Imagine you are a Caucasian man. If you are one — even better. Close your eyes, and see yourself on stage. Big or small, any size stage will do. In the room with you are revered peers, people at the top of your field, leaders of key companies, organizations, or nations you admire. You have worked your whole life towards moments like this. The invitation was a coup, saying yes was a true moment of pride.
You have prepared your remarks for weeks — calls, consultations with peers, background research. Your heart beats a little fast, your cheeks are a little flush. You cross and uncross your legs as your colleagues settle into the chairs next to you. You take a sip of water, careful not to bump the mic on your lapel.
The panel starts. The first panelist gives their remarks. Fascinating. They make you rethink yours, and you make adjustments in your head on the fly. Your brain is buzzing, feeding off the thoughts of your peers, and the chance to be engaged with them in an important way.
It’s your turn. The moderator introduces you. You don’t really hear what he says. You’re revisiting your points in your head, a final check. Then you’re on. A little tense at first, but then it flows — you are in the moment. The years of learning, struggling, critique, testing, and growing are coming out of you in a brilliant stream. You see heads nod. A man in the front row puts his phone away. You know you’re nailing it.
And then you’re done. You look to the panelist next to you with a mix of relief and expectation. What will they say? You listen closely, knowing it will go to question and answers next, and you’re already thinking of what points you might make.
The panelists finish. This is one of those rare panels where everyone was interesting. This is why you’ve always wanted to be on a stage like this—this is where the good stuff happens! Your thoughts are flying, you quickly sort the questions you have for the panelists so you can follow up later and the points you want to make to the crowd.
The moderator asks the first question. It’s a good one. The panel is really engaged. A small exchange starts between the panelists – a true conversation. The room feels tight, the audience is leaning in, excited by what they’re hearing. You’re eager for the next question.
The moderator turns to you, and notes that you are a man. He asks if you can talk about why it’s important to have men in conversations like this. Can you cite any studies or give us any data on what men in particular contribute to the field or the topic?
You freeze. You wilt. Then you catch yourself and try to sit up straight again. You thought this was a panel about the topic, not about what’s inside your pants.
Everyone is waiting. You flash a glance at the moderator to make sure you understood the question. He stares back, visually prodding you on. But the moderator is a man, too. You think to yourself, why would he ask that? The press of the audience suddenly feels different. Their lean of excitement now feels like a collective dark, hard stare. You must say something.
You scan your memory. There must be a study in there you can quote. You pull out a fact and mumble through it, suddenly feeling that not having a fact would mean your value hasn’t been proven. The moderator names a few other studies to help you out, then thanks you and moves on to the next question.
You don’t hear it. Your mind feels thick. Half of it is trying to follow the question and the panelist’s answers, the other half trying to sort through what just happened. That part is searching for other facts and feeling guilty. Why didn’t you have a better answer? You need to read up on that so you’re ready next time. At the same time, it’s furious. How could you be asked such a question? This was your moment to share your best thoughts with a critical audience. Now, your presence there has been questioned. Not because you gave a weak answer, or even a provocative one. Not because you forgot your points, or didn’t know about the latest advances in the field. Because you are a man.
It takes everything you have to quiet that side of your brain. You succeed, and get back in the dialogue. You answer another question pretty well, but your voice is different. You’re unsure, you hesitate. You sound scripted, not like a bold, thoughtful leader.
The panel ends, and you shake hands with the others on stage. You try to read them, wondering what they now think of you. You turn to the moderator, and shake his hand. Your stomach turns. He was one of your peers, a well-respected colleague. You spend the rest of the meeting distracted, revisiting the moment on stage. You remind yourself that you did get the invitation, and you didn’t mess up. It went well. But in your core, you are unconvinced. The experience is muddied. The moment is shadowed.
I have never seen something like this actually happen to a Caucasian man. It sounds entirely ridiculous. But, I have seen it happen over and over to women. It’s happened to me more than once. And it happens to men and women of other under-represented groups; African-Americans, Arabs, Punjabi’s, Native Americans, Latinos, the list goes on.
No, we should not ignore the fact that racism and sexism still exist. Yes, we have to pay attention to it. We have to make an effort so that people from all groups and genders are represented in important conversations.
But once they’re there, let’s stop asking them to justify their presence. That question — what evidence do you have to prove you should be here? — undoes the good of inviting us in. I have no doubt that the question usually comes from a place of good intent. But in my experience, it disempowers what was empowered. It puts us in the spotlight, then punches us in the gut.
So if you are a reporter, a writer, a speaker, a panelist, a moderator, a teacher, a Tweeter or a peer, this International Women’s Day, please don’t ask women for evidence of why women matter. Talk about why there’s still discrimination. Talk about solutions. Science has a clear role to play in understanding where and when overt and hidden biases are still strongest, and how we can best overcome them. But don’t pretend that we still need science to justify inclusion.
The same applies for the next Black History Month, the Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, or any other time we pay attention to diversity. Let’s stop asking people to justify their presence.