Living Proof: Exploring Privilege and Prejudice in Mathematics

By Michael Pearson, Executive Director of the Mathematical Association of America

I am reading a book, Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” that carefully discusses the complex and nuanced relationships between white privilege, prejudice, and racism. DiAngelo also notes the role of ideology in preserving existing social ideals and structures, such as individualism and consumerism, and how hard it is for someone raised inside a culture where seemingly shared values are transmitted through educational, cultural, and civic systems to escape accepting the norms. In another book, What Does It Mean to be White? DiAngelo notes the role of allocation of resources to public schools based substantially on property taxes in maintaining the status quo of white privilege. 

A recent article in the New York Times which reconsiders the single-home ideal in some U.S. cities reminded me of this last point. While many cities suffer from a lack of adequate and affordable housing, zoning laws across the nation severely limit the addition of multi-family units in substantial portions of metropolitan areas facing these shortages. My view, reinforced by the article, is that such laws exist largely to maintain the social, economic, and political power of those who have managed to obtain homes in the protected areas. In particular, as DiAngelo notes in her work, there is a strong connection between residential patterns, school districting, and the resources ultimately available to the schools, as well as the opportunities afforded to the students attending them.

Perhaps more importantly, both DiAngelo’s work and the article help bring attention to how hard it is for those who benefit most from existing structures to recognize the harm those structures may cause large segments of our fellow citizens, and accept the need to change. This is especially true when that change will likely impact them in ways that diminish their privilege even if ultimately that change holds promise to strengthen and enrich the society in which they live, thus improving their quality of life, too! 


This brings me to my topic, a new book published by the MAA and the AMS, Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey. It is available for free download and a complimentary copy of the book will be sent to math departments across the country early this fall. This book, a collection of short essays by mathematicians from diverse backgrounds is intended to inspire others to persevere and succeed in the face of difficulties. The title offers a diverse collection of painful stories of individuals who managed to succeed in spite of the institutional barriers and hostile or thoughtless treatment by fellow students and faculty. Many of these stories reflect the varied experiences the authors had as they progressed through schools with fewer resources than many of us from more privileged backgrounds are accustomed. 

Perhaps more immediately important for those of us who make our careers in higher education, Living Proof makes it clear that the structure of higher education, and the expectations and norms of our profession, often present barriers for students who have great potential to succeed in and contribute to the mathematical sciences enterprise.

As the editors write in the preface,

This project grew out of conversations with students about the difficulties inherent in the study of mathematics. Many undergraduates have not yet learned to embrace the ups and downs that each of us faces as we make our way through the discipline [...] there are insecurities about their own abilities, uncertainty about whether they have made the correct choice for a major, and a myriad of other emotions. And these are just the things that rise to the surface. For many students, there are also stereotypes and identity issues that influence their attitudes toward the discipline.

Math should be difficult, as should any worthwhile endeavor. But it should not be crippling. The ability to succeed in a mathematical program should not be hindered by a person’s gender, race, sexuality, upbringing, culture, socio-economic status, educational background, or any other attribute. Our primary goal in collecting this volume of essays is to push the conversation forward.

Those featured in Living Proof include 3 MAA past presidents, and one future MAA president; the current Associate Secretary of the MAA; the current editors of MAA FOCUS and The College Mathematics Journal; two prior members of the MAA Board of Directors; and others who are active in a variety of other leadership roles in the MAA. Many are in senior positions at academic institutions. In other words, those featured in the book are quite accomplished, and are now in leadership positions in the system with which they struggled.

This makes their call for change, and their willingness to embrace their roles as mentors and role models for future professionals, all the more powerful. 

I am pleased to note how, collectively, the volume speaks to the critical importance of MAA’s core values -- community, inclusivity, communication, and teaching and learning. All of those featured in Living Proof have shared their own vulnerabilities and experiences of not belonging. I share their vision that their willingness to again make themselves vulnerable as a step towards our profession reckoning with the challenges we still face to embrace the full human and mathematical potential of our students, colleagues, and fellow citizens, all of whom rely on mathematics in ways large and small as they move through their lives.

I invite you to download and explore Living Proof. You will almost certainly find stories that resonate with you, some more and some less. But I also ask that you look beyond what makes sense to you personally, and make an effort to view the experiences the authors describe through their eyes. For it is only through understanding and empathy that we will make progress towards achieving MAA’s vision of a society that values the power and beauty of mathematics and fully realizes its potential to promote human flourishing.