Thursday, March 22, 2012

Subconcious racism and sexism

As you have probably figured out already from what I have written so far, I am quite insensitive to insults, which means I DO NOT usually think that people are being judgemental or insulting when they comment on what I do and who I am. This insensitivity of mine is protective of me being hurt. The downside of this trait of mine, however, often gets me in trouble, because I am equally insensitive to other people's feelings and often say things judgemental and hurtful without knowing. Therefore, I was given a name of Ma Da Ha (马大哈 as scatterbrain), have very limited number of friends, and only got married when I was 42! I have been asked to change as I grew up and older, but no matter how hard I tried, I'd failed. Therefore, I had developed mechanisms to cope with this by treating it as my characteristic or trait rather than my defect or shortcoming.
Here is one example which happened recently:

"How was your grant, was it scored well?" I asked a colleague of mine in a hallway one day.

"Oh, I got 10%, which may be fundable in XYZ institute." He answered, without any sign of happiness or emotion, while accompanying me walking towards the elevator.  Nowadays, getting a grant scored at all is a big victory, let alone he scored so well, a 10% and fundable, wow!

"Congratulations! That is fantastic news." I said, truly excited and happy for him. But cannot help feeling left out, because I had a triaged grant that had been submitted in the same time as his fundable grant! Then we reached the end of our shared way where normal people would end conversations, but I did not. I continued on, "I don't believe the NIH study sections actually score grants by their merits anymore!"

What in my mind really was his 10% grant could have been between 1-5% among the top grants that had been scored.  Yet I did not have time to elaborate and I heard,

"Oh, thanks!" and he walked out of my sight.  I lost his trust for good!

That, my friend, is how stupid I can be.

The secret is that I am not alone. Many of my colleagues are PhDs who are quite fitting into the category of permanent head damaged well! The following is what I experienced last night when one senior professor showed his subconcious racism and sexism.

Last night, I went out for dinner with 2 male "colleagues" and one female Asian honored guest. It was one of those business dinners that I usually reluctant to attend because they often make me feel awkward. But since the dinner invitation came at the last minute, together with the fact that our honored guest Ying was a female and Asian, I'd decided to answer the dinner invitation favorably based on two assumptions: the host Matt might not have enough time to get anyone who could go with him; and as a female and Asian, I might be able to help out to entertain Ying.

I intentionally arrived at the restaurant a bit earlier. After I situated myself at the bar a little while, just long enough to finish reading the wine list, I felt a gently tap on my shoulder - it was Ying. Since she and I had met earlier at my office after her seminar, we considered ourselves acquainted. A gentle tap on the shoulder as a form of saying hi was quite well received and we immediately started to chat like old friends. Matt, our host, happily joined in and the three of us carried our conversations enthusiastically all the way from the bar to the designated dinner table!

We would have a great time tonight, I predicted to myself.

After we settled in, however, the conversations turned South. It started the moment of our last guest Albert walked in the door. He was late by 10 minutes! I was seated facing the restaurant entrance so I spotted his inquiring expression and waved at him. He ignored me, of course. He and I had met at the seminar earlier, but obviously that did help him to recognize me. He was led to our table by a waitress and sat down right across from me. Matt introduced us and then he asked, almost immediately, "Who are you work for?" I was not prepared for this question, so I said, "What do you mean?" He then elaborated, " I mean whose lab you are in, who you are working for, who is your boss?" Good gracious, I finally understood he assumed that I was not his equal! "I work for myself, I guess. I mean I have my own lab." I simply put that way.

So, what do you feel if someone asks you,"Who are you working for?"

I must point out that I get this question a lot. But it usually happens at other locations. At a formal dinner table, that was the first time. What has gotten into his head that I was not like him who runs a productive lab? Was it my Asian race, female gender or the combination of both?

Clearly, the presence of Al would not help to turn the dinner conversation back to interesting topics like where we lived and how we lived. The whole time we were talking about science and work! I attempted to turn the situation around by asking Ying about her children and family and things that she did after work, Al kept pulling them back to work, work, and more work. The rest of the dinner conversations were all about Al's work, from what he had discovered 30 years ago to what he is working on now.

I finally gave up and simply kept my mouth shut, focusing on finishing my dinner quickly and leaving!

At the end, while we all walked out the restaurant, I said to Matt, "If you live far away, let me drop Ying back to her hotel."  Matt was smart and nice, he did not insist.  Ying was understanding and she probably sensed that I had something else to say.

As soon as Matt and Al were out of our sights, I said to Ying, "It's still early and I live close by, would you mind having a cup of tea with me and my husband?"

She said, "Not at all."

Off we went to our house and we then compensated the loss of our time in the restaurant and had a wonderful rest of the evening. I got to know her much better in that 30 minites then the 2 hours' dinner time.

With the nice time we had, I completely forgot about the bad interaction between Al and me, but Ying reminded me of it on the way back to her hotel, "How did you feel when Al ask you that question?"

"Which question?"  I had truly put everything behind me. Insensitive, you see?

"Who are you working for?" she explained.

"Oh, that one, I got that a lot." I said, but then I added "It was a strange dinner, the topics that we talked were so boring, why do scientists insist on talking about sciences after work? I thought dinner time is for us to relax and forget about work."

"It's was unusual." Ying said. "But I just wanted to make a point that many, but not all, white men like to assume that we Asian women are not running our own businesses in academic settings." She then gave me few examples when she was asked similar questions on campus.

Now I hear that the U.S. colleges have already started to require higher academic achievements for Asians, particular Asian girls, in the admission office. Ying's daughter went Johns Hopkins School of Engineering. I wonder how she pulled that off!

Our conversations ended up by Ying explaining to me why applying for American citizenship might not be a good idea. I did not have enough time to find out why, but it made me thinking: do I want to become an American if I do not share the same moral standards with some of the Americans?  

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