Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On Race and Being a Scientist

Skookumchick over at Rants of a Feminist Engineer had posted on the subject of race in science. Taking my cue from her, here I go.

I have to say that because of my nationality, race and nationality are rather inextricably linked in my thinking, so I will declare right now that I use the two to refer to the same thing. Sorry.

I am Indian, as may have become obvious to those of you who read my blog and notice my stubborn use of -ou- spelling. I grew up in India and came to the US to do my Ph.D., now I am a post-doc. I've been a foreign student, a non-resident alien, then a resident alien and now am a temporary worker.

There are so many stereotypes associated with various races and their work ethic/abilities/social skills. I'm not trying to offend anyone, but here's a list of some I have heard: Indians are bright and lazy, lack social skills and speak English with a funny accent; Chinese people are incredibly hard-working, paranoid and competitive and do not speak English well at all; Japanese people are eternally polite to your face but do exactly whatever they please anyway, the French are clubby and snobbish, the Germans are correct, humorless and boring, Americans are crazy workaholics with an alien literal sense of humour.

My accent in English could easily be American, in fact I get judged for that quite a lot in the Indian community. One of the two most paranoid, competitive people I have met was indeed Chinese, the other was American. However, the single most helpful technician I have ever known is Chinese, she is a darling. Two of the most intelligent-and yes, sarcastic- people I know are American and I enjoy and respect their insights and judgment tremendously. One of my dearest mentors in grad school was Japanese and he was always communicative and sharing with me. Many of my friends and my best colleagues have been, and are, French. Based on friends again, I think Germans are the most modest, open-minded people I know and amazing friends in the bargain.

I think that it is important to discuss issues of race and representation but one always risks falling into the trap of letting stereotypes do the deciding. However hard one tries, if one makes race a central issue one will end up classifying people one meets based on one's perception of their countrymen's qualities. If one is lucky and honest, one may overcome these stereotypes and make real connections to people despite all, but how often is one lucky or honest?

I resist concentrating on race for many reasons, a big one, and possibly an ignoble one, is because I do not want to be associated with the stereotype. I have known incredibly lazy Indian people, I have also had Indian colleagues who shamelessly made use of a boss's niceness and took way too much advantage. I am not like that, and it galls me no end to have colleagues who "have given my countrymen a bad name". I have also met hard-working like-minded Indians whom it is a privilege to associate myself with. However, I do not speak to Indians at work in our native tongue, if it is the same, or the national language because I think it is wholly inappropriate to use a language that other people do not understand in a workplace. It makes people hostile, which is completely understandable. Over coffee, I'd love to gab in Hindi, but in lab? No. I won't do it.

I resist emphasizing my race for another reason: I have worked so hard to be thought of as "just" a scientist, not an "Indian scientist", or the "Indian girl in that lab". People have actually called me by another, very different, name because there was another Indian in our lab with that name. The foreign student, the foreign post-doc...I think I have managed to shed all these labels, not because I am not proud of being Indian or because I am embarrassed to be considered foreign, but because I want to be thought of primarily as a scientist. I don't want Indian to be my defining professional label, just like woman is not my primary label of choice, more on that later. I feel that as a foreign post-doc, race and nationality are such dominant issues in the rest of my life- getting fingerprinted upon entry into the US, needing authorization to travel, my boyfriend shaving off his beard because he is Indian and will probably have trouble flying with a beard because of what he looks like. I don't want my race or nationality to be a central issue in my professional life as well.

I am joyously Indian and fiercely proud to be so. I am also a scientist and proud of that. I am not necessarily an Indian scientist is all.


Ricardo said...

Great post.

Although you rant a bit here and there, it's pretty cool how you kept this legit and didn't make it all racist or anything.

I'm from Portugal and hope to go abroad soon after my degree. Let's hope all goes well :)

Veo Claramente said...

Thanks, I can't help ranting I guess.

Good luck!