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The Urban Scientist

The Urban Scientist

A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences

Brown Faces in White Places doing science (and wearing hoodies)

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I was having a Twitter conversation with @LeafWarbler about being a lone brown face in a research setting. I told him of my adventures in field research in rural Illinois (outside of Urbana-Champaign). I was trapping small mammals on corn fields just off of a rural road. It became common for law enforcement to show up and check me out. For each visit, I would have to explain that I had permission to be there (provide name of land owner), who I was, what I was doing (often having to show them the animals I had in hand to prove it), and wait. Wait for the call-in and confirmation.

After so many visits, one cop eventually said he'd leave a note with dispatch so that they would stop responding to calls about me.

LeafWarbler asked if I was wearing a hoodie (when the cops arrived while I was doing research); and I laughed because, yeah, I was.

Me at my field site wearing a hoodie

Being stopped or suddenly surrounded by authorities isn't a new thing to many researchers. However, researchers of color who do research in the field (also outdoors men and women) have these kinds of stories to share, often. We laugh about it, but it's quite sad that something about 'us' - hoodie or not, evokes such fear and suspicion.

Is it really the hoodie, like Geraldo Rivera suggests?

I donned my hoodie for Trayvon Martin. Like so many other people I couldn't believe how the law was interpreted and how George Zimmerman was allowed to walk away from killing this young man without so much as a Grand Jury trial. And yes, it felt personal and real and quite possible for me.

Me and my hoodie wearing younger brother

This is my younger brother, known as the "One Boy", because he's my mother's (and father's) only son. My parents love all of us, but my brother evokes a hard to explain protection from them and from me and my sisters as well. Perhaps it's because he's the youngest. Perhaps it's because we all worry about trouble finding him, getting hurt or getting that call that breaks hearts. It's a fear that is all to real for most people I know from my Memphis neighborhood. I'll admit I prefer him when he looks like this:all cleaned up. But something about his size, his booming voice, dark brown skin, and long locks while wearing a hoodie (like above) evoke suspicion in others, especially authority figures. A year and a half ago, he and my cousin were approaching my sister's front door when the cops began questioning without cause. They were looking for someone who stayed next door to her, but decided they looked suspicious enough and they were taken into custody immediately. The charge: "Standing in the street". No kidding, I can't make this up. I know my brother's dress didn't help convince them that he wasn't a gang member. (He was wearing a red hoodie - his high school colors, in a known Blood neighborhood). But I also know that city cops are known to harass and abuse young men for no real cause. I beat the police to the police station which was only 4 blocks away and demanded to see my brother and cousin. They weren't there. In fact, the dispatcher had no record of any young men being picked up in the last 30 minutes. I quickly whipped out my 'Dr title 'and called my ACLU lawyer friend.

Within moments, my brother and cousin were returned to my sister's house, unharmed. Maybe things turned out fine without my intervention; but the sad fact is, this is the life of many young men - black, brown, even white. Something about a certain style of dress and appearance evoke suspicion in some people. And everyday, poor (inner-city) people are abused or killed by cops and vigilantes like George Zimmerman.

I'm not sure of the psychology of this madness, but Melanie Tannenbaum addresses some of these demons with her Guest Blog post Trayvon Martin’s Psychological Killer: Why We See Guns That Aren’t There.

But to me, the banter around the topic really calls to mind this notion of Brown Faces in White Places. Dr. Caroyn Finney wrote her dissertation on African-Americans and the great outdoors which included how people of color often have negative experiences because of the reactions of authorities or other visitors. She became aware of this notion of place as a child. She grew up on a 13-acre estate in a wealthy white neighborhood of Mamaroneck, N.Y., where her parents worked, taking care of the grounds and house.

It was, she recalls, "a beautiful piece of property," with flower and vegetable gardens, a lake, and a variety of fruit trees. The owners, who were there only on weekends and holidays, lived in "what I call the big house."

"I remember being 9, and walking home from school," she says. "There were always police patrolling the neighborhood, and one day there was a new policeman on patrol. When he saw me walking home he asked, 'Where are you going?' And I said, 'Oh, around the corner,' and I gave him the address. And he said, 'Do you work there?'"

Even in the recounting, Finney is incredulous. "I'm 9," she repeats. "I said, 'No, I live there.' And so, reflecting back, I was completely out of place."

And I imagine that is what is happening with so many of us who do science - in the field or industry - or work in academia. Somehow, no one was expecting to see this face -- this brown face or young face or female face or male face or unkempt face or this hoodie-clad face, whatever it may be. Oftentimes, persons of authority and persons of privilege (usually one in the same) have no problem descending upon us, questioning our presence in this place. Asking, nay, demanding that we justify our presence in a place. Behave in an acquiescent manner while we are being held up and distracted from our jobs or simply minding our law-abiding business, lest we be arrested or harmed. And until the possibility that any kind of face could be the one doing science or teaching class or leading a project or walking down the street in a gated-community with Skittles and an Ice Tea, then we're still likely to have conversations like these in the future.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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