Once in New Orleans I went on a late night walking ghost tour. The ghost stories, the architectural beauty, the historical tidbits have all mostly vanished from my brain, but one bit of the tour stays ever with me. A careless tourmate paying little attention to the terrain ahead ran smack clang! into the metal upright of a street sign. His head hit so hard it sounded like a rung bell; he bounced backward, the pole shook. We stopped, startled and hushed. As terribly as it must have hurt, out of embarrassment he waved us off as though it was nothing and resumed walking.
I've often wondered how I would respond if/when I slammed my own head into an upright metal pole. Now I have my chance! Metaphorically speaking. This post is part of my attempt to not just resume walking as if nothing had happened.
I had two metal-pole-to-the-head moments at SciO12. The first came right away. No one saw me run into this particular street sign, but rather than just resume walking, I thought it would be better to share the story. It was at the keynote address Thursday morning: The Vain Girl's Survival Guide to Science and the Media given by Mireya Mayor. If you read the page of notes I took from her talk, you would get the sense that I experienced it in a very positive way, enjoyed it, maybe even found it inspiring and found some useful ideas in it. All of which is true. At the same time, however, I was having an appalling out-of-body sort of experience, listening to an ongoing monologue in my head, wondering "who is this sexist asshole and how did she get inside my brain?"
At first I was conscious only of having a very negative reaction to Mayor. This felt bizarre, since I knew absolutely nothing about her. Long ago a wise woman told me, "when you find something that makes you angry, upset, or disgusted, move toward it instead of away. Try to figure out why you feel that way. You may learn something about yourself." So I attended to the incoherent thoughts in my brain, to puzzle out this negative reaction. Here is the ugliness I unraveled as Mayor spoke.
Z: Okay then, what's this all about?
Sexist Z-Brain: Why did they pick her for a keynote address? I mean, what makes her so special? I've never heard of her.
S Z-B: She's doing stuff with all these different animals - maybe she just wasn't able to focus long enough to stick with one thing.
S Z-B: No wonder Nat Geo picked her to be on camera for their specials. I mean, she's so blond. And thin. And pretty.
S Z-B: And OMG she was a cheerleader. Srsly? You're putting that in the talk?
S Z-B: Basically I think she just wants to be famous.
And there you have it: I've never heard of her, she isn't serious, and she's so female. A near-perfect sexist dismissal of someone I don't even know. Clang! It quite took my breathe away to realize how deeply these stereotypes are buried within me despite decades of education and effort to counteract them. I gave myself one point for being able to recognize on the fly that I was feeling unjustly negative and one point for figuring out why. And then I worked very, very, very hard to attend to her words, and not let those stereotypes get in the way of her message.
(A word about the cheerleader biz. My professional opinion: in terms of stereotype-busting ability, mentioning briefly in a keynote address along with other info about your past that you used to be a cheerleader, is altogether different from dressing up in a cheerleader uniform, shaking your booty, and yelling "Go Science!" )
Mayor did not get up at the podium and proclaim in a shrill ball-buster voice "Feminazi in da house!" (Though I can imagine that the other sexist way of dismissing her would be to have that sort of reaction to her.) What she did was spin a fabulously feminist fable for all who would hear it. Along with the photos of lemurs, other impossibly cute animals, and the adventure climbs, we saw Mayor as a child at a birthday party, Mayor as a child dressed in a nurse's uniform (with a photo of her mother-as-nurse), Mayor in her NFL cheerleader uniform. We saw photos of her family in Cuba and heard the tale of their flight to America. The child of Cuban immigrants, the former cheerleader, the person who did not look like a scientist, was also the expert speaking to us that morning. Above all, she was speaking passionately about her science.
Why did National Geographic find Mayor appealing as a spokesperson? She had an unusual background - the Cuban immigrant history, growing up in a big city, and yes, having been an NFL cheerleader - but she could also speak authoritatively and in a down to earth way about the animals. She could communicate. The combination of all that makes for appealing t.v. The combination of all that makes her suspect to "real" scientists. We don't expect scientists to come from unusual backgrounds, or display much in the way of humanity at all; we don't expect them to be female; and we definitely don't expect to see them on t.v. I may understand myself as a female from a blue-collar background, a high-school majorette, a scientist and feminist who's spoken to large public audiences and on radio programs. Yet I can still greet a Mireya Mayor with a knee-jerk "what does she know?" in my skull.
This is why you always have to keep your eye out for the terrain ahead. You may be quite sure there are no ghosts, at least in your vicinity. You feel confident the ghost tour is just a bit of fun, you aren't worried about a thing, you relax your guard, and then clang! But don't be embarrassed. Running into a street sign doesn't mean you are stupid or a bad person. It means you are human. And it's okay to ask for help with that bump on your head.