On Being Retro

From "H.R. Pufnstuf," Gold Key Comics, April 1971

A page from a kids’ comic book,  1971…a single, marvelous page illustrated in a way that brings home the gendered nature of American work in that era. For boys, a future in drafting. For girls, jobs as librarians. Interesting, too, that we can tell at a glance that this is an artifact of an earlier era. From the typeface to the clothes, details date these images. 

What’s more, there are assuredly more female draftspersons and male librarians now than there were when this comic was published. If this same page appeared today with the genders reversed we might notice something a bit unusual, but the images would not ring false.

And yet, in the past  few weeks, attending a range of educator events focused on expanding STEM opportunities in the U.S.,  I’ve heard remarks  about gender differences that would not have been out of place when this comic book hit the newsstand.  Old presumptions about identity in America endure even in settings dedicated to ending discrimination in education and hiring.  Different competencies and opportunities are still easily connected to different genders, races and ethnicities in our culture.  For example, in workshops focused on diversity and inclusion in higher education, I’ve lately heard such characterizations of housework (mentioned as a kind of labor appropriately left up to wives);  engineering (described, as a career option, with exclusively male pronouns),  and the history of engineering (noted as a surprising choice of subject matter for a female social scientist, or, and I quote, “…for a girl.”).

Any of those comments could also have been made in 1971, and they probably immediately strike a lot of us as being on the more retro end of things.  Perhaps more subtle are the comments that could only have been made in our post-civil rights era.  For instance, I recently heard an engineering  instructor, eager to draw in under-represented groups, nonetheless claim that explicit mentions of race or gender relations in an engineering classroom of 2010 will “stigmatize women and minority students all over again.”  He was concerned that conversations about student identities might also lead minority STEM students to feel that their only role within the university is to fulfill unwritten quotas.  From this vantage point, attention to minority experiences may be  just fine when it arises outside of the lab or classroom or office (as perhaps was not widely the case before 1970 or so),  but still creates problems when it arises within those spaces.

The idea that a dominant majority culture plays a role in legitimating those very spaces of STEM practice? Defining eligibility for and occupational equity in STEM fields? Perhaps protecting its own privileges in the process?  Not things that can easily be discussed in settings that customarily claim to exclude matters of identity.  And if whiteness generally goes unmarked in places of science and engineering, non-whiteness is at the same time selectively deployed.  I have heard several university administrators  invoke the documented entrance of more Asian and South Asian students into STEM fields in recent years as evidence that science and engineering are essentially merit based. But such ascriptions of ability, group-based with little thought as to how we define groups, or ability for that matter,  are perhaps part of the problem.

 Again, every one of the speakers I’ve cited here wants to support fairness and inclusivity in STEM.  How do we increase our reflexivity, so remarks like these can be seen as holding back that kind of progress?

We need to shed a bright light on race and gender discrimination, not cast that subject as a distant, historical concern.  A step in this direction would be for me to respond to well-meaning but discriminatory remarks right when I hear them in STEM workshops, rather than be flummoxed into complicit silence until I reach the safety of a blog screen.  Probably, the difficulty of confronting such ideologies within their institutional homes itself bears historical analysis.  Not least important: My role as a participant-observer in these events is murky, my own race and gender hugely meaningful.  But in any case, social awkwardness,  other- or self-imposed, showed itself to be a powerfully conservative social force when I looked back on my silence…a silence both retro and regrettable.

Be Sociable, Share!