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Jun 03 2020, 13:54
I am not here to solve racism. I am not here to solve discrimination. I can't do that. I'm just an early career mathematician, working on very impractical ideas whose influence on society is immeasurably small and far away. (That is not to say that these things are not important. They are).
Oddly enough, I am moved to write this by a Ben & Jerry's Silence is NOT an Option campaign.
Of my three followers, some may remember a time, half a decade ago, where I needed help. Someone was harassing me over email, and when I ignored them, they chose to harass me over various StackExchange websites, and when that didn't work out for them, they straight out stole my identity and went on Quora to pretend being an Israeli patriot (where anyone who knows me in real life can tell that nationalism and patriotism are two things I honestly despise).
So I reached out, over emails, in my blog. Some people answered my call and helped. An old acquaintance helped to clear things on Quora. Others gave me some support and advice over the following year and a half, during which the emails went on and off, and some posts came and went from my website. There were lies, racist propaganda, and otherwise harassment that ended up pouring over to a significant number of people at the Hebrew University through various social platforms (funny enough, several people told me at that point that they thought I was maybe exaggerating on the scale and volume of this, but after having a taste themselves they 100% believe me).
Not too long ago, I sat in an interview at the University of Bristol. They asked me about a bad experience I had in academia, and what I had learned from it. I guess they expected me to say that I had a paper rejected, or that I found a mistake, or maybe that one of my students was caught cheating and I had to face this fact. I don't know how most people react to this question.
But I brought up this story. And I am bringing it up now, because of what I said next to that committee, as their faces showed me how truly they were unprepared for a story like this.
I used to send mass emails to my colleagues, mostly the senior colleagues, perhaps some that were going to travel to that person's area, or recently did so, or maybe just people who might have some good advice to give. I'd explain the story, and I would plea for help, for advice, for a good word.
The absolute response was that I should just ignore that person. That this will go away. That I should just focus on my work instead. But things don't go away just because you wish them to go away. Things don't change because you don't deal with them. Things only escalate when ignored. Anyone who ever had cancer will tell you as much, ignoring it will not cure it. Sure, some tumours are so slow-moving that you can safely ignore them, but this is something you need to test before you can make this assumption.
Problems like racism are not going away any time soon. Not if we ignore them. Not if we play them down. Not if we attribute them to one or two "bad apples". That is just not how reality works.
I had hoped that some of my colleagues will pick up the mantle and intervene. I had hoped that they will email that person's advisor, their university, and say "Hey, make that stop, this is not how we expect academics to behave". But for the most part, that did not happen. Certainly not back in 2015. And it certainly had been helpful, as I learned later when interacting with the supervisor, and seeing their response.
I learned from that incident that academics tend to curl up and shy from fights. You can't really say who's right, and if you intervene you might get a stained reputation in the eyes of some people. You might lose future collaborators, funding, or just need to divert your time and energy towards something that is not research.
I learned from that incident that I should intervene when I see someone in a bad situation.
Either by talking to the offending party directly, or by applying pressure and weight elsewhere when possible. I learned that sometimes it is necessary to stick your hands in the mud of someone else's conflict, because that is how you pull someone out of a swamp. By getting your hands muddy.
I cannot solve institutionalised racism, sexism, and the rest of these -isms.
I just cannot do something like this. My story is not even about that. But I can tell you that you can save people, one at a time, when you see them suffer. Offer some help. Offer some support. Offer some advice. If you can. Not everyone is resilient, and some people will need your resilience. But if we all do that, more people will survive these hardships, and maybe then the institutions will change as well.
Be kind. Offer to help.
It is not a weakness to divert your energy to helping others. It is a strength. We are all in this together.
Matti Rubin always used to say "before all, you're a human being", meaning that you should be kind and helpful to others, and that this is more important than having great research. At his funeral his family members told of times he would exercise this by doing small acts of kindness towards random people.
But I am not even asking you to do that. I am only asking you to do specific acts of kindness towards people you know. Start there, it's easier than it looks.
Those who know me in real life well enough know that this is not something I like to discuss. This is not something I enjoy bringing up, or digging into. People will also easily attest that I am not a fan of discussing "real life stuff", certainly not on my blog, not where I have the full and complete control over the conversation. Not where I come to vent my dad jokes about large cardinals, or unfold the story behind some piece of research.
But if I am a "Future Leader" now, then I should step up to this role, and try to lead.