convenient to feel subversive or cool. I’m talking about working and living within a set of culture norms that are foreign and not determined by people “like you.” I considered the way that interactions happen in my old neighborhood and how uncomfortable it would make the majority of people around me. Hence, the satirical thought exercise “Barrio Rules for the Laboratory.”
But, to think that this is a way that I could act in real life? Hermanos, please. The barrio might occasionally sneak in, but to think that I could survive in academia without the active code switching, passing, and adaptation that so many of us do every day is some basic bitch thinking.