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The Long Version

Page history last edited by annie.k.perkins@gmail.com 6 years, 10 months ago

Mathematicians: Not Just White Dudes

By Annie Perkins


To help my students identify as mathematicians themselves, I spend 5-10 minutes each week teaching students about mathematicians that are exclusively not-old-dead-white-dudes.


I have been teaching math to 7th & 8th graders in Minneapolis, MN, at Keewaydin – a Minneapolis public school, for 3 years.  Next year I will be teaching in a Minneapolis High School – Southwest. 




  • ·      We as math teachers tend to only talk about white male mathematicians. 
  • ·      Most of my students don’t look like that, and thus, they have few mathematical role models they can identify with.
  • ·      Take 15 minutes a week to research (read Wikipedia, that’s all you need) a not-old-dead-white-dude mathematician, and then take 5 minutes in class to tell your students about them.  Include a picture. It’s worth it, I swear.




This began sometime last year when a student of mine asked a question during a lecture on Pythagoras.  I was telling the story of how Pythagoras was terrified of beans, and most of the class was giggling and wondering how all this related to math. Well, I like to think that’s what they were thinking.  Some of them were probably just pleased that I was telling stories and not making them do math. One of my students, one who rarely participated in class at all, raised his hand to ask a question.   


“Yes?!” I said, eagerly looking forward to engaging this hard-to-reach student and mentally patting myself on the back for telling a story so excellent that he wanted to get involved. 


“Ms. Perkins,” he said, leveling an exhausted look at me, “Why do we always talk about white dudes?”


I wasn’t prepared for this question.  I should have been, but I wasn’t.  To buy time, I put on a thoughtful expression and turned to the board, where I was embarrassed to find not just a white dude, but photograph of a white dude carved out of white stone. 


I could have demurred.  I could have said that we have better records of white men.  I could have said that Pythagoras really was important enough for us to focus on him. I could have said, ‘good point’ and ignored the comment. I wanted to do some of those things.  I’m a white woman teaching mostly not white students, and I freely admit that I feel like I’m walking on unstable ground any time I try to talk to them about race and not sound like an idiot.  But none of that was what this student cared about. It was an honest question, and it deserved an honest answer. So I was honest.  I said he had a really good point.  We do always talk about white dudes.  Pythagoras, Gauss, Bernoulli, Fibonacci, Turing, Euclid, Euler, Newton… We might squeeze in Ramanujan and pat ourselves on the back for being so inclusive, but the truth of the matter is that we really only talk about white dudes, and then we wonder why our not-white-male students don’t engage in math class. 


“Would it matter to you if I showed you a Mexican mathematician?” I asked him.  This particular student identifies strongly with his Mexican heritage.


He paused, got a weird look on his face, and responded with one of the most depressing comments I’ve ever heard. 


“Do you think there are any?” 


I assured him there were, but when he asked their names and I came up with nothing, his suspicions were confirmed. His face shone with contempt and disappointment. “Of course you don’t know any,” it seemed to say, “You’re just a white lady, and Mexicans don’t do math.”  All of the beliefs that I have about mathematicians screamed that this couldn’t possibly be true, but I had no evidence to the contrary for him, and the fact that I didn’t know even the name of a Mexican mathematician, but I did know that Pythagoras was afraid of beans spoke volumes about what I had chosen to value in mathematicians.



Thus began the mathematicians project.  That night, I found a Mexican mathematician, Diego Rodriguez, and prepped a 5 minute talk on him and what he had contributed to mathematics[1]. My student was so excited that he stood up at the end and yelled, “Take that, white dudes!” He had found a role model, and for the rest of the year frequently talked about Rodriguez as a point of pride. 


Since then, every Friday, I spend 5-10 minutes introducing my students to a mathematician that is not a white man.  If I ever forget, my students hound me. They have come to expect it, and the majority have pointed to it as their favorite part of my class.


The project has evolved over the course of nearly a year and a half, and has had two important impacts:

  1. 1.     My students have role models that they care about because they identify with them.
  2. 2.     I have learned SO MUCH about my students.


Most of my research is done on Google late on Thursday nights, and it rarely exceeds 15 minutes.  Most of it is on Wikipedia.  My actual college major was history, so I can say with great confidence that this is pretty crummy history work, but it serves my purposes, and my students don’t care about footnotes.


I began with very simple search terms: Black mathematician, Hispanic mathematician, women mathematicians.  For each mathematician, I look for the following information:


  • ·      Name
  • ·      Date of birth, and if applicable, date of death
  • ·      Brief biography (where are they from, do they have family, any interesting stories)
  • ·      Mathematical accomplishments (awards, papers, discoveries)
  • ·      Mathematical area of expertise


I compile this information into one slide of information and include the ever-important picture or portrait of the mathematician.  The next day, I tell the story of the mathematician and ask students if they have any questions.  (Please note: If you fail to find out if they have children, you will be asked if they have children.)


My greatest surprise has been how much this project has taught me about my students.  From the earliest time, it was clear that my goal should be mathematicians my students might relate to, but when I began asking them who they wanted to learn about, I found myself learning a lot about them.   


For example, an African-American female seemed a no-brainer to me.  I have many students in my classes who I identified as such, and it was a super easy google search.  I found several excellent female African-American mathematicians (Fern Hunt & Euphemia Lofton Haynes), and my students like them, but I was surprised when my black female students said they did not identify with these women. 


“She’s not mixed like me, I want a mathematician that’s mixed,” one student said to me. 


Another said, “Her skin is lighter than mine.  I want a mathematician who has dark skin like me.” 


I’m certain this exposes my ignorance, but it hadn’t occurred to me that my students would get so specific.  While they all tend to like the mathematicians project, and they enjoyed hearing about different people, they wanted one that very specifically matched their identities.  Mexican is not El Salvadorian, after all.  Did I know someone who had started living in Ethiopia and then moved to the US?  What about someone with a missing father?  Below is a (very) partial list of requests my students have made: 



            More Mexican

            I just want to hear more about women.


            LGBTQ MATHEMATICIANS!!!!!!  

            African (meaning not African-American)

            People from the Bahamas

            Blasian people (mixed Asian Black like me)


            Mixed skin girls





The specificity with which students made their requests surprised me. Math classrooms are not generally as accommodating to learning about student backgrounds as and English or art classroom might be, and just asking who students want to learn about has helped me open that conversation with students in a very real way. I’m listening to them declare what they want to learn about, and it’s freaking awesome to hear their responses.


In addition to having students request mathematicians, I have solicited feedback from them as to what their general impression of the project has been.  Given the multiple choice question, “Do you like the mathematicians project?” 86% of my students said that yes, they do like it. 


When I asked them, “What do you want Ms. Perkins to know about your experience of the mathematicians project?” I got these:


  • ·      I think you should do this every year until you stop teaching.
  • ·      Stop.
  • ·      I like knowing that women try so hard to get where they are, it shows that women are just as strong.
  • ·      Boring.
  • ·      Sometimes I want to grow up and know math that no one else knows about.
  • ·      Not to be racist but… I only like it when a black person is being presented because not a lot of people believe blacks are smart or not even think a black person can be a mathematician. Thank u.
  • ·      When we made our own that was cool. 


The last comment refers to my students creating their own “slide” of themselves as mathematicians.  This arose out of several students insisting that I present myself as a mathematician.  I agreed to do so under the condition that all of my students do the same.  So I gave my students the assignment of creating a slide of themselves.  I modeled it by creating a slide of myself and telling my story as I have told the stories of other mathematicians.  Students were then given a list of questions to use to help them create their own biographies and identify their own strengths as mathematicians.  Each “slide” included a brief biography, accomplishments of theirs, and their own mathematical specialty.  I took a picture of each of them, had them printed, and we spent a day decorating their slides before hanging them in a ring around the classroom.  This, too, helped me to get to know students.  During the two-day process of preparing the written material for the slides and then the creating and decorating of the slides, I was able to have conversations with students about themselves as mathematicians that I would likely not otherwise have had.


I am certain that this project can be improved upon.  There are definitely things I haven’t thought about that I should probably consider, and there are probably better ways of organizing it.  What I can say, however, is that it has strengthened my relationships with students, been valued by those students, and helps me address the fact that I am a white woman teaching not white kids, and even though I’m not totally sure how to tackle that subject, this has been a way for me to open the conversation with my students.  I am totally convinced that I can spend the rest of my life talking to colleagues about race, and while it might help a bit, my students aren’t affected by those conversations directly.  They are affected by how I comport myself in the class, and by seeing what I value in this class.  By making space for students this, every week, and asking for and responding to student’s requests I’m at least starting to put my money where my mouth is. Talking about race with our students is important. Showing them that we value them is important. Giving them role models matters. Please, feel free to let me know how to make the project better.  Let me know if you start using it.  Let me know why you might not choose to use it. I’ll happily share anything I have to make it easier on you.  Thanks for reading.




[1] Looking back now, I’m not totally convinced that this wasn’t a Spanish mathematician – more white than Mexcian – but my student took him as a Mexcian, and “Rodriguez” sounded better to him than “Pythagoras”, so I guess I’ll take it. 


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