The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship might change your life

9 Aug
I’m going to edit this thank you note that I sent to the AMS into an article to run in the AMS Notices, but thought I’d put the unedited version here for my readers to know just how much this fellowship has meant to me.  Sorry that I have been neglecting the blog over the summer as I wrote full time, and hopefully I’ll be able to keep putting my thoughts to paper (actually, screen), and maybe bake some yummy things.  Enjoy!
From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank the American Mathematics Society so much for enabling me to write for the Raleigh News & Observer this summer.  As I wrap up this amazing summer with just a week left, I want to reflect a bit on what I’ve learned and accomplished during the past nine weeks.
I’ve accepted a part time job (hopefully full time next year) with the award-winning nonprofit news organization North Carolina Health News and plan on filling the rest of my time with freelance science journalism, connecting with the Science Communicators of North Carolina group for freelance leads.  None of this would have happened without the support of the AMS.  I cannot imagine what my life would have looked like without this fellowship- it is the jumping off point for the rest of my career doing what I love.
Of the 20 stories I’ve written so far, eight have ended up on the front page of the N&O.  The summer has convinced me that there’s a desire and thirst for science stories among the public- people want to know what’s happening in science research which can affect their lives.  One of my favorite stories of the summer was a dive into peanut allergies and upcoming treatments for them, where I interviewed biopharmaceutical companies, medical researchers, parents, and a six year old kid.  My story on using polio to treat brain cancer was also a big hit, and I covered a few other medical stories too.
A really fun reporting experience I had was covering a new kinkajou at the Carolina Tiger Rescue- I’m pretty sure I will never have another opportunity to pet a kinkajou!  So cute, so soft, so dangerous.
I told a high school girl this morning who is thinking of majoring in math that once you do math, you can do anything.  I’ve read many abstruse, dense research papers over this summer, and they were a breeze compared to the papers I read for my thesis work.  Math doesn’t exist outside of communication of it, and I think my math background really prepared me for adapting arguments and creating interesting analogies and ways to explain different ideas to different audiences.  I look forward to continuing to be involved in the math community, maybe as one of those people they trot out as ‘alternative careers’ in panels (which I am very excited about).  Please let me know if there’s ever anything I can do for the AMS.
One surprising aspect of this summer has been the fellowship component of the fellowship.  Though we only met for three days during orientation, the 2018 fellows have kept in close contact online through the summer, supporting and tweeting each others’ clips, reading cover letters, offering a space to vent about science misunderstandings and editing out science details, and exploring our own trepidation and excitement of this sometimes overwhelming plunge into a new field.  I am so privileged to be part of this network of comrades who I am certain will support me for the rest of my career.
It’s been so fun to spend a few hours learning all about fields I know nothing about- big dives into paleontologygenetics, and climatology, just to name a few.  I feel so lucky that I’ve had my mathematical experiences to ground me and give me confidence in my ability to learn anything.
On a more personal note, I love that this fellowship supports women, and I’m so grateful that I could find a site near my home so I could go home on weekends and see my baby and toddler.  Incidentally, my husband devoured the women’s history month issue of the AMS Notices.
I talked with Evelyn Lamb, who was also a AMS-sponsored Mass Media fellow, some time ago about the guilt of not being an exemplar of a woman mathematician by exiting academia, and she pointed out that she might be doing more good for the world of mathematics by spreading knowledge and awareness of it through her stories than she was as a postdoc.  I’m so grateful to the AMS for giving me this choice and this opportunity to do the same- math will always be part of me and I will always spread my love of it, and thanks to the AMS, I can now do that in a way that better matches my strengths and vision of what I want my life to look like.
With so much gratitude,
Yen Duong
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Reflections on race 3/3: protesters, police, and race

9 Jul

Note: I wrote this a long time ago but am finally getting around to posting.  Thanks to Anne, Monica and Daniel for taking a look-see and adding many facts.  Note on this note: not normal journalistic practice to have sources look before you post, but this is my personal blog and also I wrote this post before any kind of journalism training.

On the last morning of our weekend in Durham grappling with racism (parts 1 and 2 here and also part 4), we had breakfast with our innkeepers, Monica and Daniel, and another guest, Anne, who was part of the organizing committee for the Vigil Commemoration as was one of many alumni who arrived at Duke after the Vigil but whose activism was inspired by the events of 1968. The conversation was far-ranging, as the previous posts have been, so I’ll try to split this post up into reasonable chunks: student protesters, police relations, and black business owners.

On Protesters

Spouse and I were chatting about reparations and the workshop from part 2, and Anne asked us if we’d seen the protest from the day before.  We hadn’t gone because it sounded really boring- a “state of the university” address from the new president of Duke, Vincent Price- but it seems like we missed out on some excitement- long video at the student newspaper here, short video at the Raleigh News&Observer (my summer home!) here.  At least 12, up to 15 minutes of student protesters interrupted the president’s address with megaphones, which as Anne pointed out wryly, “do not mix well with hearing aids”.  The students also handed out a double sided manifesto of demands, neatly listed here.  “Succinct is better,” said Anne, who suggested fewer demands read from the stage might have been more effective. There’s definite irony in this quote from a Duke Chronicle article, by a student who was asked to be part of those afternoon workshops/panels:

“We felt that you don’t honor activism with panels and things that keep it firmly in the past as an artifact,” Nuzzolillo said. “It’s something that’s viable and visible and present now and in the future.”

Per Anne, among the workshops was one on current organizing involving students from Durham, UNC, and Duke. Among the half-dozen or more Duke activists recommended for the panel, several had conflicts and two dropped out at the last minute—it turns out they were the protesters!

While alumni commemorating the Vigil voiced support afterward for the student protest, a number of alumni—presumably, Anne said, those who weren’t part of the sit-in 50 years ago—turned their back on the students, some of whom were quoted in the paper later as being surprised/hurt by the lack of support for their protest, especially given that it was 50th anniversary of an effective and historic student protest.

I think this is the nature of news and gatekeeping, and I’ll have to think about it this summer—some reports make it sound like these college snowflakes have totally unreasonable demands and unreasonable expectations for no consequences of their protests.  Perhaps we have done students a disservice in this country by how we teach history, if someone thinks they can stage a large protest against a huge establishment and *not* have any consequences.

That said, there actually were no consequences or disciplinary actions taken against the students though there was a lot of uproar and sound and fury at the suggestion that there might be.  So I guess the students won out anyway.

Personally I’m sympathetic to the protesters, especially after the events that happened in the week after their protest.  This is one of their demands:

  1. Create and enforce a standardized set of consequences for acts of hate and bias on campus.

And in response to this news item about a hate speech incident on campus involving racist graffiti at a student apartment complex, the vice president of student affairs tweeted:

To those who believe that colleges and universities should prohibit hate speech, I encourage you to read this: https://t.co/dB5FfezKUZ

Freedom of expression protects the oppressed far more than the oppressors.

— Larry Moneta (@Dukestuaff) April 27, 2018

[Larry Moneta deleted his twitter in the time between me writing and posting this blog post]

So if this is the environment around Duke, no wonder the student protesters went a little overboard.  If no one listens when you’re talking at a normal voice, of course you’re going to yell to be heard.  On a side note, in the course of writing this blog post I’ve been quite impressed with the Duke Chronicle!  Here’s a follow-up article about the responses to the tweet.

“I don’t have a plan for a major initiative,” Moneta said. “You want to be careful—you want to react appropriately and not just run around to do things that have no meaning. I think we need to just sit back and think about what is going on that a few people would feel like that was a good way to behave.”

Moneta also added that he doesn’t think the incidents reflect Duke’s student body.
On Policing

At this point you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t think that there’s an issue with relations between the public and the police.  Daniel is a police officer in Durham and had recently gone to Mexico City with three other coworkers as part of a program of the Durham Police Department to understand their community.  He told us that the police had set up a day for several undocumented immigrants to come into the station and talk about their lives, which would have been a first step toward building stronger relationships with the police and the community they serve. But the day before the scheduled event, ICE raided several locations in Durham.  None of the scheduled speakers came to the police department on the planned day, since they were reasonably afraid of getting deported.  Your daily reminder that ICE sucks.

This reminded me of a low-cost initiative pushed by the Austin Police Department (which we recall also had issues; this links to the 2016 traffic stop of the black teacher).  They did “Coffee with a Cop” about quarterly, when you could go to McDonald’s and get free coffee and meet your local police officers.  I went with my neighbor and her five year old to one event, which was pretty packed—we met the captain in charge of our area, and an officer who had two little girls around my neighbor’s age.  I asked her about what she told her daughters about guns, and she emphasized safety to them and told them if they ever saw one out, to go find an adult.  Of course she kept her own guns locked up (this was Texas so pretty much everyone had guns).

On Racism

Monica and Daniel are pillars of the community.  There’s an old N&O article about when the opened their B&B in 1997 (I can’t find it), and how they were only the 26th (ish) black innkeepers in America.  Google tells me there’s around 11,000 B&Bs in the US. There are fifteen inns listed on the African American Association of Innkeepers International.  Even if there are ten times as many inns owned by black people as there are on the website, it’s still a very, very small percentage of the inns in America.

Eventually Monica became the president of the North Carolina Bed and Breakfast Inns Association, a post she held for five years.  They told us about opening the inn, and how the furniture salesman obviously didn’t believe that they were opening an inn, as he visited the inn to “make sure the furniture would fit” before selling it to them.  Anne recalls how Monica told us that one guest walked into the inn, an 8,000-square-foot Colonial Revival home built in the last century by a Liggett & Myers tobacco executive, and refused to stay when she discovered it was owned by African Americans. Another guest asked Daniel to wash his car when he saw the inn owner in the parking lot washing his own car.  In the years since, Monica has been to plenty of conferences and associations, and told us that folks have stopped asking her who she works for and have accepted that black innkeepers exist.  Of the over 17,000 inns in the U.S., less than 1% are owned by black people.  I don’t remember the other stories they told us (note to self, Yen, blog immediately!) but we all know there was racism.

Lots of hats- personal update. Also, the internet.

1 Jul

When I was 17, I interned at Boeing and did something with fiber optic cables and C and a manual.  I don’t remember much.  But that’s the last time I had a 9-5 job.  So now I’m 30 and had to have a little adjustment period over the past month- turns out adults don’t take daily naps!  I feel like adults are doing it wrong, but unfortunately now I’m an adult.  Like, very adult.  Full-time job and two kids adult.

After spending my day writing, I have a harder time writing after work.  I started this blog as a way to write and get out my creative juices while doing math all day, and now I do different things after doing writing all day.  One, I’m trying to get back in shape and eventually hit up triathlons again.

More relevant to you, I’m editing this blog for Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally. The blog is a way to encourage STEM students and professionals to become more active in their local government.  So that’s great!  On Tuesday I’m going to interview someone running for congress!  I just edited a piece by some nuclear engineering students who had a summit at the Texas Capitol, and handed off to someone else an interview with a person doing research for the California Senate (because I feel overwhelmed).  Honestly, editing this blog has made me feel more hopeful about our political status.  The City of Charlotte has all these advisory boards that I could just apply for and join- link here.   Maybe once I’m back I’ll to become more involved in my hyperlocal government, and let you know how it goes.  You could do it too!  Google ‘city name advisory board’.  Let me know how it goes.

On a fun note, I’m doing something totally different and out of my wheelhouse by running the social media for a puzzle hunt I’ve been doing for seven-ish years.  This is the puzzle hunt, it’s super fun and my friends and I have done it in Davis, San Francisco, Chicago, and Austin so far.  This September I’m going to SF again for it.  You can see me trying to be funny at https://twitter.com/playdash and on facebook.  It’s a lot of behind the scenes reaching out to people individually using email.

My friend Amy and I have been working for a few months on a book chapter for an upcoming volume, so whenever I get news on that I’ll update y’all (our draft is due in August).  It’s about all those women in mathematics conferences we and others have run.  I also visited IAS again this year, just for a day, to talk about these conferences.

Finally, I perhaps unwisely joined the board of the Family Community Association of our toddler’s new preschool.  We’re the FCA instead of the PTA because we want to be inclusive of families that are run by non-parents (grandparents, stepparents, aunts and uncles, etc.)  I think I joined solely because of that radically inclusive reasoning.  I’m in charge of Beautification Day, Bake Sale, and Snack Shack.  I love projects, and also we still have almost no friends in Charlotte, so I think ultimately this is a good idea, but at the moment it’s a little overwhelming with all the other volunteer stuff going on.

Also, I LOVE MY JOB SO MUCH.  I get to read scientific studies and then talk to scientists and then tell other people what’s going on?!  This is the perfect job!  My editor hasn’t assigned me a single story yet, I just pitch tons of cool stuff going on.  It’s SO FUN.  I think this list will update periodically with all my articles.  I also tweet every time I write something.  I’m hoping I can keep this up after the fellowship is over, either as a science writer for somewhere in Charlotte, or as a freelance science writer.

Final rambling thoughts: one of the great things about this AAAS Mass Media fellowship  is the community and camaraderie.  We all met for a few days in Washington for orientation, but now I have an internet group of friends whom I can vent to or find story ideas from or post silly gifs at.  I’ve been to a few weddings where people had a reddit table of internet friends, and at the time I was stupid and stuck-up about it, but now I think reddit is really beautiful.  You can find an internet community, and then you can even go to someone’s WEDDING who you met online and clicked with!  Wow!  I have at least one close friend I met on the internet (through this blog), who also introduced me to some real-life friends.

At orientation, we went around the table saying a controversial opinion, and mine was “I love facebook” because when I had my kids, I felt so isolated and so alone.  Either I was with professional working moms, or grad students who weren’t married nor thinking about kids, or stay at home moms who wanted to do that.  Facebook gave me a place to not feel alone, people who understood playing Candy Crush at 3 am when the baby won’t sleep or the frustration of trying to finish your thesis and realizing daycare is closed.  So, I’m sorry for quietly internally judging weird internet people, for I now am a weird internet person, and I love it.

Reflections on race 4/3: current progress

9 May

I realize that part 3 of my series hasn’t been written yet, but I had a few quick thoughts that I wanted to write as a wrap-up of the series.

To be fair to Duke… actually I can’t really finish that sentence.  Via this series I’ve been engaged with a number of Duke alumni (and my spouse is an alum), who care about social justice issues and press Duke to move forward on progressive fronts, and the school has done things like raise its minimum wage (except for contract workers…)  I can’t claim my alma mater is much better. Here’s a quote from that article:

“This is what happens every day in America,” she added. “These things are unfortunate, they’re disappointing, they’re disheartening, but they’re not shocking anymore.”

But something I find heartening is how much we hear about these events- that they’re dubbed newsworthy at all.  I remember when #MeToo came out, an actress said that she was not amazed that so many people had experienced harassment; she was amazed that anyone cared.  I confess I felt the same way- I just thought that most people have been harassed or assaulted, and that patriarchy and misogyny are just facts like the sky is blue.  Suddenly there was an avalanche of sexual assault stories, and people were reading them and listening and caring and a dialogue was happening!  And then real consequences started happening to perpetrator’s careers!  Yowza!  Yes, people want more consequences, but the fact that ANYTHING has happened is astonishing and encouraging to me.

I feel a similar way about racism- this stuff has always happened.  The difference now is that, for some reason, the media cares, and people read and interact with the media in different, interesting ways now.  There have always been readers and letters to the editor, but now there are hot takes and bloggers (oh hey!) and tweeters and virality.  Bob said this at that first panel- in the decades he’s been involved with activism, he’s never seen such a large, engaged and passionate base.  So I hope that these racist incidents and subsequent conversations are part of a slow, steady, sea change and reckoning of America with its deep seated inequities.  And yes, there will be pushback and backlash, but that’s how change happens.

One counterargument to my hopeful idea is that 24-hour cycles of journalism are now just irresponsible and building echo chambers of ideas.  For instance, Twitter user Osita Nwavenu found this story of a school in Ottawa which cancelled a yoga class once. The cancellation was maybe connected to a single student’s complaint about appropriation.

So yes, it’s absolutely true that this kind of predatory media “fake outrage” turning into real outrage amplifies discord in our conversations.  (Another example: “snowflake” students.  How many students really go to these elite colleges that I’m blogging about?)  But at least we’re having conversations, even if some people are yelling nonsense.  And I think that’s progress.

Honestly, linguistics is a big reason why I have hope and faith.  When I was in high school, “gay” was used as a pejorative all the time.  It still is, but not to the same extent.  Similar with “retarded”, which is being eradicated as part of an incredibly organized and dedicated effort (check out this op-ed from 2008 by Maria Shriver!).  In the fall of 2010 I learned about “The Other” in a sex and genders studies course.  Now I hear “othering” as a verb all the time.  The concept of “privilege” is now so widespread that people who don’t believe in it still have to engage with it and defend those beliefs.  “Intersectional”! “Non-binary gender”! Even “transgender”!  This stuff has left academia and is now in the wide world of radio DJs and Facebook mom groups (yes, these are the main ways I interact with people who do not live in my house).

My pregnancy last year was not great, and having a newborn is also difficult.  A year ago today I was struggling to finish my dissertation and TA a course with a six week old, and was hyperfocused on just my small life.  Now that the baby is sleeping and I have more of my brain back, I’m feeling more engaged and hopeful and excited and energized about our society instead of cynical and defeated and apathetically hopeless.

The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.  We will win.

Reflections on race 2/3: “How Racial Identity Became Entrenched in America” workshop

19 Apr

 

This is a continuation of a series started in this post, based on the Duke Vigil Commemoration events at Alumni weekend.  MUCH of our historical discussion echoes strongly in today’s society.

The second event we attended was a discussion/workshop led by Professor Peter Wood and Ann Chinn, who founded and leads the Middle Passage Project, which puts historic markers at ports of entry for the twelve million Africans who came through the transatlantic slave trade.  Just look at how many sites they’ve identified, which are definitely not all in the South.

Peter reminded us of how long slavery has lasted in America (see the tweet above).  Coincidentally, Bree Newsome just tweeted about how long black resistance has existed:

Remarkably, Peter said that for the average African-American, their first ancestor in America arrived in 1760.  For the average white American, that date is 1900.  This reminded me of the phrase “all-American,” often used to describe a blonde, blue-eyed sport player.  But black Americans are way more American than white Americans if you go by how long their families have been here (and obviously Native Americans are the most American).

Even though Europeans and especially Brits knew about people of other races since the Roman ages, American racism began as a way to justify slavery, which was seen as necessary for economic development and growth.  As long as races stayed to their own countries, there were enough power dynamics in place to keep a mutual “respect” (might be stretching the word).  But once the transatlantic slave trade started looking good economically, scientists and legal and church officials started claiming that black people weren’t people at all, but another species.  One audience member pointed out that even the Catholic bishops said that baptism couldn’t change your “state”-black people were lesser-than and also not even people, even if they were baptized.

I was definitely confused about the entrenched racism, since Marco Polo was a name I had heard of (I have a remarkably poor grasp on European history).  But this economic explanation made a lot of sense- they didn’t need structural, institutionalized racism before, so hadn’t bothered to set it up.  Around 1650, Peter said that persecution due to and identification with religion was much stronger than with race.  But then Britain got hit by the Plague AND a big old Fire, so they had a shortage of labor.  At the same time, the Royal African Company was founded, and the stage was set for slavery of Africans.  Add in the American colonies and the fire was lit for racism, which we still feel the effects of today.

Our conversation was rambling and far-reaching and I can only hit a few of the points that were discussed.

  • Word choice matters.  Peter used “forced labor camps” instead of “slave plantations,” and “enslaved person” instead of “slave”.  I hadn’t heard either of these but I like them!  “Enslaved person” centers the person rather than the act that happened to them (slavery), sort of like person with schizophrenia or undocumented immigrant center the people vs. “schizophrenic” or “illegal.” Maybe “enslaved person” still isn’t satisfying “people-first language” but I like it better than slave.
  • A strong theme I’ve seen over the past few years that goes hand in hand with racism is white denial.  Ann talked about both positive and negative receptions of the Middle Passage Project- people like to say “that didn’t happen here” or “I’m not part of the problem.”  This reaction reminds me of how people got defensive on my behalf when I called myself racist- definitely a hair-trigger topic.  But we can’t move forward until people start talking about race, like this workshop, and like the communities that have embraced Ann’s project.
  • Did you know about John Punch, considered the first American slave?  There were some blurry times with indentured servitude and free blacks, but from Punch’s trial onward, blacks were slaves.  He ran away with two white indentured servants, and the white guys got their sentences extended for a few years, but he got lifetime slavery.  So officially, legally, skin color was now a reason to treat people differently.  I’d never known about this!
  • Reparations!  People react very negatively to the idea of individuals receiving checks because of wrongs done to their ancestors.  If inter-generational wealth and inter-generational trauma matter, then the American idea of “bootstraps” is bunk.  In a facebook group I’m in, people were asked how they made it to middle class.  Of hundreds of responses, almost all were either (a) helped by their parents/family to buy a house/car or get a job or (b) married someone who was in category (a).  It doesn’t discount the work you do to acknowledge that you’ve had help.  But if my wealth is not my doing, then others’ poverty may also not be their fault, and this radical idea is difficult.
  • Reparations part 2!  If we are to have reparations, they need to be future-thinking, not past-fixing.  For example, the Harlem Children’s Zone went literally door to door for blocks and did early intervention for every baby and every child they could find.  People love babies! Or at least, people love babies enough not to gripe that they shouldn’t be cared for/their parents shouldn’t receive education.
  • We had one #NotAllWhitePeople audience member who said two factually accurate points.  First, that most white Southerners at the time didn’t own slaves but were yeomen farmers, and the rich people were the ones who owned slaves.  Second, that African tribal leaders would trade captive Africans into slavery.  His unstated points, I think, were that not all white people should be blamed for slavery, and we should also blame black people for it.  He left before our discussion addressed his points in an interesting way (guess he didn’t really want to be engaged, but it’s ironic that he engaged us!)  First, that racism became more entrenched as a way to lift up those poor white farmers and make them feel differentiated from enslaved black people.  The institutional racism buffeted up the hierarchical society, as white farmers knew they weren’t on the bottom.  The slow erosion of institutional racism threatens white people in this situation–society is seen as a zero-sum game, so if black people rise, then therefore white people must fall.  My counter to this is that society is not a zero-sum game, and the more we raise people up, the more we all rise.
  • Second, part of why the transatlantic slave trade lasted so long was the lack of feedback loop: people left and didn’t come back to Africa.  One could argue that if tribes had known what was happening in America, they might not have shipped off their rivals.  How much do you have to hate someone to send them and their progeny off to live as slaves in America?  Unknown.  An audience member drew the parallel to the Nazi trains off to Jewish “work camps”-with no feedback, there was little resistance.  It’s hard because this is a counterfactual argument.  I find history difficult for this reason-things just happened they way they did and speculating on how people might have acted were circumstances different does not compute in my mind.

Phew!  Lots to unpack.  You can see why I wanted to write about the weekend; so much happened!  Anyways, this is post two, and hopefully I’ll get a post 3/3 up soon too.

Reflections on race 1/3: “Race, Class, and Gender” panel

16 Apr

Last weekend I went to Durham for the first time and visited Duke for my spouse’s 15th college reunion.  We were expecting to go on little tours and read some propagandist hyperbolic literature about how great Duke is and relax and catch up with old friends.  Instead, surprise! We spent much of the weekend thinking about and talking about race in America (one of my favorite topics).

I hadn’t heard of the Silent Vigil at Duke fifty years ago, when students held a vigil after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and combined that with demands for the university to recognize the union of black workers and pay them a fair wage.  Something like 2000 mostly white students sat on the lawn in front of the chapel for a week until the union of black workers was recognized.  [Great photos here.] For the reunion, a bunch of alumni put together a series of programming with conversations on equity, student activism, race, history, immigration, politics, and labor relations.  We got there too late for the kickoff panel on activism and equity, but we did go to two events as part of the Vigil Commemoration: a panel on Race, Class, and Gender, and a workshop/discussion group on how racial identity became entrenched in America.  Spurred by those we ended up in an hour and a half long discussion of race and policing and protesters over breakfast at our B&B with the innkeepers and another guest, who had led her own event on student activism.  These three posts are for me to work through everything that happened.  I wasn’t prepared and didn’t take notes, so this will be a reckoning of memory as well.

I felt hopeless and drained with the answer to the first question, when the moderator asked Bertie Howard, one of the main Vigil organizers, what she was thinking when she motivated the student participants in 1968 with a fierce speech about how they needed to stay quiet and peaceful and not riot.  Bertie responded that she hadn’t set out to inspire the masses with her leadership, as she did, but was just looking to survive.  She knew that if the students were rowdy and police were called, as one of the few black students she would be targeted.  And it was so exhausting and demoralizing when she talked about how she still feels out of place and targeted and questioned even with her fancy degrees.  It felt like we hadn’t made any progress in 50 years, and black women like her (or pregnant black women) (or black men waiting for a friend at Starbucks) are suffering the consequences of that daily insidious racism on which our country is based.  I mean, if felt exhausted just hearing her talk about her experience, that’s nothing compared to how she feels living it.

I had a funny conversation at the class party the next night with an Indian-Canadian about how, when we compare our Asian-American women experiences with black women, we’re totally fine and hunky-dory and have nothing to complain about.  But then we compare to white women and say hey, something’s not fair here and say white women have nothing to complain about.  But of course they do too!  This is the problem of oppression olympics.  It’s important to acknowledge that all marginalized people have different struggles, and solutions for one might not be for all, but we should still work on solutions.  Reparations for slavery may not directly benefit me, a Vietnamese-American women married to a white man, but when they happen they will lift up everyone in society.  Anything we can do to help one group will eventually help us all.  (Related: the concept of intersectionality.)

Speaking of white women, in the 1960s Duke had a separate women’s campus, now called East Campus, about a mile from the main campus/classrooms.  And there, the women had to sign in and out, and were locked in at 9 p.m., and didn’t get the housekeeping that the boys got.  Sara Evans spoke about the shock of finding a telegraph between the dean and her parents giving her, a grown woman, permission to go to Selma (Birmingham?) as an activist.   But she also talked about something that I run into regularly today.  The benefit of being in a women-only space is that all the leaders are women, so there are many leadership roles available for women.  I’ve run into this in my role as a woman in mathematics.  It’s sometimes easier as a woman to be a leader in a group of women than in a mixed gender group, because I don’t have any men to convince that they should listen to me.  And this is also true for any minority group.  I have yet to read “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”  but I refer to the title often, because self-segregation leads to a safer, more comfortable space.  But being segregated by out-groups is isolating and disenfranchising.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t know about the vigil or the women’s campus, since I had no ties to Duke before my spouse, but I was surprised by how surprised he was when learning this relevant history of his alma mater.  Peter Wood talked about the critical importance of studying history and disseminating this information.  For instance, some claim that we’re in a post-racial society and lots and lots of time has passed since the end of slavery.  Peter pointed out that Michelle’s great-great-grandfather was a slave, so that’s four generations ago.  But slavery lasted for eight generations before that.  So we spent eight generations digging a giant pit (of institutionalized racism), and then four generations pretending that it’s not there, and now we’re trying to fill it.  But we need to look back in history to even understand what it looks like and what we’re trying to fight.  He’s a historian with a focus on South Carolina, and shared a fun fact: of the thirteen colonies, South Carolina was the richest at the time of the Declaration of Independence.  Because of slaves and slave labor.  He’s now working with white kids in Colorado to get them to understand the history of the American South and the history of blackness in Americans.  Pretty cool.

I sometimes wonder what these white male scholars are thinking about their own identities when they study marginalized groups.  My adviser for my Mellon Mays Undergraduate fellowship is a white anthropology professor specializing in Vietnam and southeast Asian studies.  He was an excellent adviser and met with me in Vietnam for my ethnographic research project in 2008, and no surprise, his Vietnamese is better than mine (I know no academic terms in Vietnamese except “university”).  Peter said no one was studying South Carolina or the history of African-Americans when he was in graduate school, and the established departments discouraged him from studying this.  So when the doors of academia were closed to people of color, he set the groundwork for studying the history of those people.  By the time black scholars could come around, there was already some infrastructure for their research.  It must be weird to be an expert on another group’s lived experience when you’re in the majority group.  I  think that being a good ally means amplifying the voices of those you’re allied with, but if you have a strong voice yourself, you should use that too.  This echoes Viet Thanh Nguyen’s recent op-ed, in which he wrote:

The situation, now and in the past, is that the minority and marginalized communities of this or any other country are often not voiceless. They’re simply not heard.

The moderator for the panel did an excellent job with focused, thoughtful questions driving the dialogue forward.  I wish I remembered more of the panel, though I did see someone video recording so hopefully that becomes available somewhere.  The final panelist, Bob Creamer, gave a rousing political speech about how he really believes in MLK’s words that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  He said in his many years of political organizing, he has never seen the base as energized and engaged as it is today, and that even when we are unsure and unconfident, we must have faith that we will win.  I got a big kick out of his comically partisan rhetoric (which I agree with, to be fair).

So that was the first panel.  Stay tuned for further posts about the workshop (how racial identity became entrenched in America) and the casual discussion (race, police, and protesters today, with non-academics).

I am the 2018 AMS AAAS Mass Media Fellow!

11 Apr

Hi friends!  You may remember that I applied for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship and wrote about it in a post about failure and I even posted my application essay.  Good news: the American Mathematical Society is sponsoring my fellowship and I get to spend the summer in a NEWSROOM writing for the Raleigh News & Observer, covering science topics!

I spent three years bouncing around the staff of our high school paper.  I started as a feature writer because I have a “poet’s soul”, but turns out I can’t talk to people about their own poetic souls.  So then I switched to news, and became an assistant news editor, and then somehow became the entertainment editor.  I loved it!  One of the great accomplishments of my journalism life was mildly getting fired from my post and then immediately reinstated for circulating a petition to keep our editor-in-chief.  Let’s hope I don’t do that this summer.

I’m honored and excited to follow in the footsteps of many people I admire.  My fairy blogmother, friend, and mentor Evelyn Lamb blogs for the AMS and Scientific American, co-hosts a great math podcast, and freelances on top of all of that.  The other half of that excellent AMS blog is Anna Haensch, who is also a math professor at Duquesne.  And Josh Batson started the Yale Undergraduate Math Society, which I was part of, and kindly talked to me on the phone about career guidance even though we have never actually met.  Those are all AMS-sponsored past fellows.  My old boss from college, Jenny Laaser, is now a professor in chemistry at Pittsburgh and read my application materials, and was sponsored by not-the-AMS.

I essentially only applied to the Raleigh site so I could drive home on the weekends to see my kids, take the baby to swim lessons, and make a few dinners for them to eat during the week.  Obviously my spouse is capable of feeding them, but he’ll have a lot on his plate with two kids during the week so I might as well help however I can.  It’ll be a long ten weeks for them.

You can follow along with what I’m writing here or on Twitter.

This is a photo of me right now.

WIN_20180411_15_33_42_Pro

Probably the N&O will have fewer distractions.  Yay!

 

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