Currently reading “How well-intentioned white male physicists maintain ignorance of inequity and justify inaction” by Dancy & Hodari (2022)

This article has repeatedly been making waves in my circles over the last couple of months: “How well-intentioned white male physicists maintain ignorance of inequity and justify inaction” by Dancy & Hodari (2022). My take-away in a nutshell: Ignorance is bliss. It’s totally worth a read!

It sounds obvious, and there is a lot of research showing it: The more privileged someone is, the fewer and smaller repercussions they get for challenging other privileged people on their behavior, whereas people that experience biases and discrimination are perceived as trouble-makers when they try to bring attention to the very same thing. So why are privileged people — even those that think of themselves as well-intentioned — so bad at using their privilege to actively level the playing field?

In the article, this question was investigated by interviewing white male physicists and looking at why despite their good intentions and plenty of opportunities to know about privilege and the lack thereof, for them, ignorance is bliss. This surfaced three different themes.

“Physical distancing: inequity happens in places far far away”

…and I can’t do anything about it, since it is not happening in my classes, my institution, my university, my discipline.

While people acknowledge that inequity exists in general, they tend to have “yes, but…” type reactions that locate it in other fields (engineering vs physics), regions (the south of the US rather than the location of their own university), or society in general, where they don’t feel that they could change things even if they wanted to. They do not actually make an effort to investigate whether it might be happening right under their eyes by asking potentially affected people directly about their experiences (or collecting any other type of data), because they assume they would be able to spot it despite their position of privilege, and surface actions like “talking about it”, as well as the general good intentions in their direct circle, seem sufficient to ensure equity.

“It’s too big for me to impact: Locating inequity in grand societal structures”

This theme is about shifting responsibility to society in general away from their personal sphere of influence, e.g. making sure that kids are raised the right way rather than propagating inequities, stating that the bottleneck for women in physics is actually already in high school where they did not get to see physics as an option (even though they would be so welcome at university, obviously…), blaming unequal opportunities on what kind of schools kids go to due to socioeconomic reasons. Another favorite is that women choose to be more involved parents, thus not putting in as much effort into their careers as men.

“I’m helpless to act, therefore my inaction is justified”

And if I don’t see discrimination, I don’t even have to feel bad for not acting… Like for example not noticing that a new hire is the first woman (except for secretaries) in a large research group, or assuming that people can brush off discrimination as “that’s just how the world works, it’s not personal…”, or even attributing someone being excluded by their peers to them actually preferring to work alone, thus justifying that there was no need for teacher intervention.

Also, the very privileged interviewees are afraid of negative consequences to them personally, since confrontation is uncomfortable and they don’t have the skills to act (but also don’t bother learning them), and even complain about how witnessing discrimination is bringing them — the witness, not the target — down. They also worry about the effect that an intervention might have on the perpetrator (mostly discomfort, not actual consequences), not about what effect inaction might have on the target. Or if the target is considered, not intervening is justified as trying to avoid further harm to the target.

Another common response is to accept biases and discrimination as inevitable, as something that cannot be changed because it is inherent in people.

The three pattern presented above, all derived what interviewees said, play together to keep things the way they are — to maintain privilege. But it’s also interesting to look at what was reported to not have been said, e.g. feeling accountable for how much they personally know about racism or sexism, or what kind of skills they should maybe learn, or how they should use their researcher brain and scientific approach to collect and look at actual local data. Even though everybody sees themselves as well-meaning, they are, in effect, “supporting oppressive systems”. Of course this is a limited sample size and all, but these pattern seem sooo familiar. Have you ever experienced them in others or even yourself?

From their findings in these interviews, the authors offer the recommendations below (which all sound great, but it is not clear to me what that actually means in practice. But that’s my job as a fairly privileged person to figure out going forward!):

  1. While supporting minorities is good and important, the focus should be on changing structures that support, and people that hold, privilege (but how can we do that other than constantly trying to have those kinds of conversations, armed with data?)
  2. Name common problematic ways in which people of privilege maintain their privilege so people realize what they are actually doing (trying to do that!)
  3. Create accountability for ignorance (no idea how to do that other than trying to call in people into conversations)
  4. Make it privileged people’ task to dismantle their own privilege and raise others up (again, how do we do that??)
  5. Measure inequity locally so it cannot be ignored (working on that)
  6. Teach skills to confront inequity (also working on that, for example in the context of workshops on belonging and microaggressions we are giving)

I think this article is very much worth reading, so if you read my summary so far, check it out for a lot more nuanced picture and many quotes that sound all too familiar and that might be both scary and productive to recognize as something we might have said or thought in a similar way!

Dancy, M., & Hodari, A. (2022). How well-intentioned white male physicists maintain ignorance of inequity and justify inaction. arXiv preprint arXiv:2210.03522.

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