Monday, January 21, 2008

Remembering Martin Luther King

Andrew Alden at About.Com: Geology has a good post about the progress of bringing minorities(and majorities, let's not forget about women), into the geological sciences ( Like it or not, the geology working world is still a "good ole boys" network that continues to exclude people who are not like "us" (spoken as a middle-aged white male). I begin every one of my classes with a short exercise where I ask my students to clear their minds of all thoughts (not generally hard to do...), and I say the word "scientist". I then ask them to describe the image that pops into their head. The answers invariably start with a white lab coat and a pocket protector, test tubes, and either a bald head, or an Einstein shock of white hair. Then I ask about the gender (always male), and the ethnicity (invariably white). This in a class that is often more than 50% minorities. We sometimes talk about commercials in which the advertiser wishes to impart some kind of scientific respectibility about their product, and the stereotype is in full force.

Although "we" (once again spoken as a white male) like to think we are past some of the injustices that checker our country's history, they are not gone, not by any means. One of my students, a female, worked as an intern in a local geological consulting firm, and was subjected to demeaning treatment because of her gender. This was by people I had known for years, and it both saddened and angered me. I have had lunchtime discussions where there have been complaints that faculty and administrators at my institution were selected on the basis of affirmative action rather than for their skills and talents, despite the fact that the people in question were effective and creative people. What bothers me even more is that I didn't speak up and respond when I had the chance. These are small examples from my own experience, and cannot compare to the vicious and insidious hatred that still manifests itself in hate-crimes that still occur with sad regularity. It doesn't even touch on the huge economic disparities that have always existed between races in our society, and which have grown even worse in recent years. And it does not begin to add up to the horrific treatment in our society of gays and lesbians.

I know I don't have much of a wide readership on my fledgling new blog, but I hope anyone that stumbles across it will consider the state of our society: we still have deep, deep problems with stereotypes and prejudices when it comes to race and gender. I know that despite my desire not to do so, I jump to conclusions about the abilities of students that appear in my classes, based solely on race. I know from long experience that these assumptions almost always turn out to be unjustified. Recognizing these stereotypical attitudes in ourselves is the first step in overcoming them. Try to be aware that when you serve on a hiring committee, that the person you are selecting is often, whether you are aware of it or not, the person who is most like yourself. We need to be open to new possibilities.

I work in a highly conservative region, with a long enmity towards minorities that is based in part on a historical division between migrant farm workers and the farm owners, but on other factors as well. As such, I may have a completely different picture of how things are compared to other regions, whether urban centers, or rural communities. I am glad that my institution is a place where many of those barriers are examined, and sometimes overcome, but there is so much more that needs to be done. There is great good that can come from having a national holiday that celebrates not just one man's life, but also the idea that we can transcend our differences. We don't need a society that is "color-blind", we should be a society that truly celebrates our diversity. Even though we have fallen short in so many ways, it is one of our country's greatest achievements that we at least have sought to do so. And yet we have a long way to go...
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