A few months ago I was contacted by the alumni magazine of my university, saying they were planning a feature of a neuroscience center I’m part of and wanted to spotlight the research of a few investigators, including me. I was quite excited since this would be a good chance to give some good exposure to our research to a wide and general audience. It was also cool, since I also happen to be an alumni from my current university. So I met with the staff writer working on the piece to explain to him what our research is about, why it is cool and interesting. This was followed up with several emails clarifying some of the science, sending more material, etc. Last week, I get an email from the writer saying that he had a final version he wanted me to look over for ‘fact checking’. When I opened it up I was faced with this opening paragraph:
Namnezia studies small creatures. A neuroscientist by training, he grew up in Mexico and still speaks with an accent. His office, on the floor below Monkeyprof’s—fitting because Namnezia studies lower order animals—is decorated with the Mexican masks he collected as a child.
Really?!? Is this what he took away from all of our conversations and emails? I’m really having a hard time pinpointing exactly why this paragraph makes me so upset. Maybe the fact that for him, he couldn’t get past the fact that I’m Mexican. And what’s weird is that for the most part, I don’t even HAVE a fucking accent, except a little when I’m tired or drunk. Maybe I was tired or drunk when I met with him, I don’t know. But more likely, when he asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from Mexico, the dude was thinking “Well, he doesn’t really look Mexican” and then somehow convinced himself that, in order for his limited little world to make sense, at least I had to have some sort of accent. And then he stopped listening to anything else I had to say. And I know he stopped listening, because the rest of the article made no sense science-wise. It was full of bad analogies and trivializing ‘fun-facts’, written in some sort of ‘breezy casual style’ that failed on so many levels.
I guess what annoyed me is that in the end, what defined me for him was not my (I think) cool science, but the exoticness of a swarthy Mexican scientist, in an office full of masks, and a thick Speedy-Gonzalez accent. I realize he is trying to go for some sort of human interest angle, but I would’ve much rather he had written about my taxidermied chicken. And the dude doesn’t realize the implicit bias he is bringing to his writing. I complained, but received no response, because he probably cannot fathom why what he wrote would be offensive and otherizing to any minority scientist.
So if he wants exotic, I’ll give him fucking exotic. I’m am therefore planning on proposing the following opening paragraph:
The smell of cheap tequila permeated the lab, a sombrero lazily lying on the benchtop. The melancholy violins of mariachi music playing from a scrappy AM radio. ‘¡Hijo de la Chingada!’ exclaimed Dr. Namezia as he broke his patch pipette on his recording dish. He looked up from the microscope, twirling his long moustachios and adjusting his zarape. ‘Welcome to mi laboratorio, señor journalist!’