Purple Doesn’t Exist: Some thoughts on Male Privilege and Science Online

I don’t often write about gender and science, but I have been thinking and reading about it lately. If you were hoping for my typical aloof lecturing, or overblown (yet intellectual) ranting, just wait a few days (or you could revisit what I think of David Brooks and Larry Summers).

At a wonderful dinner out at the recent Science Online Conference, I found myself explaining why I consider myself a psychologist, even though some people don’t consider the study of visual perception “psychological.” This comes up often in response to the question: “Are you going to use your psychology knowledge to analyze me?” “I’m not that kind of psychologist,” I say. Then, because the food hadn’t come yet, and I had drunk a beer on an empty stomach, I waxed poetic about the color purple. I launched into an explanation of how we perceive color, and how an answer to this question must necessarily involve more than just physics and biology. We could talk about the wavelengths of light that we are sensitive to (400-700 nanometers).

The Sliver of Perception, from Abstruse Goose

The Sliver of Perception, from Abstruse Goose

Then, we could talk about how we have three different kinds of cone photoreceptors which are sensitive to different wavelengths of light. We call these cone receptors blue, green and red, but this doesn’t describe the appearance of the cone cell but rather what kind of light it likes. At this point, I like adding a line stolen from my advisor (Denny Proffitt) that purples don’t exist. In other words, there is no single wavelength of light that will cause us to see what we call purple. The only way that we see purple is through a combination of the activity of red and blue cones. I repeat for emphasis “There is no purple, it is all in your head.” There is nothing in the world that is objectively purple. Of course, nothing is objectively red, green or blue either, but that’s another point for another time. With my students I like to review how this illustrates what a limited slice of the energy in the world we are sensitive to and even that we construct. The relevant physics in the world is a linear range of energy defined by wavelength, but our visual experience is of the color wheel. Our eyes “bend” this line and tie the ends of this line together to make our circular color experience. The purples (or pinks or magentas, depending on how you label these colors) are the knot. Here is a great little video from minutephysics describing this (he uses pink instead of purple, and maybe magenta is even closer but the principle is the same)

I was telling this story surrounded by many women in different stages of their science and science communication careers. I found myself thinking about this example as I was considering my male privilege in the world of science (and just about every other world I move in). As human beings we are only sensitive to a small slice of the energy in the world, but as males we are also only sensitive to a certain slice of the social information in the world. Sometimes what it means to be privileged is to allow this information to just wash over you without noticing–the way that TV and radio waves are going through your head right now. Most of the time this ignorance is welcome. I may have been very nervous about my session leading up to Scio12, but I never considered whether people would judge me for my maleness. As I pictured being outed as a hopeless incompetent, I didn’t give a thought to how perceptions of my incompetence might “spread” to other males. I might have worried that people might find psychology a soft science, but most of the nervousness that scattered around my mind was about me personally. I was a genderless college psychology professor because that’s all I considered people would see. This often prohibits the possibility of being proud of group membership (I’ve never felt proud to be male college professor), but to paraphrase Louis C.K., I would continue to renew my maleness if I had to check a box every year. I’ll have more to say about white privilege in my next post, but obviously this figures in too.

Despite the bliss this ignorance provides, this selective blindness isolates me from other people I care about by extending the difference between the way we see the world. In other words, I often don’t see the subtle (and sometimes loud) purple hues of gender. So I have tried to take the perspective of others and see what they see. This is uncomfortable, and of course, impossible. But I subscribe to the Jay Smooth hygienic theory of prejudice. It isn’t something you can get vaccinated against (he says “No, I’m fine, I saw that movie Traffic and got my racism removed”) but something we need to maintain our guard against, like plaque on our teeth. So while I won’t give advice (a la Gene Marks in Forbes) and write “if I were a female scientist,” I find it important to try to take someone else’s perspective. In this case, it means seeing gender as a dimension that matters. My fellow privileged class members sometimes protest, “But it doesn’t matter in this instance!” But for me, that’s not really the point; the point is that it matters enough to become a corrosive worm in people’s consciousness. The only way to dislodge that worm is not to ignore it, but to acknowledge it in your own mind even if you don’t always point it out, and work to fight it.

That being said, even as I know that being blind and mute is not the best policy, I must confess that all too often I err on this side. I don’t know whether it is due to shyness, discomfort, or perhaps even cowardice. While I have always worked and lived with strong women, I rarely mention their gender, and try to ignore my own. My current department chair is an amazingly accomplished female scientist. My graduate school cohort comprised me and two women, both of whom have research-one, tenure track jobs. My second job out of college was in an office staffed with approximately 80% women. I was an assistant professor at a women’s college for two years and was totally happy with the fact it was all women. I had been happy to have classes full of women and a lab of only women. But that job, my first as a professor, was 3000 miles away from my and my wife’s family, so I looked for another job closer. Through sheer coincidence, my lab now happens to have only female undergraduate research assistants. And of course, I return home to two of the strongest females I’ve ever known, my wife and our four-year-old daughter (sample request: “Daddy, how about this? How about you do what I tell you to do, and you DON’T do what I don’t tell you to do.” And this is what she says when she’s not angry).

But I haven’t remarked upon this or noted it as unusual. With my family I try to tell my daughter she can be anything, if she wants to be a fairy princess ballerina, but also play on the Women’s World Cup Soccer Team, I smile. I mostly avoid trying to explain to my sons about real world adult sexism, because it seems not to fit with their eight-year-old view of the world. With my students, I haven’t discussed the barriers that women face in science to my research assistants; I just give them the best mentorship I can. I have never seen myself as qualified to prepare them for the ways that their gender will affect their experience. I wouldn’t dream of discussing a woman’s appearance or choice of attire for a job interview, even if it’s informality matched the overall perception that she wasn’t up to professional standards. But if someone else does bring it up? Do I have the stones to say “I don’t think that should matter” or “I don’t think you would be saying that if she were a man” even if the speaker was a woman herself? Unfortunately not.

I tell myself I am working up to that sort of thing. In the meantime, I do my introverted best to educate myself. By reading and listening to stories, like Emily Willingham’s, or A.V. Flox’s, or Janet Stemwedel’s story at this year’s Science Online conference. By thinking back to my own blog and commenting behavior on other blogs. By thinking of gender in my own classes and trying to gently stifle the overly confident men and to encourage the overly shy females. Or in my own Scio12 session, where I notice that some people always raise their hands and wait to be called on before speaking… and some feel comfortable and confident enough to raise their hands as they begin speaking. And there always seems to be more men in the “raise hand for 1/2 second, then talk” group. I can’t say that I succeeded, but despite being a bit starstruck by some in the room, I tried to take a stronger tact, to call deliberately on some people or ask some people to wait. And my sons and daughter do lead us to the occasional teaching moment. As one of my sons was learning about “untouchables” in the caste system in India, it led my wife and I to a broader conversation about prejudice, status and injustice.

Sometimes seeing gender means stepping back and giving a woman privacy when she desires it. Of course, in some cases, this could also just be an excuse for my reticence and awkwardness. When I am in circumstances where meeting new people is expected (as at Science Online), it is a real effort. But as I anxiously recite my idiotic meanderings in my head hours later, if my new acquaintance happened to be a woman I wonder if I came across as somehow sketchy or if I said something offensive. I say this not to point out the “dangers” of women speaking out about being creeped out by apparently harmless guys, but that this is the (very small) price I pay for the bad behavior of my brethren. This is the price I pay for not confronting sexism more often.

But most of the time, I don’t meet new people, and I eat, sleep, work, and play without thinking of gender at all. This is the privilege: gender is too often an unknown unknown, a dimension of the world that escapes my notice. The sooner we acknowledge that this is a privilege, the better. I honestly don’t quite have the answer how to do this. But part of it must be that people like me need to see ourselves as having gender (and class, race, sexuality, nationality….). I sometimes wish that rather than having a discussion about blogging while female (a session which I sadly missed–since I am having my class edit Wikipedia this spring, I went to that session), we had a discussion about dealing with trolls, and women could share the awful stuff that they get sent, and the men could say, huh, no trolls remark on my appearance or sexuality or threaten graphic sexual violence. My other thought is that unconscious blindness and prejudice are exactly why we design regulations and policies to prevent discrimination. This is why I try to grade my exams “blind” without knowing which student’s work I have in front of me. This is why some orchestras do blind auditions. With these procedures, a comfortable informality is often a casualty, but upon closer inspection, the price of comfort was social inertia, perpetuating existing gender roles and attitudes, conscious and unconscious. Privacy, anonymity and pseudonimity on the internet no doubt provide great benefit to many, but women shoulder the lion’s share of the costs.

Princess Leia for Halloween

Nah, that's alright Obi Won, I got this

I see my privilege as a debt that I benefit from but no one will ever make me pay. I could ignore those posts, those stories, and continue to let gender pass through me, and not exist, colorblind to the purple. But my daughter will have to live in an ugly purple, gendered world. Our blissful blindness is a debt, collected from our sisters, aunts, wives, and mothers, and paid by our daughters. And when my daughter grows up and starts taking over the world, and meets inevitable sexism, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and say I have done, and continue to do, my part to chip away at it. I want to look at her and tell her that she doesn’t have to be a female scientist (or a surgeon or a diva) she can just be a scientist, like me.

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28 Responses to Purple Doesn’t Exist: Some thoughts on Male Privilege and Science Online

  1. Cathy Reilly says:

    I have to admit I shed a tear or two reading this, Cedar. For a shy person you are quite gifted at a kind of public learning that prompts reflection in the rest of us. For me, as a woman, I don’t want to be seen as a victim or to feel a victim and it sometimes prevents me from acknowledging, even to myself, when there is a real barrier. Your thoughts can also be applied to the insensitivities and cost of those not white or heterosexual. Thank you.

  2. Ed Yong says:

    This was superb. If only everyone could be so introspective.

  3. KateClancy says:

    This was thoughtful and considered. Thank you for this.

  4. You have experienced some very important insights. Thank you for sharing them. Your thoughts will help me a great deal as I teach and encourage the young women in my physics classroom.

  5. Scicurious says:

    Fantastic post. Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks, and also, nice to meet you, even if only briefly as your sushi-shuttle driver πŸ™‚
      Your and Kate’s writing has helped inform my thoughts on these issues, even if I don’t always comment on the posts themselves.

  6. Rachel Levy says:

    Just don’t forget, as you ponder your male privilege, to take out the garbage. And also the car could use a good, thorough cleaning.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Garbage is out. Car might have to wait til grading is done.
      And thanks so much for your input, darling.
      (for others, this is my spouse, we shared a little chuckle, and a long interesting conversation about this post)

  7. Reblogged this on Science Defined and commented:
    A nice post on the limits of our senses. With a few great illustrations!

    First half has a nice explanation of the science. The second half concentrates on other issues, but is still an interesting read!

  8. Thank you! My favorite line “I see my privilege as a debt that I benefit from but no one will ever make me pay.” That’s not just a male thing, that’s something I need to be reminded of over and over again – to continue to pay it forward.

  9. Andrew Watt says:

    Beautifully written piece.

  10. I appreciate the introspection and thoughtfulness that went into this post. I think it’s useful for all of us to consider what our privilege might be, and how to pay it forward.

  11. Jane says:

    Wow, Cedar, I loved this … and I loved the metaphorical aspect of purple … since it’s mixed pink and blue.

  12. Zen Elephant says:

    The last line was the pinnacle point. Fantastic post.

  13. Lisa Grossman says:

    Beautiful metaphor, and thoughtful post. Thank you for writing this.

    And just so you know, your #scio12 session was one of my favorites from the whole weekend! So interesting and useful. Definitely in my top three.

  14. Christie Wilcox says:

    Amazing post. I just feel special that I was a part of that purple conversation – and perhaps to blame for that beer on an empty stomach… πŸ™‚

  15. Robert Cooper says:

    It’s all in the eye of the beholder — and in his culture, particularly his/her language. Purple is no doubt a blend. So is everything. And everything is simply a word. And try as we do we cannot express, even to ourselves in our own minds, anything which is not a word or group of words. Purple in my part of the world is no problem at all. Seems like everybody agrees on what it is. If to an American eye and mind purple is a mix of pink and blue, I am led to ask: what blue? Lao will generally use one word for ‘blue’ much as in English, adding qualifications like ‘light’ and ‘dark’ as in English. Thais will use two different words because they see two different blues, and each of those blues can be light or dark (or navy or sky…) All Hmong, who straddle the Viet-Lao-Thai-China border will use a word for ‘blue’ things that means ‘green’. (Or does it?) Same with Vietnamese. Try it (but not on a Hmong or Viet born and raised in the USA). Take the bluest thing you can find and ask what colour it is to a fluent English-speaking Hmong or Viet who has yet to be completely Americanised. It is 90% sure you will get the answer ‘green’. There are of course many types and shades of green but the American-European eye+mind misses them or thinks them not worth noting. One of those shades is the several colours we call ‘blue’. And all of us know that ‘green’ is only a mix of…+….get my point? If there’s no purple, there’s no colour, if there’s no colour there is only white and black, with all their shades. Colour (color) concepts are great to think, but my Hmong constantly have to think many times before playing with green, blue and red on the computer. When it comes to text translation, all greens and all blues can get completely mixed up. If you run down a pedestrian in your blue Ford, the Vietnamese police report will send out a search for a green Ford. Pretty basic stuff but the most difficult thing to teach in any inter-cultural class. As you say, we are all blind in some way.

  16. Mike Master says:

    I’ve faced sexism.. but as a male in a corporate structure in California where the VP was a female who criticized the other male VPs in one of our first meeting. She then later on turned hostile toward me- her consultant. It was an intriguing experience but one I value because it helps me imagine what women might experience more broadly.

    She had privilege because of her status in the firm and any privilege I had because of my gender didn’t really matter. So, my sense is that using the term male privilege is itself a sexist generalization– or did I not experience sexism?

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for coming by and sharing, Mike. Male privilege is indeed a generalization, and this is not to say that sexism against males doesn’t exist, but rather that the prevalence is miniscule compared to female discrimination.
      I think in addition to the overall rate or prevalence of prejudice and discrimination, the consequences of prejudice against women are most often more severe.
      Again, not to say that females are somehow prevented from abusing their power in inappropriate and personal ways as the person you are referring to did, just that many males don’t realize how subtle and pervasive gender is, especially in science.

      • Emmers says:

        Re: the female VP having power over her male subordinates, that is addressed within the concept of privilege:


        There’s no such thing as absolute privilege; all of it is dependent on context. Generalizations like “male privilege” or “white privilege” are used because they tend to be the case in American society, but that’s not to say that they are universal; a white gay atheist man and a black straight Christian woman will both have the privilege advantage over the other at different times, depending on the context they are in.

  17. Robert Cooper says:

    Sexism of either gender is a political action and reaction. Politics exists wherever human being come together, willingly or unwillingly. It is as natural to increase one’s political power as economic power (Leach) and as the two powers are so closely related, ‘pol-ec power’ might be a better term.. Thus, unless she broke a law or an established convention of her society or company, I would say the female VP was using all means at her disposal to gain over the male VPs. A lone vixen can verbally attack a male pack without real fear of spontaneous male solidarity knocking her out. No doubt the men involved were themselves divided by competition within their ranks. Had one male VP criticised a group of female VPs, no doubt he would not have survived. Women are much more supportive of other women than men are of other men. That said, I think there is a great difference between criticism and discrimination. The lady might have used or abused her female status, but unfounded criticism (if that’s what it was) can be countered by rational debate. Maybe not right then when the incident occurred but maybe the next day or when the lady was in a better mood and one of the men had enough time to overcome the surprise attack and think of a reasonable reply in terms of verbal riposte. The incident doesn’t say much for the female VP, but says even less for her male colleagues or adversaries.

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  20. seepurple says:

    *LOL* Wow! I don’t know what to say since I’ve always used “see purple” for so long. Heck I use to own the domain name “seepurple” *LOL* That’s very interesting.

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