First, a few of my beliefs, to clarify the provocative title and scare quotes:
Our society doesn’t react strongly enough to the subtle racism, sexism, and generic cruelty experienced by minorities in many communities.
The reaction to the specific situation with Danielle Lee is appropriate and useful. We should all be thankful, whatever our gender or race, for both Danielle for bringing it up, and her friends and community for summoning the twitterstorm. Calling out bad behavior is a necessary step on the road to a more inclusive community, and a more just society. Period.
For those of my readers who don’t know what happened (if you do, skip to the end of the summary), here’s my summary.
Dr. Danielle Lee is an African American biologist who, in addition to being a postdoctoral researcher, is active in science writing and science outreach to urban populations. She’s a friend of mine on twitter, and I have chatted with her a few times (and attended sessions she has led), at Science Online, a conference for online science writing. She has a blog at Scientific American called “The Urban Scientist.” She was asked to write a guest blog post for a web site that curates and hosts a lot of biology content (biology-online). She asked about details and payment. Told there was no payment but “exposure,” she politely declined. The editor responded with “are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”
From there, Dr. Lee posted a thoughtful and reflective video and response on her blog at Scientific American. She describes being angry, but also reiterating her philosophy on being a professional science writer. This means she does not work for free, but if she believes in the cause, she may waive her fee, donating her services to a worthy cause.
There is no link there, because Scientific American removed the blog post, first citing the fact that it “verged into the personal, and Scientific American is for discovering science.” Others have pointed out that this response is BS. In a later, longer response Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina said it was for legal reasons. In my eyes, and in the eyes of many readers and members of their blog community, they are still digging. Despite the fact that biology-online has fired the editor and apologized to Dr. Lee, Scientific American has still not re-posted Dr. Lee’s post.
Ok, this set off a flurry of blog and twitter activity. Dr. Isis reposted Danielle’s original post. Dr. Rubidium made it clear how Scientific American’s actions made her feel as a female scientist of color. Many others weighed in and spread the word. Here is a good point from Kate Clancy on the current status of the situation, why Scientific American’s responses are still not adequate, and why this is exactly the kind of thing Scientific American should be worried about, and why policing the boundaries of acceptable science is so often fraught with racism and sexism. Here’s Dr. Isis’s last installment of thoughts. Of course, Dr. Lee’s story and Isis’ original post (“batsignal” indeed) later drew attention from more traditional web outlets such as Buzzfeed, Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed (although “Outrage among women? really? scientists and science writers are pretty outraged, not just women).
Ok. After all of this, some people are saying, “What’s the big deal?” An editor unprofessionally insulted (or, if we are in the mood to minimize “acted like a jerk”) a person of color, and the “pc word police” set forth a storm of outrage. Others have pointed out that this kind of treatment is sadly not all that uncommon. Women and minorities deal with this kind of thoughtless cruelty all the time, why should this be different?
This reminds me of two things. First, one of my favorite papers in psychology. Second, a story and metaphor.
First, the paper is called “The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not So Bad,” by Dan Gilbert, Matthew Lieberman, Carey Morewedge and Tim Wilson. Please bear with me, I do not mean that this event is “not so bad,” but rather than events that do not trigger large responses can sometimes have larger effects than those that do. The paper posits a psychological immune system, one that helps us cope with tragic events, but also brings us back to equilibrium when we experience great joy. When we experience a tragic event, this psychological immune system goes to work, trying to make meaning of the event. We try to make sense of tragedy, find something positive about it, and try to return to our emotional baseline. This basic construct has been supported with studies of people who have undergone tragedies like the death of a loved one, or severe injuries. They change their lives, and their lives change, and they often find meaning and purpose through their adversity. In this paper, they test the idea that to engage the psychological immune system, some threshhold of pain (or pleasure) must be reached for the person to try to make sense, to find meaning and return to their baseline.
So how do they test this? They compare a situations in which you are insulted by a partner or by a non-partner. They compare being a victim of an insult to being a bystander. As it turns out, when someone is closer to the person doing the insulting, either as a direct victim, or as a partner, they see the insult as less insulting, and later feel more positive towards the perpetrator than the bystanders or non-partners.
This study fits into a broad literature, in which the psychological immune system is seen as an important way to cope with the emotional events the world throws at us. What does it have to do with #IStandWithDNLee?
I see this sort of event as the kind that would normally not trigger a “psychological immune system” response. Women, especially women of color, deal with these supposed darts of cruelty often, and simply call them “Tuesday.”
But to my eyes, this is the modern, insidious shape of prejudice. It disrupts the minds and work of scientists, scientists-to-be, and well-then-why-should-I-try-to-be-a-scientists. In snide comments and little notes, it whispers “you don’t belong here.” This event seems little, but these grains of sand make a mountain. If we keep picking them up, and as we seek to weigh them, they run through our fingers, we will never realize how they accumulate.
This stranger didn’t have any power over Dr. Lee. I assume she would have had very little legal recourse, since she had no working relationship with the editor at biology-online. She could have merely stewed, as I am sure she has before, as I am sure others have before. She wouldn’t have engaged her vast internet immune system.
But she did. And it kicked in, did it ever. And the editor is now fired. And others should realize that random wanton cruelty to women can at least sometimes come with consequences. This is the benefit of “overreaction” I am referring to in the title. The holding up this grain of sand and saying, “Hey! This is real. This happened!” It may not be a mountain, but it is sadly representative. I hope it leads to more, not less of calling out this behavior.
One last thought for me: Why do I find this situation “useful,” as I remarked at the beginning? Because when I think of moments like this, it reminds me of when my dad and I were installing a skylight above his bedroom, must have been twenty years ago. It was a huge piece of safety glass, designed so that when it breaks, it splinters into thousands of small pieces, not big sharp shards. It was also coated with plastic so that when it broke, these small pieces would not immediately fall, but would stick in place. We were carefully pushing it into place, and we pushed just a bit too hard. We heard a little “tic,” almost like the sound of a light switch, and immediately, the entire, 60 pound, 5 foot long piece of glass was covered with a vast network of cracks. Millions of little fault lines, previously laying latent in the structure of the glass, now, instantly visible.
To many with privilege, our society seems like a clear piece of glass. We work hard, get educated, find jobs, create families, buy houses. Laws protect us. But many among us cope with invisible prejudice and discrimination. They labor through the glass, coping with acts of small cruelty, instances of invisible, unintentional, real prejudice. To them, the glass is already broken.
We should see appreciate the situation with Danielle Lee for what it is. The “tic” that reveals to us all, not that one accomplished, esteemed postdoctoral researcher can be casually insulted by a sexist who is immediately fired. But the worlds that seem clear to the privileged have vast networks of cracks. These cracks are illustrated in Scientific American’s response, initially cautious of siding with Dr. Lee, trying to find a reason to defuse and minimize the situation, then hiding behind legal concern. What would it have done if it trusted Dr. Lee that she was not lying or deceitful in her post? Trust her, leave it up and investigate its veracity.
These moments tell us that our society is still sick from its racist past, our society is still cracked from its sexist traditions. The more often we are reminded of these facts, the better.