Every picture has a story

27th October 2000 at 01:00
A GOOD few years ago, I was introducing the subject of racism to a social education class. The materials I was using featured a story where a white youth and a black youth mugged Old Mary the pensioner and snatched her handbag. An Asian called Imran set off in pursuit and retrieved it. The incident was reported as "Black youths mug Old Mary".

Pupils were invited to write a fairer headline. One attempt had me darting for the cupboard to release the laughter that was eating me up like a fox up my jumper. It was: "Imran saves the bag". From racism to ageism in one leap?

And that's about all you'll get from me on the subject of isms, because, being male-white-hetro-proddy, I don't really know much about being on the receiving end. I sent a picture of Elton John back in my Section 28 ballot envelope (because I couldn't find a picture of Julian Clary) but that doesn't give me the right to pretend to understand the nastiness many people have to put up with.

So I'll go for the trivial. There probably isn't an ism called subjectism and there probably shouldn't be. Nevertheless, as a physics teacher I am on the receiving end of staffroom behaviour that, were it to be directed at any minority group, would earn a serious reprimand.

Adverts for jobs requiring physics are read ut with a smile and a tone conveying that only someone who is completely dysfunctional would want to apply. Surprise is expressed at my ability to arrive in school wearing matching socks. Often things are said in a way that is intended to make me feel good. I've been introduced as "one of the two normal physicists I've met", or - and this is my all-time favourite quote - "Whenever my friends and I are going on about physics teachers, I always tell them that you're the exception."

Aye, right. Remember, this is an educated adult talking, not a wean. Would they have made a similar comment about a gay? "No, but you don't choose to be gay. You do choose to be a physicist."

What should physicists do about this sort of prejudice, if indeed we think it's anything more than good-natured banter? Not a lot, unless we genuinely believe we are being denied something because of our subject.

The best approach is to wait until a detractor comes grovelling to ask for help with setting up a computer. Oblige with a smile and casually mention that you're reading a book with no pictures in it. If there's one thing the arties can't stick, it's having their assumptions challenged by a scientist.

Gregor Steele not only reads books without pictures, he once tried to write one.

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