I went to an awesome conference in my subfield a few weeks ago. The location was gorgeous, I got my own room, the talks were all well prepared and about stuff I’m gaga over. There were enough acquaintances attending to feel comfortable and enough new folks to make some useful connections. Plus, the conference sponsors gave away lots of free and super nerdy books.
I also got to interact a lot more with two postdocs from my university who I had developed little science crushes on and started to really admire. When I prepare for discussion groups, I try to work through the material as deeply as they do. When people ask me questions, I try to respond as carefully and thoughtfully as they do. When they say a book really made an impression on them, I go read it. So, naturally, I was pretty excited to spend more time with them.
The thing about role models, though, is that they can really let you down.
I took a walk with these postdocs after a long day of talks. Somehow the conversation turned from cool research in my subfield to poverty and homelessness. Specifically, how the homeless people one postdoc saw couldn’t possibly be homeless because they were sitting out in the rain instead of finding shelter. Then the other postdoc jumped in, and suddenly they were talking about how annoying it is to have to walk around homeless people on the sidewalk, how offensive it is for homeless people to ask you for money, and just generally being disparaging of the poor and especially the homeless.
I’ve never been homeless, but we were poor enough that my mom used to put water in the milk to make it go a little further. I’m now one of the most financially stable people in my family, and I’m a fucking graduate student. My family isn’t lazy or buying lots of fancy toys, they’re just really unlucky. (Things are a little better for them now. With a lot of hard work and a little good luck, they aren’t putting water in the milk anymore. My mom even saved enough money a few years ago to visit me!)
Anyway, at some point in the last six months, I’d started to identify with these postdocs, to see some part of myself in them. And that made me feel more confident (or at least hopeful) about my own potential. When they started talking about the poor like they had some sort of disease, all that vanished. Suddenly, they were just impossibly clever and talented people that I had nothing in common with.
Later I got angry, told myself how ignorant and privileged they were and got right back to doing my work and loving it.
But in the moment, I couldn’t say anything to them. Instead, I just muttered an excuse and took a different trail, irrationally terrified that if I opened my mouth they would know that I’d been poor. Being poor is nothing to be ashamed of, but when people talk like those postdocs it is so hard not to be hurt and humiliated. If I hadn’t looked up to them, personally and professionally, it would have been easier for me to deal with their poor-people trashing. I still would have been hurt and angry, but I wouldn’t have spent even a second questioning my ability to do my job.