Op-ed submission: Response to Jonathan Katz

Dick Powis | PhD candidate, anthropology

How dare Professor Jonathan Katz minimize the very real experiences of my nonwhite or nonmale colleagues who have braved incredible obstacles and curmudgeonly old professors—Katz most certainly included—to come to and thrive at Washington University. The anxiety, depression and other mental health issues with which many of them are burdened make my colleagues no less serious than their white male colleagues who more often than not get away with producing comparatively mediocre work year in and year out. Katz basically admits that he is blind to the extraordinary feats and tenacity of our colleagues who silently tolerate race-, gender- and ability-insensitive white male professors while keeping up with the bare minimum of academic and non-academic requirements.

Katz would do well to meet my colleagues of color who do double duty by advising students of color (both disproportionately and in addition to white students), simply because those students would rather not seek the aid of professors like Katz, given the option. (Gee, I wonder why.) I doubt very highly that Katz has ever had to fit professional service in various forms of diversity work into his already busy research, publishing, teaching, and service schedule, but I assure you that they have. Further, I doubt that Katz has had his very identity threatened or minimized in print the way he has threatened and minimized others’—excluding this response, of course.

Katz should read the peer-reviewed work done by anthropologists that find that women in the sciences suffer disproportionately from sexual assault, particularly at the hands of their superiors. Is that a hurdle he had to overcome? Statistically, no. I dare Katz to tell those women that they aren’t “serious students.” Maybe Katz can talk to a female colleague about how students are more likely to seek counseling from them or use their office hours as confessional time, than they are male professors’. Is that a burden that Katz deals with in addition to his regular responsibilities? Statistically, no.

Katz should gain the acquaintance of an Indigenous colleague—here at Washington University or elsewhere. Did you know that 65 percent of Native Americans graduate high school, 9 percent earn a college degree and 0.0035 percent earn a PhD? How’s that for statistically significant? That’s not even considering contract employment, tenure track and tenure as possible objectives thereafter. Is Katz saying that they are disproportionately not serious about their work?

I think of my discipline—anthropology—which has historically propagated racist and sexist theories of human evolution to justify colonialism, imperialism, capitalism and other forms of white supremacy. And yet, we wonder why few people of color want to join us in our endeavor to study human cultures. Perhaps it’s because anthropology is largely the study of how white people see the world. Perhaps it’s because in our bodies of literature, people of color have historically been represented as strange or primitive research subjects, rather than as equal collaborators in the undertaking of research. I challenge Katz—as I am sure he challenges his students—to think critically about his discipline in the same way I do my own.

Neither Katz nor I have any idea what it takes to represent our white male identities in our respective fields in relative isolation—we stand on the shoulders of giants and those giants are white and male. He should acknowledge this. What Katz’ opinion demonstrates is that he suffers—as many of academicians do in their later years—from disciplinary myopia. I would venture to guess that Katz has never considered that there are manifold worlds, sciences and philosophies outside of his own. (For example, over in sociology, they’ve known about gender issues in physics since at least the 1980s.)

Finally, women and people of color are all too familiar with having to constantly support the validity of their experiences with “proof.” There is a lot of peer-reviewed work that backs up all of my claims. And you know what? I’m not even going to cite them. Katz has one of the best institutional research libraries in the country at his fingertips, and he should learn to use it.

As long as he refuses to see his privilege as an old white man practicing an old white discipline at an old white institution, he knowingly insists on being a shining example of a bygone era. Instead, I suggest that Katz take steps toward becoming a model for his white male peers and students to be the kind of ally that nonwhite and nonmale students need when they have the courage to traverse fields in STEM. He can start by apologizing to minorities of the Washington University community and commending them for producing exceptional work while carrying a burden that he has the privilege of never having to know.

Failing that, Katz is obsolete because the labor is already underway to make the future of STEM brighter and more inclusive.

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