Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article  and my most recent article  to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!
Dear Dr. Clemmons:
I really enjoy reading your column every month, but I am curious as to whether or not you feel that you are making a real difference, or if you may be simply ?preaching to the choir? by reaching an audience comprised mostly of women and minorities, like me.
From what I know, minority issues do not seem to be all that important to many folks outside of the experience. Therefore, I am left wondering who is listening amongst the majority? In most cases, these are the people who can drive true change in this society because for all intents and purposes, they are the ones who still have the most power to do so. It is no secret that the majority is still in charge of who gets jobs, a good education, and most importantly, an opportunity to prove themselves worthy in this society. Perhaps you could shed some light on the issue and expand on what may be done to correct the perception that minority issues only affect minorities.
A True Believer that ?Minority Issues Are Everyone?s Issues?
Dear ?Minority Issues Are Everyone's Issues?:
The fact that minority issues are everyone?s issues is well known amongst those of us who ?get it,? like yourself. I really appreciate your insightful e-mail and bringing this problem to the forefront for discussion. I wholeheartedly agree that there is a problem regarding the perception of the plight of minorities by people who do not consider themselves a part of the group. I too have noticed that minority issues don?t seem to rate with people who do not feel they are affected by so-called minority issues. However, I also believe that it is human nature to be able to only relate to people and places that you share a common bond with. In general, unless a person has a great deal of empathy which allows them to feel pain for the experiences of others, they do not care enough to take the time to understand alternative experiences. I have seen this type of behavior from all sides.
In my view, the main problem behind the issue is that the majority doesn?t seem to feel that there is a common bond with the minority, even though we all are supposed to share in a piece of the American pie and, more importantly, the same DNA as human beings. Oddly enough, a lot of majority women I come into contact with have fallen into this trap and do not see themselves as being important advocates for minority issues even though they ARE minorities in terms of opportunities in this society and have benefited greatly from affirmative action and title IX laws.
What people in this boat don?t seem to realize is that the well-being of every person in America, including minorities, raises the prosperity level and standard of living for everyone. ?A rising tide lifts all boats,? as they say. Unless this catch-all phrase is lip service on the part of the majority, it is time for the tide to reach every boat! Of course, pursuing equity of opportunity for every member of society is a worthwhile cause, but it is a shame that not everyone is willing to fight for it unless it is their group that is affected. I truly believe that everyone deserves a chance to do well in life, but as it currently stands, a privileged few want to protect their way of life at the expense of everyone else. As long as one group of people is pitted against another, America will remain divided. Certainly, this is a suboptimal way of life. Why not level the playing field and try not to stand in the way of equal opportunity? What is there to be afraid of? I have to wonder.
To answer your question regarding whether or not I feel like I am making a difference through the discussions in my column, the answer is a resounding, yes! Even though America has a very long way to go on the race issue, and to a lesser extent the gender problem, I do feel that I am making a real difference by talking to a wide variety of people through my MiSciNet column. What I try to do is create an open and honest forum where people can get real answers to their problems. I don?t sugarcoat what I have to say and I think that most of my readers appreciate this.
Furthermore, a lot of the continuing discussions and advice I give offline further enhance the value of the column. I am always available to answer questions candidly and openly. From my experience, this is hard to find as a lot of people aren?t able to get past the ramifications of such openness, which can include being ostracized, retaliation, or political suicide. For me, this column is a way of giving back and I feel people deserve the truth. Let the chips fall where they may. Every great leader known to man who has fought for religious, civil, or political rights has been unafraid to speak truth to power.
Again, I wish more people from the majority read the column and responded with questions and concerns of their own. That way, their issues could be understood and addressed as well. In fact, these are the people who most need to understand how they fit into the bigger equation and you are probably right in that most of my constituents are from a minority group. Hopefully, I will gain a wider audience as time goes on because I do believe that the people who are in most need of being exposed to the people and views presented on MiSciNet are the very people who are least likely to tune in to the site on a regular basis. This is because, as you so eloquently stated, they believe, ?minority issues are not their issues.?
An exception to this rule is well-meaning people who really do want to help their minorities and seek out information that allow them to do so. I enjoy helping women and people of color maneuver through the mazes that are often presented by others in charge, but I also get equal satisfaction from helping people in the majority more clearly understand what those in underrepresented groups are telling them and vice-versa. It?s a two-way street.
Since you have genuine concern, perhaps you can jump start a campaign to make the majority aware that the MiSciNet exists for them too and that "minority issues are their issues." A good way to start may be to forward the Web address ( http://nextwave.sciencemag.org/miscinet/ ) or weekly update to everyone that you know. Challenge your friends and family to do the same. Everyone and anyone can appreciate the content of the site. Most universities and a fair number of professional organizations have subscriptions, so the site is fairly accessible to a large number of people.
Also, since the site is a part of AAAS, perhaps you could suggest a story on MiSciNet in your school or local newspaper? If you think an article is particularly valuable to someone, don't feel shy about sharing it, if only to jump start communications. Communication is key. Also, don't be shy to speak up in public forums and be heard. Always try to relate your concerns to the majority in ways that they may understand. It is hard to walk a mile in someone else's moccasins. I know that some people won't appreciate what you are trying to do and will tune you out, but try anyway. Incremental change is valuable and you may even open some eyes along the way. Slow and steady often wins the race.
Next month, I will follow up with an examination of the main reasons why the majority should care about the plight of minorities. Please tune in and ask people you think could benefit from hearing such an explanation to tune in as well, or forward the article to them. It's going to be interesting!
Editor's note: Our visitor statistics show that the number of visitors to Minority Scientists Network is 2-3 times as large as a year ago at this time. While we cannot determine the ethnic background of the visitors from these numbers, we suspect MiSciNet's visitors include a range of races and nationalities.