What will it take to change our culture?

This is my university, as it was about 130 years ago. UMM was only established as a university in the 1960s, and before that it was an agricultural school, and before that, it was a Catholic school for Indians — one of those places dedicated to ‘helping’ the poor backwards people of the continent to assimilate into superior white culture by taking their children away and raising them the White Man’s Way. For the past week, students have been busily chalking the outlines of the old buildings around campus, as part of a project to remind us all of our history as an Indian boarding school. I am glad to see that we don’t whitewash this shameful part of our past, and that my university tries to make amends by offering free tuition to Indian students — but nowadays we don’t force them to attend, it’s entirely voluntary, and the curriculum isn’t about telling them how bad their culture is.


Jennifer Raff writes about another side of America’s history with indigenous people.

We have a diversity problem in the field of human genetics. Less than 1 percent of the Ph.D.s in fields related to human genetic research go to Native Americans (Table 1), and, according to Dr. Kim Tallbear of the University of Texas, they make up less than one fifth of 1 percent of the members of the American Society of Human Genetics. This is particularly troubling in light of a history of exploitative genetics research with Native American communities (McInnes 2011). Dr. Tallbear notes, "In many aspects we govern through science. If tribal communities don’t have people trained in genetics, we don’t have the ability to engage in meaningful conversation with geneticists."

Yeah, white Americans plundered graves and wrote learned treatises on the intrinsic intellectual deficiencies of Indians (some still do!), and this history clouds everything — I had no idea the participation of Native Americans in modern genetics training and research was so low, since UMM is so strongly skewed the other way, with 12% of our students being Indian. Raff tells us we have to do better — that we have to reach out and do better. And the solution isn’t to march in and tell them what they need to do, but to ask what they want to know, and encourage collaboration.

Then the next problem is making discriminated groups an active part of science. Jennifer Selvidge writes about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways we squeeze people out of STEM careers.

We have all heard the disturbing reports: We need a million new STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) graduates, we’re in a crisis. We, as a society, seem to be suffering some kind of cognitive dissonance though, because with equal or perhaps greater fervor, we are systematically discouraging women and people of color of the population from pursuing graduate and undergraduate studies and careers in STEM fields.

I am a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a materials engineer, an honors student, and a woman. I also have been told hundreds of times that I don’t deserve to be where I am. MIT admissions decisions come out on 3/14 (for Pi) every year. By 8 a.m. on 3/15 everyone in my high school knew I had been accepted. Tons of people came up to congratulate that day and afterwards but seemed strangely insistent on reminding me that "it is a lot easier to get in when you are a girl because they get so many fewer female applicants."

Oh, man, that brings back annoying memories — it’s not just sex or race, but class as well. I got a hint of that attitude in high school, too — I was accepted at every college I applied to, and was actively courted by schools all around the country, and I had fellow students seriously explain to me that it was because I was a charity case, and they needed their quota of poor kids. Being an “A” student and National Merit finalist had nothing to do with it!

But at least once I got in I had the privilege of being a white boy who could blend in. This isn’t the case if you’re a woman or a member of a racial minority. It’s written on your face for your entire life that you’re not a member of the club.

This year, I am walking MIT’s halls for the last time, and writing my thesis. While I will surely be filling my days with optical characterization (I work in optics), my mind will also be filled with concerns for what is to come. I know that my name — Jennifer — at the top of my resume will play as much a factor in determining my worth as a doctoral candidate as the various papers on which I am a listed author. And I know that even with close to straight As, I am still unwelcome in my scientific community and unwelcome as an engineer. I will be competing with white men with lower GPAs and less research experience who will likely be chosen over me, as professors on graduate committees. After all, some of those very same graduate school committee members probably remember fondly “the days when men were engineers and women were flight attendants.” The problems in STEM are the people in STEM. I shouldn’t have to play catch up, when I am already ahead.

That’s so familiar. The problem shouldn’t be Indians, or black students, or women — it’s us, the established majority. We’re the ones who have to change — or die — before the situation will improve.

I don’t know about you other white men, but I think I’d prefer the ‘change’ option, although I’m also pretty sure I’m going to be forced to take the ‘die’ solution long before the problems are corrected.


  1. Trebuchet says

    …UMM is so strongly skewed the other way, with 12% of our students being Indian.

    There were a lot of Indian students at my college in Montana nearly 50 years ago as well. But they were from India. The local Indians pretty much didn’t get to college. We were less than 20 years past the days of “No Dogs or Indians” signs in storefronts at that time.

  2. Durty Nelly says

    I live about three miles from the location of the Carlisle Indian School, of Jim Thorpe fame, which is currently a US Army installation, Carlisle Barracks, that houses, among other things, the Army War College. There is a small cemetery at the back entrance in which are buried a number of Native American children who died so very far from home and family at a very young age. I cannot begin to imagine how they felt.

    Yes, I see the irony of a former industrial school for Native Americans now being the home of the epitome of male white privilege–US Army senior officers. :-(

  3. gog says

    I don’t understand the whole “quota to fill” nonsense. Diversity should mean that the cultural makeup of the region… hell, the world, is well-represented by the student body. Unsurprisingly, I guess, the attitude that affirmative action’s intent is to create racial or economic tokenism by admitting a specified-in-advance number of people of color persists. Maybe racists just use it to comfort themselves by knowing how many of “those people” are around at any given time.

  4. says

    In the early 90s on a vacation in the Southwest I picked up a Old Hopi hitchhiker on the reservation. While we spoke he mentioned the boarding school he attended in Phoenix. I asked about the punishment for speaking Hopi. Yes, they beat them for speaking Hopi. I asked if he was beaten then he smiled this wonderful smile I’ll always remember and said to me “I didn’t get caught.”

    Another memory this triggered is of a tour of the archives vault of the Western Region National Archives and Records Administration facility. The Director explained to us that principal of one of these boarding schools saved the confiscated artwork the children did. If the students drew anything derived from their own culture the teacher would confiscate it and punish the child. Many of these drawings by 1st and 2nd graders were quite beautiful and fantastic. Even the guy in charge of the racist assimilation factory could not bring himself to destroy them.

  5. magistramarla says

    PZ told a very familiar story.
    I was the poor welfare kid who surprised everyone in my high school when I was awarded a full scholarship.
    I suppose that I didn’t rock too many boats in college, since I pursued the dream that I had held onto since I was six and became a teacher.
    Fast forward to the next generation: Our oldest daughter, a math and science whiz, graduated as valedictorian of her class and was accepted at every school to which she applied, most notably Caltech, Stanford and MIT.
    After successfully attaining several STEM degrees, including engineering and computational neuroscience from Caltech and Neurobiology from Duke, she went on to do a research post-doc at NYU.
    I was a little surprised when she told me that she wasn’t going to continue with research in her field, since women had so few opportunities to head up research labs and even fewer opportunities at tenure.
    However, she’s trying to do something about it. She’s now working in DC, and is using that strong scientific background and her social networking skills to work on programs that promote getting more women and people of color interested in STEM fields.
    It seems so sad to me that we don’t make use of over half of the great scientific minds simply because they are not housed in white male bodies.

  6. says

    gog #3

    Unsurprisingly, I guess, the attitude that affirmative action’s intent is to create racial or economic tokenism by admitting a specified-in-advance number of people of color persists. Maybe racists just use it to comfort themselves by knowing how many of “those people” are around at any given time.

    I think it’s related to the fact that people are notoriously bad at correctly perceiving the actual composition of a group. For example, if a group has 40% women, men tend to perceive the group as being women-dominated. This ties into the notion that white men are considered the default. If a group has 90% white men, nobody bats an eye, despite the obvious fact that the world is in fact not composed of 90% white men.

    In other words, people are so used to seeing a biased representation that when they see an actually representative group, it seems overly diverse; as if someone had deliberately included an overweight of minorities. The only real way to fight this is to keep pushing for real representation until the bias is no longer the default.

  7. Rey Fox says

    I don’t know about you other white men, but I think I’d prefer the ‘change’ option

    It’d be nice, but it seems to me that as time goes on, society just gets more and more resistant to change of any kind. Or maybe I just think that because I have to live life in the present in real time while looking at history which has been boiled down to the important stuff.

  8. chrislawson says

    I always liked the episode of Third Rock From the Sun when they ask themselves why they’re all white and they decide it’s because when they were working out how to look human, all they had to go on was TV broadcasts…