Where does it end?

I listened to some of the inaugural episode of Late Night with Chemjobber & Friends last night. As a whole1, I think it was a decent start. There were some technical issues (the audio cut out several times), some glitches (at one point Chemjobber accidentally hung up on the callers), and I get the feeling that nobody involved was practiced at radio or podcasting. All of that was understandable. For the most part, the topics were interesting or amusing, and (after a little dancing about deciding who should respond first) generated good discussions. I have one bone to pick with the show, though, and it's a big one: significant air time was given to a troll.

In the second segment, Chemjobber's guests were DrRubidium and SeeArrOh, and they built on a discussion from earlier in the show. DrRubidium pointed out that, while there may not be a general STEM shortage2, many groups remain underrepresented in STEM. She gave universities a piece of important advice: Do better. Don't just say you "value diversity." Do something about it. Do better.

I agree with DrRubidium. Chemistry is making gains in the representation of women, but those female professors are overwhelmingly white. Professors of color, especially women of color, are few and far between. Take a look at the tenure-track chemistry professors at UM, my own alma mater, for example: more than 85% are white, and less than 25% are women (all of whom are white).3 Meanwhile, 60% of the students entering UM in 2011 were white and about 50% were women. The professors don't look like their students.4

Personally, I don't understand how the need for diverse faculty can possibly be a contentious issue, yet I have encountered many people white men who want to debate it argue that losing their privilege is unfair. One such person called in to the show.

I don't remember the caller's name, so I will call him White Dude from the Internet. White Dude from the Internet said the push for equal representation is all well and good but "Where does it end?" In classic reductio ad absurdum fashion, he asked if equal representation in faculty should be extended to include left-handed people as well as women and people of color.

Dude, your bias is showing.

To her tremendous credit, DrRubidium showed far greater restraint than I would have, and told White Dude from the Internet that she was not going to play his game. Predictably, he followed the How to Troll Friends and Alienate People playbook and whined when she wouldn't take his bait.

Let's do the unadvisable thing and play the game for a minute, though. Let's take the absurd suggestion and treat it seriously: what if we were thoughtful about the representation of left-handed faculty? When my grandfather was in school, left-handedness was not just discouraged, but punished: his teacher rapped him on the knuckles with a ruler for writing with his left hand. Such punishment is no longer accepted, but left-handed students can still be at a disadvantage. My mother is a left-handed elementary teacher who is conscientious about the needs of left-handed students and who tries to create a lefty-inclusive classroom environment. Right-handed scissors do not work well for left-handed people, and they present additional challenges for small children who are still developing fine motor skills. Many classrooms (at all educational levels) have seats with built-in desks that are much easier for right-handed people to use than left-handed people. In such classrooms, left-handed students have fewer seating choices or have to make do with desks that hinder their ability to write. Left-handed students even need (and often do not receive) special instruction when learning to write so they don't smear their letters with their hands. Because left-handed professors would be aware of the challenges facing left-handed students in ways that right-handed professors would not be, equitable5 representation of left-handed professors would be beneficial to the student body. Of course, the diversity in handedness would need to intersect with other forms of diversity: the left-handed professors shouldn't all be straight white men.6

I hoped to hear Chemjobber step in to support DrRubidium and, as host, lead the conversation into more productive, less toxic territory. Instead, minutes later, he thanked White Dude from the Internet for getting DrRubidium "riled up."

Nope. Nope. Nope, with a heaping side of Nope.

If you are hosting a discussion, it's your sandbox. You get to tell unpleasant people to go home and take their toxic attitudes with them. You do not thank them for picking a fight.

Why are underrepresented minorities underrepresented? Because people like White Dude from the Internet make them unwelcome. Because bystanders like Chemjobber and SeeArrOh don't speak up in their defense soon enough or loudly enough. Because they are left to argue against straw men and when they opt out of such nonsense they are accused of "not engaging in debate." Because, when they do argue back, the Tone Police show up to tell them not to be so angry. Because this Sisyphean fight is exhausting.

So where does it end? I think it ends with White Dudes from the Internet pushing out everybody else because the rest of us get tired of fighting and those who would support us stay silent. Or, I hope, it ends with us taking DrRubidium's advice: Do better.

1: That is, the whole of the part I heard; I missed the first twenty minutes or so and I couldn't stay up late enough to hear all of the remaining show. I'm an East Coaster and I turn into a pumpkin a little after midnight.

2: By "STEM shortage," I mean a shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers. It seems instead there is a shortage of science and engineering jobs instead, hence Chemjobber's efforts to discuss chemistry employment issues.

3: Or, perhaps, they "pass" as white. Whatever the case, all of them are likely to benefit from biases toward people with light skin and against people with dark skin.

4: Are the demographics of the students in chemistry courses the same as the whole student body? I don't know for sure. I'm assuming they are because, based on my experience as a graduate student instructor there, I would estimate similar demographics.

5: To be clear, equitable ≠ equal.

6: Certainly discrimination due to handedness is tiny compared to racial or gender discrimination, but that is entirely the point here. White Dude from the Internet was trying to make a ridiculous argument -- "Of course it's silly to worry about the handedness of the faculty!" -- but I say that even in the absurd form he suggested, reducing discrimination and promoting equitable representation is a Good Thing.