The other night I ended up in a fascinating conversation with a bunch of graduate students about discrimination, specifically regarding the discouragement women face studying mathematics at the higher levels. I find this topic very curious because I have never once personally experienced gender discrimination in academia, but other women I know have felt it very intensely.
Sure, I can think of a few times when people blatantly told me men were better at math than women. One was a guy in my high school calculus class. He was thereby challenged to a contest by yours truly and heartily lost. Another was a fundamentalist Christian, so I chalked it up to conservativism (but felt bad for his daughter). But those are pretty much the only two examples I can think of in my entire life. When I imagine people who think women are inferior when it comes to rational thinking, I don’t know where they live. Definitely not in my world. I always wonder whether I’m oblivious to it (there could be dozens of stories I just forget) or I’ve been lucky to genuinely have had an easy ride.
Either way, the conversation turned to how difficult it is to understand that discrimination exists in the world when you’ve never actually experienced it yourself. And it reminded me about traveling with a man I’m going to call Jesus.
I’ve never been upper or even middle class, or what you might call a WASP, but I’ve always been a well-educated white American girl. That means it’s easy for me to cross borders and not get traffic tickets. I never do more than politely smile and I’m always waived on. (Knock on wood.) I mean, they ask me questions and what-not, but it’s never too serious.
When I first met Jesus, who was called that by his friends for his excellent beard and long hair, he and I were both into taking road trips and we traveled all around together in his terribly old car that whistled in a distinctive way until it got warmed up. And, we took a few international trips together too, which meant witnessing the way he was treated at customs.
It truly amazed me to see the way that authority reacted to him. He and I were exactly the same in the ways that mattered: we were both students, we were both traveling for fun with no hidden agenda, and if anything I’d say he was more ethical than I. Yet, when crossing borders, he was harassed, in a way that I would never dream of being treated. Question after question, until he let it slip that he was an academic. Suddenly their faces would change as they recalibrated his appearance.
One time, we were driving across Iowa, and we were pulled over by the police. They saw the California license plate, and the beardy long-haired man at the wheel, and told us there was for sure pot in the car (I was laughing inside because Jesus doesn’t go anywhere near pot). They harassed us for hours, telling us that there was no way we didn’t have drugs. Jesus stood his ground and refused to let them search the car. They threatened to have dogs come and sniff out the drugs. But, over the course of the few hours, they tired of their position. Maybe they started to realize we were nerds, not hippies. Anyhow, at some point they faked having a more important call to go off to and left us be on the highway.
To this day I still don’t forgive those police officers because the time wasted meant we pulled into the metropolis of Chicago during rush hour on a humid summer Friday afternoon! But, in all seriousness, it makes my blood run cold to think of how much more difficult life is made for people based on trivial appearances. Jesus was subject to belittling words, which made me angry. I can’t even imagine how it would feel to be subject to the sticks-and-stones variety of police harassment.